It's Blackademic: young and black in academia

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I wasn’t necessarily in love with my major department at my undergraduate institution, though I had some fairly decent professors.

Then came the semester I took Blacks in Film as an elective. I then took African-American Studies, and then a summer semester Harlem Renaissance course at a local community college.

Each of those professors brought a combination of passion and academic rigor to the courses that I honestly had not seen in many of my other my classes.

What was different? Aside from one high school teacher, this was the first time that I was gifted academic knowledge by someone who reflected my cultural background and experience.

This view probably mirrors many other former and current Black learners, even with caring white teachers. However, a May 2011 study reports that 42 percent of all African-Americans at predominantly white college campuses never had a single black professor during four years of college. Seventy-four percent of the same students had only one black professor in a field outside of African-American studies.

On a subconscious level, this was in part why chose a career in academia, why I became a ‘Blackademic.’

These results indicate a phenomenon far beyond not having enough black faculty on campuses across the U.S. It means that there are too few examples for black students to model themselves after and that many don’t see the option.

Dr. John Barker, assistant provost for undergraduate education at the University of Miami, gives a prime example. When he speaks to new groups of mostly minority students, he has them do a visualization exercise, in which students picture a faculty member and then give a description. “Nine out of 10 picture one who is white,” says Barker.

With the American economy in its current state of disrepair, graduate school applications have spiked as job options have become scarce. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, minorities in U.S. graduate schools rose from 28.3 percent of first-time domestic enrollment in 2008 to 29.1 percent in 2009. Women accounted for about 71 percent of black U.S. students who enrolled in graduate schools for the first time in 2009. These numbers could mean that eventually, more black students will consider academic careers. But what exactly does it mean to be young and black in the academy, or a Blackademic, in terms of challenges and the current economy?

Dr. Kandace Harris, Associate Professor and Chair of Mass Communication at Shaw University, is a product of historically black Howard University, and has been a faculty member at three other HBCUs before Shaw. For Harris, entering the academy meant that she could evoke change, altering the thinking about HBCUs. “The rhetoric about HBCUs is that they are ‘less than’, when they actually offer multiple opportunities,” Harris says. As a young academic, Dr. Harris stands as an example of what such institutions can produce.

Among the hurdles that young Blackademics face is the lack of importance placed on the black scholarship. “There are lingering, racist presuppositions that black scholarship is inferior to white scholarship,” expresses Dr. Ronald Jackson, Professor of African-American Studies and Film and Media at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“There is a presumption that we are in a post-racial society with a level playing field,” Jackson says. “There are very few Black endowed chairs at research universities across the country; this says something interesting.”

Black faculty, particularly junior faculty, often feel obligated to go above and beyond their duties to show their dedication. “When I first got to the university, I felt obligated to be a part of all things black and dealing with race,” says Dr. Sika Dagbovie, associate professor of English at Florida Atlantic University. “But this is often self-imposed.”

The new economy requires new thinking among young, black academics in order to solidify our relevance. Dr. Harris suggests the need to find other ways to brand ourselves, sharing our work in spaces outside of academic journals, and using social media to become content creators rather than consumers. She also sees the need for the influx of perspectives from young academics; essentially a regime change. “I’d like to see some new faces,” she muses.

Dr. Jackson offers an additional perspective, saying we also must uncover existing resources. “The crazy thing about the economy is not that it forces us to do new things; it forces us to be creative and innovative and shine light where people are hiding the resources.”

The key to dealing with obstacles lies in forming Blackademic networks, in which both challenges, solutions and ideas are discussed and activated.

The rewards should also be shared. Nothing feels as good as when a student says “I’m glad you’re here.” Grab them and hold on, they could be the next Blackademic.