“Why philosophy?” That’s a question MSU Philosophy Professor Kristie Dotson, formal advisor to the new Department of African American and African Studies (AAAS), has fielded many times before. Perhaps it is because she had never taken a philosophy course until she began graduate studies in philosophy.
It could also be the centrality of Black feminisms in Dotson’s life and the disconnect she has observed between inherited narratives of philosophy as a largely thought-based discipline and feminism as pragmatic course, something one does.
“Philosophy has a reputation for being ‘deep thinking.’ Black feminism is considered a politics. It’s a way of doing, of being. There appears to be a conflict between the two. But philosophy is a kind of ‘doing,’ and what I do is Black feminist philosophy. For me, what we are attempting to do in this department [AAAS] is visionary. Because we hold the assumption that doing implies thinking and thinking implies doing, as many Black feminists might,” Dotson explained. “There’s a rich speculative life that is required to chart these paths, and I think that is often overlooked when narratives only recount what someone does. Building a department is a doing and a thinking project. Being a Black feminist philosopher is no different. So, I’m deeply concerned when people ask, ‘Are you making a decision between your politics and your philosophical orientation?’ as if they are not one and the same.”
Scholarship and Research Focus
Dotson landed in philosophy through a meandering path. She received a bachelor’s degree in African American Studies, Business Administration, and English, then earned a master’s in Literature. At some point, as she described, she began pursuing different kinds of questions and that eventually led her to the study of philosophy.
“Everyday life actually is related to, and prompts, difficult, hard-to-answer questions,” Dotson said. “And I am obsessed with it. I’m obsessed with how ‘doing’ is speculative. I’m obsessed with the way we narrate the present. I’m obsessed with the futures we work toward and the actions we take. I was told that if I wanted to be obsessed with these things, I should consider philosophy. [The field of philosophy] probably wasn’t ready for a third-generation Black Studies major because it is largely the preservation of colonial norms for ‘deepness’ and ‘intelligence.’ Luckily, I was raised to see past that.”
[The field of philosophy] probably wasn’t ready for a third-generation Black Studies major because it is largely the preservation of colonial norms for ‘deepness’ and ‘intelligence.’ Luckily, I was raised to see past that.
Dotson earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Memphis and joined MSU’s Department of Philosophy in 2008. She led the vision process to construct the new Department of African American and African Studies. She also served as Interim Chair of the new department in 2019-2020, where she led efforts to hire the Inaugural Chair, Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown, and the department’s Foundational Professor, Dr. Tamura Lomax. The new department centers Black feminisms, including the work, and thought, of cis- and transgender Black women and girls.
Dotson’s research focuses on Black and women of color feminist thought and epistemology, particularly epistemic oppression, a topic on which she has published and lectured widely.
As epistemology is the study of knowledge, epistemic oppression is inextricably tied to the gathering and sharing of knowledge — who has access, who controls the methods by which access is gained, who gets to disseminate knowledge and, crucially, believability: whether the knowledge one has is considered by others to be credible. One of the most devastating aspects of the experience of racism is not being believed after the fact, that is: not being considered a reliable narrator of your own story.
Love Letters to Black Women
Re-envisioning the stories of Black women who had little to no say about how they were written into history is one of Dotson’s current projects, a book of love letters. Among the historical figures is Margaret Garner, whose story inspired Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Garner was an enslaved woman who murdered her own daughter to spare her child the brutality of slavery. Dotson is also writing a love letter to Sojourner Truth, who became an abolitionist and an activist for women’s rights, but whose most famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” does not represent the scope and impact of Truth’s life and works.
“I’m writing these love letters to Black women, some of whom were not given a fair reading by history,” Dotson said. “I’m going to take these ambivalent, so-called problematic Black women and tell you why I love them. I’m not going to expect perfection, which is what people often expect of Black women in order for us to ask for, and receive, love. What does it mean to appreciate Black women as existing beyond people’s utility for them? Because that’s often what we play — the prop — for some such utility narrative, mostly a narrative of deficiency.” Dotson refuses problematic deficiency narratives and works to reimagine ways of storying the lives of Black womenkind and Black girlkind.
There is something epistemic happening in the sense-making devices around Black womankind, and we must get at that for a future other and better than this.
The project not only enables Dotson to explore what she calls “philosophy as creative practice” but also allows her to recover her own creative voice as she works on her manuscript Bad Magic: Normative Epistemology in a World of Difference. Indeed, the love letters project is a fundamental aspect of the sense-making that is central to Dotson’s work as a Black feminist philosopher grappling with what we know, what we don’t, and what we can’t.
“We can’t even appreciate the things that Sojourner Truth did that actually required a high level of literacy,” Dotson continued. “I would say that, in the love letters, some of the problems of not being able to love, understand, or appreciate some of these really brave Black women is an epistemic issue that continues today. There is something epistemic happening in the sense-making devices around Black womankind, and we must get at that for a future other and better than this.”
Helping Build New AAAS Department
Dotson serves as the AAAS advisor and helped write the department’s curriculum outlining the new undergraduate major, multiple minors, and revised master’s and doctoral degrees.
Her hope is that AAAS will develop into a department with “intergenerational motion” that embraces its history while moving forward. She also envisions that AAAS is poised to have a dramatic impact on Black Studies in the 21st century because of the department’s explicit emphasis on feminisms, sexuality studies, and gender studies.
What I signed onto when I put down research that I am passionate about…is to make sure there is at least one Black Studies department that says ‘All of us. A future for all of us. A place where none of us is prey.’
And she takes the whole enterprise personally.
“If you asked us what we signed onto, what I signed onto when I put down research that I am passionate about — this art that gives me life to do — is to make sure there is at least one Black Studies department that says ‘All of us. A future for all of us. A place where none of us is prey.’ What does the pursuit of that world look like? Because that’s good work.”