Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Veteran Black Professors Share Tales of Being the New Kid on the Academic Block. (Noteworthy News)

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Veteran Black Professors Share Tales of Being the New Kid on the Academic Block. (Noteworthy News)

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON

Dr. Trudier Harris-Lopez is one of the most well-known, widely published and well-respected scholars in African American literary studies. And after 30 years in the academy, she has her share of battle scars to show.

As the first Black female professor to integrate the various academic departments in which she has taught, dealing with colleagues who have been unable to imagine her as an equal has only been par for the course.

How does she survive the often-hostile environment? "With an abundance of humor and a great family tradition," says Harris-Lopez. "Humor, like the blues, is laughing to keep from crying."

Harris-Lopez, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, joined a panel of veteran Black women professors last month at the College Language Association's 63rd annual convention in Washington. The session was entitled "Making a Name in the Street: Black Women Negotiating Their Way in Academia." And most of the panel members, like Harris-Lopez, were among the first Black professors to integrate English literature and foreign language departments at predominantly White institutions in the 1970s. And like Harris-Lopez, the panel members had their share of "humor" to recount.

Moments such as the time when a White male colleague of Harris-Lopez greeted her enthusiastically with the following: "Trudier, I haven't seen you in a coon's age."

Or moments such as one recounted by Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin, a professor of English and director of the honors program at James Madison University in Virginia. Gabbin recalled a White male colleague entering a faculty meeting, seeing Gabbin near the back of the room, and proclaiming to his other White male colleagues, "Let's go back to the Jim Crow section."

Although the panel members and audience, comprised mostly of other Black professors and graduate students, were able to laugh, with familiarity, at the panel's pain, all the memories could not be so easily digested. In particular, Gabbin's memory of being 4 years old and waking up in the hospital with a concussion after being attacked by a White kid in the Baltimore neighborhood her family had integrated. "The wound healed," she said. "But the scar remains on the portion of the scalp where the hair does not grow."

Gabbin likened the experience of being the new kid on that Baltimore block to her many experiences of being the new kid on the academic block, notably the first Black woman to get a doctorate in literature and languages from the University of Chicago. …

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