Racism in the Liberal Arts, Pt. 1

As an English doctorate, I did not go into education for the common reason that America says I should. I also did not sign up for the overt and covert racism that I experience in the English department at the hands of my colleagues.

Photo by Evgeniy Ivanov on Unsplash

This is a personal essay. Rarely do I speak from strictly personal experiences, but I will today. And while I try to keep my posts under seven minutes of reading time, this is a longer one. Many, many things have happened to me on my academic journey, but I keep marching along any way. I have no plans. I do not discuss tenure, but I keep going. In spite of racism, sexism, narcissism, and nepotism, I keep marching trying to help some folk along the way.

I am writing this rather long essay today, because I feel that there is a complicit silence going on in a facet of our society that needs to be broken. It is individually devastating, it is socially harmful, and it historically teaches racist disinformation by example and by pedagogical practices.

So, let me begin…

In America, everything is commodified and monetize. That includes education. Americans pursue a higher education for money. We receive diplomas and certificates, but rarely do we pursue an education in its truest sense of the word. Most of us aren’t even interested in that aspect of college. This is America where even time is money. Who learns for learning’s sake? Who even arts for art’s sake? We take classes to make more money. We attend graduate school for more money. We attend more graduate school for more money and more prestige.

But there are some of us naive enough not to follow conventional American wisdom. Some of us are green enough to believe in the power of an education to not only increase bank accounts, but help us to become more fully human by becoming more aware of the commonalities that we all share and by recognizing and appreciating (not tolerating) the humanities of those who we live and work with. Some of us bypass the lure of dollar bills and material trappings and go to graduate school for something as ephemeral as English.

Yes, this former premedical tract student decided to pursue graduate degrees in English. Why? Because I wanted to do what makes me happy: write, read other people’s writing, and teach other people to appreciate writing. For me, there is a certain joy in reading a Caribbean text and seeing in print in Jamaican nation language some of the same cliches/jokes/myths that I heard and used as a child in Mississippi. There is something sublime in reading a text that predates the Bible by at least a century and learning that people then struggled with the same moral challenges that we are faced with in contemporary society. There is something cathartic in reading a German author and learning that Germans and African Americans share some things in common, though we are an ocean away from one another.

For the most part, I have been happy with my decision. From the first day, I put the chalk on a board in a college classroom as an adjunct, I felt my life’s calling and NEVER even considered attending medical school again. But on this journey, I have had such dark days. I have been academically hazed to the point where “tenure” has become a bad word. While my colleagues may think that I am crazy for not even discussing the tenure process, I have been the sacrificial lamb on the altars of enlightenment and promotion.

Reader, I promise you that I am going somewhere with this: poverty and criminality are for Black people. Class stratification, education, and the subtle idiosyncrasies that make us all human are not. While scientific racism most certainly established this logic so many centuries ago, there have been many facets of contemporary life that have been and are complicit in the continued dehumanization of Black people. One of the most obvious institution is our “free” press. I do not use those signifiers around the word free in order to spark a debate about the openness and usefulness of our current American media. I am using them to signify that the press has often been yoked by popular opinions and biases, claiming to cover “both sides.” We all know that in our real, daily lives an issue has at least five countable sides. The press, the entertainment industry have often colluded to perpetuate stereotypes of Black people. Minstrelsy, anybody?

However, there is another silent, opaque co-conspirator that escapes the scrutiny that the press and entertainment industry receive. That co-conspirator hides behind a reputation of enlightened, liberal thought, and misguided public trust. That co-conspirator, in plain sight, establishes, studies, and recycles age-old stereotypes and assumptions — making them, with quantitative data and obfuscate language — seem ahistorical and immutable. That co-conspirator, or rather, co-conspirators, are institutions of higher learning in America.

In the name of transparency, let me share some of the experiences of my darkest days: I am from South Mississippi’s Pine Belt (though the dominant narratives about my state claim that all Black people are from the Delta). I chose to attend school in the Northern part of the state as an undergraduate, I received my Master’s from a university in Memphis, and I returned to my undergraduate university for a doctorate in literature with an emphasis in literature of the African Diaspora. Well, my undergrad years were okay. As a premedical tract student, I had never experienced so much sexism until I enrolled in those science classes. Oh, these professors were smug and condescending. They KNEW that they were using those first two years of science in order to weed people out as medical school candidates. IMMEDIATELY, I decided that I did not want to be in the science department and enrolled myself as an English major. I would take all of the classes necessary for medical school, but my major would be something that I enjoyed. As long as I had Lanyer and Jacobs and a few classes where we watched classic films, I could conveniently ignore the sexism of the science department. The higher I went up in literature classes, the more I loved higher education. The more I learned about closet dramas of the 1500s and what the word “pox” really meant, the more I wanted to know about colonialism. The more I learned about the “pox” and the rancid poverty of rotten boroughs in Victorian England, the more I wanted to learn about the shanty towns of the Commonwealth. The more I learned about literature of the Commonwealth, the more I wanted to read about other colonies of other metropoles. In short, I began to delight in the joys of learning about other people in other places.

Honestly, my problems in academia did not really begin until my Master’s degree. At this institution, white professors were clearly uncomfortable with me. I rarely said anything in class, but when I did, they were absolutely SHOCKED THAT I UNDERSTOOD ANYTHING AT ALL. After all, I am a Black woman from Mississippi, what should I know of Restoration-era British literature and literary theory? For me, I sat there silently wondering who said William Blake had to be hard? His writings were not difficult for me. I rather enjoyed him.

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

He was a myth-maker, much like Hesiod (actually, that professor was just thrilled that someone was interested in the class and understood the readings. She wouldn’t have cared if I were purple!). Not only did I read and understand the literature, I could apply the theory. Come on, let us all admit that Derrida is way more accessible than Lacan. As the descendant of slaves, I understood and saw the appeal of Marx and Engels quite quickly, though their comments on slavery were tepid at best. I could apply what they were saying about productivity and alienation to the slave who raised America’s cash crops and were legally barred from enjoying the fruits of their labor. And yes, Shakespeare was a man of his times with the biases of his times. The Tempest is a theatrical manifestation of Elizabethan anxieties surrounding the burgeoning colonialism and its contact with other people in exotic locations that no one ever heard of. Would those “strange” people with their strange food and strange languages bastardize the entire culture of England? One professor told me that I had no right to lump Shakespeare in with Black writers who also wrote of the anxieties of being colonized. I simply had no right! Did I even understand postcolonial theory? And was I committing presentist bias? My answer to him was a question: Do you understand Giyatri Spivak? One professor, the one who taught composition pedagogy, gave me a “B.” She said I was “too angry.” I asked her where she got that very vague and unprofessional assessment of me personally, since I never said anything in her class and when we practiced on grading rubrics, she said my grading was always too lenient. She responded that she read my discussion board posts, and they were filled with anger. In fact, they were so angry that she did not trust me to teach freshmen, especially white freshmen. I told her that my discussion board posts were professional, and unlike some of my white counterparts, were free of profanity. She sat there, not knowing what to say. I must say this here: one of my white woman colleagues confronted this professor. I asked her not to do it, but she did it anyway. This girl was livid, because as I found out, they were all using my discussion board posts as a point of reference and she knew that I would be one of the best instructors in the department. She was tired of the English department specifically and the university being labeled a high school extension. She knew that I was heavy into critical thinking and would help raise standards at the university. Nashville looks down upon and laughs at Memphis, and according to this colleague, with good reason. In spite of this lady’s efforts (and she did yell at this professor to the point where we could all hear them through the closed door), the B stuck and I lost my fellowship. Needless to say, I was crushed. After a while, I picked myself up, and answered a call for help in the Sunday newspaper. I landed a good job (one that paid more money) working for some Black oral surgeons in the city. My opinions were respected and I was BEGGED on more than one occasion to retake some of those classes that I’d made hard “C”s in at my undergraduate institution and enroll in dental school.

Still, I stayed with English.

In addition to white professors questioning my intellectual acumen, my readings of Shakespeare, and the anger, I was also hazed by a Black woman professor. This woman, who had worked hard to achieve tenure, was clearly ashamed of me. Once, she told me (and I will NEVER forget this), “If I were you, I would be careful telling people in academia that I’m from Mississippi. You lived close enough to Louisiana to say you’re from Baton Rouge.” I responded, “Mississippi has more artists and writers per square mile than anywhere on earth.” On several occasions, she tried to “correct” my accent. It did not matter that I understood the concept of autoethnography/autophylography as a Black one or that Black folk write in the collective “I.” All she could hear was my accent. All she saw was a rather gregarious, “country,” Mississippi girl making her shame in front of white colleagues. When I handed in my final paper for her, a rambling affair on Frederick Douglass’ Puritanical masculine anxieties, she ran all 19 pages for plagiarism. Finding none, she refused to hand me the paper back. Everyone received their paper with comments except me.

As this woman’s research assistant, she went above and beyond to make me appear stupid, like she felt all Mississippians are. The last and final straw came when she looked at a test I’d typed for her (mind you, I supplied all of the questions and all of the multiple choice answers), found one typo, and called my cell phone after 9:30 p.m. one night. During her vituperative monologue, she messed up and called me “stupid” to my face. This is after her behavior sent me to a counselor and to the student health center where I had my feces checked for blood, because I thought I had ulcers. At this point, I lost all control of my temper and that South Mississippi, rugged Pine Belt sensibility came out! I promised that the next time I saw her, I would kick her ass. She asked, “Are you threatening me?” I replied, “No. I am making you a promise. And EVERYBODY knows that you can take my word to the bank.” Needless to say, I never saw her again, because she accepted a post-doctorate position somewhere. But she did try to have me expelled from the program before she left. I had to threaten the school with legal action in order to be allowed to complete this program. And I can say that while the white professors questioned my intellect , it was the Black woman feminist and her sidekick (the department secretary, who was also Black), who did the most damage to my career at that institution and in the surrounding area. When she retaliated against me for retaliating against her verbal assaults, I threatened the school with legal action, I have gotten a reputation of being “hard to work with,” and that has followed me almost 20 years after those incidents initially occurred. All because this lady viewed me as a “country” Mississippian who would do nothing but embarrass other Black academics in the area.

When I returned to my undergraduate institution, I thought I would walk into a mental reprieve. I’d had a good experience there as an undergraduate. How wrong I was. First, I was to TA for a medieval literature professor who was new to the institution. I was paired with a white male cohort from my program. This lady picked me apart for everything, but said nothing to my counterpart no matter how childish or incompetent he may have behaved. When she observed my teaching, she gave me such low remarks, because as she put it (I’m paraphrasing here), I spent too much time in explication and not enough time in higher-level things such as symbolism. Everybody knows that Beowulf was written in the bob-and-wheel format, why blow class time on it? I told her that the average student does not know that, because it is not on the state test. The average student is not reading the King James Bible regularly, so they do not understand the language of Shakespeare, let alone Chaucer. The average student from her class always rushed to my breakout sessions so that they can better understand general class assembly material, and most of them came to office hours as well. I showed her that I even had a sign-in sheet. Well, she became angry with me, questioned my intelligence, and straight out said that I cannot teach. I took her before the chair, but the result was I lost my fellowship. My behavior, I was told, just looked bad in front of the department. As it turns out, I was not the only woman with a problem with this woman. One of my white colleagues had it out with her Springer style. For the first time in my life, I witnessed a sexist woman in action and it was ugly.

When I tried to choose my dissertation committee, Black faculty members ran from me. They knew my reputation from my Master’s institution and heard of the incidents with their colleague. I made it known that I was doing a rather comparative dissertation on Black masculinity in literature across the African Diaspora. One Black woman told me, without flinching, that I would never finish such a project and that she did not want to serve on my committee. Since my project involved African literature, the African literature professor was “assigned” to me, when he clearly did not want to be bothered. He never wanted to meet with me, and when he did, he was condescending. I was delayed by 18 months, because nobody wanted to be “bothered” with me and my wild, left-field academic ideas. I failed my first oral examination, because my committee decided that my language was too conversational. It was quite obvious that I’d read all of those 100+ books on my reading list, but I was told, once again, that I didn’t sound like an academic. I went back to each individual professor and bombarded them with postcolonial jargon and was passed. One of my professors’ advice was for me to stop talking like I was having a Memphis conversation with my girlfriends. I told her that I’m not even from Memphis and if she were referring to my blackness, I just feel that Giyatri Spivak is just not that complicated. Not only have I read Spivak, but I found her theories on the ultimate subaltern as an uneducable individual to be on par with what Fannon outlined in Wretched of the Earth. And by the way, I was speaking of the Philcox translation and not the Farrington. After that hurdle, my dissertation was generally maligned, but I believed in my project and kept going.

Well, I finished that dissertation, and all with tremendous strain in my personal life (that’s a whole other book). I lost a loved one to suicide, two loved ones received cancer diagnoses, I received an overload from my adjunct gig, I foolishly enrolled in two ESL classes, my car caught on fire in the middle of rush hour traffic on top of one of the tallest overpasses in Memphis, and I had a small child. But, by the grace of God, I finished.

I finished and not one professor gave me a letter of recommendation. I finished without any direction as to how to construct a curriculum vitea or a dossier or even how to go about finding a job. I finished and landed a fifty percent time job at another institution with the African American Studies department. After that temporary position ended, I landed another full-time job at a private institution. Well, there was a position open at my old job. It fit the description perfectly for my qualifications. While it is unusual for PWIs to hire their own Ph.D.s, sometimes they do if you have been gone long enough. I figured I’d been gone a while and had even taught outside my department. I applied. Shortly thereafter, I received a call at my office extension. It was my old African professor. I was glad to hear from him. But he was angry. He told me to please remove his name from my reference list. I was an embarrassment to him and would never get a job at that R1 institution or any other. I didn’t know what to say except, “okay,” and “Thank you for your time.”

I learned later that while I received nothing but an angry phone call from my former professor, my white cohorts, without my teaching or conference experiences (I’d had but a few publications, but even that was more than what my white cohorts had), received dossier advice and was sent to the career center for help. They were given glittering letters of recommendation from their committee members. This man, who was once a staff employee at the career center, held the phone while I just cried. I could not and still cannot figure out what I did in the halls of academe to receive such treatment from Black and white professors. The white professors viewed me as an affirmative action student and candidate and did not expect me to be competent or intelligent in any way. I was supposed to be obsequiously grateful and silent and to take all of the verbal abuse that was being hurled my way without a word in response. The Black faculty were too afraid to become involved with someone with a working class background and who did not have the good sense to be crouchingly servile to senior white faculty members. In addition, I did not and still do not abide by or even believe in respectability politics. I was embarrassment from the way I dress to my heavy accent. They were not going to allow an uncouth person like me, whose family obviously was not include in Our Kinds of People, to ruin the positions and salaries that they’d had to claw and scrape and bow to receive. Ultimately, they were at the mercy of white faculty members and administrators, and tenure can be revoked. And I found that many Black people in academia have inherited positions; whereas, I’m just a nobody, I suppose. Who blows careers/salaries/positions on nobodies like me?

As I continue my academic journey, I find that publication is treacherous and tenured positions are few. While my writing is praised and valued by colleagues and loved ones alike, my publications are often rejected, because my ideas simply do not “follow publication trends.” And this is from Black and white publishing organizations. But I continue to battle on. Is not the purpose of academia to produce new ideas and break the trends of our society at large? If we cannot and do not confront what ails our society in the liberal arts departments of our higher learning institutions, who will? Isn’t it us who train the journalists who will go out and bring us the news in a supposed unbiased manner? If there are no diversified faces in those classrooms teaching more than two sides to a story, how will future journalists know that they are even being biased? Isn’t one of the functions of a liberal arts education to equip our students with the ability to think critically about the supposed a priori things of our society? Isn’t it our job in the liberal arts, especially in the English department, to teach students to never accept anything as a priori? Isn’t it us who teach students that nothing is immutable, unchanging, and unbiased? And if we, who are supposed to teach our students to scrutinize traditions, especially if they harm others, fail to think critically about how we present the challenges of the past and the events of the present, what does our future in this country look like? But if a voice like mine is silenced and excluded in the halls of academia, won’t the students just continue to accept traditions that may be offensive as “natural”?

This is not coming from my class or even my professional journal. This is coming from the center of my heartbreak. Don’t feel sorry for me, though. I’m a warrior woman. And every day, I’ll just keep swinging.

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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.