The Black Woman

From left, Roxanne Donovan and Griselda Thomas co-teach interdisciplinary course on the black woman.

History and contemporary life connected in interdisciplinary course At a recent weekly meeting of a…

Georgia (Feb 7, 2014)

History and contemporary life connected in interdisciplinary course

At a recent weekly meeting of a course called “The Black Woman,” one of the 30 students seated in the wide class circle prefaced her response to the professor’s query by saying, “I really love this class.”

She moved seamlessly from her unsolicited comment to the matter at hand:  How have stereotypical images of black women such as that of the welfare queen become entrenched in the culture and how are they harmful to black women?

Those questions, posed by Roxanne Donovan, associate professor of psychology, who co-teaches the course with Griselda Thomas, assistant professor of English, had hit home for the student. 

“It’s a sensitive label,” the student said.  “I have raised three kids, alone for some of that time, and have at times had to rely on food stamps.  I’ve been fighting nine years not to become that stereotype.  But it’s not easy.  I was reluctant to come out here to KSU pushing a stroller because I knew that was the image people would have of me.”

The student’s frank revelation and her personal resonance with the content are precisely why Thomas and Donovan teach the class, which draws attendance primarily from black female students but also from non-black females and occasionally male students.  More than 100 students have enrolled in the three times the course has been offered since 2010, and it continues to be filled each semester, largely due to word-of-mouth.

“First and foremost, we wanted a space for students to understand how the history of black women in the U.S. influences their contemporary experiences, something we feel is not fully addressed in other classes,” said Thomas, who initially taught the class at Temple University and agreed to teach it when she came to Kennesaw State in 2008. 

In 2009, Thomas and Donovan decided to co-teach the course and help develop it into a “truly” interdisciplinary approach, drawing on their collective knowledge and expertise in black studies, gender and women’s studies, literature and the social sciences.  Thomas, who is jointly appointed in the English and Interdisciplinary Studies departments, holds a Ph.D. from Temple in African-American Studies and specializes in black women writers, African-American literature and black feminist thought. She earned a B.A. in English from Kennesaw State in 1994.  Donovan, who also serves as interim associate chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department, earned a B.A. in psychology from Rutgers University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Connecticut. Her research and publications explore the impact of gender and racial oppression on black women.

The course covers a spectrum of black women’s experiences and is designed to connect the historical foundations with contemporary manifestations in images, work and family, relationships and gender politics.  As the semester progresses, the course focuses on the influences of oppression, violence, beauty standards and sexuality.  It relies on four texts: “Black Feminist Thought”; “Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought”; “Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slave in the Plantation South”; and “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America.”

During the class discussion of connections between the historical origins and present-day manifestations of black women’s images, class members readily identified and listed characters from literature and popular culture who exemplified stereotypical images of the “mammy,” the “Jezebel,” the “matriarch,” and the “strong black woman.” Students could see corollaries to each of these in contemporary figures from Oprah Winfrey to Olivia Pope, lead character in the popular TV series “Scandal.” Despite her wealth, they agreed, even Winfrey cannot escape the “constricting box” these stereotypical images sometimes impose upon black women. 

One student emotionally related the experience of not being safe to cry at her grandfather’s funeral because she was expected to be the “strong black woman.”  “It was not OK to not be OK,” she said.  Another student left the class in tears in response to discussion of the expectations of the strong black woman and the hard- working matriarch, who puts everyone’s needs ahead of her own.

“Controlling images create a rock and a hard place in the complexity of human experience,” Donovan reminded the class.  “We internalize those definitions. They can be painful and they can stick.”

Deona Williams, a junior majoring in psychology, says she learns something new in all her classes but thinks "The Black Woman" course has special significance.

“This has been one of the most impactful classes I have ever been in, and I look forward to seeing what else I learn this semester,” Williams said. “What really spoke to me about this class is that for the first time in the many classes I have taken at Kennesaw State University, I am not only encouraged but given a platform to form real connections with my classmates. Dr. Donovan and Dr. Thomas really push for us to let down our guards.”

The professors say the course has become so popular because students are exposed to new ways of thinking about race and gender.  “They are learning things they have never or only superficially learned about black women, so the content is new and moving for many students,” Thomas said. 

The complimentary skills and approaches the professors bring to the course also play a role in the course’s success: Thomas’ strength is choosing reading material that really connects with the students while Donovan’s is helping students connect emotionally with each other and the material.  And while Thomas is more apt to make a point with quotes and passages, Donovan is more likely to use data. 

Even so, they say they do everything collaboratively. “We prep together, teach together and grade together,” said. Donovan.  “Although this is more time-intensive, it leads to a more cohesive experience for the students.”

Thomas added: “Our students are typically willing to share in discussions, and they are even more disclosing in writing about how the material touched their lives personally. Roxanne and I view this writing as sacred, holding our students’ truths close to us, and feel very honored that they are willing to share their life experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly – with us.”


-- Sabbaye McGriff




A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit