SEPTEMBER 9, 2020
THE INTRODUCTION TO Lavelle Porter’s The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual is titled “Blackademic Lives Matter” and the sentiment has never carried as much weight as in this moment when academic institutions are faced with two overlapping pandemics — one that has been within their walls for centuries and one that is redefining how they will go about their work in the fall.
When it comes to the oldest crisis, the academy has been content to place the burden of managing it on a rotating roster of Black faculty, often hired under the guise of resolving intractable problems and then denied tenure for taking on that work while most of their white colleagues on the tenure track have the freedom to ignore the crisis. Added to this long-term crisis, all faculty teaching classes next year will do so in physical and virtual classrooms shaped by the COVID-19 crisis, against the backdrop of a renewed, and now global, reckoning with what the phrase “Black Lives Matter” means beyond the hashtag and empty institutional rhetoric. Black students will be disproportionally affected by both of these conditions and so will the faculty who teach them. But while COVID-19 has its own particular role in the current higher education crisis, Porter shows in The Blackademic Life that many of the pressures of this moment are not new; in fact, they have been material for fiction, film, and television for decades.
Lightly threaded through with Porter’s own experience as a Blackademic (he attended Morehouse as an undergraduate and holds a PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center), The Blackacademic Life is primarily a study of how long-standing pressures on Black faculty and students have been represented in fiction. This approach, in itself, is rare. To understand Black life in the academy we usually look to history or sociology. Books like Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities and the recent anthology Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies edited by Leslie M. Harris, James T. Campbell, and Alfred L. Brophy reveal the experiences of Blackademics from the vantage point of historians, sociologists, and anthropologists. But Porter’s perspective as a literary critic is as uncommon as it is essential for these times. By focusing on fictional representations of Black lives on campus, he is able to examine these lives in their wholeness — not just in response to white supremacy. Porter’s reading of these novels (he lists 52 of them in the book’s notes) also attends to their aesthetics. He does not, in other words, see himself as simply “mining the genre for its political significance.”
As I read calls for curriculum reforms that reflect that #BlackLivesMatter, The Blackademic Life seems the perfect book for those looking to restructure courses in contemporary American literature and culture. It is well researched, theoretically sophisticated, but still accessible. It doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive analysis of the genre, but it is expansive — reading Du Bois, Adichie, Delany, Himes, and Mat Johnson’s Pym. It is also a too rare example of a genre study that does not treat gender and sexuality as an afterthought.
In an essay for Public Books, “How to Subvert the Capitalist White-Supremacist University,” Debarati Biswas considers The Blackademic Life alongside The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. Based in part on her conversation with Porter at a McNally Jackson book reading in SoHo that I attended in November, Biswas’s essay points to the difficulty of thinking about the persistent challenge for Black people in the academy. She notes that Porter, Moten, and Harney all “document the possibilities of subversive practice and radical sociality within the university, despite its efforts to calibrate and neutralize the purpose of diversity and difference.” Watching the conversation between Porter and Biswas (who is writing a book on aesthetics and belonging in African American Men’s Literature) was to see the beginning of a new accounting of American literature that doesn’t think of race as additive but constitutive. Porter and I started a conversation about his book soon after that event, before the COVID-19 crisis, and I asked him to revisit that conversation in light of global reactions to police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and how Blackademics were thinking of academe’s responsibility to their Black faculty and students.
PATRICIA A. MATTHEW: What makes a novel about Black people in higher education a Blackademic novel?
LAVELLE PORTER: The Blackademic Life is a literary study of the genre known as the “academic novel.” In the critical literature, scholars discuss the (relatively minor) differences between the “academic novel” and “campus novel” and “college novel.” I address some of that inside baseball in the book. Mostly I am interested in fiction that features Black students, professors, and administrators, and that explores academia as a central concept. To use popular film examples that people might know, School Daze is an academic film because it is set on an HBCU campus, and deals with the politics of higher education. I don’t consider the romantic comedy The Best Man to be an academic film. It features educated Black characters who know each other from college, and even includes a flashback to their college days, but the film isn’t really a commentary on higher education. I use a similar distinction when it comes to novels and stories. I’m interested in literature that really explores the meaning of higher education, and the place of Black people in institutions of higher education, or within the academic profession. I try to aim for an expansive conception of Blackness in its many variations. Not every Blackademic novel tells the same story, but I try to organize the discussion around a few key concepts. The ideas of “responsibility” and “representation” come up in just about all of these works, and that’s because of the historical role that Black intellectuals have been forced to play as spokespersons, a role that many writers try to avoid or reject or satirize in some way.
When did you realize that the genre required a book-length study?
I came up with the idea in graduate school. It initially grew out of my research on African American literary satire, including Japanese by Spring by Ishmael Reed and Erasure by Percival Everett. I also did an exam list on the work of Samuel R. Delany, and I noticed in an interview that he referred to his novel The Mad Man as an academic novel. That sparked my interest, and I sought out more critical literature on academic novels. I noticed there was very little commentary on academic novels by Black writers in that literature. As I began to find more Blackademic novels, I began to realize there was a possibility for a sustained study of the subject, and I felt like it would actually make for a compelling book. Thankfully, Gianna Mosser, my editor at Northwestern University Press, felt the same way, and she helped to bring the book to life.
Were there novels you wanted to discuss but decided to leave out? Why?
There’s a footnote where I talk about some of the most recent novels, and how I could have done a separate chapter on post-9/11 novels. Appropriately enough, academic labor is one of the reasons why I didn’t do that chapter. To use a term Tressie McMillan Cottom has used, I’m a “working academic.” I teach three or four courses each semester, and have to do a ton of service work. I needed to finish this book, and it was going to be difficult to find time to do more research and more writing. (To be honest, I could have used more time on the book. I have noticed some errors in the finished product that I should have cleared up. I had to move fast, and I had to multitask in order to get this done. But I can’t make excuses either. It’s my responsibility to do whatever it takes to get things right.) I wanted to do a section about Zadie Smith’s On Beauty because it’s a popular novel that resonates with some of the other novels that I cover. It taps into that British tradition of academic novels, it addresses the culture wars, and it explores colorism, which is a topic you find in novels by Nella Larsen, W. E. B. Du Bois, Chester Himes, and Percival Everett, among others. I also wished I could have written more about Americanah because of the way Adichie explores diasporic political thought from a Nigerian perspective, particularly in that moment of the Obama presidency. But you have to find a way to finish your work. Jerry G. Watts, who I mention in the book, was one of my mentors at the CUNY Graduate Center, and he always told us graduate students: “Get it done. You’re not going to get the last word.” That’s great advice for any writer. You’re not going to get the last word. So I will leave it to others to build and expand on the work. Actually, that’s an outcome that I look forward to, because if people are arguing with it, revising it, and correcting it, then that means the work was useful for someone else.
If you teach these novels, what do your students think about them?
In the course of writing the book, I taught Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The novel works in the classroom, but it takes time and you really have to provide the historical context to help students understand it. But it’s usually worth the effort because it gives you so much rich material to work with in terms of understanding Black colleges and how they have functioned historically. You can use the book to explore the history of Jim Crow, blackface minstrelsy in popular culture, and a critical analysis of Black leadership, among other topics. I also had a good experience teaching Americanah. It’s a long novel, but it was one that my Black women students in particular appreciated. We had good discussions about the politics of Black hair, and it really gets to that feminist concept of the “personal is political.” I taught Paule Marshall’s short story “Brooklyn,” which is a tale about sexual harassment first published in 1961. The setting is familiar because the college she describes in the story looks and sounds a lot like City Tech in Downtown Brooklyn. I wrote about the story for Black Perspectives and how it resonates with the #MeToo movement. I have taught Percival Everett’s Erasure before and I’ve wanted to do so again. (Your question makes me think I should pitch a single author course on his work.)
The other challenge of teaching these works is that I mostly teach first-year writing courses and basic literature courses. The college where I teach doesn’t have an English major (which is something a few of my colleagues have been working on), so I’m limited in what I can teach. I don’t get to do those graduate seminars where I can just test out my research ideas with eager grad students. But I have learned to embrace the challenge of teaching where I do, because we constantly have to make the case for the relevance of what we assign. My students are vocational and technical majors who are busy working jobs and taking too many credits. So they don’t have the time and the resources to just read a bunch of weird literature for its own sake. (I wish we could give them that time and those resources.) Students don’t just accept that any literary work I assign is worth their time. We have to make that case over and over. While that can be frustrating, there’s something valuable about it. If the work isn’t relevant to my students who come from working-class New York and the New York City public school system, and I can’t effectively make that case to them, then I have to ask myself why I’m teaching it.
What would you love to see in a Blackademic novel, especially in this current political moment?
I’ve had ideas about writing such a novel myself, but I don’t really have the creative chops to pull it off. I’d like to see more academic novels by Black women. More novels from the HBCU experience. I think there’s a real opportunity to explore what it means to be in college in the 21st century, and to address the economic crisis in higher education, including adjunctification and student loan debt. (It’s likely that younger artists are using other media and other forms to explore these ideas.) I do follow some of the most recent academic novels coming out of the big publishing houses, and they’re still mostly set on elite college campuses. From my own experiences, I suspect part of the problem is that most of us who teach in regional state universities and community colleges just don’t have much time to reflect on what’s happening to us, because we are too busy trying to stay afloat. But I think you can see in the political discourse about higher education that there’s an overrepresentation of narratives about elite academia and not enough about the institutions that most of us will encounter. The good news is that I see more artists and critics who seem to be paying attention to this disparity, and maybe we’ll see some changes in the coming years.
Is there anything else you want to add?
As we were finishing this interview, the #BlackintheIvory movement took off as a by-product of the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter protests in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many more. We saw many colleges and universities put out Black Lives Matter statements, then promptly get roasted for their past failures to address racism on their own campuses, including their failures to hire, retain, and tenure Black faculty. When I wrote this book about racism in higher ed, I never thought I’d have so much rich personal material to use by the time it came out. But sure enough, I soon started having problems at my own institution where despite my extraordinary accomplishments I have received grossly unfair and inaccurate reviews of my work.
At the end of the day, what’s most aggravating about problems like this is that they are a huge waste of time and energy. I should be working on my second book, not taking time out to fight with mediocre dullards who haven’t accomplished anything close to what I’ve done. Ultimately what you have to do is try to use the resources from these institutions to get your work done, without letting them mess you up in the process. And if you do find yourself in a place where your work is actually supported and encouraged, consider yourself lucky, but also think about your responsibility to use that platform to do something meaningful for others, whatever that looks like to you.