The Ivory Tower Ain’t No Crystal Stair: Essentializing the Experiences of the Black Female Scholar

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Rachel Dolezal, The New York Times.

During the summer of my first year of teaching, I was invited to instruct a Composition II course at Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock, Arkansas. On the first day of class, I arrived a bit early and sat in one of the student desks to observe the demeanor of those who entered the room and to hear snatches of conversation that might reveal their expectations or attitudes about the course. I knew that those who had arrived early enough to see me sitting there would realize my trickery in posing as a student, as they watched me blithely move toward the front of the room to begin class.

As the students continued to file in, I became more and more aware of my discomfort and anticipation to see another female, or an African-American, or better yet, an African-American female like myself. With the exception of a handful of women, only two of whom were Black, I found myself standing in front of a class composed predominately of white males. They varied in age, but most wore baseball caps, fraternity paraphernalia, cowboy boots or tennis shoes. They all seemed to possess the ruddiness and features of those shaped and honed by the forces of rural America. The rounded Skoal imprints on many of their behind pockets, signified their paucity of experience and contact with other ethnicities.

Although class progressed rather well, without major incident, whenever a male student began to challenge my instruction, I could not figure out if my gender or race had begotten the student’s defensive posture. Upon reflection of that experience, I concluded that a little of both had tapped segments of his ego that he had genuinely tried to restrain. When male hegemony laced with racial prejudice did manifest themselves in a public, intellectual challenge, my femaleness and my Blackness were momentarily cacophonous to the socialization of gender and class he had been subjected to in Small-Town U.S.A.

This binary mode of experience that being both female and Black engenders has been much debated, negated and theorized; however, in the case of W.E.B. DuBois and his concept of “double-consciousness,” the theoretical begins to meet the experiential when thinking of the grab bag of misogynist attitudes and racial stereotypes the Black female scholar must contend with. Black women still have to navigate amid their peculiar position of being both woman and Black, where both are, to some degree, considered inferior. Unfortunately, regardless of how progressive we think the academy has become, the specters of race and gender continue to veil, and quite often diminish the intellectual merit of the Black female scholar’s instruction and scholarship.

The concept of “double-consciousness” that DuBois introduced, sought to reveal and fuse the dual identity of Blacks of both African and American descent. When gender is added to complete this triad of disjunctive experience, doing so all the more intensifies the alienation often felt by the African-American female, who cannot readily resolve the concomitance of privilege and disdain her experience evokes.

In her essay, Visible Woman or A Semester Among the Great Books, professor Eileen Julien writes of her experience teaching a graduate course entitled, Western Literary Traditions after 1500 to an all white class. She asserts that her racial identity, or the stigma attached to it, generated poor student reviews, and caused her reading of the material to be questioned. Julien also takes the opportunity to make several provocative and bold assertions about the westernization of the literary canon, and the extent to which her experience, knowledge and pedagogy were essentialized.

Many African-American scholars, not just women, must at some point answer to the accusations of ideology, and the Black scholar’s ability to read and teach non-Black texts in a non-tendentious, non-discriminatory manner. Julien writes of her experience with this issue, “The students apparently had been forewarned by another colleague — so I was told later by someone in the class — that Professor Julien’s course would probably be “ideological.” Black, most of them saw quite clearly, comes with baggage. White of course, comes with none (227).”

The assumption here is that Blackness prohibits a scholar from giving an authentic, intellectual reading of the classical canons of literature, which were dominated by the authorship of white males who often held very conservative, prejudicial ideas on race and gender. The implicit idea behind the colleague’s comments about ideology is that the course might be tainted by ‘Black stuff’ — Black philosophy, Black ideas — that will distort the hallowed literary objectives of our great literary masters. In this sense, Black ideas and thoughts are seen as subversive as opposed to mainstream, and the construct of Blackness has somehow become an obscurant to pure intellectual thought and exchange. Interestingly enough, the term “ideological” seems to become a bad word when used to refer to the framework of ideas that Blacks supposedly operate from. This term then connotes inferiority, and questions the authority of Blacks to teach European texts. Herein lies the argument of essentialism.

When speaking of Black women within academe, the essentialist and constructionist schools of thought cease to be polarized, but find some common ground. Black women are born naturally and biologically as women, but ‘Blackness’ is very much a social construction forced upon those of us who have been determined to be so. In academe, essentialism is voiced in questions such as, “Must one be Black in order to create or understand Black literature?” That is to say, “Is there something inherent, or immutable, ‘essential,’ about a Black person that would give him or her the authority to speak of Blackness better than an ‘other,’ to the point that no one else can occupy that space?”

In light of the essentialist and constructionist arguments, Black women are born female, but the assertion that society has made them both Black and female is certainly a provocative one. Therefore, the social construct of blackness cannot be separated from the biological idea of woman when attempting to articulate the essence of Black women’s experiences within and outside of academe. Unfortunately, as the illustrations cited in this paper illustrate, Black women will inevitably deal with society’s working definitions of woman and blackness within academe, where some innocently believe that intellectual and academic pursuits are homogenizing forces that subordinate concerns of race and gender.

Race is so inextricably bound to the American concept of self that to separate one from the other would be to rip an extremity from the body. We are painfully bound by not only our genetic composition, but also the external influences of people, places, and things that have constituted the manner in which we have been socialized to identify ourselves. Unfortunately, most Americans, whether born here or not, have been taught to think and behave in terms of Black and white racial identity. These ideas have been indoctrinated and sustained in our attitudes and psyche, and have fostered the stereotype of inferiority that women and Blacks have been branded with, and Black women doubly so.

In The Black Notebooks, Toi Derricotte shares a similar situation with a white student, in which both of their frustrations with the issue of race were publicly expressed:

A few weeks ago, I got angry at a student in one of my creative writing classes who complained that I was talking too much about race. She said there were people in the class who were tired of hearing about it. I have heard that complaint from white students before, and in the past, I have been patient, tried to listen and clarify my purposes in a more tolerant manner. This time, however, I found myself tired and lashing out. “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.” She looked devastated. (119)

Derricotte’s narrative affirms the fact that when students and faculty enter the classroom, they do not cease to be or to think according to their racial identities. “Institutions cannot discount the power of race and other such categories, their centrality and tenacity in ways of reading within and beyond the classroom” (Julien 233). Race very much informs the ideas and the scholarship of those within academe and to deny this is to deprive the academy of a rich and diverse body of knowledge. Therefore, to be Black and to think accordingly is not necessarily a bad thing.

However, Diana Fuss, in the chapter of her book, Essentially Speaking called “Essentialism in the Classroom,” seems to diminish the attachment of racial identity to the notion of person, and the subsequent experiences that arise from this confluence when she writes, “It is certainly true that there is no such thing as “the female experience” or “the Black experience” or “the Jewish experience”…And it seems likely that simply being a woman, or a Black, or a Jew (as if “being” were ever simple) is not enough to qualify one as an official spokesperson for an entire community” (117). I cannot agree with this statement when it is so obvious to me that many scholars and major players of feminist movements who are held in high esteem, have established very lucrative careers based upon their ‘expertise’ on women’s issues, Black history, Black thought, and otherwise living life on the peripheries of the American experience.

With regard to authority and experience within the scholarship of Black women, bell hooks writes in her book, Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, “Black women grapple continually with the suspicions of a larger literary world that is still not confident we are serious thinkers and writers” (xii-xiii). The idea that being Black and female somehow undermines the intellectual acumen of the Black woman is evident within this statement. It also suggests that Black women cannot expand themselves enough to speak beyond Blackness and gender.

Psychologically, we are bound and governed by our experiences. They dictate who we are, how we act and what we say. As Fuss states, “…personal identity metamorphoses into knowledge. Who we are becomes what we know; ontology shades into epistemology” (113). Essentially, we can only truly speak of what we know, thus the experience and voice of Black women must be honored and esteemed as intellectually challenging and valid.

Patricia Hill-Collins, in the article titled, “What’s In A Name? Womanism, Black Feminism and Beyond,” acknowledges the emergence and frequency of the Black female’s voice in academia, but balances this perception of acceptance by reminding the reader of the limited physical presence of Black women in higher education:

Black women appear to have a voice, and with this new-found voice comes a series of concerns. For example, we must be attentive to the seductive absorption of black women’s voices in classrooms of higher education where black women’s texts are still much more welcomed than black women ourselves. Giving the illusion of change, this strategy of symbolic inclusion masks how the everyday institutional policies and arrangements that suppress and exclude African Americans as a collectivity remain virtually untouched. (Collins 9)

It seems that the fascination with identity politics has created a space for the scholarship of Black women to be duly acknowledged in discussions on race, class, gender and sexuality; however, the privilege and disdain that accompany the racialization of the black female body make their ideas welcome in discussions of diversity, but the idea of the black female body in the classroom is still immured by notions of race and gender.

The scholarship of Black women is often informed by personal experiences related to the duality of identity that race and gender create. Therefore, the scholarship does not only constitute pedantic words on paper, but moves beyond text to involve readers in the experiences that have engendered the writing of the scholarship. The connotation of inferiority of texts written by Black scholars must be removed in order for Black women’s works and thoughts to cease to be ‘special,’ and accordingly relegated to special topics courses or special issues of journals.

When applied to the attitudes and stereotypes Black women in majority situations must contend with within the academy, which are often steeped in essentialist and racist ideologies, it becomes evident that “the ivory tower ain’t no crystal stair.” This statement, which has been adapted from a line in Langston Hughes’ poem, Mother to Son, refers to the peculiar and sometimes uncomfortable position Black female scholars are placed in when they are favored and esteemed because of their racial identity, yet are stealthily, intellectually subordinated, and otherwise subject to having their authority and ability to function well at a majority institution undermined.

In conclusion, as we usher in a new millennium, old notions about higher learning, pedagogy, scholarship, and the influences of race and gender within academia, must change in order to understand and appreciate the new breed of Black female scholar that generation-x has created. She is coming with sister girl attitude, the rhythms of hip-hop music bouncing in her head, and a proficiency in slang and academic jargon, all of which constitute the intellectual panoply that will enable her to breathe new life into old subjects in such a way that will force the old academic guard to reconsider current expectations and evaluations of scholarship.

Until then, many Black female scholars will hide the scars of their old war wounds they received during one or more situations where their personage, gender and intellectual abilities were publicly challenged and questioned, particularly at institutions or in situations where the presence of Blacks was minimal to none. The outrage and silence that accrue when fear prohibits many from vocalizing these frustrations have become characteristic of the experiences of Black women who have to some extent tolerated overt and or covert instances of racial mistreatment. The process of dialectically essentializing the experiences of black women in academe ultimately means acknowledging race and gender inequities as the core of those experiences.

The future success of Black female scholars therefore hinges upon taking a parallax view of race and gender, and the validity of the experiences both of these constructs produce, so that it becomes acceptable for them to authorize and inform pedagogical concerns, as well as scholarship.

orks Cited

Derricotte, Toi. The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey. New York: WW Norton, 1997.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Hill-Collins, Patricia. “What’s In a Name? Womanism, Black Feminism and Beyond.” Black Scholar 26.1 (Winter/ Spring 1996): 9–18.

hooks, bell. Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1999.

Julien, Eileen. “Visible Woman: or a Semester Among the Great Books.” Professions (Fall/Winter 1999): 225–235.

AUTHOR’S NOTE 2020:

I recently added this article to my latest book, Preparing for Graduate School Academic Writing,” as an example of graduate level writing. Believe it or not, I wrote this 20 years ago when I was on track to becoming a rising scholar in academe, but I encountered many roadblocks that redirected my path. Unfortunately, the experiences I expressed in this paper are still relevant. Two names (but, assuredly, many others): Rachel Dolezal. Jessica Krug. Even as fake Black women, these white women fared better in academe than an American Black woman. Think about that. Let that simmer in your spirit.

Find me and see more of my work at www.arhampton.com.

Written by

College English instructor for over 20 years, writer, editor, course creator. Author of “Proofreading Power: Skills & Drills”. Learn more at www.arhampton.com.

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