Why We Must Find Space for the Activism of Black Women Academics

by Jenn M. Jackson

“You think your piece of paper makes you better than me?” 

This is the question I can’t seem to escape, no matter the circumstance, interaction, or context. For others, my “piece of paper” often stands between me and activism. It labels me as an outsider and makes me an “other.” But why?

I am a Black woman academic. I am working toward a doctoral degree in Political Science while writing and building my community with other activists. I give talks, volunteer, and offer myself as a resource in my circles of influence, especially where it concerns uplifting young Black women and girls. 

Despite my daily work towards the empowerment of my community, I often find myself confronted with outright rejection from non-academic community-based activists. I have been called a “sell out” and a “snowflake” because of my ambition in academia. It has been implied by some that my work in the real world is devalued and undermined by my educational endeavors. This is an effort to erase the validity of my activism, thereby denying my right to be seen as a complex Black woman with varied beliefs, priorities, and passions.

Many believe that academia values theories and pedagogy over actual lived experiences, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Black women do not cease to be Black women simply because we walk into a classroom. We don’t leave our blackness at home on our way to campus. We continue to be Black women even in the predominantly white male spaces of universities and colleges. Our experiences and identities travel with us. Similarly, it is our lived experience which adds dimension and depth to the fields we pursue. 

What is most ridiculous about the anti-academic trope is its disconnect with history: There have been many Black women scholars and intellectuals, who have also made important cultural contributions as community activists. Dr. Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells were some of the earliest Black women academics. Surely feminism—and how Black women contribute to feminism—would be nothing without the works of bell hooks. Her Ph.D. hasn’t changed the influence or validity of her work. Writer Zora Neale Hurston’s time at Columbia University did not tarnish the brilliance she contributed to the Harlem Renaissance and to the literary industry. If anything, her academic experience only enhanced her work. Toni Morrison’s graduate degree hasn’t kept her from being a consistent voice of empowerment for Black women, as well as a mentor for up-and-coming writers. Her novels and essays embody of the complexity of Black women, and are recognized as some of the most important literature to be produced in the last century. And Dr. Angela Davis, iconic civil rights leader and educator, has been integral in the decades-long grassroots efforts for civil resistance of Black people  in the US and abroad.

These writers, educators, freedom fighters, and mentors were never deemed insignificant or irrelevant simply because they were academics. What is so different now?

Comparatively, my panel of Black women friends, resources, and allies are wide-ranging. Some have graduate degrees while others decided that stopping after high school would provide them with the training they needed for their chosen fields. Some work in high-powered corporate positions while others devote their time to public and outreach based services. Valuing them equally, I see the merit in their capabilities, perspectives, and opinions. I can clearly assess their importance within our communities. 

Perceptions about “elitism” or a general disconnect from the communities from whence we came are all cited as reasons that Black academics should be excluded from efforts to uplift Black women and girls. But, the question remains: how exactly do we uplift one another if certain groups of us are excluded from this important work? How do we remain connected with our families and neighborhoods if we are ostracized arbitrarily? Simply, we can’t.

Right now, in Ferguson, MO, many of the protesters on the ground are Black women. Academics like Dr. Brittney Cooper have consistently led national movements for social justice and equality. She, and others, have not excluded themselves from this valuable work simply because they have graduate degrees. 

Yes, some of the women who devote their lives and livelihood to social activism are scholars and educators. Some of them are “blue collar” workers, or citizens of their community with no formal training in activist work. But all of them are important. All of their voices matter, all of their experiences are valid. All of these people and their varied backgrounds and perspectives are necessary to build and positively impact communities.

Frankly, we don’t have any time to check credentials on those within our community who are well-intentioned, present, accountable, and justifiably indignant at the unequal conditions facing our people. We should give one another the benefit of the doubt first without condition or preconception. Yes, we should always be discerning, questioning inconsistency or hypocrisy. But, academic endeavors should never disqualify anyone from engaging in activism. We would be nowhere today if our predecessors believed otherwise.

Black women academics have been integral in forming public policies serving Black families and the unemployed. Black women academics have been instrumental in pioneering medical procedures for women and children. We have been on the ground in major social movements, never allowing our degrees to limit our passion for change within our families, churches, neighborhoods, and communities. Our abilities and access within predominantly white institutions have created more opportunities for our posterity. We bring more than fancy words and documents to Black communities. We bring foundational skills meant to uplift, not tear down. These are things our “pieces of paper” do for us—not just the academics, but those we work in service of as well.

We have to recognize and appreciate the gifts that we all bring to the table, if we are ever to overcome the monumental obstacles before us.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Jenn M. Jackson is a "Jill" of all trades who writes, educates, and activates all in the name of making the world a better place. She co-runs the popular 'blerd' (black nerd) blog Water Cooler Convos with her husband while they raise three gorgeous children in the suburbs of Chicago.  Find her on Twitter: @JennMJack and read more from her at jennmjackson.com.

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