Knocking Down Barriers
Black male scholars address challenges of academic pursuits in national videoconference
By Robin V. Smiles
Dr. Na’im Akbar, professor of psychology at Florida State University, called the gathering of young African American male scholars at Auburn University in early March a “miracle of modern times.” Reminding the present audience, as well as those tuned in via live satellite, that it was not that long ago that African Americans were denied literacy and access to many institutions, Akbar declared, “the fact that we can in 2002 bring together some of the brightest minds in a full range of academic areas means that a very important miracle has occurred — one that has happened in spite of the institutional barriers which were put in place to prevent it.”
Even though their mere presence defies the odds of success for young Black men in particular, the young scholars who participated in the national videoconference “The Changing Face of the Professoriate” sponsored by the Brothers of the Academy (BOTA) were not content to bask in their exclusivity. Instead, they preached the importance of sustaining those who are already among their academic ranks and encouraging others to join them.
Nurturing and fostering professional relationships among its members as well as providing a path for others to follow are key components of the mission of BOTA, an institute and organization formed in 2000 after the publication of a book with the same name. In Brothers of the Academy, 27 African American males with doctorates or in the process of completing the terminal degree, gave first-hand accounts of their academic experiences. The institute began with those 27 contributors and now has more than 100 members. In addition to the first book and the recent teleconference, the organization has collectively authored other books, produced a documentary film, and is in the process of planning a think tank scheduled for next year.
For those viewing the recent teleconference, an audience that included students at Morehouse Medical College and Florida State, Kent State and Cleveland State universities, it was made apparent that even though the face of the professoriate is changing, sustaining African American males in the academy is not an easy task.
African American male professors, particularly those at predominantly White campuses, have the burden of countering dual myths — all professors are White men, and all Black men are inferior.
“That label of inferiority follows us everywhere we are” said teleconference participant Dr. James L. Moore III. “It is a heavy burden on African Americans in general, but on African American males in particular.” Moore is an assistant professor of counselor education at the University of South Carolina.
The teleconference participants also discussed the dilemma of getting published and securing funding for their research — academic pursuits that are undoubtedly challenging for all scholars, but much more so for those whose research lies outside of the academy’s traditional mold, such as research related in any way to race or ethnicity. The dilemma is particularly pressing for the young members of BOTA — most of whom pursue such research interests, but none of whom have received tenure yet.
“There is a certain unspoken burden that assumes our work is not as rigorous, our scholarship is not as valid, our issues are not as meaningful, especially if it is done within the context of issues related to race and ethnicity,” said Dr. Tyrone Howard, assistant professor of education at UCLA. “We’ve got to go above and beyond to prove that our work is credible.”
Dr. Ivan Watts encouraged young scholars and those interested in pursuing a doctorate to get involved with communities outside of academia, such as the NAACP or church organizations. “Surround yourself with individuals that can foster certain characteristics that may help you navigate through the academy,” said Watts, an assistant professor of educational foundations at Auburn University.
Yet, even as BOTA moves on with its mission to sustain its members and increase it ranks, the best thing about BOTA probably will continue to be the community it creates within.
“When we get together it is always a very interesting time,” says Dr. Juan Gilbert, assistant professor of computer science at Auburn University. “You never have a community like this, where we are all doing the same thing and have the same common goals. It is both fulfilling and motivating.”
For more information about Brothers of the Academy, visit the Web site <www.brothersoftheacademy.org).
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