Image credit: Things Fall Apart by Dr. Fahamu Pecou (2020), Acrylic on Canvas.
The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy . . . I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.
—bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994)
The spring semester of 2022 did not begin as I hoped it would. Since Austin, Texas was at stage 5 for COVID-19, I would meet my “Writing for Black Performance” students for the first time virtually, on Zoom instead of in person. Despite my disappointment, I must admit that the night before class, I was still full of glee and excitement. Even as a battle-worn Black feminist scholar/artist who has been a university professor at a predominantly white institution (PWI) for over 20 years, I am always giddy and a tad nervous before meeting the new learners who will share classroom space with me.
Yes, we are in the age of the great resignation. Many of us are deeply and rightfully disillusioned with most, if not all institutions, careers and working conditions. Yet I’ve somehow retained my joy and love of university teaching because my core mission is to teach and model freedom. Much like bell hooks, I see the classroom and education’s primary role as intellectual and personal emancipation.
I teach freedom as both an artist and a scholar. I could have settled on the life of an English professor with an unfinished novel in my desk drawer (next to the half-empty bottle of scotch), but I decided that the world would have to refuse all my dreams. When asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I stubbornly refused to select one career path. Instead, I picked two, both historically inhospitable to Black women.
Yet the life of an artist/scholar allows me to begin with freedom: the freedom to approach issues from two vantage points. And so, I write scholarship and create theatrical works to address, probe, and critique issues of history, race, and sexuality, particularly as they are experienced by the Black middle class. My plays examine issues that impact African American life and politics—the Great Migration, reparations, single motherhood, Black sexuality, and the legacy of racial trauma—that I also write about in academic articles and books.
This hybrid practice has given me the freedom to assert my voice in both spaces.
Moving back and forth between my research, teaching, and my artistic practice also keeps me from becoming jaded, bored, or Pollyannaish. I understand the rants on social media by those who are frustrated by the corruption, bad deeds, and exploitation endemic to both spaces. For me, however, toggling between these imperfect (yet frequently idealized) institutions keep me clear about the limitations of both, even as I still use them for inspiration.
Classrooms and theaters are divine spaces, after all. They are spaces where connection, conversation, creativity, and yes, dreaming, are not only encouraged, but necessary. At the same time, they are not intrinsically safe or neutral spaces. Academia and theater possess the same callousness, inefficiency, and inequality present in most institutions. They often help maintain the status quo and inspire complacency.
But it is also true that the theater arts, universities, and colleges offer intriguing possibilities for change, disruption, and even anarchy. And despite the rising hostility towards African American Studies from outside the university and a lack of understanding I’ve sometimes encountered within my home institutions, I’ve been able to navigate higher education mostly on my own terms as a Black feminist artist/scholar.
I understood early on that this positioning offered space for freedom. As an undergraduate, I recall scandalizing the other members of my senior seminar in African American literature by adapting a scene from Gayl Jones’s excruciatingly traumatic yet beautiful novel Corrigedora and performing it. As a graduate student I did the same with Gloria Naylor’s beautifully haunting novel, Linden Hills. And when told by my first department chair that I was hired to be a scholar, not a playwright, I nodded but kept writing for theater while I researched and wrote my first academic monograph.
The theatrical comedy I wrote, “Single Black Female,” landed off-Broadway, garnered a New York Times review, and changed my chair’s tune. Whether it would count towards tenure remained murky, but that was beside the point. I didn’t have a choice about my creativity: I was both an artist and a scholar, and I would have to sink or swim on this basis. As a first-generation Black woman in the academy, I knew that disrupting norms was a risky move, but also, I knew I would drown if I didn’t allow myself to rely on the very things that kept me buoyant. My creative work kept me alive in my working-class neighborhood as a kid, and it would do the same for me on the tenure track.
As it happens, I did not sink, something that provides a model, not only for my students, but also offers my junior colleagues a way of occupying the university with one’s entire self.
What does freedom look like in front of the classroom? In my African American studies classes, I give my students permission—no, let’s try that again: I actively encourage them to scandalize, upend, subvert, and reimagine what scholarship can be by bringing their creative imaginations to bear on critical questions we are exploring.
My role as an academic mentor is to introduce students to a myriad of texts (novels, plays, films, poetry, visual art, music, essays, and photography) by Black artists, as well as the theories that define the field of Black Studies. While I assign the writing of critically acclaimed scholars, I also have them read articles from the popular press and watch television shows. Embracing both high and low art is not unique to me—it is a form of freedom, and it allows students more license to express their analysis creatively. I am teaching them to seize their own freedom.
This pedagogical insistence on freedom-taking is central to my undergraduate playwriting classes too. In “Writing for Black Performance,” students not only read plays, but also essays and critical texts that examine theater and playwriting through a Black Studies lens. During class we often visit one of my department’s galleries—the Art Galleries of Black Studies’ Christian-Greene and Idea Lab in particular—or visit one of the Blanton Museum shows in search of inspiration.
I call on my students to think broadly about what is worthy of writing about and to find their inspiration in unusual places. Perhaps because of this, I never teach mostly art or theater majors. Instead, students majoring in engineering, education, history, biology, and other subjects show up in my classrooms looking for more creative ways to dispense with a writing requirement.
I hope they leave with a better sense of their creativity and the freedom to unleash the artist soul that has been denied a voice in their classes for so long.
This focus on freedom is also embedded in my scholarly field, African American Studies: the attempt to gain or maintain freedom has always been at the heart of Black life in the United States. African American literature began with the slave narratives that articulated the struggle to emancipate oneself from a brutal system; Black life has been a persistent struggle for freedom ever since. As I teach the many legacies of freedom-seeking, I share my story so that my students can begin to imagine what their pursuit of professional freedom might look like today.
The audiences for my plays will find the same theme at work. In “Underground,” for example, two old college friends unite after years apart. At the heart of the story is the simple question, “are you free?” The two men spend the evening debating whether there is a possibility for freedom without struggle, sacrifice, and protest. Similarly, in my classes I try to grant students space to do all three—even when it creates discomfort for me or others in the room.
I don’t mean to make this sound easy because it isn’t. Freedom is not easy to gain or maintain and it has a steep price. The texts I teach remind students that Black freedom often teeters on the brink, as seen in the recent attacks on the field of African American/Black Studies from those opposed to teaching the struggle for Black freedom.
State legislatures are now banning what they consider Critical Race Theory in the hope of eliminating an intellectual tool for illustrating the insidious way racism determines not only access to an equal education, but also to life itself. My freedom to ply my trades is thus literally under attack. Recently, the Lt. Governor of my state, Texas, announced his plan to dismantle tenure and prohibit teaching Critical Race Theory in public universities and colleges. And he’s not alone. Across the nation, other Republican legislators are banning the teaching of the nation’s full history in K-12 schools and some, as in my state, are coming for higher education.
Those of us who believe in the liberation of all peoples will continue to push for intellectual freedom and the unvarnished truth. Choosing the life of an artist/scholar/teacher of Black Studies at a PWI is a path I took not only because it was rewarding, but because I know that the lack of freedom has a price. My generation of African American Studies scholars has mourned our mentors, heroes, and leaders in the discipline since the nineteen-nineties—Lindon Barrett, Barbara Christian, Vévé Clark, Manning Marable, Erskine Peters, Beverly Robinson, Sherley Anne Williams, and other Black studies scholars at PWIs—all of whom died early deaths.
Mourning, and trauma, the price of unfreedom, has undoubtedly shaped the field of Black Studies in ways we are only now beginning to recognize.
Bringing all of me into the academy allows me to model freedom not just for my Black students, but for all of my students. To witness a Black woman working in her purpose, unapologetically choosing both her art and her scholarship at a PWI, is a testimony about the way college should allow you to experiment, dream, struggle, and explore until you find your spiritual or intellectual calling, or both. This is the path to survival. While it may not allow us to avoid premature death, it will ensure that you are living a life that prioritizes freedom.
And that’s worth fighting for.
Lisa B. Thompson is Bobby and Sherri Patton Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Advisor to the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts for Faculty Mentoring and Support at the University of Texas, Austin. Her most recent book is Underground, Monroe & The Mamalogues: Three Plays (Northwestern University Press, 2020).