Black Women in the Academy: Promises and Perils

By McKenzie, Marilyn Mobley | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Black Women in the Academy: Promises and Perils


McKenzie, Marilyn Mobley, The Journal of Negro Education


Black Women in the Academy: Promises and Perils, edited by Lois Benjamin. Gainesville, FL: Florida University Press, 1997. 424 pp. $49.95, cloth.

Reviewed by Marilyn Mobley McKenzie, Department of English, George Mason University.

For the most part, discourse about the academy in the past decade has centered around the cultural wars, ethnic studies programs, issues of canon and curriculum, and the assault on affirmative action and other race-based remedies. Yet there has always been another level of concurrent discourse. While some scholars are finally interrogating the academy as a cultural site itself deserving of more attention, many have been reticent about how the intersection of race and gender affects Black women's ability to shape their careers in higher education. Black women who have chosen the academy as the space in which to do their work as scholars, professors, and administrators know all too well that the conditions under which we work and shape our professional lives are often less than ideal. However, our voices about what we know have not always been heard or validated.

The consequence of our absence from dialogues on the state of the academy has created what Lois Benjamin calls a "knowledge gap." In this impressive volume of essays, she assemblies the impressions of 33 Black women academics and administrators from around the country who share their experiences, analyze the issues, and offer coping strategies for dealing with life in the academy. Though some of the repetitiousness of this collection of essays may initially be off-putting, by the time readers finish the book the repetition becomes a significant index to how much Black women academics have needed to share the complex reality of their lives, especially as it relates to themes of identity, power, and change.

In the introduction, Benjamin acknowledges that the need for such a volume as this was underscored by the historic convergence of two thousand Black women academics on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in January 1994 for the conference entitled "Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name, 1894-1994," convened by historians Robin Kilson and Evelynn Hammonds. Referred to most often as the "MIT conference," this gathering was attended by some of the scholars and administrators represented in this book (though surprisingly, none of the notes indicate which essays were originally presented at MIT, nor is there mention of the conference in any of the contributors' essays). Whether readers attended that conference or not (this reviewer, for example, was out of the country at the time), this wonderful volume articulates the issues that Black women in the academy are wrestling with from campus to campus.

Organized into seven parts, with endnotes and an index, Black Women in the Academy: Promises and Perils includes perspectives from several disciplines ranging from sociology and anthropology to history, from music to the sciences, and from psychology to literature. Part one provides an overview and includes a revised version of Nellie McKay's provocative 1992 essay, "A Troubled Peace: Black Women in the Halls of the White Academy," in which she boldly states that "[E]ven in those institutions in which they are treated well, black women professors in white colleges and universities are always aware that their presence represents a disruptive incursion into spaces never intended for them" (p. …

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