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People forming a "NO" to London's Heathrow Airport Expansion, May 31, 2008. Source: The Daily Mail http://bit.ly/hc0KSP

There was a time in my career and life when I was desperate to publish an article in a scholarly journal. Right after finishing grad school at Carnegie Mellon at the end of ’96, I set out to write a literature review essay on how folks in education foundations and education policy had covered multiculturalism and connected it — or, in most cases, not connected it — to the politics around this controversial topic during the 1980s and 1990s. Of all the things I’d written up to this point in my career, this was a bit ambitious.

I had submitted an article for publication with the History of Education Quarterly in March ’97 and had made several revisions at Richard Altenbaugh’s request. He was the new senior editor of the journal, as it had recently moved from Indiana University to Slippery Rock to be under his direction. Altenbaugh had also been my professor for my education foundations graduate class in the spring of ’92, and I’d done entries for his Historical Dictionary of American Education, which was published in ’99.

Historical Dictionary of American Education Cover, March 23, 2011. Donald Earl Collins

At Altenbaugh’s behest, I met him and a wildly bearded co-editor at an informal meeting in March ’98. We met at The Second Plate, an eating place on the second floor of Forbes Quadrangle at Pitt, where I’d spent my homeless days in ’88, my history major days, and my first two years of grad school. Over the course of a two-hour lunch that had little to do with the food, Altenbaugh and his assistant grilled me about the contents of my article, my writing in general, and about the publishing business. Now I knew that this essay would need more revisions, but a two-hour inquisition on why a twenty-eight-year-old was too young to make bold conclusions based on existing studies was just a ridiculous argument.

For Altenbaugh and the other editor, I was simply too young to write an essay that reviewed previous scholarly work. Their logic: “even a senior scholar with fifteen years in the field would have trouble pulling this off.” The editors also insisted that the only road to academic Nirvana regarding my work would be through publishing academic articles and books that met the approval of an exclusive scholarly community. Translation: “write something that is interesting to a few other professors — but not so exciting that it would catch the public’s attention — and by all means do not work on something as controversial as multiculturalism.” Oh yeah, they also recommended that get approval for my essay draft from two elderly, nearly-dead White historians before resubmitting to the journal.

Bottom line: my essay was rejected, given a “No!” Not because it didn’t have potential, or because the early drafts weren’t any good. But because I was working on a topic too cutting edge as a Black male who even now at forty-one would be too young — according to these guys — to work on a state of the profession essay on multiculturalism, much less thirteen years ago.

Did their “No!” matter? In one sense it really did. I knew that the topic itself was too controversial for most conservative-thinking (in a topical, not political, sense) editors in scholarly publishing. That there were few venues for me to address multiculturalism in an academic sense. I also knew that their “No!” was about much more than my topic. My age and my race also played a role in their decision to not publish my essay — they said as much by implication. Funny thing is, that in these weird times, I’d probably have a much better shot at publishing this essay now than I did when multiculturalism seemed more relevant.

But in the end, it didn’t matter at all. I was already in the middle of a five-year period of questioning whether I was an academic historian first and a writer second, or was it really the other way around? If the latter was true — and it’s turned out to be — then what did it matter that I pushed to publish on a topic that I cared about, but I was already beginning to lose passion for?

What I learned from that “No!” is that there are times to force a “Yes!” out of the land of “No!” And that there are other times when I should choose to take that “No!” and evaluate my own motives for wanting a “Yes!” In the case of my growth as a writer — both in academic writing and in other kinds of writing — there couldn’t have been a better, more bigoted “No!” than the one I received thirteen years ago.