Doctoring while Black(ish) shows me how much black male role models are needed in academia

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Photo: flickr/austinevan

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Dr. Phanuel Antwi job talk -- an invited lecture given by shortlisted candidates for a tenure track position in the department -- at UBC, entitled "Dub Poetry as a Black Atlantic Body-Archive." The talk was evocative and wildly successful and I am happy to say that it won him the job in one of the most competitive competitions I have ever seen.

One of the oddities of Antwi's talk was that he avoided performing readings of the dub poets he was describing and celebrating. There was one brief moment when he did give the audience a sample of the sound of these poets, and as he performed what amounted to about three lines of poetry the room came alive.

Antwi is a gifted performer, so his avoidance of poetic performance struck some in the audience as strange. When pushed on the issue in the question period, Antwi informed the audience that his choice to avoid performance was intentional. He knew that there would be few, if any, black scholars in the audience at UBC, and he did not want to turn himself, and his black body, into a fetishized object.

It was a brave moment in which a scholar reminded his peers that at least part of the pleasures of hearing him perform these women's poems was the idea that he was performing them as a black man, and using his embodied experience as a black man as a means of creating knowledge and pleasure for a mostly white audience.

What was perhaps most striking about the talk for me was my awareness as a mixed race scholar and just how unique it was to have a black male scholar competing for a job at a major research university in Canada. In my six years at UBC this was the first time the English department had brought in a black man to give a lecture of any kind, never mind a job talk.

In my pervious eight years of post-secondary education (six as an undergraduate at the University of Winnipeg and two years as a master's student the University of Regina), this was only the second time I had seen a black man invited to my school to give a lecture. The other was given on a cold, depressing, Regina winter night by the energetic, almost frantic, and very entertaining poet, playwright, scholar and activist George Elliott Clarke. Seeing and hearing black men being given a chance to speak about art and culture has been, in my educational experience, all too rare.

To be clear, I am not saying that the University of Winnipeg's, Regina's or British Columbia's English departments are racist or that they have avoided bringing in black scholars intentionally. What I am saying is that this absence is striking and troubling, even if the evidence for it is anecdotal.

It is all the more striking for me because, as a mixed-race scholar who works on Shakespeare and early modern religious culture of all things, I have always felt a twang of guilt for not working on projects that more directly addressed issues of race and class.

Do I have an obligation to study race because I am raced? Does my being mixed race somehow excuse me from considering the ways in which race, and racialization, impact the generation of knowledge in the contemporary research university? Do I have a place in conversations about blackness because I can pass as white? How do I claim and respect the privileges that come with my ability to pass while also acknowledging how important my blackness is to my scholarship?

I was raised by a loving, kind, affectionate grandmother who passed when I was still quite young. Not a day goes by when I don't think of her, and the rhythm of her voice as she told a story. She was proud of her blackness, her daughters and hopeful for her grandchildren's future, not in the least part because we were light skinned.

She was sure that, with my blue eyes, light skin and brown hair, I could pass as white as long as I remembered not to let people know about my mother, what church I went to or the smells of our kitchen. In some ways, I am sure that my academic success was aided, at least in part, by my ability to pass. In other ways, I am also sure that the strain of being not quite white and not quite black has hindered my ability, as a scholar and activist, to feel like I fit in.

As I grew older and I acquired amazing mentors, I started to think about the absence of black male role models in my life. Sure, there were black people on television all the time, but what I needed, more than anything, was to see black men reading books, talking about literature and to have them confirm for me that I was not selling out by caring about art and culture more than I cared about being cool and acting black like MTV.

I needed to know, to see and to witness that part of being a black man could involve loving and appreciating art and culture, and that my desire to study things like Shakespeare was not merely an extension of my desire to pass as white. What I needed, in short, was to have seen more men like Antwi giving talks about books they loved and speaking the words of poets they admired and to have them confirm for me, over and over again, that part of black masculinity could involve loving literature and culture while still embracing one's blackness. 

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Jamie Paris now resides primarily in Vancouver where he is a doctoral candidate in the department of English at UBC. He studies the role of affect and religion in the tragedies of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. 

Photo: flickr/austinevan

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