It’s Complicated: Black scholars and Social Media Activist Movements

Sherie Mungo's picture

I frame my answer with the argument that the academy and social movements have enjoyed a recursive relationship with one another for a very long time, and Black scholars have played a vital role in fostering this process. Knowledge they have produced in the academy has often been informed by cultural realities, events, and movements, which are, in turn, influenced by praxises developed in academic spaces. I think a particularly revealing example of how powerful the relationship between social activist movements, the academy, and Black scholars can be is found in the Students’ Right to Their own Language (STROL) resolution. Crafted in part by Black writing scholars, this 1974 declaration was a direct response to our society’s changing relationship with race, a shift primarily brought about by the work of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Scholar-Activists such as Geneva Smitherman used the rhetoric of equality and Black autonomy posited by such movements to articulate the objectives undergirding STROL and forever changed our conversations about teaching writing in and out of the academy.

While we rightfully laud such work, I would like to discourage any naiveté about the nature of the relationship(s) among the academy, social movements, and Black scholars. I believe it’s important to recognize the courage any scholar must have to incorporate activism into her work, but specifically a Black scholar whose very presence in the university serves as an act of resistance to White Supremacy. Once inside academia, she, at times, faces opposition to her work (overt and covert), patronizing attitudes, isolation, and double standards. Hence, the struggle to just “be” in academic spaces can be difficult enough without adding an activist to component one’s work.

In a post questioning whether or not Black lives matter in academia, Eric Grollmanechoes my observation that Black scholars are routinely “…downplayed, contained, silenced, or erased”-especially when it is perceived that too much of their Blackness is showing. In this post, he speaks cogently about the very real fear these scholars face when choosing between job security and adding their voice to activist movements. Detailing his own initial hesitance to discuss the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement in academic settings, Grollman demonstrates just how inhibiting the threat of displacement can be on a Black scholar’s voice. Ultimately, he encourages Black scholars to ignore the stipulations surrounding their academic existence and to boldly, albeit strategically, incorporate social media movements such as #Blacklivesmatter into their scholarship.

Given the complicated relationship we have with the academy, I think a Black scholar’s answer to my question is going to be different than a White one. Furthermore, just because the medium of protest is now largely digital does not eradicate the obstacles Black scholars face; we still have to possess a substantial dose of bravery to become active in social media movements like Black Lives Matter. On the other hand, I think adding our scholarly voices to these movements is almost unavoidable because they are seeking the same sort of racial equity and justice that Black scholars long for within the academy. If put together, movements like BLM and Black scholars can affect the type of powerful change Smitherman accomplished with SRTOL.