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When and Where I Enter: Black Women in the Academy

When and Where I Enter: Black Women in the Academy
By Carol E. Henderson

Despite the psychological, emotional and intellectual violence done to us on a daily basis, Black female professors have had to stand firm within

the “quiet undisputed dignity” of their personhood. I am still amazed at the naiveté of colleagues in the profession who are blissfully ignorant of our predicament. We are African and Americanand female in a predominantly White, male profession.

Many of us traverse a fine line. Our mental and spiritual health is depleted by constant exposure to those who want to understand us as if we are foreign objects or subjects for display. Many of our colleagues are torn between despising us and wanting to be more like us. Our very presence elicits quite a bit of curiosity among those who see us as a link to Africa — and as such, a link to a past that is shameful and unimaginable in this day and age of intellectual and technological advancement.

But how deceiving that can be. Since Sept. 11, 2001, many of my colleagues and I have found the mood on campuses across America to be extremely intolerant of difference, change or any academic engagement that challenges the supremacy and goodwill (or dominance) of America. “Counterculture” seems to be a dirty word of late, and the twins “diversity” and “multiculturalism” have all but dropped out of the vocabulary of some administrators and faculty members. The trickle-down effect of such national intolerance is that on the local level students and some department chairs have begun to question the validity of nontraditional academic fields such as African-American, Asian American or American Indian studies. This is despite the fact that these cultures tell us more about America than this country has been willing to reveal about itself. The impact in the classroom can be chilling. And the effect on the instructor can be extremely stressful and at times humiliating.

Tara Green’s concerns at her particular university are legitimate ones that threaten to affect her livelihood and development as an instructor and scholar. Based on the students’ response to her class on African-American literature and all that “race stuff,” Tara got mixed reviews — some of them downright hostile. This reaction is common among students who feel uncatered to or “unmammied.” If a course challenges their comfort zone or their mode of thinking, the resistance can be toxic.

As a reaction to her concerns, Tara’s superiors questioned her integrity as a teacher, saying that it was her responsibility to develop a pedagogy that would help her students learn the information while easing their discomfort with the central theme of the course: race. What did this mean, exactly? And, more importantly, how can such an outcome be determined? Who sets the standards? And why is it her responsibility to “fix” the ills of her home institution? Tara’s betrayal was heartfelt. Having experienced such encounters myself, my advice to my colleague involved a multi-level strategic approach.

First, I suggested she ask for suggestions from other professors or administrators on campus who have also dealt with the complicated issues of race. I also told her to start keeping a diary — that is, she should evaluate her class. Take note of class discussions, student apathy in fulfilling assigned reading or writing assignments and any other pertinent information that would shed light on the atmosphere in the classroom. I suggested that she seek the assistance of outside organizations such as the Modern Language Association or the American Association of University Professors. These organizations may offer assistance in addressing the impact student evaluations may have on the tenure process. And I encouraged her to honestly look at all of the evaluations and consider the suggestions that seem plausible. Implement these changes and then monitor how they impact the reception of the material in her classroom, I told her. In this way, she could demonstrate to her deans that she was doing all she could to assist students in moving past the “fear zone.” Making this evaluation part of the yearly portfolio handed in during departmental evaluation could ensure that the administration remains aware that positive steps are being taken to address the issues. It would also put them on notice that she was monitoring what kind of support she was getting from them.

Tara took the comments she received on her evaluations as a warning, but her highly meritorious overall ranking gave her some assurances. She is working to implement other changes in her daily and yearly interactions with students and faculty respectively, including keeping a journal. She recently informed me that she is now the mentor to two young Black women on the campus. It is amazing how the circle of support is completed.

— Dr. Henderson is an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Delaware.

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