Living Thinkers: An Autobiography of Black Women in the Ivory Tower
A Women Make Movies Release
Reviewed by Lori Baynard
Living Thinkers: An Autobiography of Black Women in the Ivory Tower chronicles the path that eight female tenured professors of color took to gain employment and tenure at various universities around the country. These women share their impassioned stories, which intertwine issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class as they journeyed from childhood to the coveted halls of academia.
All of the women come from parents who were either un- or under-educated compared to what their daughters would achieve, but most of these parents were enthusiastic about the value of a good education. So while these women were pioneers in achieving their positions in the ivory tower, their parents, too, in many ways, were pioneers in helping to navigate their daughter's path to higher education.
Another theme that emerges from the women's stories is the profound disregard for them within their professional settings. Many of the women express feeling that their intellectual abilities are often doubted and that their colleagues at times not only question their abilities and ignore their contributions but often ignore them as persons as well. This and other factors have led to the women feeling isolated, but these feelings of isolation did not begin at the doors of the academy. Many of the women attended primary and secondary schools outside of their neighborhoods and found it difficult to navigate the expectations and assumptions placed upon them in their often predominately white schools and then return to their often predominately black neighborhoods where a totally different set of expectations and assumptions existed. Learning to travel in and between these two worlds and learning to "code switch" required a kind of survival performance that left these women feeling isolated from both worlds.
While I suspect that many of the problems these women faced are challenges faced by the majority of women in their professions, regardless of race or ethnicity, these women perceive that their identity as women of color produced a double or triple burden of unrealistic pressure to assume stereotypical roles, many of which they found impossible to fulfill. The women were expected to teach, produce research, navigate the tenure process, serve on various committees, and the like; they were also overwhelmed by the expectation to assume roles of nurturer and the "great brown mother" while continuing to embody the characteristics of a "strong black woman." In addition, because many of these women are pioneers in academia, they are called upon by aspiring African American academicians to serve as pseudo mentors regardless of whether their academic field matches that of the prospective mentee. It seems that to be a professor of color is all that is needed to attract aspiring professors of color to seek out their professional counsel and aid to maneuver the often-convoluted pathway to academia. While these women seem to grasp the importance of mentoring protégés, this role adds to the pressure of an already unrealistic job description.
Living Thinkers pushes us to wrestle honestly with the perceptions of African American female scholars. Does being intellectual and highly competent go against our preconceived notions of embedded race and gender roles? The documentary further pushes us to consider the myriad issues of race, racial identity, class, and gender roles in a way that is much needed.
Lori G. Baynard is an adjunct faculty member and advisor in the Organizational Leadership program in Eastern University's School of Leadership and Development. She is also co-pastor, along with her husband of World Changing Truth Church in Willingboro, New Jersey and is a proud homeschooling mom of her two children.