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The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual

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The Blackademic Life critically examines academic fiction produced by black writers. Lavelle Porter evaluates the depiction of academic and campus life in literature as a space for black writers to produce counternarratives that celebrate black intelligence and argue for the importance of higher education, particularly in the humanistic tradition. Beginning with an examination of W. E. B. Du Bois’s creative writing as the source of the first black academic novels, Porter looks at the fictional representations of black intellectual life and the expectations that are placed on faculty and students to be racial representatives and spokespersons, whether or not they ever intended to be. The final chapter examines blackademics on stage and screen, including in the 2014 film Dear White People and the groundbreaking television series A Different World.

ISBN-13: 9780810140998

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Northwestern University Press

Publication Date: 10-15-2019

Pages: 216

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

LAVELLE PORTER is an assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology, CUNY.

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The Overeducation of the Negro On Reading Black Academic Fiction

Much of the criticism on African American literature has been carried out under the auspices of universities: in college courses, on curriculum committees, in articles published by university-affiliated literary journals, and in monographs published by university presses. But what about higher education itself as a subject of African American literature? An evaluation of the black academic novel is an opportunity to understand the role of higher education in the history of black literary production and in the language of black literary and cultural theory. In their portrayals of the college experience in literature, black writers show the black intellectual's relationship to the university to be one that is defined by histories of institutional exclusion and by the persistence of racist ideas about black intelligence.

The history of America's universities is rife with antiblack racism at its most virulent, from the earliest universities and their financial entanglement with slavery, to universities serving as incubators for racist public policy, to their violent resistance against integration and antiracist activism. Even when these institutions begrudgingly included black students, they did so without examining their intrinsic racism, let alone thinking about how structural inequalities created the conditions for that exclusion in the first place. Today what we might call progress in the post-Brown era of integration is too often the cynical appropriation of black students and professors for diversity image making.

While my use of the term "exclusion" might seem to sidestep the histories of black colleges, where black students were welcomed and nurtured, academic novels reveal an ongoing conversation about how white-supremacist ideas were perpetuated within these black colleges, particularly in their curricula, and in their respectability politics. Inasmuch as we alumni of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) are proud of our schools, many of which were built from the ground up with meager resources in a hostile post-Reconstruction America, we also understand that even the traditionally elite black colleges (Fisk, Atlanta, Morehouse, Spelman, Howard, Hampton) were never separate and equal institutions. All these colleges, white or historically black, were shaped from the beginning by educational policies rooted in white supremacy and were contained by fears of what an educated black populace might do to challenge the hierarchy of Jim Crow. Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" speech was partly designed to calm white fears of overeducated Negroes running amok with their inflated self-regard and unwillingness to serve and respect white people. In the fiction about black college life — Quicksand, Stranger and Alone, Invisible Man, Meridian, The Nigger Factory among them — one finds writers criticizing the racial politics of the black college, showing that although the black college was a nominally separate institution for the uplift of black people, it was deeply influenced by the purse strings of white philanthropy and often infected with white-supremacist ideologies in the educational program that its professors imparted to their students. These novels of HBCU life show that the disciplinary regime of the black college was designed not only to train the students as fastidious professionals but also to train black bodies and minds to be acceptable to whiteness, and that this uplift project was one rooted in a problematic politics of respectability and assimilation based upon antiblackness and colorism.

For the black academic fiction writer the university cannot be an innocent, disinterested site of knowledge production. Rather, the university is repeatedly revealed to be an institution for reproducing white heteropatriarchal norms that either rejected black intellectuals as incapable of assimilating to such norms or included the black intellectual under a permanently provisional status in which her presence is always questioned and contested.

Despite this institutional precarity, black academic fiction is also a record of the continued engagement of black students and scholars with this problematic institution, and it shows them employing various strategies to navigate through and attempt to reform the institution, even as these students and professors sometimes questioned the efficacy of reformist ideologies.

I have crowded this study with my own analysis of black academic texts based upon their thematic content, but I also leave room in the conversation for the artists to speak for themselves and for all the divergent ideas that these writers have woven into their works. They allow their characters to speak openly about their fatigue with the race problem, to criticize racial orthodoxies, to explore other ideas beyond the black freedom struggle. I have written this book because I believe black academic fiction is an intelligible, coherent category with certain commonalities and theoretical strings that tie them together, but I also keep in mind that the category is a provisional one. What I have collected here is a diverse range of texts with varied themes, styles, topics, and rhetorical strategies, and they demonstrate the expansive possibilities that can exist under the rubric of black academic fiction.


For the white supremacist, the "overeducation" of the Negro essentially begins with the acquisition of basic literacy. From the first black poets, Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, to the authors of nineteenth-century slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Henry Bibb, black writers were used as examples in arguments, pro and con, about the intellectual possibilities of black persons. Their work was seen as evidence of black humanity (or inhumanity) and was read with and against an overwhelming discourse of black intellectual inferiority. Frederick Douglass poignantly articulates the relationship between knowledge and power when he explains how his slave master's wife taught him in secret how to read. Her husband discovered what she was doing and scolded her, and Douglass's rendition of what his enslaver said about teaching the young boy how to read is one of the most devastating statements about literacy and power anywhere in American letters.

If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world ... if you teach that nigger how to read there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontent and unhappy.

Later in the Narrative, Douglass essentially confirms his slaveholder's suspicions about education, that it had indeed made him discontent and restless. "I have observed this in my experience of slavery, that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one."

From Douglass's narrative, and from similar stories about black literacy and resistance, we learn an important precept: For the white supremacist, any education of Negroes is already too much. The educated Negro is always already overeducated. This fundamental idea informs much of the dialogue around black education, and in reading the literature on black higher education, one sees this attitude encountered repeatedly, and the writers of academic novels particularly found it important to register their own encounters with such discourses.

To understand the importance of these novels involves an understanding of both their historical context and their literary intertextuality. To make sense of the black presence in the academy requires that one understand the extent to which that presence was met with vociferous resistance and that the blackbody on campus was constructed as a sign of disorder, even as black students and professors are exploited to tout the diversity of the corporate university.

My conception of "The Overeducation of the Negro" was inspired by Carter G. Woodson's The Mis-Education of the Negro. (And yes, it is also partly inspired by Lauryn Hill's award-winning, educationally themed album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the soundtrack of my junior year in college). At the outset, I knew I needed to vet the phrase, and, of course, being a twenty-first century person, I turned to Google.

At the time, a Google search of the specific phrase "The Over-Education of the Negro" delivered two distinct hits that I actually found to be instructive for my topic. One was a quote by James Vardaman, a former governor of my home state of Mississippi and likely one of the most virulently racist governors in U.S. history (his name comes up in Du Bois's The Black Flame at one point in a passage about racist politicians in the South, along with South Carolina's Ben Tillman). The other hit was from Wilbur Thirkield, a white president of the historically black Howard University. This was just a simple Google search and not an exhaustive archival search for the term, but the hits seemed worthy of dissection, and I found them to be useful places from which to launch my discussion on this important discursive formation in black higher education. The first quote, by Vardaman, appears in a February 6, 1904, issue of the Literary Digest:

The over-education of the negro is an evil certainly, but there is small danger that he will be over-educated in the average rural public school of the South. Education makes a criminal of the negro only when he is educated beyond that point which fits him for the state of life in which it hath pleased God to call him.

The passage is reprinted from an article in the New Orleans Times-Democrat in which the governor is quoted, and both the Times-Democrat article and this one in the Literary Digest were reporting on the governor's comments about the prevalence of crime among the educated black population in Massachusetts. Vardaman used those dubious statistics as justification for the South's feeble educational program for black children and argued that further education could lead to disobedience and criminal behavior among black southerners, as it most assuredly had done in the North. By the way, this is the same Vardaman who once referred to the Negro as "a lazy, lying, lustful animal which no conceivable amount of training can transform into a tolerable citizen."

The second hit for "the overeducation of the Negro" came from The Negro Problem, an anthology of articles on black social issues. In an article titled "The Higher Education of the Negro," the white Methodist minister and educator Wilbur B. Thirkield, who served as president of Howard Universityfrom 1906 to 1912, uses the term in rebuttal to racist arguments against black higher education:

The capacity of the Negro for the higher education has been settled. We have learned, however, to distinguish between the intellectual capacity with which God has endowed all races, and the intellectual and moral equipment of a race which is the outcome of civilization and environment. The last danger is the over-education of the Negro. We have only touched the fringes of the race. His real education is a task of generations.

As it turns out, these two quotes illustrate two complementary ideas about the overeducation of the Negro. The first, from a white-supremacist governor of a southern state, expresses a fairly typical attitude among white supremacists about the dangers of black education, that it will lead to insubordination toward their white superiors, and that it will lead to criminality because it encouraged a distaste for the kind of work that would keep black people obedient and contained. The statement by Thirkield, the white president of a black college, reaffirms his belief in the educability of blacks and his commitment to the project of black higher education, and he dismisses the idea that overeducation should be any concern for a population so starved for education in the first place. But his statement also reiterates just how much that idea of higher education as a danger was embedded in the thoughts of students and educators in the world of black higher education, and this concern is clearly corroborated in the pages of black academic novels.

Mostly my use of the term "the overeducation of the Negro" refers to this form of racist resistance to black education, but like all forms of domination, such discourses can also be internalized by those who are subjugated. For black Americans, overeducation discourses particularly resulted in fears that too much education could compromise one's employability, an idea Sutton Griggs eloquently addresses in Imperium in Imperio.

However, I must also note that under chattel slavery and into the postemancipation era with its subjugating regime of Jim Crow, African Americans did receive an education of sorts. It was a particular kind of education that taught them the skills of laborers and servants, and taught them to accept that this would be their permanent lot in life, and that their appropriate place was on the bottom of the social hierarchy. It was an education in which blacks were admonished with biblical references to slavery and obedience to masters. It was the discipline of the lash and the threats of violence that taught them that the only way for a black person to make peace with white supremacy was to stay in one's place and accept one's inferior status. Some enslavers even referred to the institution as a "school" that brought values and civilization to the pagan and uncivilized Africans. When in Du Bois's The Quest of the Silver Fleece the character Dr. Boldish implores young Bles Alwyn to remember that the "slavery of your people was not necessarily a crime. It was a school of work and love. It gave you noble friends, like Mr. Cresswell here," Du Bois was articulating a common belief on the part of white supremacists that enslavement was a method of training and discipline that taught valuable skills and gave the enslaved a purpose in life.

And this attitude that the discipline of hard labor was the appropriate school for unsophisticated people persisted after emancipation as an actual educational system began to develop. Even with the founding of schools, the curricula of such schools were constricted by what white educators and philanthropists wanted black students to learn and black teachers to teach, and any efforts to educate beyond the basics of reading and writing were considered foolhardy and wasteful. As the historian James Anderson reminds us in The Education of Blacks in the South, "both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education." This kind of education for second-class status was depicted in harsh terms in Sutton Griggs's Imperium in Imperio in his description of the racist abuse inflicted upon black children in southern schoolhouses. This type of white-supremacist education is perpetuated into later institutions of higher learning, and in J. Saunders Redding's 1950 novel Stranger and Alone, he shows how ideologies of black inferiority were passed on from a well-meaning white professor in a historically black college and taught as objective scientific truth. Redding's depiction is essential, because it illustrates the insidious nature of white supremacy, that white supremacy works as well as it does not because it merely reflects the attitudes of a few white people but because it is supported by the church, the state, and educational institutions, and it persists through an internalization of such beliefs by blacks themselves. In the postemancipation period, as black schools and colleges began to sprout up through the collective effort of southern blacks and white philanthropists, an anxiety develops about the Negro's educational advancement. In particular the idea of a classical education in the humanities becomes contentious, because it is an education that was seen by some as wasteful and ruinous to the work ethic of black laborers and as part of the ominous beginnings of a demand for equality.

Famously, W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington debated over the proper educational curriculum for black advancement. Washington's 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery, described his travels to black schools throughout the South, and in one striking passage Washington issues a cautionary tale about a young man trained in classical education but without practical skills of physical labor.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 2-4

Introduction 6-23
Blackademic Lives Matter

Chapter 1 24-70
The Over-Education of the Negro: On Reading Black Academic Fiction

Chapter 2 71-107
Educating and Uplifting the Race, 1876 - 1919

Chapter 3 108-147
The New Negro, 1919 - 1954

Chapter 4 148-196
Integration and Nationalism 1954 - 1980

Chapter 5 197-265
Culture Wars and Capitalism, 1980 - present

Conclusion 266-278
Blackademics on Screen