Rediscovering Voices in Uncertain Times
My first “real job” after college was an admissions officer and multicultural recruitment coordinator. I read thousands of applications from my assigned region and served as the second reviewer for African American applicants at U.S. based high schools. My tenure, albeit short, was a taste of embodied ethnography. Perhaps it resulted from a nearly endless day in my office pouring over hundreds of applications into the late hours of a Saturday night. Or maybe it resulted from the lengthy meetings focused on which first-generation college students—Black, Mexican, and Hmong—would be selected for special enhanced educational and community-based programs, that I developed a critical, sociological imagination. I could not separate my experiences as the only Black admissions officer from the stories of pain and adversity narrated overwhelmingly by non-white students, especially from the Black applicants. Encouraged to review applicants objectively, but holistically, signaled a conundrum —where did objectivity live? I saw myself on the pages of those applications, yet, Black students were severely underrepresented at the institution.
When I think about “that and who inspires and influences my brand of sociology,” I think about those students who shared painful experiences in their essays, and the acceptance letters that followed. I think about my own story, telling and retelling my own trauma to seemingly prove that I was more deserving than the others to gain the proverbial golden ticket—admissions. As the lines between my own experiences and the stories shared by Black, prospective students blurred, the internal dialogue that ensued was my call to action. The call to consider my own past, present, and the future reflects the historical and contemporary perspectives in the three-part collection of essays edited by Marcus Hunter—New Black Sociologists.
The 2017 feature film Hidden Figures exposed the world to the untold histories and contributions of three African American women who were mathematicians at NASA in 1949. The first part of Hunter’s anthology utilizes the same name and offers counter-narratives to the sanitization and erasure of Black scholars and thinkers who transcend disciplinary boundaries. Offering up rich depictions of Black women scholars such as Anna Julia Cooper and Zora Neale Hurston, Part I begs us to consider what we lose through narrow portrayals of sociology and sociologists. The authors included in this first section highlight the consequences of ignoring the subjugation and marginalization of Black women in the discipline, including the crafting of disciplinary boundaries. These contentions particularly frame sociological discussions regarding intersectionality and discourse on the rural Black south.
In Part I, we learn that unburying “hidden figures” in sociology is important for epistemological and methodological considerations. For example, in his interrogation of the antiquated depictions of the rural Black south, Brian Foster emphasizes how a new approach to studying the communities and region reveal critical methodological contributions, most notably what Richard Wright calls “perspective.” Perspective centers the wholeness of the Black experience demonstrated by close attention to the “sensitivities of the public” and taken for granted communal practices, cultural immersion, and embeddedness (p. 23). This holistic approach to understanding the breadth of the Black experience is echoed throughout the chapter, illustrating a commitment to revisit how we both invite and narrate Black stories. It also forces us to expand our approach to understanding contributions of “lay race theorists,” thinkers like James Baldwin whose insights are often engaged and cited in sociological theory and discourse, but without the same level of imagination, creativity, and intersectionality. Just as Stuart Hall challenges us to reimagine how we understand Black experiences, welcoming culture and art into the center of analysis and discourse, Hurston also urges us to avoid uncomplicated, homogenous, “Black victimhood” narratives denying Black people their agency. With this, the Part I authors provide a warning to sociologists that misrepresenting, ignoring, or denying the full histories and experiences of Black people throughout the diaspora has severe consequences on the advancement of the discipline.
In Part II, Black, female scholars commit to looking Behind the Veil, unafraid of getting dirty, complicating, and challenging notions of what it means to be a sociologist. In Part II, we learn that to be Black is not to be afforded the ability to separate identity and politics. In fact, our politics remain imbued with meanings rooted in respectability and, consequently, whiteness. As Karida Brown challenged traditional methodological and epistemological conventions in her award-winning research, she revealed the unlearning necessary to inform her own understanding of what serves as data. Similarly, Courtney Patterson-Faye employs auto-ethnography to understand her own body politics to counter epistemic violence, notoriously suppressing the knowledge and subjectivities of Black women. The point is not objectivity, which does not exist but to center the story and the body of self— revealing the vastness of woman-ness. This commitment to embodying knowledge as data echoes Adia Harvey Wing-field’s articulation of the role Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought played in mitigating the paradox of insider and outsider status. Through Collins’ work on intersectionality, Black womanhood is not monolithic. Finally, Saida Grundy’s reflective and reflexive approach highlights the precariousness of Black academics, both internally at universities and externally, through the racialized violence in the social media age. Her work reveals looking behind the veil also includes looking above, below, and through it if sociologists plan to dismantle what Crystal Marie Fleming calls, “the respectability politics of white supremacist sociology” and plan to develop a sociological imagination allowing for a dialogical scholarship engaged with our lived experiences and realities.
Where are the stories of Black joy? In Part III, “Black on Both Sides,” we see Black sociologists challenging uncritical depictions of Black people and Black experiences. This section asks, where are the stories of triumph and stories of Blackness that extend beyond continental boundaries? What are the opportunities for collective action, both domestically and across the Black and African diaspora? Channeling James Baldwin’s perspective that, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” sociologists must undergo an intellectual cleanse to challenge and rid ourselves of our own limitations and boundaries if committed to advancing the discipline or more importantly, “ameliorating suffering and eradicating inequality” (p. 159).
This third and final section of Hunter’s edited volume speaks to my research as I attempt to examine how Black undergraduates attending predominantly white institutions make sense of their stories, and potentially traumatic experiences shared in their college personal statements. Dedicated to challenging my assumptions about what trauma means or looks like for Black students, I find myself continually retooling my own sociological imagination, opening up my mind to hear about their joys and celebrations as much as their challenges and obstacles. Anthony Jack’s insight regarding the “divergent trajectories” of low-income students attending elite colleges is an important reminder that there are diverse Black experiences and narratives that do not undermine structural disadvantage and oppression. In fact, it does the opposite. From racially marginalized students attending elite colleges to Corey Fields’ discussion of reimagining the lived experiences of Black professionals by Sharon Collins, robust representations of Black people only highlight the need for more research on intra-group variation within a globally oppressive system. A “new” Black sociology that does not consider the mechanisms that subjugate Black people around the globe risks discrediting the pernicious influence of racism beyond the United States borders. We also risk forgetting to celebrate Black agency, creativity, ingenuity in surviving, and, more importantly, thriving.
As I sat reading Karida Brown’s Love Letter to Graduate Students, I realized that I set out to write in a voice that was not my own. I wanted to sound scholarly, like a sociologist, like I deserved to write this review. But, from where did this self-doubt come? What was wrong with my voice? The short answer is nothing is wrong with my voice. In writing this review, I remembered how important my perspective as a Black woman, a first-generation college student, a native Detroiter, a nomad, all played critical roles in my journey to developing and contributing to the future of Black sociology. With this, the future of Black sociology is an embodied one that allows us to engage our past and present to consider the range of possibilities that exist in the discipline. This future not only makes space for the acknowledgment of our own self-doubt, but also considers these internal questions as a critical step toward liberation. As my commitments to reducing Black suffering inside and outside of academe strengthens, I think back to my tenure in admissions. With each application came a challenge to my own “ways of knowing,” cultivated by the many meetings and training about what a successful or good student looked like on paper. These meanings translated into how I came to understand my own Blackness and woman-ness, and my story of resilience. Given this, I write this review somewhere in the middle of my journey with a call to engage in a research of self that is honest, vulnerable, and works to advance Black liberation.
Aya Waller-Bey is in the Sociology Department at the University of Michigan. Waller-Bey is a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow whose research focuses on race in higher education, specifically narrative and identity exploitation of Black students in college admissions processes.