In the story of the cosmic struggle for equal rights for Black people in America, there is a segment of the Black population that finds themselves battling on multiple fronts—the Black professor. In talking with Leslie M. Scott-Jones, Artistic Director of the Charlottesville Player’s Guild at the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center, I learned that the struggle for Black humanity extends also into the ivory tower of academia. Scott-Jones, through her podcast called GROUNDS, brings to life the story of five Black professors at a predominately white institution in a fictitious college and town in the rural south. The story chronicles the lives of these professors—the only full time, tenure-track Black lecturers who work at Morris & Wilkins University.
P.J. Wiley-Reid, voiced by Leslie M. Scott-Jones, received her MA and PhD in History at Howard University and is the head of the African & African American Studies department at Morris & Wilkins University. She is married and has two children, Amara 13 and Omar 8. She is currently working on her third book detailing the History of Black Thought over three continents.
Will Jones voices Ivan Wilson who teaches 17th Century Russian Literature. Ivan grew up in South East DC. He studied at Howard on full scholarship and the Higher School of Economics in Moscow where he earned a Master’s in Russian and Comparative Literature. His wife, Elena whom he met in Russia, teaches music in Elementary school.
Khai Ali voiced by James Johnson is a biochemist from California. He received his PhD in Biochemistry at UC Irvine. Khai’s research focuses on creating strains of cannabis that focus on medical problems of the Black community. His father is a Black Panther. Khai was raised Muslim and continues to practice faithfully.
Kevin Troy voices Kwasi Sika, an ethnomusicologist who studied at Oxford and Berkley. He grew up in London, after his parents immigrated to the UK from Ghana when he was four. Kwasi and teaches History of Jazz and the History of Recorded Music and researches African influences in modern hi hop.
Elijah Wright, voiced by Doug Spearman, is a civil engineer who studied at Tuskegee and Georgia Tech. Raised as a preacher’s kid in the COGIC tradition, his family rejected him due to his homosexuality. Elijah’s research focuses on the effect that civic structures have on quality of life of underserved populations, particularly homeless LGBTQIA youth.
When you’re hired at one of these institutions, they want diversity, but not difference.
— T.J. Tallie, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of African History at the University of San Diego serves as a story consultant for the podcast.
“I wanted to humanize black professors because there is a stigma within the black community that because someone Black has a Ph.D., then they’re not down and not in touch with their people anymore. That is not necessarily the case,” said Scott-Jones. Through this conversation, we explore the issues of how, in the Black community, education is preached as salvation, yet those who pursue higher education often feel ostracized and disassociated from the very people who sent them. Scott-Jones states the critical point that, oftentimes for the Black academic, disassociation often does feel like the cost of acceptance by the academy.
Scott-Jones further explores this idea that there is some type of quid-pro-quo happening in the academic world by saying, “That is a product of how the system is constructed. And in talking with my story consultants, that’s what really started to come out—that the things that these people have to go through and have to put up with—the amount of work they have to produce and the way they have to produce it [in order to be accepted].’ Through her voice, you can hear and feel the psychological brutality endured in what seems to be a systematic process of breaking the spirit of the Black academic.
The irony is that, while many people believed that those who rose in the ranks of the academy have somehow made it and are excluded from the realities of what it means to be Black, this is far from the truth. The GROUNDS podcast makes it clear that there is a certain beauty in having more intellectual tools at one’s disposal, yet having a Ph.D. does not allow the Black academic to escape the fight for recognition and acceptance of their fundamental humanity. Leslie doubles down here and says, “It is six years of training someone to assimilate into a certain structure, and the kicker is that once you get to be a full professor and have tenure, then your department turns around and says to you, ‘Okay, now you’re our black professor. So what do we need to know about being black after we have spent six years training you not to be black?’”
This cadre of professors at Morris & Wilkins is accomplished in every sense of the word. They are world-traveled and renowned scholars, yet on GROUNDS, they struggle. They straddle the world that their intellect and mind have created for them and a world that treats them as Q-Tip and Yasin Bey once said, “Mr. N***a”, or in this case Dr. N***a.
To close our conversation, Leslie said, “That’s the biggest win for me, though, because that’s what I wanted. I wanted them [black academics] to have their flowers right now, to be able to say, ‘No, I do exist, and here’s proof that I exist because this art piece has me in it.’”
The first season of GROUNDS can be found on Anchor, YouTube, Soundcloud, and wherever you get your podcasts. The second season of GROUNDS was funded by Virginia Humanities and will be released later this Spring.