“I can’t come to academia as a black man and not talk about these issues as if they don’t relate to me, because they do,” said Lamar Johnson. “My body is still subjected to racial disparity; my humanity will still be tested in academic spaces.”
According to Dr Johnson, an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s department of English, academia is not the safe, liberal haven many imagine; it is a “contested space” for black researchers. This is the case not only in the US, he said, but around the world, including in Africa.
While young black men such as Michael Brown are shot dead in the streets of Missouri, Dr Johnson argues that black scholars are suffering “spirit murder”: racial oppression in academia. In his recent paper, “Using our voices, losing our bodies: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and the spirit murders of black male professors in the academy”, he reflects on how other academics and students use metaphorical “bullets” to reject, silence and disrespect black academics.
“The people who benefit from [higher education] are primarily white folk; they’re shooting bullets at us. You think about scholars of colour: we’re always asked to be on multiple service committees within a department; we’re always asked to do more things than our white colleagues,” Dr Johnson told Times Higher Education. “Those bullets are being shot at us, and they impact on us doing our research and writing.”
It is one thing to appoint some black academics, Dr Johnson said, but another to sustain them. He claims that black academics are kept busy with menial tasks and are therefore prevented from dedicating as much time to their research as their colleagues are.
“That’s why I say [academia] is the neoplantation,” he said. “They have repackaged the way that they are using our black and brown bodies.”
The barriers that prevent black people from thriving in academia begin in the classroom, Dr Johnson said. Exams, curricula and teaching resources fail to reflect black experiences and culture and discourage black students from entering higher education.
Dr Johnson is working on “critical race English education”, a framework that develops counter-narratives to encourage black students, such as by acknowledging the contribution of black figures in history. It also encourages teaching and learning through different media – such as hip hop, poetry, dance and art – to incorporate black culture into education.
Dr Johnson also enjoys challenging traditional means of presenting academic work. In his most recent article, he features an exchange of expressive text messages between himself and a colleague to compare the murder of young black men on the streets with the metaphorical murder of black academics. It is unfitting to write about subjects such as racially motivated murder in an abstract, objective style, he argued.
“We have to think about dismantling the traditional way of doing research. And many research articles are very traditional, they’re very didactic and they’re written in a very particular way and that’s dehumanising in itself. There are so many ways in which we could tell our stories.”
“I want my grandma to pick up my article and understand it and relate to it,” Dr Johnson continued. “When I’m writing it’s very personal; I’m writing and telling my story, and so I’m also writing to heal myself and my racial wounds. I’m writing to resist.”