An Open Letter to the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer. I welcome content on #MakeupMonday (the initial impetus was a Twitter follower asking for #MakeupMonday posts oriented toward women of color) as well as anything related to the academic and post-academic career.  Today’s post is by Dr. Arica L Coleman.

Dr. Coleman is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure, a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2014. Her essay “Mildred Loving: The Extraordinary Life of An Ordinary Woman” received the 2016 Gloria E. Anzaldúa Award for Independent Scholars Honorable Mention from the American Studies Association. She is a frequent contributor to Time Magazine, History News Network, and LA Progressive; and has also contributed articles to The Washington Post, and The Crisis Magazine. She recently completed her second manuscript titled “Long Stories Short: A Womanist Exploration of The Personal, The Political, and The Spiritual.” Follow @ www.aricalcoleman.com.

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Dear Former Colleagues:

I recently participated in a weekend writers retreat with renowned author Marita Golden. Marita graciously carved out time in an already packed schedule to celebrate the publication of my latest Time Magazine article and also recommended that everyone in the group purchase my award winning book That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.

At the conclusion of the retreat I purchased Marita’s first book Migrations of the Heart and her most recent book The Wide Circumference of Love and asked her to autograph them. She signed the first book, “To Arica—a dynamo, a scholar, a wonderful writer.” In the second she wrote, “To Arica—Thank you for all the wisdom, ideas, and spirit you bring into the world through your writing.”

Marita’s words were “like cocoa butter on my heart,” to borrow from songwriter India.Arie. There is no balm more soothing to a heart—which has been shattered by years of academic hazing and the trauma of tenure denial–than to have this writer-scholar and elder black stateswoman join the chorus of affirmations confirming that the person I am and the work that I do, matters.

Yet, four years ago when I left the department at the conclusion of my terminal year, I indeed had my doubts. Those doubts were the consequence of what Carole Boyce Davies demonstrated in a recent article for Black Perspectives titled “The Persistence of Sexism in Africana Studies.” Davies argued. “While institutional racism . . .  is identified as being more prominent and therefore more recognizable, institutional sexism, its twin, remains largely overlooked in many institutions. Black women, often the recipients of these twinned social ills, are the most disadvantaged in these institutional practices.” In other words, most people fail to understand that Black women are equally challenged by sexism which is a daily reality they face even in Black institutions.

To demonstrate the prevalence of institutional sexism or rather to be more precise misogynoir, a term coined by queer black feminist scholar Moya Bailey which “describes the anti-black racist misogyny that black women experience,” Davies used her home institution Cornell University as a case study to demonstrate the “presumed incompetence” of black women who continue to be passed over for the leadership of Africana Studies despite being qualified and in some cases more qualified than their male counterparts. Hence, black women faculty are left to navigate a power structure comprised of departmental and college administrators hell bent on maintaining the status quo. As Davies aptly observed, “ the larger institutional arrangements solidify a decidedly racialized sexist pattern of leadership at both departmental and college levels, which reinforces institutional sexism [misogynoir] in which Black women are decidedly disadvantaged.”

Indeed. Dr. Carol E. Henderson, one of your own senior faculty also noted this disadvantage in her review of the highly acclaimed book Presumed Incompetent titled “A Politics of Color” stating, “advances in racial and gender equity at all levels in the academy have moved at a snail’s pace. Within administrative and faculty ranks, in particular, women of color find a lack of presence and parity with their peers at many of the major universities and colleges in this country.” Henderson concurred with the editors’ use of personal story stating, “storytelling as qualitative research is important to bridging the gap between those who have the privilege and power to speak within any given structure and those who hold subordinate roles within that same institution.”

My choice to speak my truth openly rather than anonymously is my contribution to bridging this power gap.

As you are well aware, the University of Delaware’s lack of diversity in general and of women faculty of color in particular has been well documented since the late 1970s with more recent examples here and here; and its campus reputation as one which is inhospitable towards black students and black faculty is well known. While the Africana Studies Department was a nourishing and supportive space for all students, it was the opposite for black female junior faculty as was documented in the department’s 2013 External Review Report completed the fall of my terminal year. That report took particular note of the problem of promotion and tenure of women faculty of color stating, “While there is never one factor that speaks to each individual’s tenure and promotion experience, we suggest that BAMS (formerly known as the Department of Black American Studies) and the College [of Arts and Sciences] pay acute attention to the mentoring of all junior faculty and particularly women. Mentoring is a key element in increasing the success of junior faculty women of color.”

Indeed. The double jeopardy of being black and female in a department steeped in a masculinist epistemic tradition which privileged the teaching/research of the department’s lone core black male junior faculty and a black male junior affiliate, marginalized the four black female junior faculty (2 core and 2 affiliate) who were not only left to navigate the tenure track as best we could but whose scholarship was devalued by the department.

As Henderson further stated: “aware of the informal, nebulous demands of promotion and tenure that favor the ‘good ol’ boy network’” in which “their [women of color] intellectual capacity and their scholarship are deemed wholly unacceptable, summarily questioned, and even dismissed by colleagues . . .  lead to disrespectful and even vitriolic behavior . . .that resolidifies the historical racial hierarchy of academic culture.”

I would only add that this behavior also resolidifies the historical gender hierarchy of academic culture.

Hence, it was no coincidence that the two aforementioned male colleagues were tenured—another black male who was denied tenure remains as contingent faculty and is now an Africana Studies affiliate–while 100% of  black women hired on the tenure track between the years 2005-2007 left the university untenured.

With respect to my own experience, Africana leadership demonstrated a blatant disregard for  my scholarship despite having exceeded the department’s tenure criteria with articles published in respected peer review journals such as Souls and the International Journal of Africana Studies; essays published and anthologized in volumes edited by distinguished scholars Manning Marable, Beverly Guy Sheftall and Johnnetta Betsch Cole; and a book in production at Indiana University Press. When the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences declared my scholarship “insufficient” senior faculty did not utter a word.

Consequently, I—the last black woman standing– was left to appeal my tenure case to the Provost without one single member of the department in attendance to support me. In fact, the department chair, who was appointed Vice Provost of Diversity the following spring, declined my request that she attend the appeal in an email. “You know I have other administrative duties to attend to,” she stated.

As Davies contended and I concur, the dirty little secret is that misogynoir is alive and well in black academia. Poet Audre Lorde stated, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Yet, rather than dismantle the house, some are using the tools to help renovate it.

In closing, celebrated author Alice Walker stated, “We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children, and, if necessary, bone by bone.”  I am thankful for Marita Golden, the late Manning Marable, Beverly Guy Sheftall, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Howard Johnson (Africana Studies Professor Emeritus), and the countless others whose faith in me and support of my work has enabled me to witness the fruit of my labor while I am still alive and well to continue to do this work for the academy, for the nation, and for all of humanity.

Sincerely,

Arica L Coleman

 

 


Comments

An Open Letter to the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware — 1 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective on what looks like a horribly discriminatory experience. Sadly your story resonates all too well with the tenure denial of an eminently qualified black female academic at my own school. Although my Dept fought very hard for her case, mentoring mistakes that had contributed to it were realized too late. I see it happening at other schools over and over. Academia so desperately needs stronger mentoring of black female academics, but efforts are crippled by exactly the trickle-down effect you describe: we had no senior black faculty in the Dept AT ALL, where mentoring is haphazard at best, and no one was particularly attuned to what particular roadblocks she faced as a woman of color.

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