How to Best Navigate the Africana Studies Joint Position

N. Fadeke Castor and Bertin M. Louis Jr. describe how best to cope with the toll that holding an Africana studies joint position takes on your body, mind and spirit.

February 1, 2019
 
 

In our last essay, we discussed how joint Africana studies positions create a two-body problem and the challenges associated with navigating the demands of two academic units. In this one, we will discuss strategies to navigate the toll that an Africana studies joint position exacts on your body, mind and spirit and conclude with additional tips.

Joint positions task your physical body with additional labor. It’s often invisible labor that doesn’t count toward tenure and promotion. Unlike those of your department colleagues, your Africana classes are likely to be in a different building -- often across campus -- from your department. And, at times, you may need two offices to address the demands of both units. All that can take an added toll and even result in a negative impact on your health, especially if you are not able-bodied. (See Roderick Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference.)

The fact is that you may walk much more every day than your colleague who is not in a joint position. While seemingly innocuous, that can have deleterious consequences, especially when schedules are tight, as they often are when classrooms are scarce. One of us had a semester where they were given 25 minutes between classes, which, with a 15-minute walk from one building to another, became untenable. Often no lunch was eaten, or two bites were gulped in an elevator. This exacerbated blood sugar issues and made for a difficult second class (and semester). These are the factors that cause both of us to be seen on our various campuses carrying multiple bags -- a backpack, a laptop bag, a lunch bag and a bag for additional papers and books -- from one office to another.

We are more than our intellect. Indeed, as Africana knowledge informs us, we are complex beings that exist at intersections of mind, body, spirit, family and community -- not to mention our often variegated and mutable social identities. Balancing all of this is challenging in the best of academic positions. And joint positions, in our experience, are particularly fraught when it comes to recognizing and valuing the whole person.

There is a story here (for a longer piece) of the West’s abjection and devaluation of the black body. Add to this the marginality of a discipline (Africana studies), which was never meant to be part of predominantly white institutions, and the reaction of universities to the faculty, classes and programming that often call out racist, classist and sexist structures. This speaking truth to power can often resonate on campuses where there are deep structural climate issues that often manifest as constraints.

All of this is to say that the social oppressions we experience as black people in our everyday lives can often be magnified on the job when we have joint positions. One possible recourse is to create networks across the university with other faculty of color, especially black faculty members.

Additionally, we advocate for self-care, self-care, self-care. Central to this is prioritizing your health in all its forms. That can mean negotiating for that black women’s writing retreat or creating a write-on-site group in your community. We highly recommend moving your body regularly in some fashion -- outside of the cross-campus hustle to get to class. It’s also vital to find space and time (and to guard it jealousy) for creative expression. We know folks who knit, run, practice yoga, raise puppies, paint, watched Scandal religiously or write poetry.

Above all, find locations outside the academy where you can express and value yourself. That way, you can stay rooted in community and renewed in yourself. From this grounded place, you can participate fully in your Africana program, be present in your department and finally flourish where you’re planted.

We offer these additional tips to help you resist the normalized exploitation of the joint position:

  • If possible, push for either being fully in one department or the other, especially if the Africana studies unit is a program and not a department. If you can’t be 100 percent in one place (with affiliation in the other), make sure to negotiate a majority in one unit.
  • Factor in to your position invisible labor -- for example, informally advising students of color who reach out to you because you’re one of the few black faculty members on the campus. Push for that to be recognized in your evaluation in both units.
  • Say no strategically to some committee work and other forms of service, and be equally strategic in the type and amount of service you engage in. A senior colleague whom you trust can advise you where and when to say no.
  • Develop a support system so you can more than just survive this, you can thrive. That can include networks, both in academe and outside it, at local, regional and national levels.
  • Do something regularly that is creative for you, preferably something that involves your body to counterbalance academia's highly cognitive labor.

Finally, don’t recreate the wheel -- draw on best practices from successful senior colleagues. Access available resources, including The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure -- Without Losing Your Soul (which the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development grew out of --- many institutions have access to their extensive online resources); other books like the comprehensive edited collection Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia by editors Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González and Angela P. Harris; and collectives, such as Cite Black Women.

While we are highly critical of Africana studies joint appointments, we are in favor of Africana studies and its renewed importance in an age of overt white nationalism, renewed fascism, state-sponsored murder of black people and environmental degradation in a global antiblack context. Africana studies teaches critical thinking skills to all students, challenges the structure of predominantly white institutions through its content and hiring practices, adds to the diversity of ideas at universities, and offers solutions to the problems that plague black people. Indeed, Africana studies offers the building blocks to cultivate and preserve black life, encourage democratic futures and perpetuate and preserve the human species.

We end with a quote, which we feel resonates with the purpose of Africana studies from scholar Fred Moten. In a recent appearance on Duke’s African and African American studies professor Mark Anthony Neal’s “Left of Black” video series, Moten stated, “We need to renew our habits of assembly and recognize that we are part of a common project and that project has been given to us by our ancestors along with the responsibility to pass that project on to our children. This is not just about the redemption of black people or the liberation of black people. It’s at the stage now [where] it’s about the continued capacity for the earth to carry human existence, and our tradition has something specific and important and indispensable to say about that.”

Bio

N. Fadeke Castor is a black feminist, critical ethnographer and scholar of religion, race and politics. She is the author of Spiritual Citizenship: Transnational Pathways From Black Power to Ifá in Trinidad, winner of the 2018 Society for the Anthropology of Religion Clifford Geertz Prize. Bertin M. Louis Jr. is an associate professor of anthropology and Africana studies and serves as vice chair of the Africana studies program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He studies the growth of Protestant forms of Christianity among Haitians transnationally, as featured in his book My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (2015).

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