I plan half of my blog posts in advance. At the beginning of every year, I make up a list of topics that I intend to cover, listed by month, and then go through that list. For the other half, I take advantage of relevant news stories or sudden life experiences that also seem relevant.
Today’s post is a combination of planning and the impromptu. I’d already planned to write about the tightrope of being Black and accomplished — actually, more like the noose of it. But thanks to @profragsdale’s tweet, aka, Rhonda Ragsdale, an Associate Professor of History at Lone Star College-North Harris (Houston, Texas) and a PhD candidate at Rice University, I started on this topic a day early. Her tweet was the kick-off to eight hours of tweets about the cold and often cold-shoulder reception women — and Black male and LGBT — faculty and grad students receive when bringing up, discussing or even promoting themselves and their accomplishments.
Only to see more of these tweets and thoughts confirmed in another arena. The response of the racist, George-Zimmerman-set to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview with Erin Andrews on FOX within a couple of moments after he made the play to seal the game for his Seattle Seahawks to go play in Super Bowl XLVIII. You, Black man, can’t have a flash of anger and moment of passion on TV after playing in the NFC Championship Game, for then your accomplishments will be used against you. (Sarcasm aside, Sherman’s taunting will likely result in a fine, but that’s the NFL).
My post is much, much closer to home. I had the blessing and the curse of having two Black males as my official advisors while in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, Larry Glasco for two years at Pitt, and Joe Trotter for four years at CMU. My gripes and complaints about their neglect, selective attentions to my development, and, in Trotter’s case, harassment and psychological torture I’ve already documented well here. What I haven’t discussed is that they were part of a cycle of academic abuse that they passed down to my generation of grad students, and likely some of my colleagues are passing on to their grad students as I write today.
My best example of how denigration in academia works was a conversation I had with Dick Oestreicher, a Pitt professor for my grad seminar in American Working-Class History in Fall ’92. I was in Trotter’s African American History seminar at CMU at the same time. Oestreicher asked me what else I was taking that semester, I guess because I’d proven resistant to the idea that social class had primacy over all forms of inequality, even in the US (a neo-Marxist to the core, I guessed).
When I told him I was in Trotter’s seminar, Oestreicher said, “Oh, I’ve heard of him,” with the disdain a fashion designer usually reserved for suits off Sears’ rack. You’ve “heard of him?” Really? Trotter, an award-winner scholar and author with a groundbreaking book on Black migration, urbanization and class formation in Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 (1985; 2007), and you’ve heard of him? A colleague only three blocks and one bridge away, and you’ve heard of him? Even now, the only word I have to that is, “Wow!”
If Oestreicher was the only one to do that, and only to Trotter, then my observations here would be suspect. But I witnessed this same kind of thing from other White history professors at Pitt and CMU toward Trotter and Glasco during my grad school years. Heck, one of the reasons I left for CMU in the first place was because I knew several of the most powerful professors in the Pitt history department didn’t respect Glasco’s work, and by extension, my own progress and work.
Maybe that was part of the reason why Trotter would constantly “run interference” on my behalf, to protect my “interests” during my four years there. Because, despite all the long hours, the sweat, tears and blood, there were folks at CMU who just saw him as a mere Black man, not a colleague or scholar every bit their equal. Given the books, the articles, the grants and so many other accomplishments, Trotter was easily the most productive professor in the department.
None of this justified how Trotter treated me when I was his student. I was semi-aware of the racial politics of accomplishment denial that folks around us practiced. I often chalked it up to jealousy or stress, thinking that the quality of my work or — to use Trotter’s terminology — my scholarship would show the academic world my worth. What White disdain toward Glasco and Trotter — and Trotter’s harassment of me — taught me, though, is that I’d have to be White in order for my accomplishments to seriously matter in academia, and I wasn’t planning on being White in my lifetime. And, that intellectual Whiteness can be nurtured and grown into Black professors.
In the years since finishing my own PhD, I’ve faced my own dilemmas around my achievements. I’ve at times attempted to fit in by downplaying my publications, by not bringing up my degrees, by not talking about my fellowship awards. What have I learned? To deny myself of my own accomplishments is like making a fine wine but not even daring to take a sip. White accomplishment deniers be damned.