College Dropout to PhD: The Bold & Beautiful Marc Lamont Hill

College Dropout to PhD: The Bold & Beautiful Marc Lamont Hill

One of our youngest public intellectuals on Mumia Abu Jamal, Fox News and, naturally, Fatherhood

by dream hampton, January 7, 2012

College Dropout to PhD: The Bold & Beautiful Marc Lamont Hill

Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, 33, is Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and an affiliated faculty member in its African American Studies Department. In 2010, he became host of the nationally syndicated Our World With Black Enterprise, earning the magazine-style television show made popular by Ed Gordon, its highest ratings.  His newest book, “The Classroom and The Cell; Conversations of Black Life in America” [Third World Press] is a series of 15 minute phone calls with Mumia Abu Jamal—the former Black Panther accused of killing a Philadelphia police officer—whose innocence he defends with other activists around the world.

A regular on the cable news circuit, Hill is challenged with bringing nuance to single note, top-of-the-lungs debates with conservative hosts like, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. An inspiring orator (with a style more Baptist preacher than Ivy League professor), for nearly 200 days a year, he travels the country speaking at colleges, universities and labor and student union groups. He does so with sartorial aplomb, which has landed the handsome bachelor on his hometown paper, the Philadelphia Daily News’ “most eligible” list. An early investor in social media as a forum for popular public discourse (See his intriguing timeline on Twitter @marclamonthill), Hill is at the forefront of a new generation of Black scholars poised to become household names. Here he talks balancing the public and the private, the academy and Fox News and visiting his co-author Mumia Abu Jamal on death row.

EBONY.COM: You're a rising academic star. You earned your PhD in your twenties, published your first book by 30. But you dropped out of college as a freshman. How did you get derailed at Morehouse and how'd you get back on track at Temple University before earning your doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania?

When I was at Morehouse I found it to be a really strong community and academic environment. The problem was, I didn't feel connected to it. One of the problems is I was more interested in basketball than school and when basketball didn't work out the way I though it would I lost interest in school. I was still interested in ideas, in education but I wasn't convinced that college was for me. And so I left. I spent time in Atlanta hanging out and getting in trouble. In the meantime there were elders, some of them I knew well, some complete strangers, who wisely encouraged me to get back on track. They told me that I was squandering an opportunity, that I wasn't maximizing my potential and that I was gifted. I went back to Philadelphia, worked a 50 hr job and went to school full time and have been playing catch up every since. In fact, I think the amount of work I do now, this ripping and running, is partly animated by the belief that I haven't caught up yet.

EBONY.COM: During those years you had actually dropped out of Morehouse and were no longer in school,  could you imagine yourself a 33-year-old Ivy league professor?

My freshman year at Morehouse the annual Crown Forum speaker was Michael Eric Dyson. I hadn't heard of him before I got there but he completely dazzled every student in the audience, including me. He was smart and engaging and he connected his academic knowledge to the problems facing our community. It was the first time I understood just how powerful words and ideas could be, it was the first time I understood you could get a PhD and help somebody. Even when I dropped out I held onto my excitement about the world of ideas.

EBONY.COM: You ended up working with Dr. Dyson at Penn…

Yeah, the universe works in awesome ways; my second year in grad school at Penn he came from DePaul and I reached out to him and became his assistant and he's been a very important friend and mentor ever since.

EBONY.COM: What were your earliest experiences in the classroom like? What kind of student were you as a child? Was your love of learning encouraged in the classroom?

I learned to read when I was three. I was always excited about reading. Like a lot of kids I was inquisitive and precocious. In my neighborhood and home that was supported. When I got to school I began to doubt my ability, not as a small kid but as I got older I learned more often than not what I couldn't do. After about 4th grade I stopped getting the benefit of the doubt. I'll give you an example of what I mean. In 4th grade I took a standardized test. I made a mistake and skipped one of the bubbles, so as a result all the answers that followed the skipped bubbles were wrong. When my teacher reviewed the exam, and saw I scored a 30, which would have seriously affected my track at school, she pulled the test aside and located my mistake and fixed it and I scored in the 98th percentile, which is where I'd always been. She gave me the benefit of the doubt, she assumed, or suspected, that I knew the answers. Often times African American students aren't given the benefit of the doubt. After that, in fact, other teachers never assumed I knew the answer, never assumed I had a bright future and because of their assumptions I became increasingly disengaged, not from learning, but from school. I was still reading and interested in ideas but there came a time when I didn't see school as the place to engage in ideas. By middle school I wasn't getting good grades, by high schools I was getting Cs and Ds and often attended summer school. I spoke Spanish fluently but got a C and it had everything to do with my disengagement.

EBONY.COM: Did you see other Black boys similarly disengaged and if so in what spaces did they feel safe exercising their intellectual muscles?

That was what was amazing. There were kids who were much more talented than me who didn’t do well in school. There was this huge gap between their performance in school and who they actually were; in school they were behavioral problems, illiterate or remedial. At home they wrote raps, books, poetry, lead church choirs, played basketball. It wasn't until they got to school that they learned who they weren't. I can't tell you how many friends I had who dropped out in ninth grade. Of course that limited their life path and options. But they didn't see the point, at the time, of staying in school, and quite frankly I don't think the schools made the case for them to stay.

EBONY.COM: You talk about Black boys being pushed out as opposed to dropping out of public school. It forces teachers and principals to not only reframe the discourse, but take a new and deeper look at their own responsibility in classroom culture. How specifically have you found Black children and perhaps boys in particular have been "pushed" out?

Quite often you see school curriculum that doesn't correlate to the students interests either personally or culturally. You see discipline policies that essentially criminalize Black students. For example Black boys are over-represented in expulsions and suspensions. We get kicked out more than anybody else. But most of the suspensions aren't based on violating a rule like bringing a weapon to school, most of the violations come from a teacher having to interpret our behavior and decide whether we're being aggressive, disrespectful or disengaged. The world has a script about who Black boys are and because 70% the teachers in urban schools are white and not from the area, they end up deciding who they think Black boys are and that ultimately leads to intensified discipline. These boys are constantly being expelled, suspended and pushed out of the classroom so they begin to ask themselves ‘Why bother even showing up if I'm only going to be kicked out.?’ Also, students need teachers who look like them, not everybody, but some, and it isn't until recently that there's been an effort to recruit Black men as teachers. In the same way I could look at Michael Eric Dyson and say 'Oh, I can be a PhD,!’ Black boys need somebody in fourth and eighth grade to say this is possible; but the only Black men they see are the janitors or bus drivers and it cools down their aspirations.

EBONY.COM: Your colleague, Columbia Professor Manning Marable's epic Malcolm X biography was released a few days after Marable died. While the book complicated Malcolm's legacy in many ways, reviews focused on his suggestion that Malcolm may have had same sex for hire when he was a hustler. You've written about this claim before. Why is this detail important and what does our community reaction to it say about our ideas of leaders and masculinity?

While I can't speak about about Malcolm's past with completely certainty, there is considerable evidence that he had some kind of sexual encounters with other men. If this is true, I don't think it tarnishes Malcolm's legacy one bit. Instead, I think it expands our notions of what masculinity looks like. After all, Malcolm X is the strongest example of Black masculinity that we've ever had. If it turns out that he was, at some point, same-gender-loving, then the possibilities for reimagining Black manhood are endless.

EBONY.COM: Obama made good on his promise to kill bin Laden. What does that mean for his presidency? His re-election? And his relationship to the region?

By killing Osama bin Laden, President Obama was able to do what two other presidents could not. He also was able to refute all of the right-wing critics who said the he wasn't tough enough on terror. As it turned out, the President was walking softly and carrying a very large stick. Although I never thought his re-election was in question, this move, along with a steadily improving economy, should put him over the top. The only remaining question for me, however, is what it means for us to be celebrating the death of bin Laden in such dramatic fashion. There's no doubt that Osama was a bad guy, and the world is definitely safer without him, but I come from a tradition that doesn't celebrate death, even of our enemies.

EBONY.COM: Why do you do television?

I believe that in the 21st century so much how people engage the world is through images–through television and the Internet–and for me television becomes an opportunity to intervene and offer a different perspective. So much of what's on television doesn't show Black people's humanity, they only show us as a social burden, as violent, as anti-intellectual. So I think my presence in the space can offer a different image of who we are. On my show I feel like I can be an agent to offer an alternative to persistent plays on our pathology, to show our progress, to facilitate alternate and deep conversations.

EBONY.COM: Your TV career began and flourished at Fox, who are notorious for their bias. Why Fox?

When Fox News made me an offer to be a regular, I had a lot of anxiety on being on a network so notoriously right wing. I called Jesse Jackson and said "Rev, what should I do?' He said 'I don't know a lot of doctors that hang around well people, you have to go in there and do something.' That's how I looked at that role, as one of combat, that I was going into hostile territory almost as a public defendant of sorts for our people. I believe those spaces are toxic and dangerous but that there are things we can add to them to make them less so. So when I go on Fox news to debate Bill O'Reilly I'm offering a perspective, not to convince him to look at the world differently, but to get a viewer who might be on the fence to look at the world differently, that's my goal. I do believe that going in these spaces and offering a more humane and just perspective can make the world different. Even if it doesn't make it better I hope it stops it from being worse.

EBONY.COM: Fox News fired you after a right wing blogger accused you of supporting "cop killers" because you had a picture of Assata Shakur as your Twitter background. Can you talk about being fired?

There was an internet right wing grassroots campaign that targeted me because of my politics. I've been unabashed in my support for Mumia Abu Jamal and Assata Shakur, both of whom I've publicly and privately supported as wrongfully convicted political prisoners. Fox's viewers demanded of their shareholders that I be fired. The irony of course is a year later they'd make a big show of support of Juan Williams after he was fired from NPR for his politics. I wasn't surprised they'd only want to protect the free speech of conservatives, but they certainly proved that point. I was genuinely and perhaps naively shocked that they fired me so transparently for my politics, usually there's an attempt to come up with some other reason. I learned a valuable lesson about media and politics in that regard. It's a very different world than the academy.

EBONY.COM: You've talked about the skepticism by the academy of people who act as public intellectuals, who do things like go on TV.

There's this belief in the academy that if you're too public that you must not be a serious intellectual. I think that's a flawed way of thinking about it; I think there are weak intellectuals who never go on TV and that there are brilliant intellectuals who are only ever on TV. I think the challenge is to decide what your role is in the public. TV is seductive so I do take the criticism and skepticism seriously and am constantly checking my motivation about being public, not confusing it with desiring celebrity but wanting to make a difference in public discourse.

EBONY.COM: What do you mean when you call yourself an activist scholar?

Some would argue that writing a really powerful book that inspires people, like Michelle Wallace's Black Macho and The Myth of The Superwoman, is activist scholarship. Some would argue that engaging in debates in public spaces, be they lectures or on TV is being an activist scholar because of the impact it has on people. But for me the work I do on the ground, independent of my work as a professor, or outside of media appearances, is why I call myself an activist scholar. The work I do with Books Through Bars, a grassroots organization that's trying to respond to the education crisis in prison is why I call myself an activist. For 10 years I've been working with the ACLU's drug law policy reform. There ain't no cameras there when we do that work. I don't think activism is enough, organizing is important. When Shequonda Cotton, a 14-year-old, was sentenced to seven years in a Texas juvenile facility after pushing a hall monitor, I organized a campaign to get her out. We began by pushing an Internet letter writing campaign and saw that through until she was released. When 17-year old Genarlow Wilson was convicted of raping his white girlfriend in Georgia we worked to get that overturned and I helped to get him into Morehouse where he's currently a student. In both cases it was about developing strategy and galvanizing people, but I tried to leverage what little bit of access or recognizability I have to get justice for those teenagers. My visibility isn't a strategy, but I use it where it helps to do the work I think matters.

EBONY.COM: Do you consider yourself a leader? What do you think it will take to transition out of mid 20th century and Civil Rights leadership?

I do consider myself a leader but I worry that we're still holding onto an antiquated notion of what leadership is and what it should look like. We've developed an idea that two or three Christ like figures are going to come and move a community forward. I don't think that organizations have ever progressed based on that. There have always been a wide range of people doing work. We may need charisma in some instances but we also need people on the ground doing the work. I think the more we celebrate individual and messianic leadership the less people will be inclined to participate in movements. I consider myself a leader but I'm just or more comfortable joining or working with an organization than I am being the focus of one. I think we need to re-imagine leadership that is more democratic, more horizontal than vertical. We need to have more women present in leadership, more gay and lesbians in leadership. Leadership can no longer only come from the middle class, but also from the working poor and poor. Most importantly, I think it's dangerous to look for a single savior. Our generation needs to spotlight people who actually make these organizations work as opposed to a slick talker or an attractive figure. The next wave of leadership also has to be inter-generational. As we're emerging as new leaders we need to be in dialogue with future leaders as well as previous ones. When it comes to the Civil Rights generation, we need an exit strategy for old leadership so that organizations don't die with single individuals.  

EBONY.COM: You self-identify as a feminist ally. What does that mean in your personal and professional life?

To take feminism seriously we have to think about having women in the conversation not just by proxy but as leaders to represent themselves and to lead men. We also have to include gender in our analysis and not just race and class. So when we're talking about health issues or economic issues, we're not just talking about race, because there's no one who has a race who doesn't also have a gender. So we have to think about how gender, and in particular women's issues, impact whatever social thing we're talking about. We also have to close the gap between our politics and our practice. Being a feminist or a feminist ally theoretically is very different from being one in your household or in your relationships, that's the real challenge. As leaders our responsibility is to constantly work on closing the gap between what we say and what we do. I'm not signifying, I'm talking about me in particular. These issues around relationships and women and to practice the feminist principles I believe, is a constant struggle. It's important to understand and to communicate that this is a process, not so I protect myself from appearing hypocritical but because it's truly a struggle. But I think it's important to be transparent about this struggle. People are entitled to privacy about their lives. We compromise some of that privacy when we take public positions of moral authority, but I don't think it's navel gazing, I find value in being transparent about struggling around these issues, that's part of the personal and political work and it's facilitated by a certain amount of disclosure.

EBONY.COM: You became a single father when you were working on your dissertation. How do you balance parenthood with being a professor, a lecturer and a television show host?

I don't like the term single father. I think that whatever your relationship status, whenever two people are parenting it's co-parenting. I've been fortunate enough to co-parent my daughter in healthy and functional ways. It shows there are multiple ways to raise a healthy child. Because my schedule is demanding my daughter’s mother has been flexible, and I'm grateful for that. Sometimes I have to be creative to make it work. I'm sure my daughter has been to more TV studios and lectures than she'd have liked to be but even those moments create opportunities to bond with her and that means everything. Our children deserve our attention and our love, it's one of those beautiful struggles.

EBONY.COM: Your support of Assata Shakur cost you a job with Fox news. Yet your new book, "The Classroom and The Cell; Conversations of Black Life in America" is a result of a series of phone calls with another convicted cop killer, whom you also believe to be innocent, Mumia Abu Jamal. Why was it important for you to write this book?

I've made a decision to stand on the side of justice. This means taking stances that are unpopular and that force me to pay a price. As much as I enjoyed working at Fox News Channel, Assata Shakur's freedom meant more to me. I wasn't going to run from her or throw her under the bus for any amount of attention or money. Mumia Abu Jamal is my dear friend and my brother. More importantly, he is a wrongfully convicted political prisoner who deserves our support. I love him and will stand next to him, regardless of what happens to me. Our book, The Classroom and the Cell, is a testimony to that commitment, but it's also an opportunity for me to talk to and learn from one of the sharpest minds in the world today. Our weekly conversations, which took place over phone, letter, and in person, have been one of the greatest experiences I've ever had. Through them we've built a bond of brotherhood and friendship, as well as a space for healing and growth. I'm just lucky to be a part of it. 

dream hampton has written about culture for 20 years. She's a mother, an activist and an award-winning filmmaker. She lives in Detroit. Follow her on Twitter @dreamhampton.

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