Black Thinkers Matter, Too

I have worked at two academic journals as an editorial assistant. This has given me some insider knowledge on how the process works. Journals are written by and for academics. It is rare that their contents hit the newspapers or create a storm of protest on Twitter and Facebook.

Two journals managed to do that in the last decade. And both journals were forced to give a public apology for their ‘oversight.’ In 2017 the Journal of Political Philosophy published a special issue on Black Lives Matter. Without a single article by a Black academic. About decade earlier, in 2006, PMLA, Journal of Modern Language Association also published a special issue. It was on “Feminist criticism today: In memory Nellie McKay.” McKay was African American. There were no Black authors in the issue.

How was the ‘oversight’ possible in both journals, given the long and extensive process of planning ordinary and special issues?

Journals are the foundations of creating, curating and distributing academic knowledge. They are inherently conservative in outlook. A journal’s editorial board functions as its gatekeeper. It decides the theme of each issue. Oftentimes this is publicized in a call for papers, other times a select group of authors are invited to write for the journal. Once an article is submitted, the editorial board does an internal review of it. If the essay is seen to have merit, the editorial team then decides who to ask to do the peer review.

Like the editorial board, the peer review board is made up of fellow academics who are experts in the knowledge field covered by the journal. Typically an essay is critiqued and assessed by four people from the peer review board. They recommend whether to accept or reject the essay for publication.

As you can see from this brief overview, a journal’s editorial process is long. It can take a year or more from submitting an article to hearing back if it will be published or not in the journal. Most times parts of the essay may have to be re-written to reflect the feedback from the editorial and peer review boards. The essay is then reviewed again. Special issues of the journals are planned up to two years in advance.

So how was it possible for the journals to publish special issues on Black lives all of which were written by non-Black writers? To me their ‘oversight’ is a good example of hegemonic whiteness in action.

This mean the journals’ editorial boards equals a group of white men and white women around the table. They send the articles for review to another group of white men and white women on the peer review boards. Both boards function as guardians in two respects. First, they are guardians for whiteness.  Second, they are keepers of the field of knowledge.

The guardians ensure that whiteness is the default for entry through the journals’ gates. It’s as if they wear special glasses that enables them to see only in shades of white. Black authors become invisible at the gate as they cannot meet the basic criteria for entry. What they have to contribute to the journals’ area of knowledge becomes irrelevant if they can’t even be seen.

Dr. Chris Lebron is an assistant professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy at Yale University. In an open letter to the Journal of Political Philosophy, he pointed out it had published an article on race or by a Black writer in the past five years. Race is at the heart of politics in the USA, yet a political journal systematically failed/refused to cover it. The journal can only have its head stuck way up in its own arse.

Protests forced both journals to plan special issues that include Black thinkers. In my view, this sop is defensive and rather tokenistic. One time entry into the journal means the white blinkers will be put back on, once the fuss fades. It does not challenge the centrality of whiteness embedded in the core of the journals.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

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Choices: Marriage or Academia?

Like mosquito bites the professor’s words stung. The more she talked the more the bites itched. I willed myself to continue listening, ignoring the angry rash spreading in my spirit.

The professor introduced herself in class by summarising her accomplishments and climb up the academic ladder. Her achievements were many. Then she added a few personal details. She was married, this I expected. She had two children, this I did not expect. It was the first mosquito bite.

I did my first degree in England, switching from chemistry to international relations. As expected, there were no female professors in the science faculty. There was only one in my social science department. Three years of school and only one woman to show the possibilities of an academic career. At that point I decided it was not for me.

I did not want to end up at aged thirty, single, childless and old, facing a group of adolescents dissecting me with their pitying looks. Scanning my fingers for a ring, ears pricked for any hint of a life outside of lectures, books and exams.

Male professors aged thirty were fanciable, even in their corduroy pants, sensible shoes and jackets with elbow patches. A whiff of Old Spice enhanced their appeal. Female professors were a different a different chemical combination, smelling more like hydrogen sulphide than Chanel No. 5.

A decade later I did my master’s degree in Canada. Half of the professors were women (White). Hiding behind the gender parity was another reality. Most of the female professors were either single, divorced or childless. The male professors were the ones who were married with children. Once again, I decided that academia was not for me. Female professors were lonely old maids – albeit superbly educated lonely old maids.

And now, some two decades later, in my PhD class orientation, was a woman living the life that I had walked away from. She was my age. She was an academic. She was married with children. It should have been me. The mosquito bites blistered in my spirit.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir or Travel and Love