Personal Trauma and Black Linked Fate on the Tenure Track – #BLM Guest Post

[We continue to solicit #BLM guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Art/poetry welcome. Please see the wondrous #BLM content already published here. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at gettenure@gmail.com]

Dr. Ana Ndumu is an Assistant Professor at the UMD, College Park College of Information. Her research and teaching center on the role of libraries and information in the lives of Black, immigrant, or underserved communities. Her forthcoming edited book is entitled, “Borders and belonging: Critical examinations of library approaches toward immigrants. She hopes her journey empowers someone and is happy to keep this conversation going at andumu@umd.edu or @AnaNdumu.

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By Dr. Ana Ndumu

I joined my current institution in 2018 as a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, a program designed to strengthen faculty diversity at research-intensive universities. Serendipitously, I was also offered an assistant professor position at the same institution. I felt fortunate on many fronts. The job market in my field remains fraught and, generally speaking, there is seldom guarantee of permanence when it comes to postdoctoral positions. Though fully aware of problems at the institutional level – for example, the racist, on-campus murder of Lt. Richard Collins III – I joined a college that embraces social justice-oriented scholarship. I dove into my research while acclimating to the campus and enjoyed a fruitful, studious year.

Transitioning to being a first-year assistant professor was an altogether different matter. What is typically a year of considerable protections – reduced course load, light committee work, and ample mentorship – rapidly escalated to a time of phenomenal overwhelm. In early August, my dad faced a medical emergency and was ultimately diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. I ended up making five trips to be with family in Miami before the semester ended. It was a blessing to be instructing an asynchronous online master’s course that allowed some flexibility. However, I was also running a grant-funded project to promote census participation among immigrants. The last day of a project-related event, which happened to be my birthday, brought tremendous relief. Worn out, I briefly called dad and promised to see him in a few weeks during Thanksgiving break. He said he understood and wished me a happy birthday. He passed away a few hours later. The weight of grief was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

Spring semester turned out to be equally difficult as a result of COVID-19. Though I taught another online graduate course, I along with most of my students struggled to adjust to sweeping changes. I also recognized my vulnerability in that I live with lupus. Even then, as airports emptied I flew down to Miami during Spring Break to care for my mom after she injured herself. At the time, I was the only one among my siblings who could telework and, thereby, care for mom. I again felt incredibly grateful to be in a profession that affords reasonable flexibility.

I plowed through all of these emergencies with the resilience I learned from my no-nonsense, fiery mom and the practicality of my consistent and sanguine dad. None of the disruptions felt inherently unfair. The loss and care of elderly parents is often a part of adult life. The pandemic is a once-in-a-century plague. I have lived with lupus for several years. And I knew exactly how stressful being a professor would be. I signed up for this. University policies are in place to assist with personal setbacks. Grief therapy, my supportive spouse, compassionate colleagues, along with a loving network of sister scholars were available to help me persist until the summer.

By the time that nationwide shelter-in-place orders were enforced and our university moved to a completely virtual environment, I was already burned out. In April, a family friend and fellow lupus warrior died of COVID-19. President Trump casually touted hydroxychloroquine as a remedy. Those of us who live with autoimmune disorders can attest that it is a brutal medicine. Tangential to this, the racial and socioeconomic disparities associated with COVID-19 fatalities started to become apparent. The chronicles painted a grim picture of a social caste system. 

As a librarian, demographer, and professor, I know the power of substantiated information and large-scale population statistics when presenting a narrative. Credible data continues to bear witness. Across the U.S., Black communities are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19. Queens, New York – one of the country’s poorest and most ethnically diverse congressional districts comprised of remarkably hard-to-count census tracts – became the virus epicenter. Nationwide, seventy-five percent of exposed frontline service workers are people of color. This is unadulterated, staggering truth-telling. 

Among Black diasporic immigrants, the specific segment of the population that I research and identify with, many are disadvantaged by acculturative stress and allostatic load which catalyze disease, a phenomenon widely understood as the immigrant health paradox. This reality coupled with poor medical care, underemployment, and subsequent reliance on survival jobs points to social barriers. Black immigrants predominantly belong to a category of newcomers who arrive with prior vocational training (in health fields, particularly) and are native English-language speakers. Yet, bureaucracy prevents many immigrant professionals from integrating and re-credentialing, especially when it comes to the 314,000 highly-skilled, medically trained refugees who could have helped our communities during the pandemic.

Then Ahmaud Arbery’s racist homicide occurred in Brunswick, Georgia.

And Breonna Taylor’s slaying in Louisville, Kentucky.

And Christian Cooper’s racist encounter in New York City’s Central Park.

And George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I understand what drives the very people who are most susceptible to a deadly virus to eschew social distancing practices in order to protest: exhaustion.

Unlike the personal crises I faced, witnessing racist violent acts feels wholly unfair.

I, too, had long been on edge and am now simply exhausted. I find myself disgusted and drained by being in constant conversation about race. I am tired enough that I will no longer excuse unawareness. Feeling exhausted means being cynical that Whites in power will ever adopt a new mental model. It is knowing that a seismic shift is happening but being too depleted to offer any substantive or positive idea at this moment. It is questioning whether the phrase “equity, diversity, and inclusion” is just as platitudinal as “thoughts and prayers.” Exhaustion is attempting to preserve my peace by resigning from activities that are not truly challenging the status quo. Without question, it manifests as chronic fatigue attached to meeting the demands of a higher education landscape built on patriarchy and white supremacy. Professional autonomy aside, the academy was not intended for faculty like me. Exhaustion is shunning plasticity, optics, and anything less than that which is rooted in racial realism. It means resisting the notion that my peers need my help with unlearning biased conditioning and polishing statements in response to the current uprising. Unless an effort deals with systematizing the advancement of marginalized groups and reframing EDI as liberative and anti-hegemonic practice, I remain uninterested. 

Social science theory presents us with the concept of Black linked fate, or the belief that a fellow community members’ racial experiences inevitably impact us. Though there is no evidence to suggest that I am correct, I like to think that the idea of Black linked fate is inspired by the African ethic of Ubuntuism, a philosophy that posits I am because we are. Black linked fate is what makes racism feel deeply personal. My desire is to educate, write, and speak on the role of information in the well-being of Black, immigrant, and other subjugated communities. However, the constancy, predictability, and damage of racialized structural inequities leaves little confidence that this line of work actually works. Instead of being inspired, I am exhausted. The scary part is that I am only one year into the professoriate.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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