By Nicole Racquel Carr
Dr. Nicole Racquel Carr teaches classes in African American literature, Black Feminisms, and Pop Culture. She is currently at work on her first book, I Am Not Your Mammy: Black Feminist Mothering in the 21st Century. She writes about pop culture on her blog: https://www.nicoleracquelcarr.com/
On December 3, Harlem, the comedy series featuring a quartet of Black women navigating their professional and romantic lives in the Big Apple, premiered on Amazon Prime. The debut episode sparked online discussions addressing hypersexual depictions of Black women professors on television. In a hilariously risqué scene, Camille Parks (Meagan Good), a Black woman professor, agrees to sleep with a former student (Ashlee Brian) before backing out of the liaison.
As a Black woman professor, my professional journey mirrored Camille’s. After graduating with a PhD in English, I began teaching in upstate New York. My students, hailing from the neighboring cities of Poughkeepsie, Harlem, Brooklyn, Kingston, were among the most politically conscious students I have encountered during my career. In that assertive way unique to New Yorkers, they relished every opportunity to express their opinions on any number of topics. Like the time a student stopped by during office hours, closed the door, and remarked that my Southern accent sounded particularly inviting. For Black women professors, students making romantic overtures, remarking on our bodies, or even inquiring about our sex lives is not uncommon. The late bell hooks, in analyzing her own decision to sleep with a former student, offers one of the most nuanced discussions about the contours of Black women’s sexual agency within academia. Of her students’ obsession with her sex life, the late feminist professor hooks writes, “They wanted to understand female sexual agency. They wanted to know how women professors are coping with working in patriarchal institutions, and how we are juggling issues of sexual desirability, agency, and careerism.” Although fictional, Camille’s decision to seek pleasure from a student offers a moment to consider the nature of Black women’s sexual agency and power within academe. While I have never considered engaging in romantic relationships with students, my experience as a Black woman in academia initiated my journey of reclaiming that erotic power imagined by Audre Lorde as “our most profoundly creative source…in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.” Navigating academe as a Black woman often means negotiating not only how much of one’s intellectual and emotional labors will be surrendered to the academy, but also how much of one’s body.
When I first began teaching as an adjunct instructor at a small private university in Miami Gardens, and being only a year or two older than my students, I shrouded myself in loose billowy blouses. My skirts never rose an inch above my knees. Sometimes I purchased pants a size larger. My strict dress code developed not solely out of the misguided desire to appear older, although students insisted these sartorial tricks did not fool them, but to shield myself from being dismissed as a romantic or sexual fantasy. To be on the safe side, I even hid my husky Southern inflected drawl by pitching my voice up an octave. I did white supremacy’s bidding by “taming” my body in professional workspaces. It would take me years to realize the degree to which white mainstream notions of professionalism contributed to internalizing negative perceptions of my body.
This is the magic of Harlem’s Camille: she refuses to cede her body to academia’s toxic notions of professionalism. In one episode, she arrives late for a meeting sporting a short black dress only partially concealed by her coat. The dress hints at Camille’s sexual vitality: the previous night she enjoyed a steamy sexual encounter with a Black male professor. Even though Camille’s chair, Dr. Elise Pruitt (Whoopi Goldberg), chastises her for displaying “inappropriate cleavage,” the scene’s blending of Camille’s interior life with her professional one highlights the impossible set of workplace standards imposed on Black women. Never make a mistake. Never be too Black. Never be sexy. Never be human. Harlem’s emphasis on Camille’s body—she twerks, works out, has sex—also boldly rejects perceptions of professors as old white men reeking mildly of books. While nearly 70% of college professors are white, Black professors and professors of color challenge notions of what a professor looks like and acts like.
Since the triple oppressions of race, gender, and class have altered the cliffs and valleys of my life, I have often found myself pondering the same question Camille does, “Why can’t I grow into the role like everyone else?” Growing into my role as a professor has led me to dispense with oversized pants and colorless sack-like clothing. I relish in speaking like where I’m from during meetings. Often, my Toni Braxton timbre makes cameos. I bend the walls of academia to accommodate me as I am no longer interested in divorcing myself from my own humanity. I enter the workplace in communion with every single dimension of my being. Whole.
Link to Official Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nf9gqWex10
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