African-American Approaches to Epistemology

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  • 0:01 Barriers
  • 1:09 Impacts of Segregation
  • 2:39 Double-Consciousness
  • 4:00 Ethnicity and Gender
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, we'll consider the impact of injustice on one's knowledge about the world. Also, we'll imagine the impacts on how we view ourselves and what three key African-American thinkers had to say on this topic.


Imagine you have a 6-year-old child who is watching TV one day and sees a new amusement park advertised. She gets incredibly excited, jumping up and down, asking you if you can take her someday. It's not that the park costs too much or that it's far away. The problem is that you and your daughter are simply not allowed to go. You see, it's 1963, and you live in segregated society.

How do you break the news to your young child? What will she learn as a result of what you say about the situation if you tell her the truth? What will she think about herself and the color of her skin as a result? What other opportunities will she never have the chance to experience, ones even more critical than a visit to the amusement park?

In this lesson, we'll consider how epistemology, or how we come to acquire knowledge, is approached by three African American thinkers: W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Anna Julia Cooper.

Impacts of Segregation

The example of the 6-year-old is one of many situations described by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Of course, the horrors of racism go beyond missing out on an amusement park. He recounts many other results of segregation and mistreatment due to ethnicity. But even the simple example of the little girl helps us to understand something about how deeply flawed a system of racial injustice is and how it affects the way we come to know things about the world.

He describes how the little girl would try to process that a person with her skin color is not allowed in the park, even one designed specifically for children. He argues that she will end up seeing herself differently than white children as a result of this segregated society. Those not living the experience of what it is like to be black in 1960s America seemed unable to fully comprehend what it would be like to live with such injustice, and King calls them out on this. He used his letter to make it clear what was at stake.

King argued that those who sympathize with his position at all must try to imagine what it's like to live with no real timetable for these conditions of segregation to end. Rather than being told to continue to wait for the right time to make change, he advocates that change is needed right then, in 1963, and not some unknown future time.


How does this relate to epistemology? Well, King recognized how what we know is affected by more than just our common human experience of the world. What we come to know is affected by our ethnic identity, including the color of our skin and how other people interact with us. For instance, the little girl's sense of herself would forever be affected by being told she was not able to go to the public park because of her skin color. Her knowledge of the world would be influenced by this incident and impact her view of her own life and identity.

Earlier in the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois had described this as double-consciousness, looking at oneself through both your own eyes and the eyes of others. Using the concept of double-consciousness and other insights, Du Bois explored what it was like to be of African heritage in U.S. society in the early 1900s.

It's a terrible tension to live with, he says. Not only are rights and opportunities denied to a person based on ethnic identity but also even one's own knowledge and sense of self are affected by this unjust system. Du Bois hoped that those like the little girl, who have experienced unjust treatment, could still come to a better place in her understanding of herself, a place of empowerment and self-knowledge.

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