I have always been conflicted about the term, “intellectual” being applied to me. It’s not that I haven’t always been interested in the life of the mind. I like being a reader, thinker, and researcher. But I have also been deeply committed to working with community members to make life better for those who are oppressed, dispossessed, and disenfranchised. Finding out how to meld the two paths has been my life’s work.
I read two literary classics at an early age–Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Reading Ellison’s book left a bad taste in my mouth about academics as embodied in the character Dr. Bledsoe–a man who actually hates Black people and hates being Black while pretending to “uplift the race.” On the other hand there is Bigger Thomas, who finds himself in a situation at the mercy of Whites who want to have a “good time.” After accidentally killing the White woman Mary, Bigger compounds the crime by disposing of her body. While on the run, Bigger notices the stark differences in the goods available to Whites (e.g. meat, produce, etc.) versus those available to Blacks in his neighborhood. Bigger’s astute observations about difference and disparities helped me to understand what it means to be an “organic intellectual.” Bigger Thomas was a character for whom I felt great empathy because he recognized the ways justice is not being served in our society.
The big difference between the characters for me is that Bigger was, despite his predicament, not afraid to be characterized as “too Black.” I have found the academy a strange place where only Black scholars and students are charged with being “too Black.” None of my White colleagues and students have ever been called “too White.” None of my male colleagues or students have been accused of being “too male.” Indeed, I have never heard anyone called, “too Jewish,” “too Italian,” “too Irish,” “too Asian” or “too” anything other than Black.
Apparently “too Black” is researching and writing about issues and concerns that impact Black people. “Too Black” is assigning texts and articles written by Black authors. When I first began teaching one of my courses one of the course evaluations read, “she’s a good teacher but we have to read too many Black articles.” My initial response was to go check my syllabus where I discovered that I had more readings on Latin@, Asian, Native peoples and women than Black folks. Then I chastised myself for attempting to justify the fact that I had been “fair” when I had every right to organize the course the way I saw fit. Scholars are permitted something called, “academic freedom.” “Too Black” means that when you respond to a question about race, racism, inequity, or injustice by using a Black example, you are “reifying the Black-White binary.” But discussions about my sisters and brothers of Latin@ or Asian descent are never reinforcing a Brown-White binary or a Yellow-White binary.
My truth is that living in a Black skin reflects a specific set of complexities. I am old enough to have witnessed the modern civil rights movement’s struggles of Black people to make the society more just for all. Brown v. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, the Affirmative Action Order, and the Equal Opportunity legislation were not limited to Black people despite their primary role in getting them enacted. They apply to everyone. My metaphor for Black people in this society is that they serve as the “doormen” to opportunity, i.e. they open the door that allows ALL to enter. Unfortunately, they often remain outside the very doors they have worked to open.
So, what is my role in the academy? Yes, I teach and advise students of all races and ethnicities. I primarily work with White teachers. I often work with White parents. Most of my academic colleagues are White and I do not ask them to be anything other than who and what they are. All I ask of them is to allow me to do the same!
Stay Black & Smart!