Image credit: Omo by Dr. Fahamu Pecou (2017), Acrylic on Canvas.
Let me start by stating this in the clearest and simplest terms: I am Black.
I was born a Black child to Black parents in the Florida panhandle. Like a lot of Black people in this country, my father spent decades serving in the U.S. military. My mother is a retired elementary school teacher. We moved a lot. We went to church. We attended family reunions. We subscribed to Ebony magazine. We watched Roots. We ate black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.
I don’t know how else to put it. I was born and raised Black.
For much of my life, this was unremarkable. This is not to say that I didn’t experience interpersonal racism; I definitely did. Kids can be cruel. And as it turns out, Arizona in the 1980s was not exactly the most enlightened place for a Black girl to be.
But the fact that I was Black was never in dispute.
Looking back, I can see that what we now call “Blackness” shaped so much of my childhood experience, my perceptions of the world, and the way that people perceived and received me. Our manner of speaking, our family record collection, our holiday traditions, my parents’ longing to return home to the South, and my complete and total adulation of Lisa Bonet were all Black. Even those jarring encounters with random non-Black grownups I’d occasionally meet who would insist that I must be that Black girl that their child met at summer programs like Girls State or Anytown affirmed and confirmed my Blackness.
So, it was not until I began making my way through academia that I began to suspect that, somehow, I was doing Blackness wrong. To be clear, I’m not talking about imposter syndrome, at least, not in the traditional sense. I’m talking about my realization that, to paraphrase Old “Ben” Kenobi, I am probably not the blackademic you are looking for.
My time as a faculty member across a range of institutions has taught me that higher education (and by this, I mean any mix of students, faculty, deans, presidents, etc.) apparently needs Black faculty to be Black in some precise way. But what that truly means can change from institution to institution, from person to person, and from day to day.
Based on my up-close-and-personal experience as a middle-aged Black woman professor, it means that it is possible for one to be perceived as a curiosity by the colleague down the hall, as an “Angry Black Woman” by a dean, as “not Black enough” by some students and “too Black” by others. On more than one occasion I have found myself perceived as multiple Black women (none of whom were actually me) before I even made it from the faculty lot to my office.
One can also go from being a department’s Great Black Hope to persona non grata for any host of reasons. Differences over run-of-the-mill curriculum updates or committee decisions, even personal choices like the neighborhood where one chooses to live, seem to have an outsized effect on some colleagues’ perceptions about whether they actually had or had not acquired the blackademic of their dreams when you signed your appointment letter.
Blackness, in other words, is an unstated part of the job description.
Grief does strange things to people. Perhaps this is why I found myself wrestling with these strange notions last September after my father died. As we walked from the Rostrum past the headstones marking the thousands of graves in Andersonville National Cemetery, I was struck by the realization that many of my colleagues would never be able to reconcile my father’s long-term relationship with the U.S. military with his funk drumming, smooth jazz listening, sweet tea drinking, barbeque loving Black self.
In fact, I was reminded of the times my background—specifically my father’s military service—has actually canceled out, or at the very least, raised questions about the authenticity of my Blackness in the minds of some academics.
For example, I have seen colleagues’ perceptions of me change in real time whenever they learned that I grew up in a military family. There was the colleague whose eyes widened (widened!) as she paused, leaned in, and said, “how fascinating” when I answered her query: “where are you from?” There was the conservative colleague who imperiously informed me that I was “almost legitimate” (to be fair, he expressed disdain for pretty much everything about me). And then there was the colleague who cautioned me (this was said out of kindness) to keep my identity as an aged-out military brat to myself lest my colleagues think less of me.
I have always chosen to ignore that advice. I’m not ashamed of my background. Besides, I happen to know what my more pedigreed colleagues do not: there are many other Black faculty like me hiding in plain sight. I also recognize that these sorts of perceptions actually depend on the context. On any working-class campus, with a significant number of first-generation students, I fit right in. But, as Tressie McMillan Cottom has written, it’s in spaces with more wealthy and elite students and faculty where “regular Black-Black” identities are received as disconcerting, and somehow, disappointing.
For many years, I interpreted these interactions as some of the more idiosyncratic examples of what it means to teach while Black. But in recent years, I’ve started to think that while the particular circumstances might be different, the experience of feeling that one is somehow failing to live up to some sort of unspoken and ever-shifting ideal is actually a more widespread phenomenon among Black people.
I say this because from time-to-time, one of my students will make a confession that suggests that they are grappling with a similar set of disorienting encounters. Unprompted by me, they will confess that they haven’t had what they invariably call the “traditional” or “conventional” Black experience. When I ask them what they mean by that, their responses range from “I didn’t grow up in an all-Black neighborhood,” or “I grew up in a (wealthy) predominantly Black neighborhood,” or “I am Afro-Latinx” or “I am of Black and Asian descent.”
A significant number of Black students feel less than ideally Black because their parents immigrated from Africa, or the Caribbean, or because their parents were professors, or because their parents worked in factories. Some describe their childhoods as unconventionally (insufficiently?) Black because of the part of the country from which they hail—whether the Pacific Northwest, or New England, or a Southwestern state like Arizona. The range of reasons that shake Black students’ sense of self is astonishing.
To be clear, I am not about to make some sort of Obama-era post-racial or post-Black argument. But I do have to say that when we promote an academic culture that makes so many students worry that they are doing Blackness wrong, while enabling those faculty who choose to engage in a form of racial drag and make Blackness their “brand” to thrive until they are exposed, we have to ask ourselves:
What on earth are we doing?
From where I sit, by doing Blackness “wrong,” in a myriad of contradictory, complimentary ways, my students are actually doing it right. I always do my best to reassure my students by explaining that we contain multitudes. Complexity neither dilutes us, nor erases our history, nor negates our political critique. Trauma alone does not define us. We have never contented ourselves with the limits imposed on us by the white imagination. It is our families and communities who have made us who we are. The righteous pessimism of our current moment notwithstanding, it is still worth remembering that there is no one definitive way to be Black.
Blackness, like the Black intellectual and activist tradition and Black culture itself, is capacious and, expansive. It is full of productive tensions, family squabbles, and robust debates. As my students grow into themselves and explore who they are becoming, the classroom—and especially the Black Studies classroom—can be a space to invite them in, to affirm their belonging to the campus as well as their various communities. It is this capacious Black studies that I try to model for my students.
It is also the kind of Blackness that I hope to model in my professional life by fully embracing my completely conventional unconventional Black background.
Erica L. Ball is Mary Jane Hewitt Department Chair in Black Studies, Occidental College.