What does it mean to be a Black scholar in 2020?
Updated: Jun 28, 2021
Originally written on June 12, 2020
A few days ago, I looked at the syllabus for “The Emergence of the History of Capitalism,” an undergrad class for which I served as a Teaching Assistant at Northwestern University. I saw that we would be discussing the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, a formerly enslaved African and abolitionist, who used his 1780 work to document his journey from bondage to freedom and to advocate for the demise of slavery. Equiano added the phrase “written by himself” to his title. This phrase underscores the constant scrutiny that Black scholars endure because they are often not seen as knowledge producers. The week’s reading selection made me consider the question of what does it mean to a Black scholar in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery?
More than 200 years later, Equiano’s demand for justice and equality is being carried by those on the streets in communities around the world. In the news, social media, and in our neighborhoods, we have witnessed Black bodies being injured, jailed, and killed. Equiano’s reality is still the reality of so many Black people.
During the class, a white student asked me to comment on the ongoing events. Throughout history, Black people’s protests and riots have often been labeled as unreasonable and senseless. At that moment, I reminded them of E.P. Thompson’s article entitled “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Thompson argues that instead of dismissing the rioters’ actions as irrational behavior we should view the food riots as a “highly-complex form of direct popular action, disciplined and with clear objectives.”
Similarly, I invited my students to apply a similar framework to understand the ongoing protests and riots. I urged them to frame the protest and riots within the context of the long history of injustice against Blacks and other minority groups. I prompted them to also be attentive to the ways in which the work of Black intellectuals is usually described. Black scholars are frequently told that their work is subjective rather than objective, emotional rather than rational, and personal rather than neutral. In that instance, I saw the need to use my platform as an educator to instill a sense of political consciousness in them. I had a duty and an opportunity to link the week’s reading to today’s realities and remind them of the responsibility they have in creating a more equitable world.
As a young Black scholar in the history doctoral program at Northwestern, I have been living and thinking about the question of what it means to be a Black intellectual. How do we make sense of the unfolding events? Some may say we are living in dark and uncertain times. For others, the demands for justice and equality have always risen and fallen with every breath they take. As a scholar of Black history, these scenes are too familiar. In the 1960s, several Black students across the United States were killed as they sought to transform and expose the Eurocentric curricular tradition that had dominated American higher education. Their struggles led to the creation of African American and African Diaspora Studies departments at American universities including San Francisco State College, Howard University, and Northwestern. To be a Black intellectual, in the words of W.E.B Du Bois, is to have a “deep appreciation of the fact that to live is a serious thing.”
To be Black and a scholar in an academic setting is a lonely, dangerous, and worthwhile endeavor. Lonely because Black intellectuals make up only three percent of scholarly communities at predominantly white institutions. Dangerous because one often seeks to produce knowledge that foregrounds the struggles for political, social, and economic independence of Africans and peoples of African descent within academic scholarship. Worthwhile because it usually presents an opportunity to alter academic and non-academic discourse about the study of Africa and its peoples.
Inspired by Du Bois’ words that “I believe foolishly perhaps, but sincerely, that I have something to say to the world,” I am more committed, in the present moment, to using my education as a means for intellectual liberation. By intellectual liberation, I mean using my position as a scholar to mentor and expose students from underrepresented groups to educational careers and opportunities of which they might not have been aware, especially in academia. I want to enable students to see themselves and their histories reflected in the courses they take. More importantly, I want to give my students the analytical framework and discourse to make sense of their world. I want to equip them with the ability to challenge and expose the colonial-racial relations that seek to silence, ignore, and suppress the demands of its marginalized citizens for justice and equality.
To be a Black scholar is to be conscious of the epistemic violence done to fellow minority thinkers, practiced within the ivory tower, lurking in our scholarship and disciplinary histories. To be a Black scholar is to impress on Blacks, on both sides of the Atlantic, that colonialism, imperialism, and neo-colonialism are global projects that require a collective effort to confront. To be a Black scholar is to be committed to producing evidence-based scholarship about the articulations of Blackness across the globe.
So then, what does it really mean to be a Black scholar in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others? It is to ensure that their deaths are not forgotten. It also means being a well from which your students, friends, and family can drink. Availing oneself as a well is not an easy endeavor because at some point one becomes empty. But as a well, a Black scholar can be refilled by also tapping into the community’s knowledge in turn. It is by drawing on our collective and individual experiences that we can serve as the resources that communities need. A Black scholar must be connected to a wealth of knowledge not just inside the walls of the universities, but also within their communities.
Ultimately, to be a Black scholar is to be committed to the project of justice, equality, and freedom that is rooted and articulated by the communities they serve. A Black scholar must use their platform to help their students and colleagues develop an analytical framework to make sense of their world. A framework that addresses liberalism in conjunction with neocolonialism, democracy with white supremacy, and free trade with imperialism. What is the role of a Black scholar in transforming the university? The answer to this question is vital to understanding the free and arduous labor that Black scholars perform for their universities.