Home Academic writing Black in the Ivory Tower: high stakes and even higher expectations

Black in the Ivory Tower: high stakes and even higher expectations


By LaKeshia N. Myers

Representative LaKeshia Myers

According to the US census, 1.68% of Americans over 25 have a doctorate. This equates to approximately 2.5 million people (US Census, 2013). Americans with professional degrees such as physicians or dentists make up 1.48% of the U.S. population, so the total percentage of Americans called physicians is only 3.16%. For African Americans, that number equates to about 2,500. I am proud to count myself in that number. Obtaining a terminal degree is a painful journey that few will take and even fewer will complete. This is why the recent spectacle surrounding Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure at the University of North Carolina has generated great interest.

The debacle of tenure reminded me of the academy’s “talk” I received when I obtained my doctorate. On several occasions during the first six months of graduation, I received phone calls and lunches / dinners with black academics that reminded me of the “black tax” – the reality that for that to happen. African Americans are successful in predominantly white spaces, we have to work twice as hard to get half that. As my family, friends and confidants sought advice on where and what my next moves would be regarding the ascent into the ‘academy’ (the term used to collectively describe the Ivory Tower of higher education and those who work within its meritocracy).

What would I do with my new degree, they asked me? Would I focus on research or become an expert practitioner in my profession? Would I be looking to teach at the university level? Would I choose a tenure-track position or serve as an adjunct professor? How would I navigate the internal politics of university hierarchies? I chose the expert practitioner path, as an educator I preferred to hone my craft and teach the next generation educators how to effectively blend ‘old school’ teaching with a new flavor. Granted, this option saved me much of the internal politics known to those at the academy, but as I have progressed in my career and seek to become a “teacher of teachers”, my path to higher education and its elusive ivory tower continue to beckon.

When considering the “black tax”, those of us who choose to become full professors often walk a tightrope; navigate between race, institutional racism and professional responsibility to the colleges / universities that employ us. There is strict respect for research, academic writing and / or academic service. This is most often accompanied by rigorous reviews of student evaluations and measured responses to institutional disorder and the suppression of its authentic identity.

Repressing oneself is detrimental to the very nature of educational prowess and undermines the intellectual curiosity of teacher and student. This is why I was delighted to hear that Professor Hannah-Jones chose to bring her Knight Fellowship to Howard University, a historically black university, where she would be welcome and where her talents would be nurtured. Where she can challenge next generation thinkers and instill in them something my parents told me: “your only competition is yourself, you have the ability to do whatever you want. “