Ebony Sistahs & Ivory Towers: A Vital Call for Black Women Scholars

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos
by Quanisha Smith

Is the Academy a place where Black Women can achieve social justice? I attended the 2nd Annual Black Doctoral Network Conference with this one question in mind. With the recent uprisings in Ferguson, MO, and the discussions surrounding street harassment, one could argue that the United Sates is at a critical moment of major social change. For more than seven years, I have participated in and I have organized grassroots movements on key social justice issues such as public education reform. I have trained and supported citizens from Black and economically disadvantaged communities to share their lived experiences and mobilize for policies that aid their communities. However, I am dissatisfied. I yearn for public attention to issues impacting Black women and girls. Unfortunately, I’ve seen little national or regional focus on our plights. I question how we can promote the importance of our lives.

Recently Black Feminist Scholar, Dr. Brittney Cooper wrote, "No mass movements to address the social plight of African-American women will ever happen because there is not enough collective knowledge about us to be alarmed.” As a current graduate student considering a doctoral degree, I’m interested in how we can do this- use the Ivory Tower to advance our cause. In the past, the academy was a hotbed for Black social justice advocates. Merritt College is the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded by college students. College professors helped these students ground their actions in theoretical and philosophical approaches of civil disobedience, community organizing and Black Nationalism.

During the Black Doctoral Network Conference, I met Black women committed to using their place in the academy as a means to speak up and contribute to the development of scholarship and interventions critical to Black women and families. For example, Tuwana T. Wingfield, LCSW, a doctoral student at Illinois State University, in her paper titled (Her)story, Evolution of a Dual Identity of Black female and Scholar, discusses how she uses auto ethnography to analyze her life. Also, Assasta Sankofa Kokayi, a doctoral student from Northwestern University, focuses her research on the history of Black women’s roles in the development of social change and civil right movements. She hopes to inform and inspire a new generation of Black female activists. These are just a few examples of how Black women are using their place in academia to focus on our issues.

While the academy may be an avenue to explore issues important to our communities, the conference leaders acknowledged the politics and challenges of this institution. Over the three days, participants sought strategies on how to deal with institutional racism within Higher Education. They also addressed ways to work with advisors who may be unsupportive of qualitative research methods (a narrative approach to research). Scholars like Dr. N’Dri T. Assie-Lumumba, a tenured professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University, provided crucial insight on these issues.

Dr. Assie-Lumumba led a workshop on Career Strategies for Women. Packed to capacity, Black female doctoral students and PhD holders asked how to navigate higher education as a Black woman, how to deal with the stigma of pregnancy, and how to balance being a mother and a scholar. Dr. Lumumba addressed these concerns by countering with questions and personal antidotes such as “who says you have to finish school before you can afford or have a family?” She encouraged participants to be strategic: Build relationships with Black members and allies from other races, and use those networks to tap into human resources. She emphasized it does indeed take a village to raise a child, but also to help Black women survive life in Higher Education.

The general theme echoed throughout the conference involved Bridge-building. Keynote Speaker, Dr. Khalil Muhammad, Director of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, set the tone- “How we tell our stories matter!” He explained, often we tell our stories using a schema of “exceptional journey.” These are stories rooted in positioning exceptionalism as a motivational force with the premise, “If I can do it, you can do it.” (Think President and First Lady Obama). Yet, this frame ignores the “cold realities” of being Black and Brown in America. Dr. Muhammad urged us to move away from our exceptionalism, which also supports European notions of individualism. He suggested we highlight the help we’ve received that has been pivotal to our success. Telling our stories through a collective support structure, he argued, emphasizes the value of mentorship, engagement with people in our communities, and giving back. All actions we should pay forward.

Other keynote speakers such as Dr. Beverly Guy Sheftall, Founder of Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College, exemplified this framework as she shared her stories of civil disobedience, which helped to transform Spelman into a critical feminist space. Her legacy includes generations of Black women agitators.

Renewed and optimistic, I embraced these stories of activist scholars and their contributions to knowledge development for our community and future generations. Dr. Schell and other women scholars demonstrated how we can challenge institutions, create radical spaces where we live on our terms and bear witness to the power Black women have to impact the lives of young people committed to social activism and justice.

Doctoral education and other academic professions are avenues to help close the gap and amplify the voices calling for more attention to Black women issues and feminist scholarship. Let’s give up the anti-academic trope and consider other avenues for social-change. I challenge any of us to climb the Ivory Tower, tell our stories, and build the collective knowledge necessary to ring the alarm for generations of Black women.

What are your thoughts about Dr. Brittney Cooper’s comment- would more scholarly work led to increased support for our issues?

Quanisha M. Smith is a leadership development specialist and social justice professional based in Philadelphia, PA. As a Masters candidate at Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work & Social Research, she explores issues centered on Black women, leadership, and social change. Visit www.QuanishaSmith.com to join a new community dedicated to mentoring current and emerging Black women leaders.

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