Ain’t I a professor?
Living an Authentic Academic Life as a Black Intellectual
By Robin Hughes
In the last couple of months, I have mulled over an audience participant’s comment, which occurred during a national conference. To put it mildly, it has been quite bothersome. The comment/question was directed towards me. I took it as what seemed to be a passive aggressive assault on a paper that I had presented. During that presentation, I noted that it was a waste of time engaging in what some professors refer to as “playing the game”. I went on to state that other colloquialisms need to be reconceptualized as well. I stated that as scholars, we should not play games. We should care less, instead of being careful. We should consider tipping the boat over, instead of not rocking the boat, and that we should blow up the bridge instead of not burning any. My point being that these colloquialisms have influenced academic life, research, writing, and service to such an extent that it continues to mimic and perpetuate the same “mainstream and meaningless” jargon with little variation or voice from marginalized or underrepresented individuals. The audience member went on to state that he really wanted to learn about what he should be doing to keep his job. He asked what he should be doing in his present job. “ I want my job,” he lamented, in an almost sing-songy sort of voice. He laughed as if he had some great secret that he wanted to share with the rest of the peons. “He, he, he, I just want to get along…and plus, you cannot possibly be taken seriously or make it without some game playing.” In other words, ‘you gotta do what you gotta do in order to fit in.’ I took it to mean, ‘if you must publish in certain in places, then so be it. If you must write in a certain way, then so be it. Shut up until spoken to, otherwise your word is just mud.’ I play that day over and over again.
I had to ask myself, do I play games as a professor, and if I do, what do they look like? I have come to the conclusion, for now anyway, I guess in a sense some political maneuvering might be necessary—I think. However, I still refuse to endorse the boot licker, which he, the inquirer, clearly wanted me to support. So, following several months of mulling, I must conclude that playing the game, as he described, is still an indignant game. Now, instead I ask, why should I or anyone for that matter have to play games? Now, I am not saying that there are not certain things that you must do while a professor, but my contract, and interpretation of the promotion and tenure document, which I have now read several times, still does not list boot-licking as a criteria for personal and academic growth. I ask, ain’t I a professor? Ain’t we professors?
Now there are certain things that are expected of a faculty member in order to live in an academic space. However, I also know that one can live in an academic place and maintain one’s integrity. I would argue that the real question becomes somewhat close to the very question with regards to women that Sojourner Truth asked. I ponder, ain’t I a professor, and what does being a professor mean? In order to live in an academic place must your life be predicated by others who dictate exactly what you should be doing, writing, saying, thinking, publishing, teaching? I cannot help but refer to chapters one and four of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and think that this very notion sounds vaguely and grotesquely reminiscent of Freiere’s philosophies—a little Pedagogy of the Oppress’ish to me. However, many of us are inclined to follow those perceived rules of engagement. We make like Nike, and just do it. I would argue again that we do “it” because it is too risky to do otherwise. We all fear being pulled over for thinking, engaging and just plain old writing while black?
Think about requirements for tenure? Be prepared for folks to tell you exactly where you should write, submit to tier one journals only, and how you should write, use certain theoretical frames and write in a jargony fashion and you will be assured of tenure. I wake up some early mornings from the same frightmare that goes something like this: A full professor in sunglasses, driving a 1960’s model car with flashing red lights, pulls me over and says, “Keep your hands on the wheel and let me see your license to profess.” He hands me a citation. I am quickly reminded that I better keep to the rules of the academic police lest I getpulled over for writing while Black (WWB).
A student actually informed me that she was told to write stuffy in order to get published in certain journals and wanted me to help edit to make the piece stuffier. I cringed. I also said, no. I asked her what she meant by stuffy. You know, she replied, scholarly. I imagine that stuffiness to sound a little like Professor Henry Higgins forcing Eliza Doolittle to talk like civilized “folks” in the 1950’s scene from My Fair Lady. The result now, however, is even more comical and utterly ridiculous in many instances. Stuffiness might sound like, if you could imagine, a new-aged Cruella Deville, the dog napper from the Disney movie, a fiendish and “stuffy” accent coached by Professor Henry Higgens. Followed by of chorus, a long song and dance number to the tune of “The Rain in Spain” lies mainly in the plain, yadda, yadda, yadda……. I can’t help but ask, what is the purpose of higher education? I am under the assumption that at its crux is that of affecting change. However, some of our very students, the ones with whom we are to train, think that one purpose is to serve as a repository for garbally, gookish, gunky educational crud? I suddenly hear the annyoing voice of Steve Urkel, did we, faculty, do that? When in fact we know that the purpose of higher education, and education in general, is supposed to be much more. Admittedly, I, too, must be brought back to earth after seeing one’s name in lights (a hit on a CV). That is really not the goal. I often seek refuge in the writings of other scholars, those who assist me in the sanity and humanity of it all. One such scholar, Cornel West, writes:
“The academic system of rewards and status prestige and influence, put a premium on those few black scholars who imitate the dominant paradigm . And if one is fortunate enough to be a spook who sits by the door, eavesdrops on the conversation among the prominent and prestigious, and reproduces their jargon in relation to black subject matter, one’s academic career is set.”
It is clear from West’s writings as well, that assimilationist intellectualism and garbally, gookish gunk are not the intention of living an academic life. Much like W.E.B. Dubois advances with the idea of the talented tenth and the double conscious, he presents educators with the very real concept of living an authentic intellectual life. We, academicians, have just seemed to get it all confused. We get authentic scholarship and intellectualism sort of confused with reproducing the status quo, intellectual work which typically does not push the envelope and only scratches the surface of bigger social problems. Some how, the notion of living with a double-conscious and the talented tenth have become associated with Black bourgeois’ preoccupation with mainstream run of the mill, academic, good old folks network affirmation. This affirmation makes us too hungry for status to be angry (Cornell West) or to be cognizant that we have not only sold out to black heritage, but just sold to getting ours—whatever the ours maybe—White male affirmation so it seems. This affirmation clouds our thinking, and ability to live an authentic academic life.
W.E.B. Dubois’ philosophy of the talented tenth spoke to notions of exceptional people who would help to uplift Black America. He talked about folks like Ben Banneker, Phyllis Wheatley, and Sojourner Truth; men and women who strove to uplift their people. Somewhere along the line, however, many of us misinterpreted Dubois intention. A man who spent his last few years out of the public eye and in exile for his strong views, he was not talking about assimilating one tenth of the population of Black folks so that they could drive a Black man’s wish (BMW), wear tweed jackets, and walk the “forever fall campus” (a term by Diana Natalicio, president of University of Texas El Paso). His intentions were well spelled out, keeping strong ties to Black culture, performing service to Black communities, and working to uplift Black folks. In the talented tenth, he described living an authentic life as an American—yet remaining authentically Black and American in a racist world, and how those two things play out or if they can play out.
I still ask myself, can there be a happy marriage between the two—in the academy. I think so. But how does this happy marriage play out in the academy? How does one remain authentic, writing and professing while black? Can you live in certain spaces comfortably and remain authentic?
Yes, and I would argue that it begins the minute that future academicians set foot on the door step of the ivory tower–during the interview. I tell folks that you better know what you are saying yes to, before you sign on the dotted line. Because once you have made your promise to do and be a certain type of person, then that is who folks expect to see in the office come Monday morning. You cannot be Angela Davis in the morning and fill-in-the-blank, right-winged, identity-confused Black scholar in the evening. You have to know which face you are going to wash every morning, and living a double, assimilationist life might become a little confusing. Besides, once you have gone pseudo-Black, it’s hard to go back. But, my dear audience member would more than likely ask me, how many folks do you know who have been successful at not playing the game? I can name a few—a lot.
There are many scholars in the field who remain authentic, and have enjoyed fruitful careers. Think about the folks with whom you know and respect in the field. Think about what they write about, and ask what got them there. What got them through? What are they doing? Who respects their scholarship? Who respects them? There are a host of usual suspects who write from a critical framework, an Afrocentric framework who have been able to live an authentic academic life. Although I am quick to name full professors and associate professors, those who we consider to be pretty well-protected; there are others. There are junior professors whom we respect for “getting there” as their authentic selves, for daring to take a stance, to ruffle some feathers. There has been an influx of newly minted assistant professors, who at the time of writing of this article, convened several edgy presentations, and who dare to introduce Critical Race Theory to conference audiences, and traditional publishing houses, and to those who may never have the opportunity to indulge in such experiences (or who have ignored the writings and thus the experience). There has been a critical appearance of junior professors to the academy, who are speaking up about how they should write, to what audience, unique theoretical frames, teaching styles, content and authenticity and where they live academically. This is the talented tenth to which DuBois spoke. The talented tenth, who at times appears to be the talented 99% (actually I think everyone is talented—not all authentic though), is beginning to walk through the doors of the ivory tower, letting everyone know not only where they will publish, and to whom, but how they will teach and what. And , most importantly, how and where they will live in this academic space and the importance of an intellectual life and authenticity.
Dr. Robin L. Hughes teaches courses in Higher Education Student Affairs in the school of education at Indiana University, Indianapolis.