Veteran Black Professors Share Tales of Being
The New Kid on the Academic Block
By Robin V. Smiles
Dr. Trudier Harris-Lopez is one of the most well-known, widely published and well-respected scholars in African American literary studies. And after 30 years in the academy, she has her share of battle scars to show.
As the first Black female professor to integrate the various academic departments in which she has taught, dealing with colleagues who have been unable to imagine her as an equal has only been par for the course.
How does she survive the often-hostile environment? “With an abundance of humor and a great family tradition,” says Harris-Lopez. “Humor, like the blues, is laughing to keep from crying.”
Harris-Lopez, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, joined a panel of veteran Black women professors last month at the College Language Association’s 63rd annual convention in Washington. The session was entitled “Making a Name in the Street: Black Women Negotiating Their Way in Academia.” And most of the panel members, like Harris-Lopez, were among the first Black professors to integrate English literature and foreign language departments at predominantly White institutions in the 1970s. And like Harris-Lopez, the panel members had their share of “humor” to recount.
Moments such as the time when a White male colleague of Harris-Lopez greeted her enthusiastically with the following: “Trudier, I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age.”
Or moments such as one recounted by Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin, a professor of English and director of the honors program at James Madison University in Virginia. Gabbin recalled a White male colleague entering a faculty meeting, seeing Gabbin near the back of the room, and proclaiming to his other White male colleagues, “Let’s go back to the Jim Crow section.”
Although the panel members and audience, comprised mostly of other Black professors and graduate students, were able to laugh, with familiarity, at the panel’s pain, all the memories could not be so easily digested. In particular, Gabbin’s memory of being 4 years old and waking up in the hospital with a concussion after being attacked by a White kid in the Baltimore neighborhood her family had integrated. “The wound healed,” she said. “But the scar remains on the portion of the scalp where the hair does not grow.”
Gabbin likened the experience of being the new kid on that Baltimore block to her many experiences of being the new kid on the academic block, notably the first Black woman to get a doctorate in literature and languages from the University of Chicago. And although she has not been physically attacked in the academic neighborhood, the resistance to her presence is often the same.
“Issues of power and superiority are as palpable in academia as they are in the real world,” Gabbin told the audience.
Perhaps that would explain CLA’s viability after 66 years, and, more significantly, after the impetus for its initial founding is no longer at hand. The organization was founded in 1937 in response to the exclusion of Blacks from membership in the Modern Language Association. The purpose of CLA was to serve the academic, scholarly and professional interests of its members, to showcase the work of African American scholars and to improve English proficiency among African American students.
One obvious measure of the organization’s enduring relevance is that “CLA is still here,” proclaims its president Dr. Yakini B. Kemp, professor of English at Florida A&M University.
“Once people attend, they come back. It is a different feeling here,” Kemp explains. “They have to come here to hear discussions of their literature.”
This year’s conference, entitled “Signifyin’ Theories: New Gazes on Literatures and Languages,” drew more than 300 participants and included the largest program ever, says Dr. James J. Davis, CLA treasurer and chairman of the department of modern languages and literatures at Howard University, which served as the host institution for this year’s conference.
That is about half of the organization’s paid membership, Davis says, noting, however, that there are actually about 1,500 names on the CLA roll.
“Almost all the published Black literary scholars are members of CLA,” Kemp says.
And although the organization remains predominantly African American, it is beginning to attract membership and interest from other ethnic groups.
The increasing diversity was evident in the scheduled panels at this year’s conference, with several presentations on language, literature and culture in relation to the Afro-Mexican, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Hispanic.
Other conference highlights included an address by the poet Sonia Sanchez, sponsored by the Langston Hughes Society, and an address by author Marita Golden.
Planning for next year’s conference is already under way with Tennessee State University serving as the host institution. For more information visit the organization’s Web site at
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com