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Black Women’s Lives Don’t Matter in Academia Either, or Why I Quit Academic Spaces that Don’t Value Black Women’s Life and Labor

On May 14, 2015 I resigned from my job as a part-time Visiting Assistant Professor at a local university. For three years I believed in its quest for student success; faculty/staff excellence and inclusion through professional development and retention; research and innovation; community impact; and accountability. According to my CV, it was a perfect fit. Only it wasn’t. Something was missing. Something that tied my particular experience to a much larger narrative, a narrative that frames black women’s experiences in academic institutions more generally, a narrative that makes diversity rhetoric fall short in real life, a narrative whose exclusionary practices hides behind policy and procedures. So, I resigned. I resigned because my labor and my black life matters. I resigned, because, as Toni Cade Bambara teaches us, we sometimes have to walk away from the institution in order to tell the truth about it — not for only our lives but those beyond our own.

So what happens when black lives [don’t] matter, sexism and the academic industrial complex collides?

Unadulterated systemic and structural violence and exploitation.

The Black Lives Matter hashtag and movement unapologetically exclaims that black life, as living, breathing and innately valuable, matters. Both hashtag and movement resists the continued cross-pollination of antiblackness pervasive in what Saidiya Hartman notes (and what Zillah Eisenstein recently and rightly posited) as the “afterlife of slavery.” This “afterlife” highlights the present future created by not only slavocracy, but the particular locus of binary oppositions structured in a political economy that historically divided its population into free and captive classes, and systemically relegated lives and opportunities accordingly. #BlackLivesMatter within this context becomes necessary and important, particularly as many post-captive black experiences articulate the reality that free black life in fact does not matter, and free black women’s life more specifically equates to multiple negatives.

In 2014 Black Women’s Roundtable, a program of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, reported that though there have been strides since the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education, black women and girls are overwhelmingly vulnerable to social risk factors due to race, class and gender such as cyclical poverty, poor health, physical and sexual abuse, and the criminal justice system. Other vulnerabilities include race/gender/class profiling, broken kinships, concomitant hyper-sexualization and degendering, inequitable access to quality education, healthcare and childcare, increased levels of punishment in academic contexts, employment discrimination and low wages.

In terms of vulnerabilities to violence, the Roundtable writes, “No woman is more likely to be murdered in America today than a Black woman. No woman is more likely to be raped than a Black woman. And no woman is more likely to be beaten, either by a stranger or by someone she loves and trusts than a Black woman.” In terms of the criminal justice system, the Roundtable notes, black women are more likely than any other group of women in the U.S. to go to prison, particularly as they, like black men, fall victim to “misplaced perceptions.” And each of these risks negatively impact black women’s health. They posit black women and girls’ mortality rate is equal to that of developing nations and three times that of white women. “A woman in Lebanon has a much greater likelihood of surviving childbirth than does a Black woman in America.” Not to mention elevated breast cancer and high blood pressure rates.

It should also be noted that black women often die of illness due to disparities in access to treatment. What is more, because black women overwhelming make up the majority of both low-wage earners and familial care providers, they often lose employment and income for staying home due to ailment or caring for sick loved ones. In short, black women’s multiple social risks are not only marginalizing but also can be death-dealing and/or deadly. Yet communal, social, political silence around these matters abound. Law professor and intersectionality theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw has been doing a lot of work in partnership with the African American Policy Forum to ensure that these challenges become front and center in public discussions and policymaking. Too often, the matter of black women and girls’ lives is swept under the rug, beneath those of black men and boys.

Regrettably, academia and the growing academic-corporate trend is a microcosm of the world house in its disappearing and disenfranchising of black women. This is particularly evidenced in the ballooning precariat in academia, “the growing class of people living with short-term and part-time work with precarious living standards and ‘without a narrative of occupational development’.” The AFT notes that while Affirmative Action bans preferential treatment based on race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin, underrepresented faculty are the most likely to be consigned to “contingent” (temporary non-tenure track/adjunct) and staff positions. Also, according the AFT black people make up approximately 4-5% of full-time faculty in higher education in the U.S. Of that number approximately 1 to less than 2% are tenured or on the tenure track. The rest are contingent. In an article titled “The New Old Labor Crisis,” sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, “Tenure isn’t just about managing labor costs. Tenure is and always has been political. For minorities, particularly African-Americans, tenure and academic labor have long looked like managing bottom lines and keeping the upper echelons of the Ivory Tower white and male.”

According to AAUP, which includes data on full-time tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure track faculty as well as part-time faculty and graduate student employees, as of 2011 the instructional workforce in higher education in the U.S. was approximately 1,852,224. Of that number, 892,805 are noted as women and 959,419 as men. To put it in black and white: Of the 1,852,224, 616,805 were noted as white women and 664,518 as white men while 70,375 were noted as black women and 47,651 as black men. 87,565 of the white women were noted as full-time tenured employees versus 154,649 white men. 41,692 of the white women were noted as full-time tenure-track employees versus 44,201 white men. 6,681 of the black women were noted as full-time tenured employees versus 7,776 black men. 4,716 of the black women were noted as full-time tenure-track employees versus 3,438 black men. Of the total 70,375 black women instructional employees as of 2011, 58,978 were contingent while 36,437 of the 47,651 black men instructional staffers were contingent.

While finer grained analyses are needed, particularly along the lines of race and gender identity, to include transgender, gender non-conforming, bi- and multiracial, and black diasporic distinctions, what we can gauge from AAUP is that women, blacks and people of color are underrepresented employees in higher education institutions in general, particularly in terms of tenure and tenure-track positions, and black men have an overall lower representation than black women. However, while there are more black women instructional employees than black men, and admittedly, more work is needed here, black women are disproportionately relegated to the bottom tiers of academia. Using data from the American Association of University Professors, Cottom notes, “The proportion of African-Americans in non-tenure-track positions (15.2 percent) is more than 50% greater than that of whites (9.6 percent).” In an essay titled “The Rise of the Lady Adjuncts,” economist Kate Bahn writes that women adjuncts are more than 60% of the adjunct labor force.

But what happens when one is both black and a woman? All of these areas need our attention. But the difficulty I (and others) experienced in locating statistics or works on black women adjuncts specifically, suggests the ways in which the growing precariat functions along race and gender lines needs immediate attention. Despite higher overall representation, AAUP notes that, as of 2011, 23.5% black men were tenured or tenure-track versus 16.2% black women. Additionally, 83.8% of black women were contingent versus 76.5% black men. And despite the best party line explanations, anyone slightly familiar with black women’s history and status knows this reality is more than likely because they are black women. The social risks impacting black women’s lives beyond academe simultaneously influence their experiences within it. These issues are inextricably linked. We cannot think for one moment that these variances are innocuous, unique or disconnected from larger structural issues of race, sex and class employment discrimination, misplaced perceptions, profiling, inequitable access to resources and opportunities, low wages, the growing culture of punishment assigned to girls and women in academic contexts, or poor health.

One of The Feminist Wire’s most highly trafficked and shared forums was Black [Academic] Women’s Health. Even the most cursory perusal of the articles included makes it clear that, despite institutional language or policy around rhetoric like “diversity,” “inclusion,” et al., racism and sexism in America’s elite institutions is not only alive and well but literally sickening for black women — whether tenured, tenure-tracked, adjunct, contractual or staff. Too often diversity means everything but black women, tenure/tenure-track “black hires” typically mean black men, and “multiculturalism” really only applies to the student base. Truth is, black women academics in general tend to get pushed toward the outside of the “back of the bus” (and sometimes under it), regardless of the numerous ways our bodies and labors are used and are necessary for keeping the machine as we know it afloat. And no one seems to be talking about it.

Hortense Spillers argues that the colonial structure reimagined black life as mere flesh quantifiable by their ability to increase their owner’s stock. Black women were burdened with the particular task of laboring physically and sexually, by coercion and consent, in order to maintain the slave system. While archival research notes that black women explicitly resisted slavery and the use of their bodies in these ways, research also reveals that they sometimes chose to deploy their bodies in oppressive ways for survival purposes. In “Women and Capitalism: Dialectics of Oppression and Liberation,” Angela Y. Davis argues that the capitalistic structure, which wedded black women to ideas of domestic and public work, created a context where ex-slave women were often forced to use their bodies to care for families, pay for food, diminish the severity of inhumane treatment or increase safety for children.

In other words, black women’s bodies and grunt work have held capitalist institutions together for a long time. And it is their positioning within this structure, first as capital themselves and then as bottom rung laborers, that has led to sometimes desperate methods of survival to include but not limited to working within oppressive structures, performing backbreaking labor and for long hours, working without or for lower pay, taking jobs where they are overqualified, not attending to health, participating in sex work, and even selling blood. The North American academic structure and its proximation to the institution of slavery as well as its particular treatment of black women cannot be ignored.

Just as we should not close our eyes to the bound hands and economically free labor that literally built institutions of learning across the nation or the living flesh used in academic and scientific experimentation to advance the production of knowledge, we should not look the other way and ignore the overwhelming and present dependency on black women’s labor in the academic caste system, which excessively utilizes black and women of color as the mules of higher learning — and that black and women of color in turn participate in as one of many means to survive. We cannot turn a blind eye to this push and pull or how it creates an illiberal power structure of oppression based survival. I should note that I am emphatically not suggesting that academia is a slave economy or that black women faculty are slaves. I am, however, arguing that the current structure operates along oppressing racial and gender lines and that should give those of us who care about justice in real life pause.

I am also positing that we need to name, critique and rethink black women’s relationship to academia and vice versa, and that this work must take seriously the archival data on black women’s labor in the U.S., academia’s investment in the corporate model and capitalist structure, and the centrality of free and cheap racialized and gendered toil in each. Black women within academic institutions are expected to bend over backwards in order to keep the institution running, departments performing, classes full, programs functioning, administration efficient, food flowing, and the grounds kept. They are expected to labor fully and in silence — for less. And they are punished, banished and re-contextualized as problemed, problematic, narcissistic, angry, bitchy and aggressive for naming or refusing to accept the terms of subordination, exploitation or abuse as normative.

The stigmatizing of black women in particular for declining third class status as an acceptable mode of operating and existing is an unsophisticated old trick of the trade. It intends to dismiss lived experiences, however one tries to turn it. And what should also be noted here is black male and female complicity within this structure. Based on several of the articles submitted to the Black [Academic] Women’s Health forum, black women’s desire to live beyond what South African queer femme scholar Eddie Ndopu names as “the zero mentality” is sometimes met with “not right now,” “wait your turn,” “be happy for what you have,” and “only me” attitudes from senior black and supposedly allying faculty. In an essay titled “Able Normative Supremacy and the Zero Mentality,” Ndopu argues that “the measures of progress used to gauge the inclusion and liberation of disabled people within an able-normative supremacist culture tend to be organized around…’the zero mentality’,” where “disabled people, most of whom are bodies of color, experience structural violence, monstrous neglect and economic disenfranchisement in ways that render such conditions normal.”

He continues, “So, because our lives and bodies have been, and continue to be, systematically relegated to the margins of societal consciousness, we as disabled segments of society personify the bottom rung of otherness. Therefore, we are operating at “negative ten” as it were. And because we are operating at “negative ten,” “zero” is celebrated as the benchmark of our well-being, human dignity, and self-determination.” While I explicitly reject the idea that able bodied black cisgender women within academia share experiential space with disabled black cis and transgender sisters and brothers, Ndopu’s point about “the zero mentality” is instructive for thinking about black women and academia, particularly the points where white supremacy and the zero mentality are deployed to keep black women in line, marginalized, silenced, and out.

Within this structure the subpar treatment of black bodies, and black women’s bodies in particular, with the exception of a select few of superblackademics, becomes criterion, and mere visibility, a reasonable measurement of progress. That is, the hiring of black bodies, regardless of status (or politics), serves as *proof of institutional racial fairness and advancement. Any moves to call to consciousness otherwise are a disruption. To put it bluntly, to demand more than zero as a black woman in academia may mean to simultaneously dis/rupt and/or dis/connect from the institution, specifically those institutions that thrive off of dehumanizing praxis and the historical model of owners and workers, of master and servant classes, and of valuable and valueless flesh. And while there isn’t a legal or literal owning class in academia, there is indeed a master class with powerful controls — some of whom use their power to help and others who use their power solely to advance their careers and polish the machine.

White, black and other faculty may fall on either side of this coin. In my short career, I have personally experienced black and white faculty, female and male, who would have parted the red sea for me and other black women if they could have. These faculty work tirelessly to deconstruct the academic ranking system in real ways in their thinking and doing. Simultaneously, I’ve had experiences where faculty have used me and others to prove or display their allegiance to the status quo, or who had unfortunately come to believe that their own status was due solely to hard work and that of most other black women within academia was due to normal, acceptable or innocent “procedural” conditions. Yet the master/servant class model impacts everyone, including black faculty with institutional power. Still, it is exceptionally harmful to black untenured, adjunct, contractual and staff women whose place within and outside of the institution is among the most at-risk.

As a former visiting scholar at an academic institution (also a nicer way of saying adjunct), I’d like to pause there. The master/servant class model (full, tenured, tenure-track/contingent or adjunct and staff) constructs a socio-economic class structure within the institution that further divides black women’s labor, value, and power. The disproportionate number of black women in adjunct and staff positions is not happenstance and must be considered against the historical archives on black women’s labor. The Black Women’s Roundtable argues that while black women’s participation rates in U.S. labor top all other groups of women, they lag considerably behind in terms of wealth accumulation due to race and sex, historical beginnings of unpaid labor, and poverty-level wages owing to high representation in low-wage fields. In fact, they argue, “black women are more likely than any group in America to work for poverty-level wages, thereby making them the most likely of all Americans to be among the working poor.” Further, they experience a poverty rate five times that of white men.

There are at least two immediate concerns here: First, the capitalist structure has historically identified black women as either no or low wage earners. And second, the lack of wealth accumulation for black women makes them even more vulnerable to social risks, to include decision-making in oppressive contexts. That is, a staff or adjunct position in academia with less pay and power is better than other forms of labor, for example, fast food or domestic work, or no job at all. However, it is important to make it clear that decision-making in oppressive contexts is limited and exploitative at best. We need more work on black women adjuncts and staff specifically, and how their titles, low pay, and lack of job security, promotion opportunities, insurance and retirement plans, regardless of education, locate them within poor and working classes, thus exposing them and their families, especially women led households, to cyclical poverty, poor health, and subpar education (the latter of which namely applies to their children).

The Roundtable notes that black women are particularly at risk of poverty after sixty-five due to not only low wages and lack of access to pension plans but lower marriage rates, higher divorce rates, and decreased eligibility for Social Security Spouse or Widow Benefits. In fact, black women retirees have the lowest household income of any demographic group in the U.S. and are especially reliant on Social Security. The Roundtable posits if it were not for social security the poverty rate for black women would more than double. Additionally, those who do not qualify for spousal or widow benefits double that of white women. This calls to mind the unspoken pressures for black women in academia to remain un-partnered and childless. Like the slave system, it is believed that more labor can be extracted from black women’s bodies when unattached to loved ones.

If this discussion on poverty among academicians makes you uncomfortable it should. If you find it unbelievable, you’ve been under a rock or perhaps safely tucked away on a remote access resort writing and researching on the institutions dime for the past several years. Cottom argues that the adjunctification of black academics simultaneously normalizes a black academic underclass, many of which end up seeking second jobs, going on food stamps, or dying without health coverage. There is also a developing discourse on the systemic marginalization of women of color in academia, some of which examine the operation of class. See Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia and The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, and articles, “Hot Commodities, Cheap Labor: Women of Color in the Academy” and “An Unten(ur)able Position: The Politics of Teaching for Women of Color in the U.S.”

There is also a budding discourse on black adjuncts. However an extended body of literature on how the university system relegates black women in particular to adjunct and staff positions and how this impacts the institutional as well as the socio-political economy, as far as I can tell, is missing. This confirms deepened levels of black women’s systemic and simultaneous marginalization and invisibility within and beyond higher education. It raises the question of how deeply this disappearing is embedded within the nations moral narrative where black women’s oppression is so pivotal to empire that it’s interpreted as moral. While this may seem unthinkable, this kind of racialized moral reasoning was essential to slavery and remains essential to the maintenance of white supremacy. Ultimately, oppressive praxis that maintains the status quo becomes a virtue in terms of upward mobility in academe and elsewhere.

Of course there are many black, brown, and white scholars who excel within academia while going against the grain. Still, as the Combahee River Collective intimated years ago, it is the work of privileged persons to help end the oppressions faced by the underprivileged. Similarly, it is the work of those in positions of power in academia to actively and collectively decrease the gap between the precariat and everyone else. This kind of collective activism has yet to happen. To this end, and as of today, I’ve come to the conclusion that the academic industrial complex, and those who help it to soar, don’t care about black women. What the academic industrial complex cares about is fiscal solvency, corporate profit, new construction, outsourcing, and growing its customer base. Again, none of this is novel. The academic industrial complex has long been imagining students as customers, professors as workers, administrators as CEOs, and campuses as neoliberal markets. However, our post chattel context marks black women instructional employees, particularly the untenured, contingent and staff, as a special academic auxiliary-underclass demographic (and staff even more so).

Black women’s visibility on university campuses attempts to erase and rewrite the very real and disproportionate systemic oppressions experienced — from lack of institutional support to limited tenure track opportunities to lesser resources to lower salaries to concrete ceilings to having to know, work and produce four times as much as white colleagues while enduring invisibility to choosing between remaining institutionally silent or personally solvent. Some may see these concerns as privileged middle class problems, problems that undermine the very real racialized socio-economic class plight and extrajudicial executions that black folk in urban cities are presently experiencing. But be clear, while these challenges absolutely differ, and while the disproportionate marginalization and adjunctification of black women may very well be a “privileged” problem, all of these oppressions flow from the house/s that slavery built.

Hierarchies of oppression will not make black life matter any more. In fact, as Audre Lorde reminds us, the machine, which orchestrates crisis after crisis, is intent on “grinding all our futures into dust” [italics mine]. She writes, “If we are to keep the enormity of the forces aligned against us from establishing a false hierarchy of oppression, we must school ourselves to recognize that any attack against Blacks, any attack against women, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the systems we support.” Black women’s lives matter within and outside of academia. The oppressions and decisions black women face and make within and outside of the institution are linked. Thank goodness Black Lives Matter makes room for a range of conversations. And though we prioritize black death as we should, it is black male demise that gets the bulk of our attention. Black women’s death, whether cis or transgender, largely falls under the radar. Yet black destruction takes on many forms.

Black women’s academic oppressions are real. The intricate interweaving of racism, sexism, classism, patriarchy, capitalism and misogyny within and beyond academia aids in black women’s disenfranchisement and literal death. Of course some might argue that we can simply choose another line of [privileged] work while “real” working class and poor black women have no such luxury. I understand that critique. While we should nuance class status in terms of access, education, etc., what we presently understand to be the poor and working class must be stretched and rethought. But also, some of us may resist simply looking for another job because this work, the work that we hoped to do in the academic arena, which sometimes rewards as it abuses, chose us. And more, many of us have invested our money and very breath in doing work that matters, changing lives, and making the world a better place – from within the institution.

So yes, we could choose another job or profession, but this *choosing still happens within the “future created by slavery,” a world house built upon an allegiance to black women and girls’ oppression and third class status. And it does not matter if academic institutions all of a sudden engage in a mass hiring of one hundred new black bodies, women or otherwise, if those bodies represent and maintain the status quo, or if their radical resistance is met by macro or micro aggressions and other silencing tactics. What matters is the incorporation of real institutional moves to make structural and ideological shifts away from master/servant class worker/customer models toward models that actually value black women’s lives and labor, and not as bottom feeders but as significant partners in the achievement of the goals listed for public viewing on the institutional website and promotional brochures. This shift is necessary because black academic women’s lives matter, but so do our students. The exploitation of black women in general, and black and women of color adjunct and staff specifically, ultimately hurts higher education.

And so, in the words of Toni Cade Bambara, I am inclined to ask, do [academic institutions] even “want to be well?” What does it mean to systemically harm both your “worker” and your “customer” base? I understand this question is oxymoronic and possibly upsetting because Bambara quit academia in the 1970s for the very reasons mentioned here. She saw how abusive and oppressive it was, particularly for black women. In fact, she explicitly held that the academic industrial complex did not want black women to be well. Thus, she left with tenure and job security in hand and never looked back. In 2014 The Feminist Wire Associate Editors Aishah Shahidah Simmons and Heidi Renee Lewis curated a forum on Bambara’s Living Legacy for her 75th Birthday Anniversary. In an article titled “It’s Not the Salt; it’s the Sugar that Will Kill You,” New Orleans writer, filmmaker and educator Kalamu ya Salaam writes, “This Toni was never going to win major awards, never going to be enshrined in the Academy. This Toni would look back on America and turn to salt before she would abandon her people.”

I understand Bambara had little faith that the academic industrial complex would ever change. While I share her suspicions, I am at heart a dreamer. Truth is, we need academia well. There are too many black lives wrapped up in its structure as knowledge producers and seekers. And more, our black lives are still shaped in one way or another by our access to higher education. What better place to imagine, desire and require wellness? As Bambara notes, wellness is not free, however. The cost is laying oppressions bare wherever they may be, critical reflection, socio-political-spiritual struggling through “deep waters,” and doing the painful work of communal, political institutional and structural transformation. But Bambara also posits, wellness means “dumping the shit.” It means rallying against and refusing to participate in oppressive praxis. The problem is, and this is what Bambara understood clearly, wellness is not profitable in the academic-corporate model. So then what are we who believe in a more just society and academic experience, and we who concomitantly need to pay our bills, to do? I resisted internally. But once I realized that my resistance efforts were futile and often solo, I quit.

I quit my institution.

In the spirit of Bambara, I quit my institution and all other academic spaces that aren’t here for lived black thriving because I want to be well. I will not go into the details of what I experienced here but I will say that they were debilitating enough for me to walk away with little more than my integrity and sanity. Dissimilar to Bambara I am not tenured or even on “the track.” I am not closed to academia but I do understand that I may never regain entry, gain tenure, or like Bambara, “win major awards” or “be enshrined in the academy.” But perhaps my unwavering commitments to truth, justice, human flourishing and critical scholarship beyond it will help others or leave a living legacy as Bambara did. I should also mention here that I could quit. While I was relegated to the academic precariat, I am also a member of the upper-middle class with socio-economic privilege by way of my works beyond academia and marriage. So no, I didn’t take an adjunct salary, I refused certain adjunct work, and I didn’t have to pick up a second job, go on welfare or live without insurance or benefits. I acknowledge my privileges.

Nevertheless, my labor and person were marginalized, grossly undervalued and mostly invisible within the institution. I left because no one should be treated this way and because my privilege allowed me to take a stand for myself and others. I left because no matter what black women accomplish, the current neocolonial structuring of academia leads to the continued repositioning of the goal post. I left because the growing precariat within academe impacts those who are racialized and gendered in the most harmful ways and divides the academic master/servant class even further. To be sure, there are many who want to break up with their academic institutions but cannot. The capitalist academic machine knows that most cannot support themselves or their families if they do.

For many others academia is a source of significance. However, academia is my second career. I came with and continue to have significance beyond the institution. So while I love research, writing and teaching, it was never my identity. It was and will continue to be the place where I performed my work. What I am learning is that there are many places to do that. Yet regardless of any of the above, I will still pay a price for not only leaving but having the audacity to critique the machine and how it treats black women in general and untenured, contractual/contingent/adjunct and staff employees specifically, the latter of which I admittedly did not explicate here. It has been argued that academia can be like a jealous god or lover. The “unfaithful” are often made to pay through further isolation, academic “shade,” and limited or nonexistent academic opportunities.

Nevertheless, I resign.

My resignation refuses the narrative that black women’s lives don’t matter or that black women’s academic oppression is particular to one institution, a personal experience or a misguided interpretation. It draws attention to a structural problem beyond academia yet notes a very real problem particular to the structuring of the academic industrial complex along race and gender lines — within my former institution and academia at large. To this end, I am not solely quitting my former institution, I quit the parts of academia intent on mirroring plantation life by using black women’s bodies, labors, innovations, et al. while concurrently constructing contexts of devaluation and excessive devotion to the point where our means of production are sure to ultimately kill us. I quit the parts that do violence then demand our silence. I quit the parts that require us to know everyone else’s work as well as our own – three times better with two additional degrees – while praising and rewarding our non-black colleagues for not only mediocrity but sometimes our ideas.

I quit the parts that work to turn black women and men in academia into crabs in a barrel in hopes of gaining the coveted tenure prize by any means necessary. I quit the parts where 80/20 adjunct/tenure ratios are normative. I quit the parts where those who speak truth and who dare to value themselves over the machine are dismissed as rebel rousers (to be clear, that’s how the machine is maintained…and the machine has many worker bees of all colors and genders). I quit the parts that say black women’s lives and labors only matter as collateral, quotas, brand management, customer service, pseudo proof of progress, or only as they increase the owners profit.

But please be clear, to refuse this reality, to refuse to live life at or below zero, to name and claim your value as a black woman in academia is no trifling matter. Regardless of privilege, it’s an alienated road filled with interesting and intersecting moments of sadness and joyful liberation. Yet I resign anyhow. I resign because my wellness necessitates my refusal to participate in my own oppression and my active involvement in my own liberation.

**Thank you to The Feminist Wire Associate Editor Collective, specifically Aishah Shahidah Simmons, David J. Leonard, Heather Turcotte, and Heather Laine Talley, for reading and struggling through this piece with me. Thank you for your edits and advice. And thank you to Michael R. Lomax, Zillah Eisenstein and Tracy Sharpley-Whiting for your encouragement, inspiration and time.

***Parts of this article have been pulled from my forthcoming book Loosing The Yoke: The Black Female Body in Black Religion and Black Popular Culture under review with Duke University Press.


10454317_10205575315917210_5981508763731775127_nTamura A. Lomax received her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Religion, where she specialized in African American Religion, Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, African American and Diaspora Studies, and Black British and U.S. Black Cultural Studies. Her research is concerned with race, gender, representation, religion and black popular culture. She recently published Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Cultural Productions (Palgrave Macmillan, June 2014), a co-authored edited volume with Rhon S. Manigault-Bryant and Carol B. Duncan, and is finishing up her first single authored monograph, Loosing the Yoke: The Black Female Body in Black Religion and Black Popular Culture (under review with Duke University Press). She is co-founder, along with Hortense Spillers, of The Feminist Wire.

15 Comments

  1. Fannie LeFlore

    May 18, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Dr. Tamura Lomax — You make a strong case about the challenges, perils and barriers within academia. I can relate to much of what you write as a former adjunct instructor myself. I am an experienced black professional with a master’s degree and other solid credentials. I understand the point one reaches in determining a need for dignity through removing oneself from certain oppressive institutions and toxic environments. You clearly describe the basis for your empowering decision to quit. I wish you well in applying your knowledge in ways that broaden visibility of black women’s expertise, research and other intellectual and creative contributions to society.

  2. sirica

    May 18, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    WOW ….my perception is REALITY.

    Thank you for this post Dr. Lomax.

  3. Rochelle

    May 18, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    simply powerful! i enjoyed reading and absorbing every single word! i am empowered by your desire to want to be well by leaving an institution that would otherwise rob you of that wellness. thank you for this magnificent writing.

  4. Sheryl

    May 18, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    With all of our credentials, lets open our own universities? Nothing is stopping us. I don’t see the answer in challenging white academic institutions. I see a more creative and innovative approach by starting Black Female centered online institutions. Black accrediting orgs and offer our own degrees. Most of the “knowledge” at white institutions is designed to serve white power. We can try to slip in if we want to, but ultimately, we are just there to donate knowledge to the white power structure on how to keep us subjugated. I have worked in higher ed for almost 15 years and I notice that schools are breeding grounds for policy. Black folks want and need a paycheck so we buy into the subjugation. But if we really want to radically change thought, we need our own schools. This can be done with online private institutions for very little costs.

    • Makeba

      May 19, 2015 at 11:48 am

      Yes! I wholeheartedly agree!

    • sonia E Barrett

      May 19, 2015 at 3:36 pm

      wow love this idea.

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  6. T Renee Crutcher

    May 19, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    There is always freedom in the unadulterated truth! Dr. Lomax, you are not simply to be celebrated for such critical self reflection in the face of the institutional devaluation of black lives, particularly the feminine in higher education but your alignment to the notion that “Black Lives Matter” in general and how it plays out from the various social and economic locales in a capitalistic nation that depends upon an underclass of black like regardless of strata to maintain white supremacist politics and global control. –As for the comments by responders that we need our own schools. We have our own schools. They are called HBCU’s. We as a people need to value them in the way that they were when they were instituted.

  7. Emma

    May 20, 2015 at 7:21 am

    Wow, I wish I had the support you do to walk away and focus on my own work… After ten years scraping by, this is real… Thanks for the research and bringing light to this matter.

  8. Emma

    May 20, 2015 at 8:13 am

    Wow, I so wish I had the financial means to do what you did…

    Thank you for an incredibly inspiring article addressing so many concerns that have been on my mind, in my experience, for so long. We need more conversations, writing, action on this especially with regard to black women adjuncts’ health. The note about children and families really rang true. The stress and strain from giving one’s all for near-nothing, worries about food and transportation, little to no savings or support, being tokenized to support institutional programs meanwhile wondering yet again how you will pay the rent: these are all very real. I would add that those black women who teach in Black Studies are particularly vulnerable, not just with all you mention here (as if that’s not enough!), but also given the topics of focus. In this moment, we have a black female professor (with tenure, though, so even she has more security than an adjunct) being raked over the coals for speaking to the systemic racial and gender inequities of the U.S. So there is the issue of doing justice to the subject matter and job security. Not only is there the strain of covering these emotionally and mentally oppressive topics (often having to give grounding in Racism 101 on top of it all), one has no security against losing what little one has if someone decides they don’t like the truth.

    Thank you again for this wonderful article.

  9. Breeze Harper

    May 20, 2015 at 9:59 pm

    I just wrote about frustrations of trying to find opportunity in academe as a black feminist theorist with 3 young children and cited this article. Reading this kind of ‘reminded’ me that I shouldn’t be too upset that I didn’t end up getting a post doc or TT position. The post is here if you’re interested : http://sistahvegan.com/2015/05/19/a-black-feminist-vegan-perspective-on-women-stop-complaining-and-either-raise-a-family-or-dont-have-a-family-and-just-pursue-your-career/

    I can’t wait to hear about what your next steps are and to read your monograph.

    Best,

    Breeze

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