We enter the academy hoping to effect change and to carry on the legacy of our discipline, but what happens when these very places kill us?
The University of Alaska recently announced plans to eliminate 39 academic departments and to consolidate majors due to concerns with shrinking enrollment due to Covid-19. On the surface, this may seem like a practical business decision meant to save the organization money and resources, but for those in the know — this is a warning. One of many that have begun to reveal themselves. Liberal arts programs are closing. Colleges are beginning to trim the fat. Even before the quarantine, the process of academic prioritization was a major issue for universities and colleges who were struggling to remain relevant. As a result, some had already made the decision to invest in programs that were money generators and to disinvest from fields like African American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, American Studies, and Geography. The academy was and is killing entire fields of study.
We are in a dire time, but then again we have been for quite a while. With the move towards academic prioritization and COVID, we are beginning to see a decrease in positions, especially in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Despite the reorganization of universities, departments are continuing to admit Ph.D. students and graduate schools are contending with the implications of moving their courses online. All of these factors are concerning, but for BIPOC graduate students, PhDs, and Faculty, dystopian education presents even more double binds.
For Black people, the university was never a rose garden. It was riddled with land mines, labels, racist colleagues, an absence of mentoring, and unspoken and unseen barriers. Over the past decade while attending graduate school, while on the job market and while gainfully employed, I pondered this experience and my own dedication to a place that felt antagonistic. It was a place that had snatched my spirit and made me feel traumatized. I often felt as if I had a learning disability in these hallowed halls, not understanding that the crippling effects of my acculturation into this system had severed pieces of me. As I mentioned in a previous essay, I am/we are hemorrhaging and there is no patch for this pain that we feel. It is endemic.
After I published The Geography of Despair or All These Rubber Bullets, I reflected on my experiences as a graduate student and a faculty member. As luck would have it, a brilliant campaign emerged on Twitter under the #BlackintheIvory led by scholars @DrShardeDavis and @SmileItsJoy who created another virtual space for Black scholars to document their experiences in academia. These tweets mirrored some of my own frustration and angst that I hadn't been able to articulate as a graduate student or junior faculty member. It was, as many Black folks say, “preaching to the choir.” But at the same time that it was a hallelujah shout moment, reading these tweets was painful. They are a reminder that even as I grapple with my own academic mortality, this space does not feel safe. It is not safe.
In these tweets, I saw remnants of my life before the tower fell on me. It warmed my heart to know that despite my internal struggles, there were other survivors. But these spiritual deaths were hard to see. There were no funerals or wakes, or pre-existing conditions. But the pain was familiar. It was like we had all experienced a spiritual form of hazing. And when we finally got our membership cards, we wondered:
I sometimes wondered was I insane? Was it all in my head? This made no sense. I remember working as a secretary at Emory University and reading a sign about PhDs and depression and thinking “What do they have to be depressed about?” How naive was I. Perhaps I was so caught up in my feelings of inadequacy that I chose to ignore the strain that I saw in those students’ eyes. While applying to graduate programs, I remember asking my friend Nan about her experiences pursuing a PhD in Psychology from a public ivy and remember her saying, “I don’t talk about that place. It was trauma.” She laughed as she detailed how she skipped graduation because she couldn’t bear to stay there one more hour. While she was grateful for the degree, the journey was riddled with debris.
When I started attending the American Association of Geographers Annual Meetings, I remember looking for me in the names of faceless people in the program. I remember delivering papers on Black lives in half-empty paper sessions and roaming full hallways wondering, why is Geography so white? even as scholars began to pose questions pertaining to race, space, and power. I was a stranger in another country. And then I met my “Scorpio Twin” and the meetings felt like home. We created a space despite dealing with sexism, racism, and being excluded by other marginalized geographers. Then there was more, and for a while, it felt like a Maroon colony in the midst of these colonial spaces. For one week out of the year, I communed and broke bread with my sisters, brothers, cousin, aunties, and uncles. For eight years, we too were in power talking about creating a revolution. Attending these meetings refueled me and gave me hope that change could happen. These meetings replenished me, filled me with hope, and quelled my sorrow for a moment.
And then the bodies began to disappear. There were no coffins, funerals, or home going services. Students of color just quietly dropped out of graduate school unnoticed and buried like bodies in a genocide. I remember during the first year that we held a Black Geographies meeting, my “Scorpio Twin” and I met a Black first-year PhD student attending a well-known program on the East Coast. He was walking alone and looked slightly demoralized. “Arthur” described the racial trauma that he endured from his professors, as well as students in his cohort. Despite successfully making it through the first year, he had been advised to leave the program because he was not seen as a good fit. During the conference, we spent time with him, exchanged numbers, and tried to offer support and consolation. After a few months, we never heard from him again. Another body-snatched. Taken. With no explanation. These killing fields.
When Black people or other people of color go missing, seldom are there geographical expeditions to find them or identify the cause of their demise. They just disappear. I disappeared. And no one seemed to notice. I walked the line between life and death in my graduate program, after comps, writing the dissertation, on the job market, and in my first full-time faculty position. Even as I presented at conferences, published work, and spearheaded the new specialization of Black Geographies — I was spiritually and intellectually exhausted. Spent. Overwhelmed. Locked up in the panopticon of my mind.
As I contemplate the state of my field — Geography, and by proxy, so many others (African American Studies, Ethnic Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, Sociology,etc.) — I wonder what this ever-shrinking world will look like for people like me. Black folks. Indigenous folks. Latinx folks. Asian folks. First-generation folks. These academic spaces, our Elysian Fields, are changing even as we are straining to make a place, contest space, and transform the technologies of academia. I spoke to a fellow Black Geographer the other day who told me that she found her home in another academic department. There were no jobs in Geography, and even if there were, many departments are not truly welcoming to faculty of color and delegitimize our scholarship. So despite having a PhD in Geography, she could not see herself reflected in the faculty or the curriculum.
The lack of jobs and the lack of Black faculty in these roles is problematic and could be the death of Geography as a discipline. I have spent a large amount of my professional life in the job market in search of an institutional home. Even before finishing my doctorate, I knew that the jobs were few and that my area of focus — Black Queer Geographies and Racialized Landscapes of Anti-Blackness — would not map onto our very white curriculum. Furthermore, I knew that as a Black woman, I would certainly be the only or the first; a role that had already worn down my fortitude as a graduate student. Even in the midst of all of this tragedy, I was hopeful. There were departments and universities that were beginning to seek out diverse candidates and a few innovators were investing in lines focused on Black Geographies. This seemed promising — at first.
Even as I sought out opportunities, tales of lost Black bodies haunted me. Like the graduate students, faculty also disappeared and/or were vanquished from the Empire. I heard the stories of well-known Black scholars who worked twice as hard as our white colleagues yet were denied tenure and rendered disposable. I saw dead people, not physically but metaphorically.
I heard stories of adjuncts, visiting assistant professors, and lecturers who were used to fill classes, for their emotional labor, and or as props in departmental political games. I head stories of Black faculty that became bridges for lucrative grants or visibility for the department PR but were refused permanent appointments when lines opened. All these bodies. These brilliant scholars could have been the future of the discipline but were spirited away. This pillaging of Black individuals from departments results in a gap — an absence of intellectual thought that isn’t completely framed by the European based canon. There can’t be more of us until there are MORE of us who have tenure and security. And even when we get tenure and security, our professional geographies — our departments, former classmates, and colleagues — don’t always feel like home. For those Black scholars who are studying race and introducing new paradigms of thought, there are land mines that can explode at any time. These land mines (colleagues, search committees, tenure and promotion boards, upper-level administrators, or even students) can kill your career.
So now here we sit at the brink of what could be radical change or our utter demise.
Even as I watched Geographers retweet and like my essay, I was aware of the hidden transcripts of Black faculty and graduate students who knew that speaking the truth could threaten their career. In these killing fields, one must weigh the calculated costs of their actions. There is no safety net. There is no refuge. You are in danger of being persecuted by others, or you are silencing and killing off pieces of yourself. And this is the best-case scenario.
In Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, the narrator delivers a graduation speech on Social Equality. As he is presented with a new briefcase with a scholarship to a Black college inside, he dreams of embodying the life of a Black intellectual. Tragically, he has a dream about the contents of the suitcase. There is no scholarship, only a letter stating: “To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger Boy Running.” His academic achievements are for naught. His dreams are dashed.
It is all a cruel joke.
These are the killing fields.
Aretina R. Hamilton is a Black Geographer who lives on planet earth. You can find her on Twitter @blackgeographer or Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/aretinahamilton/