Memo to Black Academics: Fight Rather Than Seek Fame - Higher Education
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Memo to Black Academics: Fight Rather Than Seek Fame

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by Ronald W. Whitaker II


“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”  James Baldwin in “The Negro in American Culture,” Cross Currents, XI (1961)

Dr. Ronald W. Whitaker II

As the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2018, countless individuals articulated resolutions that they were going to immediately enact.  According to NBC news, some of the most popular resolutions include: committing to a healthier lifestyle, financial improvements and spending quality time with loved ones.  Predictably, a month into the new year, many people have already started to lapse on their resolutions.

But as it pertains to scholars of color within the “academy,” I contend that we have to have ongoing resolutions toward improving our professional practice (e.g. research, service and teaching) in 2018. These resolutions should include Michael Dantley and Terrence Green’s prophetic charge in 2015 to become “more radicalized” in our stance on social justice efforts. Our resolutions should include the prophetic charge of Dr. Shaun Harper to “ask better questions.”

I hope that one’s resolution does not include intentionally seeking to become famous.   For example, much discourse occurred in the summer of 2017 over an article titled How to Talk to Famous Professors.  And while I thoroughly understand the purpose and intended audience for the article, the sad truth is, too many current and emerging scholars have compromised the importance and integrity of the professoriate akin to shenanigans depicted in a bad reality television show.

I offer a caution and critique to current and aspiring scholars who elevate the pursuit of fame over the “true” nature of the work. For scholars of color, the pursuit of fame within an “academic system” that was never constructed for us to flourish is both a vain and vague pursuit!

More appropriately, the above quote by Baldwin underscores my personal viewpoint and argument.  Specifically, as an African-American male scholar-practitioner who facilitates his work through a social justice lens, I explicitly pronounce my rage against societal injustices that are being recapitulated on college and university campuses. This on-going injustice is especially pernicious for people of color, Black and Brown women, people whose first language is not English and members of the LGBTQ community.

How  can we intentionally seek fame when we are grappling with what Dr. King would call the sickness of America?  I provide the following three reasons.

First, racism is still prevalent  on campuses. This is certainly not surprising, given the fact that organizational improvement theorist argue that  “every system is perfectly designed to deliver the result it produces.” Specifically, the term predominantly White institutions symbolizes that these milieus have always been controlled by White people for the benefit of White people. Therefore, will we fight to dismantle racism and holistic systems of oppression within these spaces, or within the pursuit of “fame” will we be silent on “(un)conscious contributions to white supremacy” that exist within the academy?

Second, academic freedom is under attack.  Although the academy may claim to value free thinking and diverse theoretical frameworks and narratives, the aforesaid comes with contingencies for scholars of color who address issues of racism, gender biases, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia or even pervasive inequalities within the system that grants “us” degrees, tenure, fellowships and distinguished professorships. But individuals who are intentionally seeking fame often are too timid to be critical in their arguments out of the fear that their views might cause them to end up on the Professor Watchlist.

Third, racist policies such as DACA are clear reminders of the vicious legacy of hatred toward Black and Brown bodies.  That alone should motivate us all to keep fighting!

I’m not an “A-List academic” or famous. I also acknowledge that I do not have the aspirations to become famous!  Rather, as an African-American male scholar-practitioner, my sole motivations are to: (1) produce scholarship that is liberating; (2) challenge students to think critically about the most pressing socio-political issues of our time and (3) provide service that is both ethical and moral for the communities that we serve.

Let us not forget that W.E.B. Du Bois, although celebrated now in death, did not always experience “fame” when he was alive.  For example, because of racism, The University of Pennsylvania didn’t offer Du Bois a professorship; he was given the title assistant Instructor.   Yet, he still pioneered the scientific sociological study of race in writing the classic book, The Philadelphia Negro. This should be a reminder to all of us that fighting for justice and truth will always outlast the faux pursuit of fame.

The liberation of our people and communities is largely depending upon the work that we claim to do. Thus, let’s keep fighting!

Dr. Ronald W. Whitaker II is an assistant professor of Education at Cabrini University, director of District and School Relations and co-director of the Center for Urban Education, Equity, and Improvement.

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