Black faculty on predominantly white campuses are both hyper-visible and completely invisible.
There is nothing shocking about that statement, but the grinding reality of it is something else. As all of you who read Academic Expat know, I’ve been gone from my tenure track position for over a year. In this time, I found employment outside of academia, planned a wedding, given talks to college students about making exit plans, moved across the country, and blogged. I have thought about my past role often, and of the ways I could still support the students I left behind. I’ve presented at an academic conference, joined a working group, and continued to write. It’s been a busy year. I also just received an email from a former colleague who had not noticed I left, asking me to work with a student of his who has a “passing interests” in aspects of my research. Again, I’ve been gone for over a year.
When I think about my time in the academy, I think about the ways I was extremely visible at my university. At my last count, I was one of less than 7 Black professors (or adjuncts, or non tenure track faculty) at the entire university; I was also by far the youngest: a newly minted PhD, and a new hire. I had a fashion blog that documented what I wore (and the ways I was physically injured at the university) every single day. As my CV will attest, I was extremely active on campus, where I often hustled for other departments, giving talks, leading panels, giving workshops, advising students, and running a student group. All of this in my first year. During my year, I was hard to miss, and colleagues often contacted me to show up for their classes and speak. Which I did. I did a lot of extra labour in my year, because I thought it was important, especially as a Black Queer woman on that campus, to be seen.
The curious thing about my hyper-visibility is that nobody seemed to see me. My colleagues didn’t notice as I became visibly unhappy, or I was physically injured (see the PD post with my arm in a sling.) Few people, outside of my own graduate students, asked about me, or offered me any support. Nobody came to speak to my classes, or offered to help with my extremely heavy advising and speaking load. As my obligations on campus grew, I began more and more to understand that my role was to serve, and be grateful, and not to speak too loud. All things I am not the best at.
The role of my hyper-visibility is more curious now that I’m gone. For all of the labour I did, and as often as I was called on during my year, how is it that my absence is not noticed? I was not expecting a large announcement to be made that I was leaving the department, but I at least expected an email sent to faculty, so they would stop trying to send me students to advise. I expected people to notice I was not on the website. Or that entire job search was conducted, and the role, and my former office filled. That I was not in meetings or giving talks on campus. That student clubs disappeared because I was the only faculty advising them. How do people not notice one of the few Black professors leave?
When I left the university, multiple students emailed me, asking why my class was canceled, and if I was okay. They emailed, messaged me on Tumblr, searched out and found this blog. They deeply felt my leaving, and I deeply felt the grief my leaving caused them. I know my being there was a lifeline for a lot of students, and I did not make the decision to leave lightly. They mourned the ghost I left behind. My absence was only noticed by a former colleague when he had work for me to do. I am not saying this, or writing this post to shame him. He took the time to reach out, and write a kind email when I explained the reasons for my leaving. I’m writing this post to emphasize the point that no matter how much of a good game departments talk about wanting Black faculty, more often than not, these faculty are not supported. They are overworked, undervalued, and then told to shut their mouths, serve, and be grateful.
One of my mom’s favourite sayings is, “You don’t miss the water ‘til the well runs dry.” The older I get, despite a marked lack of experience with retrieving water and wells, the more that statement makes sense. When some folks I used to work with went to look for the well of my labour last year, they didn’t find it dry, they found it gone. But the absence of Black visibility, Black voices, and Black bodies in that space is a constant, and largely expected. Some folks found the well dry and gone and called it ungrateful. Some dumped poison in the spot they thought the well was going. Some called to see where they could come get the water they thought they were owed.
I am still trying to process the idea that someone only noticed I was gone because they wanted to send me what amounts to more labour. It was obvious that as one of maybe 7 Black professors in an institution, I would be taxed with an immense amount of emotional labour on top of the rigours of being a new, tenure-track professor. It is still exhausting to think about how many other Black Assistant Professors are doing the same grind that I did. That their bodies are hyper visible decorations and that their labour is invisible but demanded by the institutions they work for. Also, why is the work of Black women so undervalued and expected? I feel that the intersections of my race and gender was a specific reason I was so often told to be “grateful” for all of the extra labour I was volun-told to do. Young, Black Women, and Black Queer Professors are often expected to do extra labour in terms of visibility and emotional work.
The really frustrating part is that there is no real take away here. Especially for young, Black faculty, but for all Faculty of Color and Queer faculty of Color, we know our bodies and work are both demanded and undervalued. That we are there to look nice, but we “better not dare” do or say things that even attempt to upend the stranglehold of white supremacy, sexism, and general violence of our departments or institutions. None of this is news. And it is still hard to find ways to support each other. There are some amazing programs, like the work done by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, but not all new faculty have the funds or departmental support to join and take part. There is the general isolation and exploitation that Black faculty experienced as grad students, that only intensifies as they are “lucky” enough to land a role in the academy. We all know how heavy the boulder we push uphill is.
I think the purpose of this blog is, that I am here, and I know and I want to support ya’ll in whatever way I can give support. I mean, real talk, endgame here is that I want to use this blog to build a support resource and network for grad students and new professors. Help start support alliances. Help support those of ya’ll who stay and fight. I know the wells of your labour are constantly drawn from and that you are tired. Some of you are tired and stay. Some of you are tired and leave. There is nothing wrong with either decision. I stand by mine, especially when I get emails, one year out.