How It Feels to be the Embarrassing Black Academic…and a Shameless Plug

In the spirit of Zora Neale Hurston

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One of the most enraging, hurtful things that I experience in my career is to watch my Black academic colleagues write about, give conference papers on, and build their entire careers around the critical analysis of the writings of Zora Neale Hurston while they do not even acknowledge that a person like myself sits in the room. Do not get me wrong here: I know who I am. I do not clamor for external validation. I am a large brown woman from the Pine Belt of Mississippi who grew up in a Black world. My language is working class. My orientation toward life comes from a great and wise old bard by the name of James Brown, “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I’ll get it myself.”

I was nurtured by my grandfather, who was a World War II veteran and in two Black churches: the Baptist church that was founded by my mother’s family and the CME church that was founded by my father’s family. I sat at the knees of women who were born in the 1910s. They could talk all day about 1932, chickens who had plenty of common sense and gumption to boot, and how it never seems to get hot how it used to get hot. My grandpa and his friends peeled oranges in perfect circles, told truly horrifying war stories about their time in the South Pacific, and bragged on their ability to ploy perfectly straight lines with mules that were stubborn just to be spiteful. And they did all of this for a quarter a day. One time, because we had to understand why hogs were killed on the one day when it was so cold that Hell froze over each and every year, they told us that my grandfather attempted a smoke house. His hams got bigger and bigger and bigger. What he learned is that the meat swelled from rot, because he was not there to properly attend the smoke. Therefore, he never attempted a smokehouse again. So, every year, on the coldest day of the year, we slaughtered hogs. We had to cut, salt, and wrap quickly. I came up with three gardens a year. And just because he was a difficult old man, my grandpa planted bunch butterbeans instead of pole beans. I hate bunch butterbeans. They are hard to pick, difficult to shell, and taste like mud. Until he died, we argued about that.

When I left home, I left with the confidence of someone who was loved. I left with someone who found the world of 1932 an absolutely splendid one. Why not? If we survived ’32, we could survive anything. I left home and went to a predominantly white institution that no one in my school district had ever attended. And I was fine.

It was not until I got to graduate school that I noticed that other Black people in those institutions would avoid me. There was something about me that rubbed them the wrong way. I thought, “Maybe I talk too loud.” So, I began to be quiet in most of my classes. I had one professor to pull me to the side and tell me how brilliant I was. He let me do an independent study that eventually led to my dissertation topic. In the meantime, I had a professor to tell me to stop telling people that I’m from Mississippi. When I wouldn’t, this professor began to put things in order to have me removed from the program. The harassment was unbelievable. My being there and telling people that I’m from South Mississippi was an embarrassment to this professor. Equally enraging was when Spivak came up in class one day and the one contribution I made was that I did not see Spivak’s native informant as anything different from Fanon’s petite bourgeoisie. What did I do that for? A little “country” Mississippian read and digested both Fanon and Spivak and had the unmitigated gall to speak about it in class? This person actually called my phone one night, railed on me, and called me “stupid.” Reader, I’m a passive person, but come on. I told this professor that I have shown enormous poise and control but no more. From that night forward, when if I saw this person in the street, it was going down. The professor asked what “it” was. I said, “You know.” After that, I had to threaten to sue the institution to remain in the program.

When I enrolled in my Ph.D., I noticed that none of the Black American professors wanted to take me on. None of them. It didn’t help that I’d also had a run-in with my TA supervisor, who also questioned my intelligence. I am not crying victim here, but my intelligence was questioned TWICE by supposed feminists. The second time was by a feminist woman who taught British literature. I loved British literature as an undergraduate and volunteered to TA so that I could learn to teach it more effectively. I guess a Black person from Mississippi is not supposed to love, read, and understand British literature?

You would think that I would have been cued by my undergraduate experience when I worked doggedly in my Shakespeare class and got a B. I was livid, but all of the white young ladies looked at me as a genius. As it turns out, this particular professor, who was working at a Southern institution, did not think any Southerners could read, let alone understand Shakespeare. Most of them received a “C,” no matter how hard they worked. Only a few of us ever received a “B.” And since the English department at our University is a pretentious Harvard wannabe, they let this jackass continue that practice. For all I know, he is probably still smugly downgrading students’ grades.

For the dissertation, someone was stuck with me. But it was a solitary process, and honestly, dissertations should be. When I say this thing was a labor of love, it was a labor of love. Nobody thought I would finish, but I believed in my project. For me, getting a Ph.D. is falling in love with something, committing a lifetime of study to it, and never stopping. I fell in love with Black culture as a kid, particularly the language of it, I found more Black language in the literature, and then I began to read out in other Black populations looking at their languages and I just never stopped. To this day, I am still going.

In actuality, there are some things that dissertation chairs and committees should be doing for students and I received none of that. I have had no mentoring during this entire process. I left graduate school without one letter of recommendation from anybody. I left graduate school without any of these people taking me to a conference and advice for a dossier. I learned later that my white cohorts received glowing letters of recommendation. I noticed that whenever my white cohorts did anything, it was published heavily throughout the department while my little publication (that I secured on my own)was never mentioned. I went to a conference and one of the professors from my department was there. It was painful watching him run from me until he saw that people were actually standing and applauding for my paper. Then, only then, he wanted to be associated with me. As a final insult one day, he called and told me to remove his name from the “References” list of my curriculum vitae. I was embarrassing him. Oh, I haven’t even mentioned that before one of the professors left the department, he called my phone personally and told me to drop out, because I cannot write. This is the same professor who used to ask me for summaries of primary texts, because he acknowledged that no one, not even some of the professors in the department, had read more than myself. Maybe I didn’t use as many theoretical buzzwords, but I had read all over the world! But before he moved out of the country, he felt that he should do what everyone in the department was I thinking and save them some embarrassment.

People, academic hazing is real. It is no figment of the imagination. I am the embarrassing Black academic that people have hazed in an effort to get rid of. It has been painful and it is painful. I soldier on. I have feelings. I put on a brave face, but beneath my smile, I am hurting. And while most people with these stories talk about their experiences with racism in the institution, it has been the reactions of Black professors and colleagues that have hurt me the most.

Yet, I love learning. I love language. I was left to myself for so long, that I signed up for more classes in the middle of dissertation hours. I began taking English as a Second Language classes. One day after classes, this older African American woman pulled me to the side and gave me some advice. Let me tell her what she said, “You know, you are brilliant. But I have been in corporate America. And I can tell you that you are too aggressive. You need to tone down and drop that Mississippi accent. It’s only going to hold you back.” I asked this woman why wasn’t she taking classes in Memphis. She lived in Memphis and the University of Memphis had the same program. When I rose in class to give a presentation that semester, I made sure NOT to drop my Mississippi accent, to present a lesson that would incorporate all of my world literature background, and to NOT tone down at all. My presentation ended with a discussion of oral literature and the adoption of Islam by Western African cultures. As it turns out, I had some students who were more interested in what I had to say than how I sounded. They welcomed a fast-paced, RAP-based presentation that acknowledged that almost all of African poetic speech is based on 3-beats per measure while English speech is based on five. We also looked at Spanish, Arabic, and French RAP and how each language has adopted and adapted the artform to fit the rhythm of its speech. The students were awed and wanted to know more. Each student only had 15 minutes, and my session went the whole 45. Diversity in the classroom works. Who knew? That same woman, with all of her sage advice, was sitting there with her mouth open. After that class, she never spoke to me again.

In the moment of that woman’s anger, I finally got it. I embarrass Black people in front of white people. It is not purposeful. It was then that I decided that if I were going to live in this area (and it seems that this is home, because my husband is terrifed of hurricanes and NAFTA wiped my home area out) and be an academic that I would have to limit my contact with other Black academics — for their sake — and not my own. After all, how can I change my personality? I have a lifetime of stories about Clucksy the Chicken, summers so hot that lizards crossed the roads, and suckegg dogs stealing eggs out of the henhouse. These are things that have been downloaded into my memory, forming the core of my personality, and they cannot be erased by academic training and neither for the sake of paychecks nor tenure. They are as essential to my being as salvation. And if they embarrass the same Black people who make a living from studying Zora Neale Hurston, well, I feel that we shouldn’t break bread. And ain’t that a shame? A person like me is as close to a living Zora Neale Hurston as these folk will ever come. After all, Hurston died in 1960. Several years ago, I went to her home and I declare, it was like I was born there. But I know her language…that country, Black language and those kinds of people because they are my people and that’s my language. And just like the iconoclastic Hurston embarrassed the Black literati of her time, I am embarrassing the Black academics of my time and my area. So, I’m in good company, though I do not consider myself an iconoclast in any way.

Eventually, I finished my doctorate. For all of you all out there struggling alone, you can do this. I did. And I hate to tell you this, but there are times when I am still being hazed. I am still being hazed for myriad reasons that seem to change as the seasons do: I went to all predominantly white institutions or I didn’t qualify for Jack and Jill as a child or I don’t qualify for the Links now or I don’t know the right people or I walk too assuredly or I teach at Historically Black Colleges or Universities or I didn’t pledge something in college or I don’t teach something in the way my colleagues like or I don’t write about a text this way…but you know what, Reader? I have learned to shut out the noise! I have not anchored myself to an institution or an organization or even to tenure. I am anchored in my love for higher education and its ability to lift people and sometimes whole families in less than ten years. I have students who have as many as three generations riding on one degree. And to think God has entrusted me with such a large responsibility and to play such a large part in their story is so humbling.

Even publication has been a hazing process. And yes, I’m going to do a shameless plug here. The book is FINALLY out for pre-order on Amazon.

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I pitched this book to more than two dozen publishers. Many of them rejected it because it started as a dissertation. Many of them would not take a chance on a first-time author, though I have a couple of articles and book chapters. Some of them said that I was trying to do too many geographical areas: the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa? One publisher said that they would publish it if I just focused on one. I said, “absolutely not.” One publisher gave me the green-light, but a reviewer, a fellow professor, said that writing about masculinity as a gender is just too risky and I was dropped like a hot potato.

The book is out and I’m still being laughed at and I’m still a source of embarrassment. Just last week, somebody laughed and flippantly dismissed my effort. This person emailed me and said, “You will never get tenure on this. This publisher is not an academic publisher.” I didn’t respond, but had I responded, it would have read, “It’s not about tenure, but about Clucksy the chicken.” And though this person is a Hurston scholar, I know he would not have had a clue.

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora and cultural criticism.

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