The conflict between Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Melissa Harris Perry is being positioned as though it is based, solely, within a political and critical disagreement regarding President Barack Obama. Nothing appears further from the truth. The “beef,” in fact, began at Princeton University, after Dr. West recruited Dr. Harris Perry, to campus. One day, the truth of exactly what happened on that campus will be told, preferably by the primary parties involved.
What we do know is that, subsequently, Dr. Melissa Harris Perry was denied her promotion to full-professor and, apparently, not only was Dr. Cornel West a part of that process but it was a unanimous decision by the committee. That had to hurt. And, given the irony of the situation, one wonders if the decision was just.
Being denied a promotion, for whatever reason, is a sign that the work one is doing is not valued enough by the institution and/or the institution may not be the right fit for one’s career trajectory, after all. Often times, the scholar departs. Such departures are not always as bitter as what seemed to be the case at Princeton; but from those of us who witnessed the banter on Twitter, it was ugly—and remains inconclusive. Admittedly, it bothers me to see West and his supporters in particular, repeatedly state that Harris Perry had not produced enough “scholarship” because, I wonder, what is “enough?” Enough, in the academy, is always subjective.
Is Dr. Harris Perry being punished for being the first on her academic block of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies to embrace “Twitter?” I hope not. But it seems so. Twitter is many things but, most certainly, a larger classroom in which to teach, an excellent salon of diverse individuals to share in the marketplace of ideas and a digital playground in which scholars become actual, human beings with lives that include raising children, watching television and cracking jokes. Twitter is a wonderful place to be, so I can understand if there was some confusion and/or jealousy involved in how quickly Harris Perry grew a popular audience… but asking for assistance to grow one’s own was also an option, no?
I have taken these recent criticisms and outright, misogynistic attacks on Melissa Harris Perry more personally because it is clear the issue is not really about politics but what appears to be a sense of patriarchal ownership (and not just from Dr. West) of voice, of narrative, of song, even. Who is to say what the trajectory of one’s “life of the mind” should be? As academicians, are we not always criticized for talking amongst ourselves? For doing research that never quite makes it past the campus bookstore, the academic journal distribution list, the scholarly conference?
I see similarities between Harris Perry and Barack Obama, in the sense that they seemed fine and acceptable as long as they could be a Dr. West protégée or a Civil Rights legacy of Jesse Jackson (but not Shirley Chisholm) or the Democratic Party, respectively. As soon as they held dreams beyond that which their immediate predecessors deemed appropriate, acceptable and/or controllable, they were soon harshly criticized and chastised to stay “in their place.”
Indeed, if Dr. Harris Perry is “a fake” and “a fraud,” Dr. West is the one who invited a “very, very smart” professor into an Ivy League institution just as he supported a very, very smart, Senator Barack Obama to be the next President, so his present rebuke may say more about his own judgment or, perhaps, his sense of entitlement and control?
In fact, many of my (male and female) colleagues, all of us legacies and beneficiaries of the scholars who paved the way for Black/Africana Studies and its subsequent effects upon the academy, have experienced what I consider an unfair criticism for not only desiring more from our lives as academics but being able to be in the very world we seek to change while living in it. This is ironic, considering that as an Africana Studies major, I could not graduate without engaging in pubic service outside of my academic institution. Indeed, “service-learning” was a major tenet of the origins of Black Studies. We want to make history, not just teach it. This is the work of W.E.B. DuBois, of Anna Julia Cooper, of Carter G. Woodson, of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. The technology we use and the (social) media in which we appear are but tools to broaden our voices, expand our work and live fuller lives so the ivory towers uplifts rather than crushes us.
Far beyond this particular incident, Black women, in particular, can and must redefine what the academy means for their lives. No one knows what it is like to be us. No one. As always, we must define when and how we enter our lives—of the mind and otherwise.
Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis aka “Dr. Goddess” is an American and Africana Studies scholar and the youngest member of “the dream team” which took the Tulsa Reparations Survivors’ case to the door of the Supreme Court. She is presenting at SXSW on “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter.” Follow her on Twitter: @drgoddess, check out her official website and connect with her via Facebook.