The dream of thriving in academia is still a nightmare for many Black professors

On the plight of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Black professors struggling to find an academic home — even in HBCUs

By D. Watkins
Published June 12, 2021 1:00PM (EDT)
Author Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks on stage during the 137th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 16, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)
Author Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks on stage during the 137th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 16, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

"Do the arms get any longer on this jacket?" I said. "I'm into this whole tweed, suede-on-the-elbows look. It's real Doctor Watkins-like — even though I'm not a doctor."

The lady at thrift store erupted in laughter. "You need a seamstress, buddy." 

I grabbed the available jackets, gladly paid the clerk about $20 for all three, and smiled my way out of the store. I was beyond happy — I was going to start my first university teaching job, as an English and creative writer professor. Being Black and in academia has always been tricky, if not impossible. It's like publishing and Hollywood in that respect — yet another industry that does not allow many Black people to play. I have three degrees, all from schools located in a city that is 64% Black, and can still count the number of Black professors I've had on one hand.

Over the last month, the outrageous treatment of Nikole Hannah-Jones by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has dominated headlines after UNC buckled to conservative political pressure to deny the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of The 1619 Project for the New York Times the tenure that traditionally accompanies her appointment as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Hannah-Jones, who graduated from Chapel Hill in 2003, was scheduled to start her position this year, and retained lawyers to handle her challenge to the university over its decision to offer her a five-year contract position instead.

"I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love," she said in a statement. "But I am obligated to fight back against a wave of anti-democratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices and chill free speech."

The job I was shopping to outfit myself for wasn't a tenured chair position like Hannah-Jones', or even an assistant professor job. My role was adjunct faculty, which explains the thrift store. But I was still beyond proud to be teaching at a university. I hadn't applied for this gig; an MFA classmate and Toni Morrison expert who became my mentor worked at this HBCU already, and she slid my CV to the department chair, who gave me an interview and then the job. The pay was $1,700 per class, per semester. And no, the year was not 1972; it was actually 2014. I was assigned to teach two classes with about 30 students in each, and semesters run about 15 weeks, which means I made about $226 a week — before taxes. 

But the low pay didn't bother me much. I was used to being poor at the time and relying on anywhere from three to 50 odd jobs to survive — building websites for artists, shooting videos, taking pictures, substitute teaching, anything to pay the bills while I wrote. The university gig would look prestigious on my frail, almost empty resume, I thought, and be a first step toward getting a real adult job — if they actually hired me full-time, which I knew they would do. I figured I could get to know the staff, build a reputation with the student body, work extra-hard at introducing students to cool, relatable literature infused with hip hop lyrics, revamp the English department, make a name for myself around campus, and become a staple — a guy they would be crazy not to hire. That was my plan. 

"And who are you?"

A short, preppie-looking dude approached me on my first day as I ran off copies of my syllabus.

"I'm guessing the new guy, right?" he said. 

I turned around and extended my long arm in its too-short blazer sleeve for a hand shake.

"My name is D, Watkins," I said to my new colleague. "I'll be here this semester. Nice to meet you." 

"So, what are you teaching?" he asked. 

"English 101 and 102," I replied, working the copier. 

Dude let out a loud and disturbing chuckle.

"Oh my goodness," he laughed. "Those students are always horrible — terrible! They want nothing out of life. You will have a bad day every day you see them. I have been on staff here for years, and it's always the same. Do you know what you are getting into? Nothing but bad days." 

I turned around and looked him in the eye. 

"Working with young students isn't a bad day," I said. "It's a job, a blessing. A bad day in my world is a gun in your mouth."

He paused. "I was just saying…"

"Don't say anything," I said. "There's no need for you to address me." I gathered my papers and stormed off toward my adjunct office. 

I wasn't mad enough to slam the door, but I was upset­­. An idea bounced around in my head: How can a guy who is not Black hold up space teaching at a historically Black university and have the confidence to tell a young Black professor that the Black students who attend this Black school are terrible? And then I was hurt, too, by how this clownish guy spoke about his work like this job was something he settled for, when I knew so many hard-working Black academics, myself included, who would kill for a full-time job with benefits at an HBCU.

My adjunct office became the spot — the hub for my plans, the place where I would go on to cut, sketch and configure my strategy for school domination. Normally, adjuncts don't get offices; however, the department was so small at this school the building had a whole floor of empty offices. Mine had a huge window overlooking the city. Inside was a good strong wooden desk, probably dating back to the Civil Rights era; a cozy chair that I pulled in from next door, and Wi-Fi –– all I really needed to publish my first essays and eventually complete my first book, with the cocktail of both giving me the status I would need to snatch up a full-time position. When I'd see that preppy professor in the hallway I'd walk right pass him, because he was wrong­­ about my students — they were amazing and I was really getting through to them.

During my first semester I felt things were going well, but I also noticed something kind of strange as I made my rounds on campus. I first explained it to one of my best friends from graduate school, Therman, who also had dreams of being a professor. 

"You gonna have that job at your university ready for me after I get this degree, right?" Therman asked me on one of my off days as we posted up at a campus bar, him clicking away on his laptop while nursing a vodka. "I'm gonna finish with a 3.9 bro — I'm killin' this program." 

I looked at Therman, who is as Black as me and from my neighborhood, and said, "You know what, I probably won't."

"Because even though the school is an HBCU, most of the people in my department with tenure are white," I told him. "I might not even have a full-time job for myself."

Historically Black Colleges and Universities are institutions established before Lyndon B. Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964. Prior to the Act, Black students were not allowed to attend many white institutions, and even in those institutions that admitted Black students, their numbers were very limited. HBCUs were a place where Black students could dream, learn and graduate with the skills needed to obtain gainful employment. These institutions evolved into hubs of Black beauty, Black art and Black culture. These schools were also places where Black scholars could grow, research and teach. And now there I was, 100 years after this particular HBCU had been created, as a Black guy with my Black friend, trying to explain to him and to myself that we may never get hired at one of our HBCUs because white men at the time had flooded the department.

"Damn, bro? For real?" Therman said.

"Maybe they don't value Black English professors or something," I laughed. "Maybe they want English teachers to look like they are from England."  

"Well, if anybody can flip them and make them value us, it's you, Watkins, so have my job ready," he replied, taking a slow sip of his drink. "I'll be finished in two semesters."

I kept a list in my office of things I the things I would need to do to make them value me enough to offer me a full-time position, aside from teaching and mandatory campus meetings and events: Publish a book, publish articles, and document all of the community work I was quickly becoming known for. I did all of those things during my first year at as an adjunct. I published over a dozen stories, secured two book deals, did a bunch of media around my stories, and headlined about 50 well-promoted events dealing with police brutality, systemic racism and the plight of many Black people living in the so-called post-racial America. I won multiple Best of Baltimore Awards and was named to the Baltimore Business Journal's 40 under 40 list. I was on a roll.

I was so proud of my accomplishments I didn't realize how sick my mentality was.

The white professors I worked with went to grad school, published in some obscure academic journals, and then received jobs at Black schools as full-time professors. My road to full employment depended on me not just being good, but being a superstar. Most of the Black professors I know today fit into that category, too. Our white counterparts can live private scholarly lives­­­. But Google Black professors and watch how many hits you get on a name: Our faces are plastered across the internet due to the number of public and community events we host and perform for, an unspoken requirement that allows the respective colleges we work for to justify our presence. 

Many of the white professors at that HBCU — who I actually did build pretty good relationships with — constantly reminded me that I was a star and told me that I would be a shoo-in for a job as soon as a position opened up. I even had a meeting with the provost who was so impressed by my writing and reputation, telling me, "You are what this school needs." 

I didn't let my head get big from the praise or see it as a cue to slack on my work. I published more articles, did more events, coordinated more student activities, all in preparation for my big moment, my shot at the tenure track, a chance to have the stability needed to become the writer I always wanted to be. And then it all worked out — or so I thought. I had an email from the university president. I imagined this was going to be it: He was going to promote me to a full-time tenure-track position, ask me to run the department, make my books required reading, cite my articles in campus literature, allow me to visit all of the high schools in the region to promote the university and up our enrollment, convince them this was the place where learning, connecting and celebrating Blackness was essential. It was my moment, I knew it.

But it wasn't. The email said he had been hearing a lot of great things about me, so he looked me up, and he read an essay I published (here at Salon) called "Screw the National Anthem," about the racist history of our national anthem and why I've never stood for it. (My original title was "F*** the National Anthem," but I wasn't allowed to use that word in the headline — to this day, I've never actually said the word "screw.") The president told me in this email that he was impressed by my writing, but if I wanted to continue my adjunct career at the university, I would need to tone my rhetoric all the way down.

I laughed so hard I snorted. The fact that he called a $226-a-week, no benefits, no guaranteed future, not even a parking spot gig "a career" was hilarious. 

I didn't tone down my rhetoric. I don't regret publishing that essay about how toxic and racist the anthem is, two years before Kaepernick began kneeling at games. And my time at that university came to an end after that semester. I knew there was nothing there for me. The provost who saw me as the future sent her own email a few months later — not about a job, but about an unpaid parking ticket, which struck me as a task way below her pay grade. The next semester, I was offered a position at the University of Baltimore, the institution where I had earned my MFA, as a lecturer. That gig came with benefits and more pay, but neither tenure track nor parking spot. I love UB, the place where I fell in love with education as an adult. And I'm extremely proud of what I accomplished at both schools during my six-year teaching career. But would be lying if I acted like Hannah-Jones' story isn't scary to me. If a writer as accomplished as her can be denied tenure, then what can I expect?

I don't know much about Hannah-Jones' personal journey through academia­­­­ — the number of Black professors she has had, her own hunger to teach. But I've read her amazing work, and I imagine that teaching journalism must be very important to her. Journalists with her status — winner of three National Magazine awards, a Peabody award, two Polk awards, a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur "Genius" Grant — are offered the best positions at the best schools. I guarantee other institutions are making her offers in case UNC doesn't fix its error. Which is also unfair; the 1619 Project was groundbreaking and she deserves to excel because of her work, not in spite of a controversy.

One beautiful thing to emerge out of this mess, however, is the solidarity shown by other journalists and academics is support of Hannah-Jones. More than 200 top scholars, filmmakers and public figures, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Rye, Ava DuVernay, Imani Perry and Roxane Gay, signed a statement of solidarity challenging the university's decision to deny Hannah-Jones tenure, published in The Root. UNC's chemistry department revealed that Lisa Jones, an associate professor at the University of Maryland's School of Pharmacy, canceled her plans to continue her career at Chapel Hill, based on the institution's treatment of Hannah-Jones.

"Hearing of the delay of Nikole Hannah-Jones' tenure decision led me to reconsider whether the environment at the University of North Carolina would be conducive to the achievement of my academic aspirations, which include promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion,"  Lisa Jones said in a statement. "While I have never met Ms. Hannah-Jones, as a faculty member of color, I stand in solidarity with her and could not in good conscience accept a position at UNC."

She might not be the last. William Sturkey, a Black tenured professor of history at UNC, says he thinks "probably 90 percent of Black and non-white faculty right now, they are probably looking at their other options," calling that number "a conservative estimate."

Universities should pay attention to this moment. They need us. More Black professors might start deciding they have better career options outside of institutions that don't value us. 

D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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