This week for many is about anniversary number twelve of the 9/11 attacks, which if I hadn’t lived through them, would sound like something out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. But because I’ve been counting my days for years, this week also represents two decades since I realized that radical “Islamic” terrorists, pro athletes and popular music artists aren’t the only ones with followers. I learned for the first time that even in the world of academia, paragons and those who allege themselves as such also have their entourages of true believers and sycophants. It was a realization that bothered the loner and the aspiring academic historian in me.
It all occurred in the aftermath of my first major publication, co-written with my friend Marc and published in Black Issues In Higher Education in August ’93. “Afrocentricity: The Fight for Control of African-American Thought” was our 1,200 word contribution to the debate over multicultural education and Afrocentricity in both higher education and in Black culture more generally. It was a publication that came as a surprise, because the editors at Black Issues In Higher Education (the same folks who ran Emerge Magazine, by the way) hadn’t contacted us about receiving our pitch and article, about accepting it for publication, or about when they intended to publish. And even though our article was literally in the centerfold of their August 12, ’93 issue, the folks at Black Issues in Higher Education never paid us for the publication of our work.
The reason why because clearer in their September 9 and September 23 issues. In the “Letters to the Editor” section, the editors published a dozen letters, ten of which were critical of our work. These weren’t scholarly or even logical critiques — we were wrong because we weren’t members of the Church of Afrocentric Babble, plain and simple. These were “How dare you!” or “Shame on you!” letters, not ones based on what we’d actually written.
What became obvious to me was that Molefi Asante’s former and current students had written most of the letters. Not exactly an unbiased set of sources, as in the circle of Afrocentricity in the early ’90s, there were few people more prominent than Asante (he was the Father of Afrocentricity, after all). Once I realized this, I found myself disappointed. With Black Issues in Higher Education, with Black folks in academia — particularly at Temple University — and with academia itself. Me and Marc weren’t being challenged on our ideas, but on the idea that two alleged neophytes had the balls to challenge the orthodoxy of the early ’90s in African American studies and in high-brow Black cultural circles.
Marc pushed for a response from one of the editors about their unprofessionalism (and to find out why we weren’t being paid for our piece), which led to a conversation with one of the big-wigs. He apparently said to Marc, “We published it [the “Afrocentricity” piece] to teach you a lesson.” When Marc told me, I said, “Well, I guess we’re not gonna get paid.” (Turned out this was standard practice for the likes of Black Issues in Higher Education, Emerge, and for freelancers at BET as well). Marc, pissed and disillusioned, said, “We were just trying to help.”
It was the last one of many factors that pushed me to write my dissertation and my first book Fear of a “Black” America (2004) on the relationship between education, multiculturalism, and Black identity. I wanted to show that Afrocentricity wasn’t the only strain of thought that ran through the heads of Black scholars and found its way into small “c” curriculum and cultural events in Black communities. In doing so, I certainly stood apart, but I also stood alone a lot, too.
In recent years, I’ve seen numerous entourages eviscerate lone wolfs. On Twitter, in our 24/7 media coverage of the mundane and insignificant yet insane, and at academic conferences. As recently as a couple of months ago, I saw a version of this on Facebook in response to a post I wrote about Mark Anthony Neal’s Looking for Leroy (2013). The entourage makes it difficult for an up-and-comer to get off to an honest start, for conformity with only subatomic levels of independent thought seems to be the norm.
Somewhere between now and when my son (knock on wood) reaches my age of forty-three, maybe some of what I’ve written over the past twenty years will break through the ice of entourages, mad-dog and otherwise. Still, it is a damnable thing when groups get together to stomp out different voices (literally and figuratively), because that’s seems to be the only way to keep the band together.