Despite academia’s inherent racism, black scholars have figured out ways to work within these institutions.
“One of the more important things happening right now is the recovery of a narrative of higher education as a public good, and a public benefit.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Lavelle Porter. Porter is Assistant Professor of English at New York City College of Technology, CUNY. His book is The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Lavelle Porter: I intentionally made the book topical. Perhaps too much so. One of my reviewers recommended that I ease up on the political commentary. But I felt that it was important to register how it feels to write this book in this moment when America leans toward open fascism. I was willing to err on the side of being current because I felt like it was warranted by the material. I wrote about W. E. B. Du Bois’s novel The Ordeal of Mansart which begins with the main character’s father being lynched near Emmanuel A. M. E. Church in Charleston, SC. How could I write about that novel without mentioning the 2015 massacre? The murderer was radicalized in the same online racist forums as many of the followers of the current president, and I felt that it was worth exploring those connections to racial violence and contemporary politics in this literary historical study. Likewise, I wrote about the culture wars through novels like Ishmael Reed’s Japanese by Spring. Reed’s novel came out in 1993. The conversations about higher education, multiculturalism, and the canon continue to rage on, and have intensified in some areas. I started the book by discussing recent public attacks on black faculty, including Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (who correctly called 45 a “racist, sexist megalomaniac.”) I contextualize those attacks as part of a discourse in which black academics are seen as over-educated interlopers who have been placed somewhere that they don’t belong, doing jobs that they are not intellectually capable of doing. So I hope the book helps us to understand why those attacks have happened and will continue to happen. For blackademics, I really hope this book can help us make sense of why we experience various forms of racist antagonism on the job, as all of us have done, or will do, sooner or later, in this profession.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I do believe that institutional higher education is important and worth fighting for. These are powerful institutions where knowledge is disseminated, where professionals are trained and earn credentials, where narratives about politics and history and culture are produced and distributed, where scientific breakthroughs are made. And they are too important to just be left alone. But we also have to accept that these institutions are inherently conservative and elitist. Getting into them means participating in that conservatism and proving oneself to be assimilated into its cultural norms, which are predominantly white, liberal (broadly speaking), and upper-class. Despite academia’s inherent racism, black scholars have figured out ways to work within these institutions to change the narrative about who belongs in them, and to get access to the kind of power whereby one can help minority students get admitted and help minority faculty get hired and promoted. Maybe the compromises that one must make in order to advance in these institutions is not worth it. Maybe by being there, we are only helping to perpetuate oppressive systems instead of making radical changes. That’s a perspective I am always willing to listen to when someone makes the case persuasively.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I love this question. Last fall I gave the introduction to John Singleton’s Higher Learning at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) retrospective celebrating his life. The word “unlearn” appears at the end of the film as a challenge. What is it that we need to unlearn? White supremacy. Market values that treat human beings as disposable commodities. Antiblackness. Homophobia. Violence. In my book, I talk about unlearning certain assumptions about the innocence of the university. I was brought up in a family of teachers, and my parents always stressed the importance of education. But people’s educational aspirations can also be exploited, and we have to be vigilant that credentials don’t become a substitute for tangible economic equality. (Which, I believe, is what Kanye was trying to get at back on The College Dropout.) I think one of the more important things happening right now is the recovery of a narrative of higher education as a public good, and a public benefit. It’s an incremental change, but I do think it’s good that we are talking about how things like crushing debt and the job insecurity of faculty are socially harmful. This can be the beginning of a push toward changing public policy in order to address these problems.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I discuss some of them in the book. Jerry G. Watts and Jon-Christian Suggs were two of my grad school mentors who passed away while I was working on the book. Watts discusses the concept of “heroism” in his work and he challenges the idea of heroic individualism. That said, I do think of Watts and Suggs as heroes because of the sacrifices they made for their students. I’ve also learned a great deal from the writers who I covered in the book. I think Paule Marshall’s work has always deserved a much wider readership. She was reclusive and not much of a public person, which was definitely her prerogative. She lived on her own terms. But now that she has passed on I am hoping we will see some reprints and recirculation of her work. The Chosen Place, The Timeless People is a brilliant novel that deserves the NYRB Classics treatment. Of course, I have to mention Samuel R. Delany who has become a scholarly interest of mine, and someone who I’ve come to know personally as a friend. His writing is always lively, provocative, difficult, and challenging, but also hopeful and inspirational. I think we’ve only begun to see the reach and influence that his work will have.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I think we need to imagine universities that work differently. What if the university was a place where all of our students have all of the resources they need, and are not being price-gouged all the time? Too often the college experience for our students feels like a shakedown and an extortion racket. There’s a lot about the university that is broken right now, from its adjunct labor system to the student loan crisis. And these are existential problems. It’s critical for us to imagine a different kind of institution. I think, at their best, these fictional academic stories can help us to better understand the university and its history. But you have to look beyond the privileged, navel-gazing, elite academic novels to find writers who are addressing a broader range of institutions. As for my own book, I hope it will be generative. (It’s flawed. Right now all I can see are the mistakes that made it into print). But I am hopeful that if other scholars are revising it, correcting it, and building on it, then that means it was useful for them, and I can’t ask for much more out of an academic press book like this.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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