I’d never driven to Mississippi from the west before. The landmarks were different. The highways were different. But the arrival was familiar. The trees suddenly give way to open fields and the gentle downward slopes that people often mistake for flatness, and the smell of humidity becomes increasingly prominent, with the occasional skunk.
I was traveling home for Christmas from my new assistant professor position at the University of Texas in Austin. It was the first time I’d visited my hometown in three years, since I was in graduate school. I hadn’t intentionally stayed away, but I hadn’t made much of an effort to get back. And as more and more time passed, the thought of going home seemed increasingly awkward. This time I’d tried to avoid it. I procrastinated and offered my family excuses, content to spend Christmas alone in Austin.
I told them I was tired. I told them it was cumbersome to fly because the nearest airport was two hours away. I told them that I didn’t trust my 12-year-old car on the interstate. But I caved, rented a car and drove the nine hours from Austin to Leland, Miss., where I grew up, one of just over 6,000 residents.
I didn’t know what to expect from my interactions with people at home. People like me — upwardly mobile black people from poor and working-class backgrounds — tend to be deeply conflicted by our increasing status. We push back against the middle-class markers that we’ve come to enjoy and appreciate — the fancy coffee shops, the hipster calamari tacos, Trader Joe’s — while simultaneously trying to maintain or replicate symbolic ties to home. We try to speak the same even though our vocabularies have changed. We say we eat the same even though our tastes have changed. We claim we’re still down; we’re still real; we’re still from the country; we’re still from the hood. But we’re betrayed by newfound hobbies and lifestyles and a sudden hyperawareness of how our hometowns differ from how we normally live.
My trip to Leland forced me to reckon with my new status and my shifting tastes. At Christmas dinner, I listened to the conversations about food and compared the composition of my plat
e to those of my family members. I searched for vegetable options, simple green sides, among local takeout options and struggled to find any. I enjoyed my family, but I found myself self-conscious about whether my accent remained thick enough, whether my speech sounded unintentionally smug. And I wondered whether I still fit. Even my body began to betray me. Something aggravated my sinuses in a way that I’d never experienced before and left me stuffy, wheezing, coughing and with a persistent headache for my entire visit.
I longed to return home. To Austin. To my job.
But what type of home was I looking to return to, in an unfriendly academe that may more readily accept my language but question my person? Of about 40 full-time faculty in my department — one of the highest-ranked sociology departments in the country and an exemplar for other programs — I’m the only black faculty member; less than 4 percent of the faculty is black at the seventh-largest university in the country. The only black faculty member in a department that, almost 30 years after Derrick Bell left Harvard Law School in protest of the school’s refusal to hire and tenure black women, has never tenured a black woman. In a discipline that, despite its purported progressiveness, has taken to Twitter to push back against what they perceive as an overreach of activism in the discipline, and apparently emboldened by anonym
ity, has used online sociology forums to voice displeasure with the supposed merits of the current and next presidents of the American Sociological Association.
As I applied to jobs last year, I was shocked by how many departments had only one black faculty member and completely taken aback by the number that had zero. I knew that the department of sociology at Duke University, where I earned by Ph.D., with its four black faculty at the time, was an outlier and that there weren’t a lot of black sociologists, but I truly had no idea how underrepresented people who look like me are in this field. A recent report by the Brookings Institute revealed that black sociologists make up only about 9 percent of the discipline. And lack of representation can lead to marginalization of ideas, an uneasy feeling of difference and a hyperawareness of how much you stand out by merely existing (especially as a large man with dreadlocks).
And while I enjoy my colleagues and my department and have found allies and friends among them, I’m acutely aware that academe is not home.
I often wonder who I “really” am nowadays, which me is the “real” me, when am I code-switching and when am I being genuine. Am I faking the African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) that I frequently deploy in conversations? Am I still code-switching expectedly and appropriately in professional settings?
I honestly don’t know anymore.
There is a homelessness among black academics — an ever-present tension between who we used to be and who we have become — and a reckoning with the reality that neither our old spaces nor our new ones can truly offer us the sense of belonging that we desire. Perhaps it’s double consciousness, to use W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic description of being black in America: “Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body … this longing to … merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost …”
But perhaps it is something else. Maybe Du Bois is too generous. E. Franklin Frazier is more critical in “The Failure of the Negro Intellectual.” He says, “The new Negro middle class is the stratum of the Negro population that is becoming integrated most rapidly because of its education and its ability to maintain certain standards of
living. In its hope to achieve acceptance in American life, it would slough off everything that is reminiscent of its Negro origin and its Negro folk background. At the same time integration is resulting in inner conflicts and frustrations because Negroes are still outsiders in American life.”
We’re forced to grapple with who we are and constantly consider the source of our frustrations, whether our tensions are about our inability to forge community with feet in such vastly different worlds or if we are more bothered by our failure to fully integrate into an academe that rebuffs us. Regardless, we cannot take this tension lightly. Our careers are at stake, our family lives, our health. And to be undone by this vagrancy that has been thrust upon us is unacceptable.
Robert L. Reece is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.