Black Language Matters: Black Languaging/ Black Mentoring of Young Black Faculty

I saw a job ad recently for an assistant professor and lecturer in my field.  I shook my head as I read it, feeling sorry for the early career scholar who might read that ad and not understand the coded meanings.  The ad asks for someone to help design/run a (failing) program, publish in the field, work closely with the entire department, AND make a strong commitment to the college. No, those are NOT reasonable requests.  It’s all just code for: we gon exploit the hell outta you and question your integrity and commitment if/when you refuse to let us get over on you and use you up til there is nuthin left.  And I am crystal clear here too: if the new hire is Black, that person will get exploited even more with these kind of community service expectations since it is not imaginable that Black college faculty are— first and foremost— critical scholars and researchers.  Because I know the context of this college, I know three things about this job: 1) the salary and package do not match the administrative requirements and are not commiserate with national norms; 2) there is no mentoring, available role model, or support for research and scholarship in the department that you’re expected to get so close to (publication is STILL the only thing that matters for tenure/promotion); 3) the organization and infrastructure of the college are so unstable with such constant shifts and changes in leadership that it is strange to expect NEW faculty to be the ones to bring longevity and consistency.  I am able to read and understand these signs in that job ad because of the kind of mentoring I had in graduate school.

Mentoring of young Black faculty (and graduate students) who work at colleges across the country usually hinges on teaching young Black professors the rules of college life as it pertains to tenure and promotion.  You can find all kinds of empirical research on the best strategies for mentoring young Black faculty so that they secure that golden fleece in the end.  This research is also really clear about the importance of Black mentors for these early career professionals. But there’s always been something missing from these discussions for me.  It’s not just about teaching young Black faculty the rules of the academy.  It’s about centering Black thought and Black life in people’s lives at the academy.  That’s where Black Language comes in for me.

When I have become obsessed with yet another dysfunctional episode at the colleges where I have worked, the words of my graduate mentor, Suzanne Carothers, always ring in my head: do not confuse the WORK with the JOB.  Those words have kept me sane and grounded …and those words have helped me move onwards and higher when the limited horizons of other folk have attempted to confine me. I locate this mantra— and its many offshoots— squarely within Black culture.  I see this as a kind of cultural memory and hence language for a social group who has had to continually invent dignity and identities that run against the menial “jobs” and “positions” they have been relegated to.  It ain’t difficult to feel good about your job when the people who look like you/live with you are the ones always chosen as the CEOs, CFOs, COOs, et al (I include college administrators in these titles given the corporate nature of higher education today).  It takes more imagination and humanity to carve out a communal sense of worth when your labor exists solely in terms of some kind of subservience to whiteness: slave, domestic, factory worker, janitor… you name it.  In my own family, the J.O.B. did not dictate the limits of one’s worth, no matter how little you were paid.  As we usedta say in the 90s: It’s a Black Thing… Plain and Simple.

My mentor’s reminder to never confuse the WORK with the job gives me a framework for surviving hostile environments based on the cultural memory and history of my own people.  That’s so much more than simply telling me the rules of publication for tenure.  Suzanne’s mentoring and example have helped me shift the political, linguistic, and aesthetic center of gravity in my own self-actualization in spaces that work directly opposite of that.  For so many of my colleagues, the work that they do is confined to the physical building that houses their job.  For Suzanne, the WORK is always much bigger and much more meaningful than that. That’s why I could never support a job ad like the one I described in my opening.  If you don’t know the difference between the WORK you have chosen to do/that has chosen you and the JOB that employs you at this one moment in time, you will fall for any ole kind of okey doke that exploits you rather than transforms/challenges/ understands the world around you.  Black language teaches us to do/think/be better than that.

“Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday”

This year, my father gave me money for Christmas since he seems to have given up all hope of buying me clothes, jewelry, electronics, etc.  After I opened the envelope, here is what our conversation was like:

You know you put money in this envelope, right?  I wasn’t gon tell you in case it was a mistake but I figured I better be honest with it bein Christmas and all.

Oh, naw, baby, that was a mistake.  Gimme that money back.

Ima put it in the mail for you right now.  I hope it get to you, cuz you knooooow how the post office be.

That’s pretty typical banter between my father and me, especially since he is becoming more and more like Fred Sanford with each passing year.  The banter has ALWAYS been like this, it pops off very quickly, and Christmas was never an exception.  The monetary gifts are a new thing but the wit, love, and laughter have been constant.

Many academics who I know will tell me that my nostalgia is romantic or maybe even essentialist.  But these people are not usually Black.  Or, if they are, I don’t really like or respect them very much (I may as well keep being honest).  Whether or not I am romantic or essentialist, I don’t really care about these elitist labels from people who divorce their thinking and intellectual work from everyday, social action and participation in real communities and neighborhoods (college campuses, volunteerism, and nuclear family life are not THAT.)  So I am proud to say that I remember the holidays fondly.  Material scarcity did not conflict with emotional abundance. After all, it didn’t take any money for my father to grant me my one Christmas wish: to let me hear Kurtis Blow perform my favorite Christmas song, the one that got me in trouble in school because those were the only lyrics I memorized:

Now, of course, I was about 8 years old and really excitable.  You have to realize that, for my father, this was quite a sacrifice, because his favorite Christmas song was none other than William Bell’s “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday” and he kept it on rotation all day long too, to my obvious dismay given my emerging tastes.  And I had a lot to say about it too.

Legend has it, according to my father, that my uncle (one of his 7 brothers), could sing this song better than anyone in Alabama. I tend to take that seriously, since my uncles are not ones to give you a compliment when you do NOT deserve it and will, quite forthrightly and loudly, tell you when your skills are lacking.

There were, of course, commercial breaks from my father’s rotation of William Bell’s song.  That was when I would hear Charles Brown’s version of “Merry Christmas, Baby.”

Or… there were also times when I could hear my favorite “old-timey song” (as I called it back then) that my 8-year old self was willing to tolerate without loud objection: Diana Ross and the Supremes doing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Me”:

Now let my aunts, my father’s seven sisters, tell it, ALL of them can sing this song better than anyone anywhere.  I have heard them sing: I think they are right.

Convinced that Charles Brown was a woman with a scratchy voice, I always loved this line, my all-time-favorite Holiday words: “Well, I haven’t had a drink this mo’nin, but I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree…ooooh.”  At eight years old, I had no idea what these words meant but I could recite them.  And I could talk a lot of stuff too about all this holiday music that just sounded way too much like what my father was always playing: Motown, Soul, Blues… just…too… much! Like I said, I was young with questionable musical taste.  But if you were visiting my house, you would hear William Bell playing all day too.  And, before you walked out, you’d be twinkling, all lit up like a Christmas tree, and you might get some banter in between too (once again, I’m just being honest here).

As I closed out my 2012 Winter Solstice observance, I find myself nostalgic and it is a nostalgia of the utmost significance to me: it reminds me that in the midst of the most savage oppression, we can demand and participate in our own humanity.  We can laugh and help a little girl inject her generational, Black aesthetic into the groove and we can create an environment that sounds like love even when the rest of the world won’t sound that for us. These days I see these moments as incredibly radical.   Maybe that’s why my father liked William Bell’s song so much: maybe the challenge really is to make everyday like a holiday.   I’m glad my family gave me a set of memories and dispositions to point me in that alternate direction.