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  BLACKLINES

Talented Black Scholars take Over at Chicago Universities And, they're all … GAY
by D. Kevin McNeir
2003-02-01

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When college classes resumed this past fall, something occurred in the annals of Chicago history that is without precedent. It was so amazing that only a few people recognized or realized what was happening. But then again, maybe some did and chose to look the other way. The event, or more appropriately, the series of events that may potentially propel the scholarly pursuit of Chicago's collegiate studies in the fields of African-American Studies and Race, Politics and Culture into another stratosphere is the simultaneous hiring of Dwight McBride, Beth Richie, Darrell Moore and Cathy Cohen as the chairpersons and/or directors of their respective programs.

Consider this—the universities that each professor represents are nationally acclaimed centers of highly learning. And know that these men and women were not selected because they were Black but because they were qualified—more than likely, over-qualified. And, each of them is gay.

McBride is now the chair and associate professor, Northwestern University, Department of African American Studies. Richie is head of the Department of African-American Studies and associate professor, University of Illinois at Chicago. Cathy J. Cohen is the director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture and professor, Department of Political Science, The University of Chicago. Moore is associate professor, philosophy department and Interim Director, African and Black Diaspora Studies, DePaul University.

Is it the Age of Aquarius, the end of time or the realization that some of our brightest scholars are African American and happen to be gay/lesbian? Rather than put ourselves through endless speculation, BLACKlines sat down with these four great minds in a round-table discussion and put the question to them. As one might expect, they were more than prepared.

'First, to the extent that the four of us have taken on these new positions since August or September of last year, and we all represent the top research institutions in Chicago, it is amazing that we each move into positions of authority in Black Studies or Race, Politics and Culture with faces of color—a very different, collective face than has ever been seen before,' Richie said. 'I assumed my position in August 2002 after Dwight [ McBride ] left. I really was not interested in an administration job because I see myself more as an academician and activist—effecting the change of unfair policies is also important to me and I didn't want anything, like an administrative post, to derail me.

'But when I realized that three of my friends and colleagues were taking top positions at the same time and that I could work with them—that's when I really considered making the move. For me it became the possibility for our collective work—something bigger than the city of Chicago.'

Moore began his new position in September at DePaul, and says he never figured on taking the spot of interim director for a program which itself is only six months old. But as the search process continued and no suitable candidate was identified, he agreed to take on the job. 'I, like Beth [ Richie ] , had no desire to do administrative work,' Moore said. 'But because we have the asset of being in a city like Chicago where Black studies and philosophy are both respected fields of study, I had some serious questions to ask—questions related to gender and sexuality. Sometimes in our field of philosophy there are claims of universality and I wanted to push the notion that one's interpretation of history and the answers we accept as universal truths are often effected or 'colored' by race.

'At DePaul we had just started a process of selecting a director for a new program [ African and Black Diaspora Studies ] and whoever was selected, I wanted to make sure they were prepared to deal with some of the gaps that I had detected in the field of Black studies. Now here I am, serving as the interim director—Black and gay. Who would have guessed, say three years ago, that progressively queer folk would be heading up centers of Black studies and race. I believe it's symptomatic of something going on in the field. People are asking different questions—they have different concerns,' Moore said.

'And there's a unique history here in Chicago because we aren't the first Black intellects to ask such penetrating questions about ourselves and our communities,' Moore continued. 'There's another group of folk who have long been concerned with Black studies here at UIC—the Chicago Council of Black Studies. They have different views of what the field of Black studies should be like. And I'm interested in developing a scholarly exchange between the two camps. For example, next fall we have planned the kick-off of a year-long discussion around Black studies. And we'll be hosting a conference on [ W.E.B. ] DuBois in April to recognize the centennial of The Souls of Black Folk.

'Four gay scholars leading the way—all Black too? Something's happening—something's bubbling—I just don't know what, but I want to be a part of it, that's for certain. At the least, a public discussion between the four of us has to occur,' Moore added.

Cohen said she's in a somewhat different position because she does not head a Black studies department. The focus of the center for which she is responsible is three-fold: race, politics and culture. But, she adds, there is certainly great overlap in terms of issues of concern. 'As a center where we study race, we are constantly critiquing the Black/white paradigm and the changing dynamics of race whether it be on the local scene, nationally or internationally. Chicago is strange because while it remains very racially segregated, there is no clear racial majority. How can one race claim to be in power when the city is 36 percent Black, 26 percent Latino and 31 percent White?,' Cohen said.

'I too am new on the job, replacing a friend and mentor, Michael Dawson, who is now teaching at Harvard University. In fact, he recruited me. It's a challenge because many in this city know the poor history of the University of Chicago and how it has dealt with race—the Black community—that has lived just at its doorsteps. But we have a new administration and some younger, creative faculty who are committed to understanding and studying issues of race and power. We need to know how institutions like the University of Chicago have impacted the lives of common citizens that live in the same community and the struggles they experience because of our existence here.

'But a great question remains: Why are we all here working in similar positions at comparable universities—all out and gay?,' Cohen said. 'Could it be because younger scholars like us have served to assist in the institutionalizing of our professions, especially Black studies, and that there is now a measure of profit to have Blacks, who are also gay, at the helm?'

McBride left UIC for Northwestern University ( and was replaced by Richie ) , where he saw an even greater opportunity, given his own academic interests, to think about race and its relationship with gender, class and sexuality.

'The good news is if we four have been identified to lead our respective departments, then there must be a movement of folks within the academy who are content with working with Blacks and gays,' McBride said. 'I am just excited to be able to join with these three other scholars. We have all only recently arrived in Chicago—within the last three to five years. And as I assumed my new position in the fall, I looked at it as another episode in a series of challenges of what constitutes African-American Studies and the Black community. My work, therefore, does become very personal. I guess one could call it the politics of Black respectability—that is, how we talk and have historically talked about race. There is a new generation of scholars who are challenging the paradigms of the past. And in my case, and I believe in all of our cases, we have to continue to assert that our being placed in these positions does not signal the demise of Black studies nor does it dilute Black studies into queer studies.

'I believe the best way to approach it is to say queer has always been a part of the Black identity, just like gender has always been a part of our identity,' McBride said. 'One cannot have a legitimate conversation about being Black in America if one tries to ignore gender or sexuality.'

All of the scholars agreed that given this unique moment in history, they hope to be able to push their universities towards collaboration in the development of an African-American Studies doctoral program—something that currently does not exist. They say that one way that could happen, at least in the early stages, would be for the program to be extended across several of the campuses.

But that's going to take more than a few well-orchestrated meetings. And in their new positions, each has a tremendous amount of responsibility—from new hires and searches to tenure reviews, contracts and new course development. It's a high-exposure, high-pressure position that is not intended for the faint-hearted or intellectual 'wannabees.' These four men and women have risen to the top because they have brilliant minds and creative spirits. And as they say, it's a special time right now—and none of them can quite determine why things are happening at this moment.

The impressive foursome, without Cohen who had other responsibilities back in Chicago, met up recently in Hawaii, taking what they like to call their 'Black Studies, Queer Futures,' presentation on the road. It was the first time they had intentionally planned to present collaboratively at a conference where the focus was Black studies, but they plan to do it again—DePaul next fall is one confirmed setting. So it sounds like these four scholars have made it and have nothing to do but enjoy the fruits of their labor, right? Not hardly. When we asked them about the struggles of the job, each looked to the other for moral support and took a deep breath before responding. We didn't have to edit their responses—some things they just didn't want to think about or discuss.

'Like Dwight, it seems like one day I got tenure, the next I was head of AAS,' Moore said. 'That should not happen. But the anti-Black history of many universities like ours often places young faculty members in places they should not be. Some are being promoted or leaving for other kinds of more lucrative positions—and of course passing the torch on too soon. Some of us have barely completed our first book—usually our dissertation—and we are working on the second or third. But it isn't as easy to get those next few books completed for us as it is for our white colleagues. And the expectations of teaching—even they are different for Black and white professors. Eventually what happens is a kind of displacement takes place.'

Is this situation, of feeling displaced, similar at other institutions and common among Black instructors? Richie says yes: 'At UIC in particular, there is a constant, daily battle for our [ Black studies ] presence—not our office but our credibility to stand alone,' she said. 'That extends to the validity of our program, the authenticity of the classes we teach, even the faculty. And what makes it even more challenging is students are ambivalent about majoring in Black studies. They want to know what kinds of jobs they can expect to find. And there are other factors that add to the daily pressure: faculty tenure and promotion; lower admission and graduation rates; and the retention of senior faculty members.

'At every level there is a battle over the importance of our department and the worth of our faculty. Now we are facing budget cuts while at the same time the university wants to maintain its reputation as a major research institution. So something has to be cut—the school becomes a leaner, meaner university and the relationship to the Chicago community is forced to change. But how all of this shakes out—I don't know yet.

'What I do know is young faculty members in my department often pick up where community college professors left off, especially with first generation college students. We as Black faculty also want smaller classes, more research leaves and higher salaries, like our white counterparts. But we often find ourselves compelled to do more for other students of color in order to help them survive. And there are still so many of our students who are gay but afraid to be public about that side of themselves—fearing retribution from their professors, other administrators or even students. Some say they are more afraid of living on the campus and being out for fear of gay bashing. This shouldn't be happening still but it is and it worries students. So we have to often become mentors, or at least work on strategies to make their lives more safe and more manageable.

'But if we return just to the issue of race for a moment, you can't, just because you're Black, be expected to or even attempt to sit on every Black student's dissertation committee or on every committee where race is a key issue in their work,' Richie added. 'We want to go to conferences, write that next book and also advise students. So, for us, 'arriving' in these wonderful positions means we have the challenge of managing a privilege with a lot of work.'

Our interview with these scholars, who happen to be gay, will continue in next month's edition. Stay tuned as they become engaged on the serious role of doing 'race work,' the continuing struggle of legitimizing what they do ( as scholars in Black studies ) , the joys and pains of being out and gay at their institutions, the connections they continue to see between race and sexuality, and the importance of naming those groups and individuals who have made their coming on board seem so innocuous.

And, look for the return of Church Chat where we'll talk to another affirming church and its pastor—Praise Center Chicago and the Rev. Kevin Tindell. It's going to be a month full of memories for this congregation as the upcoming ordination service for several of their ministers approaches. On hand will be congregational leaders and ministerial staff mentors from the sweet lands of Georgia and the city of Gay Pride—San Francisco.


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