On Academic Entourages & Standing Apart From Them

September 11, 2013

Lil Wayne entourage, Hartford, CT, July 2011. (http://4umf.com/).

Lil Wayne entourage, Hartford, CT, July 2011. (http://4umf.com/).

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.

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 9, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins)

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 9, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins).

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 EducationEmerge, and for freelancers at BET as well). Marc, pissed and disillusioned, said, “We were just trying to help.”

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 23, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins).

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 23, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins).

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.

Afrocentricity and the Writing Bug

May 15, 2013

A ladybug, often a symbol for the writing “bug,” May 15, 2013. (http://flickr.com). In public domain.

This time two decades ago, I was already a bit desperate for work. In transferring from Pitt to Carnegie Mellon, I’d left myself without any financial coverage for the summer of ’93 (see my post “The Arrogance of Youth, Grad School Style” from June ’12). I had applied for several fellowships, summer teaching gigs, even some nonprofit work. But as of the middle of that May, nothing had come through. I’d already spent $200 on a root canal that occurred on the same day as my written PhD comps at CMU (see my post “Facing the Tooth” from May ’12).

Even before my comps and my surprise root canal, I had talked with my friend Marc about writing a joint article about the false litmus test of Blackness that Afrocentricity had come to represent in our minds. Between Molefi Asante’s students at Temple — not to mention the overtly Afrocentric turn of both the Black Action Society and the Black Studies department (which had changed its name to Africana Studies) in the previous eighteen months — both of us felt we needed to provide an alternate perspective.

On that third Saturday in May (and the day after my comps and root canal surgery), we worked for five hours in putting together what amounted to a 1,200-word opinion piece against the belief system and authenticity test that Afrocentricity (and Afrocentric education) had become. By some folks’ definition, we realized that jazz, Miles Davis and John Coltrane would fail the authentically Black test of a Molefi Asante’s wonderful Afrocentric Idea (1987) and of Maulana Karenga as well.

Frances Cress Welsing's The Isis Papers (1991), [about as authentic as auto-tunes], May 15, 2015. (http://amazon.com).

Frances Cress Welsing’s The Isis Papers (1991), [about as authentic as auto-tunes], May 15, 2015. (http://amazon.com).

Now I’m pretty sure why Marc had problems with Afrocentricity. As a Christian and a jazz aficionado, Marc likely saw Afrocentricity as something somewhere between a misguided way of thinking about Blackness and complete and utter bull crap. His goal was to “add to the debate” and “educate” those who weren’t Asante or Karenga apostles and disciples. A laudable — if somewhat naive about the politics of academia and race — goal.

As for me, beyond the academic superficiality of having a litmus test on what is and isn’t Black, I had at least two unconscious reasons for writing my first crossover piece. One had to do with my sense that too many young folks were all too interested in doing the cool thing and not the right thing. Afrocentricity was cool, just like all rap and hip-hop was cool, just like giving libations to ancestors was cool.

Being cool had always meant following a crowd and seldom saying anything that would dig more than a nanometer beyond the surface. Or saying a critical thing about the cool thing that everyone in the same crowd otherwise takes in without a critical thought. I went to a high school full of people like that, and loathed being around people like that when I’d been a part of the Black Action Society at Pitt.

Unconscious reason number two had something to do with my Hebrew-Israelite days. Again, I gave this zero direct thought during my grad school days. But the given the trauma I’d suffered through during my three years of kufi-dom, it had to affect my thinking about Afrocentricity. The Black folk I knew who were part of the Hebrew-Israelite religion were much more obvious about what they did and didn’t consider Black or kosher. Yet, it was so obvious that they constantly contradicted themselves, in terms of food or music, how they treated their wives or children. Most important for me, though, was the fact that they tried to live separate and apart from other Blacks, yet seemed no more different beyond the kufis, veils and kosher meats from other Blacks (or Jews, for that matter).

I saw Afrocentricity as bullshit, and still see the fact that so many folks who get caught up in this sense of authenticity around Blackness as folks falling for bullshit. If I hadn’t lived as a Hebrew-Israelite between the ages of eleven and fifteen, perhaps I wouldn’t see Afrocentricity this way. If I hadn’t been around the “Party All The Time” folks in high school and the “Black Panther Party” posers at Pitt, maybe Afrocentricity would’ve been more appealing to me.

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 9, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins).

Letters to the Editor, Black Issues in Higher Education, September 9, 1993. (Donald Earl Collins).

But at twenty-three years old, I was already tired of the pursuit of coolness and authenticity. That hasn’t changed in the past two decades. I’m sure the letters that called Marc and I “Uncle Toms” after our piece was published in Black Issues in Higher Education were from folks who thought we weren’t cool, and thought they had the answers to life itself.

I wonder how those folks back then would see the academics who believe that hip-hop can explain everything in the social sciences and humanities who are prominent today. Perhaps some of these people today were the Afrocentric followers of twenty years ago. Perhaps not. All I know is, I haven’t stopped writing since that cloudy day in mid-May.

And Now, A Plagiarism Moment

September 13, 2010

Professor Emeritus Daniel P. Resnick. Source: http://www.cmu.edu

I was sitting in the office of the only professor in Carnegie Mellon’s History Department with expertise in the area of history of education one mid-September day in ’93. It was my first semester in the doctoral program there, after transferring from Pitt to finish my PhD. I had already begun to question my decision to do my remaining studies there. My advisor Joe Trotter was “upset” that I’d taken and passed my doctoral written exams the spring before, when I was still technically a Pitt grad student, and had “run interference” to forbid me from publishing any new articles during the ’93-’94 school years. That was after my piece with my friend Marc had come out in Black Issues in Higher Education.

Steve Schlossman, the chair of the history department, was also upset, because I had decided not to take the American history proseminar, a course for first semester grad students. Apparently, even though I had taken the same course at Pitt two years before — and Carnegie Mellon had accepted all of my credits from my master’s program and first year as a doctoral student at Pitt — I had to take this course. I was read the riot act and told that I needed Carnegie Mellon’s “stamp of approval” before becoming a doctoral candidate. I was incensed, because this wasn’t what I’d been promised by my esteemed advisor and the graduate advisor, John Modell.

All this happened before I met Daniel P. Resnick in his office on Tuesday on a cool, but not too cool, and sunny late-summer day. His office was neat, relatively speaking, but spare and spartan in some ways, with books stacked in orderly fashion, and papers in numerous labeled folders. What I noticed the most was the smell, an old person’s not-fully-washed smell, of bagels and lox with some onion cream cheese.

Professor Resnick had gone to the restroom and left the door open for me to sit at a table next to his desk. He had already laid out my writing samples, the ones I’d put in his mailbox the week before. They included the Black Issues in Higher Education piece. After our exchange of greetings, Resnick sat down and said, “Considering your background, your writing is remarkable!” in a way that showed real surprise.

Before I could respond with a defense or process the obvious bigotry in that statement, Resnick then said, “There’s no way you could’ve written all this.” I responded, “Well, I did, and have the grades and degrees to prove it,” preferring not to accuse the only professor in the department with a specialty in the history of education of racism. “What-what I meant was, your papers are well-written…compared to most young scholars,” Resnick stammered. I accepted that response at face value, but kept what he had said before it in mind as I worked with him over the next three years.

Resnick, as it turned out, had lived for a year with his wife, the great Lauren Resnick, on the Mount Vernon-Bronxville border in 1960-61 (one of them was teaching at Sarah Lawrence, I think), so after finding out where I grew up, he had put two and two together and come up with sixteen. I found him patronizing, and about as knowledgeable in the recent developments of educational history as I would be of underground house music in Chelsea right now. Resnick himself had plagiarized, not in terms of his own work, but from the race relations rule book. He had plagiarized in stereotypes, far worse than anything of which he’d accused me.

Was it worth having this man on my dissertation committee? Yes, because I graduated. But, in the final analysis, it would’ve made more sense to transfer to NYU or Stanford School of Education than to spend three minutes, much less three years, working with a man whose belief in my work was minimal at best.


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