By LaKeshia N. Myers
According to the U.S. Census, 1.68 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have a PhD. This equates to approximately 2.5 million people (U.S. Census, 2013). Americans with professional degrees such as physicians or dentists make up 1.48 percent of the U.S. population, making the total percent of Americans referred to as doctors equal to only 3.16 percent. For African Americans, this number equates to roughly 2,500. I am proud to count myself in this number. Earning a terminal degree is a harrowing journey that few will take and even fewer complete. Which is why the recent spectacle surrounding Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure at the University of North Carolina was of great interest.
The tenure debacle reminded me of the academy “talk” I received upon earning my doctorate degree. On several occasions within the first six months of earning my degree, I received phone calls and entertained lunches/dinners with Black academics who reminded me of the “Black tax”—the reality that for African Americans to succeed in majority white spaces, we must work twice as hard to get half as much. As my family, friends, and confidants sought to provide counsel on where and what my next moves would be with regard to ascension within “the academy” (the term used to collectively describe the ivory tower of higher education and those who work within its idiosyncratic meritocracy).
What would I do with my new degree, they asked? Would I focus on research or would I become an expert practitioner of my craft? Would I seek to teach at the university level? Would I choose a tenure track position or serve as adjunct faculty? How would I navigate the internal politics of the university hierarchies? I chose the route of expert practitioner, as an educator, I preferred to hone my craft and teach the next generations educators how to effectively mix “old school” teaching with new flavor. Admittedly, this option has spared me much of the internal politicking known to those in the academy, but as I have advanced in my career and seek to become a “teacher of teachers”, my path toward higher education and its elusive ivory tower continue to beckon.
When considering the “Black tax”, those of us that choose to become tenure track faculty often walk a tight rope; navigating race, institutional racism, and professional responsibility to the colleges/universities that employ us. There is strict adherence to research, academic writing, and/or university service. Which is most often accompanied by stringent reviews of student evaluations and measured responses to institutional kerfuffle and suppression of one’s authentic identity.
Suppressing oneself is detrimental to the very nature of educational prowess and it cheapens the intellectual curiosity of both teacher and student. This is why I was excited to learn that Professor Hannah-Jones chose to take her Knight Fellowship to Howard University—a historically Black college, where she would be welcomed and her talents nurtured. Where she can challenge the next generation’s thinkers and instill in them something my parents told me, “your only competition is yourself, you have the ability to whatever it is you set your mind to.”