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Black Women in the Academy: Promises and Perils. – book reviews

As a Black female psychologist who has worked in many settings —
most recently in a university setting — and as a student who attended
a predominantly White university in the Northeast, I can vividly recall
the feelings of belonging and support that I experienced in meeting
other members of the Black Graduate Student Association. Only within
that fellowship at the predominantly White university which I attended
did I feel whole.

As such, I found reading Black Women in the Academy to be extremely
gratifying personally. A volume such as this not only illuminates the
complexity of the university setting for Black women, it also validates
so many of the experiences that are often encountered in isolation.
This book would have been timely a decade ago, and it will be timely a
decade from now.

Black Women deals with issues such as quality of life, quality of
education, institutional ranking, student recruitment and retention,
and faculty status and tenure. Lois Benjamin has focused on the
identities of race and gender within the wide spectrum of diversity.
While many experiences are common among women — and, with subtle
variations, common among minorities — Black women are confronted with
the entanglements of two usually easy-to-identify minority-status

The book is a collection of thirty essays which are divided into
seven categories concerning Black women in higher education: an
overview, alternative paradigms, faculty, administrators, social
dynamics of academic life, diverse academic settings, and future
prospects. There is a in each section, and a wonderful opportunity to
listen to the voices of women from all over the country who are willing
to share their most personal insights. Reading these essays is like
sitting down and chatting with a sister, or listening in on an
otherwise personal conversation.

I immediately read the overview, administrator, and the future
section. Then I combed the other sections for topics of particular
relevance to me. I was struck by the breadth of the topics and by the
interconnectedness of each section. There are tangible life reminders
about the impact of our history on the challenges Black women face

The idea that our education alone is sufficient to qualify us for
the jobs that fall within the scope of education is repeatedly
challenged. The challenge is to not become so caught up in the daily
aspects of our various jobs that we lose sight of the bigger picture.
Surviving and succeeding in the academic environment demands astute
decision making at both the conscious and the unconscious level. Those
decisions make up the paths which we follow through the “promises and
perils” of the academy.

Thus, we must be aware of the particular history of the institution
where we work. And we must also be aware of the politics within the
departments that are relevant to our careers. While Beverly M. John
points out that “we are so intent on survival that we just keep going,”
she and Shelby F. Lewis challenge us to know ourselves individually and
collectively. They encourage us to nurture our essence so that we can
participate in the new master plan” for the next century.

In the section on administrators we are reminded that African
American women are few in number in the academy; that ours is a society
that continues to view African American women in a discriminatory
fashion; and that others are given an advantage based on appearance and
language. A first reading of this section may leave you feeling
overwhelmed. As one author noted, a terminal graduate degree may give
us status within our social community, but it only begins to “level the
playing field” in the academic setting. The challenges of being allowed
to succeed are multifaceted, reminiscent of the axiom that we must rise
earlier and run faster in order to maintain our position in the race.

A promising look at college administration by M. Collen Jones
reports finding that African American women college presidents grew
into those positions while “doing a job” or “having fun.” This is
reassuring for those seeking administrative positions because it shifts
emphasis away from making a calculated effort for promotion to growing
where you are.

Several authors included survival and coping strategies based on
the realization that we continue to deal with institutional racism.
Many of us recall times when we were the “first” or “only” one of our
kind in a classroom. Those now in positions of decision-making
authority may be the same folks who were excluded, or included on a
limited basis, in the past. Having to be assertive, and at times
aggressive, in order to be visible is also examined by several authors.

The need to separate workplace lives from personal lives is also
discussed. Isolation in the workplace, may occur for a number of
reasons, and the experiences offered in the book are shared personal
truths which, I suspect, have been learned in isolation and through
trial and error. However, support of Black women in the academy has
crossed both gender and cultural boundaries — another recurrent theme
of the book.

For those in tenure track positions, “The Social Dynamics of
Academic Life” is mandatory reading. For a summary of issues related to
the politics of staff retention and tenure, I found Nefta Baraka’s
chapter on collegiality to be excellent. She identifies cultural
differences, conflicts, and solutions, and articulates the pressure to
conform even in settings where there supposedly exists a sensitivity to
cultural issues. Seeing the term “mundane extreme environmental stress”
was very validating. Although Blacks are more likely to possess
“bicultural competence,” there is still the pressure from the dominant
culture to conform to their interpretations or to be silent.

The future of Black women in the academy is addressed with cautious
optimism. Darlene Clark Hine points out that until the mid-1980s, the
history of Black women was assumed to have been documented through the
historical writings about Black males and White females. She says that
the three problems that confront Black females — geographic isolation,
social isolation, and service demands — have tremendous implications
for quality of life and cost/benefit issues. And Mamie E. Locke
eloquently states that what African American women want is “open access
to the opportunities to which their abilities, their interest, and
their willingness to work entitle them.”

Writings such as those in Black Women in the Academy bring into
consciousness the many experiences we share because of who we are and
who we represent to other people. It is always sobering and always
energizing to consider one’s history in the context of today. The need
to be visible is a necessary part of our struggle, our history, and our
individuality. This broad, comprehensive volume helps provide that

Cheryl Nowell is an associate director of the Counseling and Psychological Services Center at Florida International University.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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