Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

About the Blogger

November 6th, 2006 by Ajuan Mance

I am a professor of English and Mills College in Oakland, CA. For me, literature, history, and higher education are passions bordering, at times, on obsessions. I believe my real education in African American history began in 1991, in the spring, when my great aunt she showed me pictures of some of my 19th century ancestors and told me stories about my enslaved forbears. As I lay in my bed that night, thinking about how deep my roots ran in this nation, I felt more whole and more grounded and–most importantly, I think–more entitled to the life I desired than I had ever felt before. I suppose I could say that at that point I finally began to understand my relationship–my personal relationship–to the Black history of this country. This, for me, was history I could feel. More than facts, it was a sensation and spirit.

In some ways, my literary education had a similar beginning. Ironically, my deepest immersion in my chosen field of African American literature came outside of the classroom (or at least the classroom in which I was a student). During my first semester as a professor at the University of Oregon (which began just over a month after I defended my dissertation) I was forced conduct myself through a crash course in African American literature. I had to teach across periods and genres in a way that I’d never had to during graduate school. While my doctorate had encouraged me to specialize, the U of O needed me to become a generalist, quickly. During that first year as a professor, I studied U.S. Black literature in greater depth than I ever could have in any graduate program, simply because few Universities could possibly offer the range of courses that it would take to educate me in prose, poetry, and drama, from 1619 through the end of the 20th century. And as I read novels and stories and poems and plays, and the scholarship that analyzed and contextualized that work, I began seeing links between people and genres, places and periods that I had not fully understood before. I began to comprehend in an even more nuanced way that I did during my doctoral program the ways that Black writers commented on, entered into, challenged, critqued, and–eventually–transformed almost every societal construct (gender, race, class, place, power) that they encounter. It was a truly a beautiful thing, and it was literature, literary theory, and literary history that I could feel.

So, that brings me to the question of who I am and why I am blogging Black folks on U.S. college campuses. As a people for whom the denial of educational opportunity has been experienced as a tool in our collective subjugation, and for whom the acquisition of education has in almost all ways proven emancipatory, we have been deeply influenced  by the fluctuating cycles of access and restriction that have characterized our relationship to a white-dominated educational structure.

At the same time, however, we have transformed the texture and meaning of the academic enterprise at every point that we have been allowed to or–just as often–demanded access to institutions of higher learning. Similarly we have challenged and reshaped the meaning and nature of teaching, learning, and knowledge itself; we have transformed the very nature of how education is conceived and practiced, as well as the substance of what it means to be educated.

I want a space to ponder this effect of Black people on higher education. I want a space in which to talk about the encounter between African Americans and the academy that is not solely defined by those hackneyed discussions of Black underachievement, white intellectual supremacy, and other similar frameworks that locate intellectual achievement and Blackness as polar opposites.

As an academic insider, whose counts among her forbears several generations of Black educators, my perspective is necessarily oppositional to those who would have us believe that the presence of African Americans in U.S. college classrooms (as either teachers or students) is an abberation.  I’m tired of being invisible as a Black academic. We are out there, and even those of us Black folks who haven’t made it into the “hallowed halls” of higher learning are critical thinkers, native intellectuals for whom rigorous interrogation of the ideas, theories, and social/political/cultural/economic frameworks that maintain the status quo is but another of the tools required for our existence in this Euro-dominant society. What I am saying is that we African Americans are, by nature and necessity, critical thinkers, for whom elite intellectual practice isn’t much of a stretch, once we get a chance to develop our skills and expand our knowledge.

Drop in once in a while. I’ll try to maintain this as a space for fresh and provocative perspectives on Black education. I hope you’ll weigh in with your own thoughts and opinions.


Ajuan Mance