When approached about an educational reform I would implement at Duke, my response was simple: I want the African and African American Studies department expanded. Furthermore, I want more black faculty at Duke across the board. The intrigued look of the person who asked me about educational reform prompted me to communicate the importance of black faculty members. Although it is imperative for all students to know black faculty, it is extremely important for black students at Duke to know black faculty.
I have never had a black professor teach any of my courses—not economics courses, not political science courses, not history courses. The response I anticipate to that is, “So what?” Well for students who aren’t minorities, this isn’t an issue. The majority of professors at Duke are white, which allows for non-minority students to perceive this as the norm. Although the backgrounds of Duke professors are diverse, at face value the population of professors is homogenous. Homogenously white faces. At an institution where our faculty is not reflective of the national demographic of each ethic group in the United States, it becomes a priority of both the faculty and students to make a bond. This holds especially true for black students whose demographic at Duke is not reflective of the national demographic. There are not many black students at Duke, and there aren’t many black faculty, so we should gravitate towards each other in an effort to remain unified in an environment where we are severely outnumbered. My best friend from Tufts College said something to me that truly resonated: “The lessons we learn best come from those who look like us.” At the root of that statement is the encouragement to meet with faculty members like John Brown, Maurice Wallace and Mark Anthony Neil.
At a school where academic rigors weigh heavily on all of us, it is important to establish a relationship with people who understand your plight. The typical black student ruminates on more stressful topics than any other student. We must constantly strive to thrive but have an awareness of the repercussions of not reaching the goals we set. We must think about how what we say could further stereotypes that are detrimental to the psyche of any black person. We must think about how to combat the notions that, as black students, we do not want to branch outside our community on campus. Who would know better about how to deal with those pressures than people who have been through them already? Everyone cannot say that the perception of their race is contingent on their academic success, and although black students are not the only ones for whom this holds true, the issue is most relevant for black students.
That is where black faculty members come in. Faculty members like Michaeline A. Crichlow, Lee D. Baker, Charmaine Royal and Thomas F. DeFrantz can provide advice based off their lives and experiences to help bolster the confidence of black students at Duke. Black faculty members can tell the whole story.
This is especially true in African and African American Studies classes. In many of our classes outside of the discipline of African and African American Studies, we either learn about history or read literature that does not include blacks. But even when that is the case, we have the option of going to black faculty members and asking for recommendations of authors or scholars who identify as black or African American in order to get another perspective. Chances are any faculty member you approach will be one such scholar.
One of the most disheartening things to happen in this world is to be ignored. Yet black culture and identity is ignored every day at Duke because of a lack of black faculty to connect with. If you are not an African and African American Studies major or a music Major, chances are you will not meet many black faculty. You will not meet the only faculty members who are compelled to tell you, without being prompted, the contributions of blacks to every field of knowledge we study at Duke.
So how do we connect with black faculty? I say utilize our resources. Have a biweekly or monthly gathering of black faulty in the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. The gathering can be rooted in academics, whether that means discussing anthropology with Lee D. Baker in relation to the racial politics of culture, gathering a study playlist of jazz from John Brown or meeting with Mark Anthony Neil to inquire about the state of hip-hop culture and the effect that has on the general public’s perception of black culture. Such a discussion could help prepare black students to formulate articulate responses to comments rooted in falsehoods and ignorance by those with a weak understanding of what black culture is or means.
Black faculty members are our mentors, and it should be our prerogative to seek them out, not only as students yearning for knowledge, but also as black students searching for someone who shares our history to educate us on our history and the importance of it today.
Emerson Lovell is a Trinity sophomore. His column is the fourth installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the Black Student Alliance.