The African-American Search

It is time for departments to be honest and realistic when considering whom to hire for ethnic studies positions, and that means white people shouldn't be excluded, writes David Joseph.

October 9, 2007

Once more, the English department at my Southern liberal arts college will send a team to the Modern Language Association meeting to search for an African American. Oops, did I say that? I mean, an African-American ist -- someone who specializes in research and teaching African-American literature. This search, three years running, has become the most vexing aspect of departmental life, at least in part because of the department’s well-meaning but misguided goal of hiring a black candidate. When the applications come in, there is a more or less unspoken attempt to read the color of the candidate based on the colleges they attended, their names, or their committee work.

The MLA interview can occasionally feel like the dating game, as a series of previously promising candidates enter the room all too whitely. (Even more perplexing are non-white candidates of another race or ethnicity researching in African-American literature, but that’s another subject) However, a lot can happen in a 40-minute interview. After engaging with serious scholarship on African-American literature and culture, it is hard for the interview team to sustain emphasis on the candidate’s body over the candidate’s body of work. So, at the end of two days of intense discussions with ABD’s and newly-minted Ph.D.’s, the interview team comes up with a short list of four very bright, energetic, productive candidates with tremendous research and teaching potential. Odds are that the majority of them, like a majority of the pool, will not be black, and so the real work of the search begins: trying to convince the rest of the department to take these folks seriously.

My department’s dilemma seems paradigmatic of a phenomenon of scarcity throughout the profession: Our significant commitment to diversity, and the historical importance of having a person of color in an English department in the South runs into the reality of a dearth of black Ph.D.'s in the humanities. According to a recent report by the Association of Departments of English, over the last three decades only 2.5 percent of all doctorates in English were awarded to African Americans. The numbers skew higher in recent years and according to field, but experience confirms that when the candidates step from behind the curtain and into the interview room for the first time, the majority are white. Complicating the search, the field of African-American literature is one of the most exciting, advanced areas of humanities scholarship, in recent years drawing from globalization studies, legal theory, and comparative literature in addition to traditional Americanist methodologies. The top 20 African-Americanist candidates are likely to compete for general Americanist jobs as well as field specific jobs, and if only a few of these are black, the competition among departments is intense. Over the last two years, our department’s top offers have ended up at prestigious research schools, most with well-established programs in African-American and/or Africana studies programs. (Meanwhile, we have never been able to get a consensus on second-choice white candidates.) How can we possibly compete?

Perhaps I should ask, why do we compete? Why are we so committed to hiring a black candidate, against all odds? Many of my colleagues take pride in the fact that they worked hard to hire the first-ever African American in the department over 30 years ago, precisely by creating a position in African-American literature. Back then, fighting for the position as a means to diversify was a bold political move on a largely white campus, anchoring the English department’s reputation for progressive politics. Subsequent hires over the years have significantly increased our campus diversity, though our retention is poor. Across disciplines, our university has been a great first job for African Americans, and too often a springboard for an even better second job. Perhaps we should be proud that a small liberal arts college has managed to “place” so many of our minority faculty at competitive research universities. Our “alumni” faculty are happily employed at top-ranked research schools throughout the country. (There must be a way we can use this as a recruitment tool!).

In any case, it does seem that we have progressed from the point where a job offer from a small Southern school represents an all-important helping hand to minority scholars. It may now be the case that we need them and the fields they represent more than they need us. After all, what do we want from our minority hires? Surely not token representation. What if we could move beyond this liberal left-over and create an academic environment where minority faculty research and teaching is well integrated into the mission of the university, rather than as an extra within any given department? This would mean building interdisciplinary programs in Africana studies, postcolonial and globalization studies, and ethnic studies -- fields that productively bring together faculty regardless of race, that are also the common “homes” for students and teachers interested in exploring minority cultures. The point is not to insulate minority faculty in mini-communities of color, but to create occasions where research and teaching on the lives, culture, and histories of marginal people are not marginalized. Typically, our most outstanding candidates for the African-Americanist position -- black and white -- were trained in programs with interdisciplinary resources and field-expanding faculty networks. What if we could envision a similar role for them here, at our small campus?

If your commitment to hiring a minority extends no further than throwing open the doors and hoping one walks through, then it is really no kind of commitment at all. At best, it is a naïve strategy that still presumes the employers’ market of the 70’s and 80’s; at worst, it’s racist, prioritizing color while neglecting the significance of the position itself. Ironically, it is precisely the position that ought to be the focus of the search. While well-meaning liberals fight for the body of the African American, those of us who work in ethnic studies recognize that a parallel battle still rages over the body of work -- canons of literature and curriculum -- classes, not to mention the student body. Yes, there are half a dozen reasons why it is significant to have a person of color at the head of the class. But at what cost? To not offer the class at all for lack of a brown body? Besides exposure to black faculty, all students need to at least have the chance to learn the literature and cultural and social contexts of African Americans. We must recall that there is a wider world beyond the university, and that we are training students to go out in the world and be good stewards of culture, and public models of progressive change. Surely graduating a few dozen students every year who have studied African-American literature and culture is a worthy accomplishment -- and no less so if they were taught by a white person.

Even more progressive than the acquisition strategy of diversification would be a contribution strategy: What if we kept figures and took pride in the number of minority students we were able to attract to our classes, graduate with our majors, send off to Ph.D. programs? What if, rather than trying to gather up what comes out of the pipeline, our department was contributing at the other end; or even better, breaking open the narrow funnels of entry in the first place, by offering our students curriculum and institutional support for comparative cultural study, African diaspora research, and cross-disciplinary opportunities to study African American literature and culture in a global context? Grow the field and broaden the field, bring in new people, I say. Practically speaking, classes in minority literature attract minority students, regardless of the professor, and this attraction may in fact be a lure into the profession for the very brightest of them.

Let’s face it -- there are precious few minorities entering the job market any given year, and the odds that you will hire one are not good. So search inward. Find on your campus the next generation of minority scholars. Provide classes for them (and don’t assume that minorities can or will only study literature of their own ethnic group). Educate them. Tutor them in the thrills of research. Encourage the best and most capable to consider graduate school. Contact friends and acquaintances in Ph.D. programs -- make cold calls for god’s sake -- on behalf your best minority majors applying to grad school and help grow the field. And who knows? Maybe some of these students will actually want to come back and teach for their dear old alma mater upon completion. Meanwhile, it’s still OK to hire the white person.


David Joseph is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English.


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