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The Overextension of Self in the Academy: "The Super Nigger Syndrome"

 

November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina

Jon A. Yasin, Professor English and Linguistics, Bergen Community College

 

Introduction
Oftentimes, problems of tenure, appointment and promotion of African Americans and other people of color in the academy are articulated as being the result of or the effect of actions of another/others and what those others did or did not do. However difficult for some, it is incumbent upon each person to be responsible for and accountable for his or her own self and actions, especially in such an environment and organizational structure. This is particularly important in a setting such as the academy, where, on one level, each person’s duties are independent of others, including meeting with students, lecturing, and contributing to his or her discipline, such as engaging in research and publishing. However, on another level, each individual is responsible for “being a good citizen in the community;” that is, one must actively participate on the committees of the department, the division, the college, and so forth. Because of such an organizational structure, it is imperative that one guards against overextending one’s self, so that one is justly balancing all of his or her responsibilities, and producing on all levels.  Much of the difficulty lies in being pressured into serving in certain capacities because one is a minority. Minorities in this society and in the academy, are aware of the power and privilege European Americans always have been afforded, so when called upon by these “powerful” colleagues for assistance, many minorities, in an effort to please and to appear amiable overextend themselves as “good citizens in the community,” while not having the required time to produce on the other level: so, they do not publish, do not engage in research, and do not perform certain other duties. Much of this has to do with power.  Having always been a problem in America, the misperceptions of power, the historical unequal distribution of power [a result of the larger society], and the contemporary “management” of power continue to plague many African Americans in the academy.

Power and Racism
According to Ivan Van Sertima (1976), Africans voluntarily came to the Americas on trading ventures more than one thousand years before Columbus first visited the western hemisphere. Their second coming was an involuntary immigration as enslaved Africans, stripped of the power to provide self direction, to provide self guidance, and to provide self control. Power, writes Lynn Atkinson (1988) is “the ability a person has to manipulate factors both internal and external towards meeting his [or her] own needs” (1). Inherent in the concept of “power” is the notion of at least two groups, those with it and those without it. Those rendered powerful have a monopoly over options available to them at the expense of those who are vulnerable (Moss, 1991: 282). In these United States of America, excluding  Native Americans, the most vulnerable group has continuously been  African Americans and others of the disapora. This vulnerability has resulted in continuous depowerment of African Americans by those with power, in this case,  European Americans. James Moss (1991) explains depowerment as “the employment of strategies directed at minimizing the options, choices, and opportunities by the powerful over their less powerful competitors” (282). The most pervasive depowering tool employed against African Americans has been their ascribed status in the social structure in society and its institutions, including in the academy.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, the social status of most Africans in these United States was enslavement until the Civil War during the nineteenth century, which ended slavery and ushered in the brief period of Reconstruction [1867-1890s]. During this period, Reconstruction allowed African Americans the same rights as all other American citizens; however, beginning during Reconstruction and continuing after its demise, the period of Jim Crow “rested on a bedrock of discriminatory customs, state and local laws, and decisions of the United States Supreme Court” (Painter, 2006: 141). The Jim Crow era led directly to the encoding of laws legislating  separation of African Americans from others, and the  farcical “separate but equal” doctrine of most southern states. These laws supported the legal and extralegal racist mores of society and were reinforced with racial violence.  Power, which was and to a certain degree continues to be, disseminated on the basis of skin color is racism, which according to Kivel, “is based on the concept of whiteness-a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence.  Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white” (1996: 17). Power, racism, and second-class social status were openly challenged by the African American community and others during the non-violent Civil Rights and militant Black Power Movements, beginning in the 1950s and making most gains during the1960s, a period of much social unrest in the country, which led other “oppressed” groups to form coalitions with African Americans, resulting in all making great gains with the passing of legislation outlawing segregation and discrimination against African Americans and others.

Problems in the Academy
Those gains made during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements have allowed large numbers of African Americans into the academy as students and faculty.  Today, more than forty years later, however, problems, including power and racism, still exist. For example, during the fall semester of the 2007-2008 academic year, nooses [symbols of racial violence against African Americans during the periods of Jim Crow and segregation] were found on the door of an African American faculty member at Teachers College, Columbia University. Furthermore, nooses were found at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. During the previous academic school year, several African American high school students in Jena, Louisiana, sat under a tree on campus, which traditionally “was reserved” for European American students. European American students reacted by hanging nooses across the tree, an effort to intimidate the African American students.  Moreover, students of African ancestry have been and are accused of not writing their own papers [because they are thought not to be able to control mainstream English, in many cases]. They have been thought to be less intelligent, as articulated by James Watson, a recent Nobel Prize recipient. And, they suffer from the subtle, coded messages of racism, a result of how language is used in society. As an illustration, a few years ago, Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant from Guinea, was shot forty-one times and killed by New York City police. When the four policemen who shot this man went to court, the media reported on the “Amadou Diallo case”.  As Mr. Diallo was not on trial, it was not the “Amadou Diallo case;” rather, it was the case of the policemen placed on trial. In an earlier similar incident, that of  Rodney King, the African American man so viciously beaten by Los Angeles policemen,  the media reported on the trial of those policemen as the “Rodney King case”. It appears that in each case, those on trial were the African American men because of the word choices and language use of reporters working for the media. Faculty and students of African ancestry continue to be victims of such uses of language.

In the academy, because diversity of races, ethnic groups, religious affiliations, and genders are so valued, the word “diversity” triggers a positive response by African Americans and other people of color. Because it is socially acceptable for institutions, including educational institutions, to actively engage in continuously striving for tolerance and diversity, those responsible for working on such programs are always looking for African Americans and others underrepresented to participate in and to assist in development of such programs, which may include committee work, organization of  specific presentations, writing of grants for programs, and development of programs of study-all of which are time consuming.  Those responsible often approach their African American colleagues with the argument that “minority voices are needed because they can best articulate the issues and bring a certain sensitivity to the problem.”   Many African Americans who serve on such committees at the “special request” of colleagues, are simultaneously fulfilling their obligations to be “be good citizens in the community” and  serve on  the number of required departmental committees and institution-wide committees, as well. This can and does result in the African Americans serving on twice as many committees as their European American colleagues. [Yet, they only receive one paycheck for twice as much work.]  Thus, while many African Americans are overextended and  performing  double loads of “required” committee work, their European American colleagues, with fewer responsibilities “to the community” devote their other time to the other level of duties: engaging in research, publishing, consulting with outside institutions, and so forth. As they approach tenure, reappointment and promotion, we have witnessed African Americans who performed the double load of “required” committee work being told that they have not produced enough and denied tenure, denied promotion and denied reappointment, while their European American counterparts are being praised for their productivity and scholarship. Moss (1991: 286) identifies this plight of many African Americans as “dual labor,” the most recent level of the American social structure, that depowers African Americans.

Another dilemma for many African Americans in the academy is, because they are few in number, they must have “watch dogs” in specific key positions; that is, in order to ensure representation on certain vital committees of prominence, such as promotions and sabbatical committees and search committees, they must collectively choose a colleague from among them to serve. This can overextend  individuals, as well; however, it is in the interest of the group that they have a voice present because of the nature of the committee and its work. Senior faculty of the group must work together to decide who can best donate  valuable time to these worthy causes. Junior faculty must be protected!

Finally, it is important to note that it is the responsibility of all African American and other underrepresented faculty to devote a certain amount of time mentoring minority students. Many students of color arrive at various higher education institutions, having not been adequately prepared academically, having not been prepared for the extensive work load which they are expected to produce, having not been prepared to negotiate college life, while having a myriad of other issues and problems. Many do not have the defense mechanisms to ward off what confronts them, including the racism they might experience and the accusations made against them by others who have never previously been in contact with African Americans and other people of color. Each semester, I work with at least one student from the African diaspora [and often other students of color or minority religious groups] who has [have] been accused, confronted, racially profiled or suffered some other injustice because of his or her ethnic origins. It is a time consuming task, yet it must be done. Because of their vulnerability, regardless of one’s overextension, one must devote time to working with these students and their problems and issues.

Conclusion
Resolving the issue of overextension of self is a daunting task. Having overcome most historically ascribed statuses in the American social structure, African Americans must work to ensure such depowering never reoccurs.  It is important that everyone understands the notions of power, empowering, and depowering  and how they “play out” in the American society. Senior faculty of color must explain to junior faculty of color the politics of their specific institution. They must caution junior faculty about overextension and help them to understand that they must “be good citizens in the community” making a viable contribution, but they must maintain their own scholarship as well. It is not necessary, in most cases, to produce “dual labor,” so they do not have to be “supernigger”.        

References

Atkinson, L. (1988) Power and empowerment: The power principle. Las Vegas: Falcon Press.

Kivel, P. (1996) Uprooting racism: How white people can work for racial justice. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Moss, J. (1991) “Hurling oppression: Overcoming anomie and self hatred.” In Black male adolescents: Parenting and education in community context. Ed. B.P. Bowser. Lanham: University Press of America. pp. 282-297.

Painter, N.I. (2006) Creating Black Americans: African-American history and its meanings, 1619 to the present.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Sertima, I. (1976) They came before Columbus. New York: Random House.

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