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  BLACKLINES

Talented Black Scholars take Over at Chicago Universities And, they're all … GAY
by D. Kevin McNeir
2003-03-01

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The second in a two-part series. See link below for part one.

by D. Kevin McNeir

Last month we had the privilege of talking with four power hitters in Chicago's collegiate studies—Dwight McBride, Beth Richie, Darrell Moore and Cathy Cohen.

Each scholar has proven themselves in their respective fields and currently serves as the chairperson or director of their respective programs at nationally acclaimed centers of higher learning. And, as we reported last month, they're each African American and gay.

Now, our interview continues.

'When you're running a department like mine [African-American Studies, Northwestern University] you need a good support staff,' McBride said. 'Mine is phenomenal and they shield me from a lot of stuff—from the sublime to the ridiculous. Sometimes we get questions addressing very serious requests and some great ideas. But something unique about our community—people want to just come in and talk with us. And it's work that takes a lot of time.'

McBride adds that being in charge may sound impressive, but it is not for the faint-at-heart. 'One of the challenges African-American Studies Departments are facing across the U.S. is the questioning of our credentials—both what we teach and the instructors who teach the material,' he said. 'I sometimes wonder if it's because of still existing racist attitudes. Here we are in a new millennium—in 2003—and it appears that race still matters.

'What bothers me is why race is allowed to effect our intellectual work. It offends me when I'm asked about the intellectual abilities of my staff—whether it's the dean, the provost or students who wonder what they can do later in life with a major in African-American Studies. At times I feel like I'm in an endless seminar—always teaching people. And the only way I get through it is with humility and patience. And again, it helps that I have some of the most talented scholars and thinkers, regardless of race, in my department. But the struggle is I always feel like we have to demonstrate that fact.'

McBride went on to say that he is further offended by the notion that there aren't enough qualified minority candidates for faculty positions.

Cohen says she faces many similar problems in her post at the University of Chicago, where she serves as the director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture and professor, Department of Political Science.

'Many of our similar problems that we must daily face focus on our being Black at our respective institutions, not so much because we are queer,' she said. 'On a daily basis I find myself being questioned on the relevance of partnering with people outside of the university. And it isn't that the University is opposed to our engaging in the rhetoric of listening to others—it's the actual process of engaging resources and acknowledging the history of racism that exists at the University of Chicago.

'We have to legitimize and justify what we do and many times we aren't seen as true intellectuals. But I know my work here at Chicago is of great importance and the relevance of our work and the rigor that goes into transforming people's lives is without question. Many Black scholars are often pulled into university work from the community and we work hard to engage in that world and the world of the intellectual. But we're faced with two different canons.'

Beth Richie, head of the Department of African-American Studies and associate professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, says being queer does impact the kind of work she does and how she is received. 'There's something about being a feminist scholar that influences what is meant by being out as a gay leader at this university,' she said. 'The current increased visibility of gay scholars owes a lot to feminism legitimizing queer studies. It's produced an openness in dialogue from which African-American Studies has benefited.'

Fear of violence against gays/lesbians remains alive

Richie adds that while she sees signs of advancement on her campus, she also notes that she faces the dual dilemma of being visible and involved at UIC while also clinging to an identity that is constantly marginalized. 'When I was working on The Color of Violence Conference here last year, some of the faculty and staff contested the need for such a dialogue. Some, I believe, felt threatened, but others were willing to take the risk of being publicly connected to and supportive of the Conference. And some of my colleagues took the lead, which we had to do, so our students would be equally willing to take risks in asserting their identities.

'But do we feel vulnerable? Sure sometimes I do, given my intellectual interests. But I have to push the University to a higher level of accountability and make them respect my research—whether it's on people in prison or feminist studies.'

'I agree with Beth [Richie] that Black feminism made it possible for what we are now doing in Black masculine studies,' McBride said. 'And Black queer or Black gay and lesbian studies have also benefited—now we are being included in discussions of Black politics. You can't look at Blackness without discussing Black women. The impact of sexuality is key to any discussion of Blackness. I am interested in opening these kinds of discussions in our department. Whether we're talking about being marginalized or the threat of violence—we can't afford to remain silent. We have to be out and gay. One of the challenges I face as the head of my department is that for many years African-American Studies has sustained that silence, almost making it par for the course. Even as I engage in gay/lesbian studies I am always thinking about race. It matters what we're reading and the kinds of new canons we're developing. In other words, we are called to critical intellectual and political intervention around the questions of both race and sexuality.'

McBride said that being out of the classroom (and given his responsibility for programming) allows him the joy of focusing on courses that may produce new ways of understanding the Black community. And he adds, you can't be silent—because you're Black or gay.

Cohen said her focus is not on the issue of violence but rather one of power. 'My department looks at different issues than African-American Studies,' she said. 'So when you're talking about being included in the discussion, or the struggle to fluidity—it takes me to Black feminism. That is to say, power remains at the forefront of our analysis. And power is also differentiated in different political movements. When you add 'queering' it simply raises the complexity. Black gays/lesbians have always been marginalized within our own community but we can still claim power. We have yet to recognize in the Black gay/lesbian community how complex our lives really are. I believe that when you add the factor of queer to Black Studies, we may begin to approach a dialogue that addresses that complexity.'

Darrell Moore, associate professor, philosophy department and Interim Director, African and Black Diaspora Studies, DePaul University, says while there are a lot of queer faculty of color at his and other campuses, the need still remains to have discussions about the relationship between gender, sexuality and power from scholars who have claimed their own sexual identity. 'When I think about the Diaspora's programming, it raise these questions and leads me to wonder if they are related to or in opposition of the kinds of discussions that have traditionally occurred in Black Studies Departments,' he said. 'It sounds a lot easier to be out and then to struggle within your department then some people realize.'

Richie agrees, saying she knows some people who have lost their jobs and found their careers destroyed because of their commitment to building and maintaining the program at UIC. 'We have to recognize the sacrifices of our predecessors,' she said. 'Dwight fought for some things as did Darnell before him, from which I now benefit. That's the way it's always been. Today we find ourselves in more privileged positions but we have to acknowledge that this time when four Black, gay scholars are heading their respective departments did not happen because we are so brilliant. It's occurred because of the work of those who came before us.

'And as for our students, especially those who are gay, it hurts me that some of them remain afraid to come out—to their families and their peers. Sometimes they feel safe while on the campus, but not when they leave. That's a problem that we must find a way to address.'


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