Let the Circle of Sista PhDs be Unbroken!


As I have continued to make my rounds at professional conferences, summer institutes, and various university campuses I have been overjoyed to learn of all the other thirty-something black female PhDs who are making waves in the academy!  It’s always great to see a friendly face, but to make contact with a friendly face that is reflective of your own experience is exceptionally exciting! My professional “elder” T. Harris once told me to seek out the best and brightest in my field and to make them my professional support network. She advised me to lean on this circle for reading those raggedy drafts, for emotional support when the academy gets to be enough, and for collaboration on other professional projects.  It was a great piece of advice and although she didn’t point to other black women in particular, my black female mind was directed that way by default. That is not to suggest that I am opposed to black male scholars in my circle or even white men and women. I lean on more than a few, but this one is for my ladies. 

I knew some folks in my age range or a bit older with whom I shared similar interests, but the task of building the type of bond T. Harris speaks of has been grounded in more theory than practice. That is, until recently.  As I have encountered black female academics who are still in the early stages of their careers, as am I, I have made a special effort to lend my support and build professional and personal links to these women.  It is a work in progress.  I am a very shy and introverted individual—don’t judge me. Nonetheless, I am happily moving forward with building my network of thirty-somethings. I am so proud to share the academic stage with such fierce and innovative thinkers. Here are just a few of the amazing scholars with whom I have connected or intend to connect. Look out for us:

Therí A. Pickens, Assistant Professor of English (Bates College)

Her research focuses on Arab American and African American literatures and cultures, Disability Studies, philosophy, and literary theory. Check out her blog: The Rogue Vogue Professor. Did I mention she isn’t even 30???  Do the math.

Folashade Alao, Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies (University of South Carolina)

Her scholarship examines the construction of the Sea Islands as a significant cultural landscape in the black feminist imagination and historicizes the Sea Islands’ contemporary emergence as a site of memory.You can find her profile here.

Ayesha Hardison, Assistant Professor of English (Ohio University)

Ford Fellow, MLA Executive Committee Member of the Black American Literature and Culture Division, NEH Summer Scholar. Look forward to her monograph Writing Through Jane Crow: Race, Gender, and Genre, 1940-1954.

Koritha Mitchell, Associate Professor of English (Ohio State University)

She is most well known for her work on the depiction of lynching and racial violence in African American Literature and Drama, Living with Lynching. I can’t wait to see what is next from this scholar.

Aisha Lockridge, Assistant Professor of English (St. Joseph’s University)

A Diva in her own right, Professor Lockridge has crafted an innovative read of the the Diva in African American literature in her recently released book, Tipping on a Tightrope. Her next project will contend with the “magical negress” in popular culture. Read all about her research and teaching here. 

Tanisha C. Ford, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

The phrase she coined to describe her scholarship says it all: “Haute Couture Intellectualism.” I haven’t met this scholar yet, but her work on black women, respectability, and adornment sounds like a project that is well over due.


I will admit, with many of these women I do have a professional relationship and I am unabashedly promoting their work just for the sake of exposing others to the scholarship of other black female PhDs of a certain age.  Isn’t that, after all, also part of the professional life? Get to know them and support their work!!!

Why I Love CLA (College Language Association)


I remember my first ever CLA Conference. I was finishing the final course of my doctoral degree and studying for my comprehensive exams.  It was April 2005 and the good colored folks were gathering at University of Georgia that year.  I had heard of CLA only the previous year, as my mentor and the other faculty of color at Florida State University were avid CLA-ers. If I was going to continue under their tutelage, I would have to be inducted into the CLA fold. I was excited and looking forward to the conference; I even chuckled at it being referred to as the “Colored” Language Association—a nod at both its cultural roots and the identity of its membership. I had no idea what I was in for.

Understanding that the study of Literature has the tendency to exclude and can be a lonely road for people of color, I was dumb-founded at the sheer number of scholars doing work in literatures and languages of the African Diaspora.  It was like I had died and my spirit flew off to Willow Springs.  Like Willow Springs, CLA exists between the control of two state apparatuses: the Modern Language Association on one hand and our home institutions on the other.  It is a place where students, faculty, and post-docs congregate to share and exchange knowledge; participate and engage in a black scholarly community; and support and expand an ever impressive web of professional networks. 

For a young, black, graduate student CLA presented a wealth of professional resources.  I had a chance meeting with Professor Bernard Bell—he, being without a car, happened upon my fellow graduate students and I who obliging gave the esteemed professor a ride to the local Kroger. He,  in turn, invited us to join his table at the banquet that evening.  He scrutinized my training in African American literature and schooled me over dinner and a few glasses of Riesling. It is an encounter I won’t soon forget as it prepared me for the later scrutiny I would face in my oral exams, my first job search, and, hell, the countless exchanges with colleagues who are yet and still uninformed about the vast tradition of African American letters.

As a professional, I still find CLA as equally amazing as I did as a graduate student.  Being of melanin-rich complexion and doing the work that I do, I am (as I find many other scholars of color are) continually faced with the challenges of being black in the Ivory Tower. Just when I am about to reach my limit of the academic fuckery that is wont to happen, April springs forward and I can find my reprieve in CLA.  I escape to reunite with colleagues, mentors, and for the first time in 2013—former graduate students Shauna Morgan Kirlew and Patricia Coloma Penate who are now among the professoriate. I cannot wait to seal the deal on my Life Membership in this organization that has been so central to my career growth.

CLA is a safe haven for this colored girl. I feast upon the plethora of scholarship on black literature and culture like Thabiti Lewis’s paper on teaching hip-hop aesthetics to a majority white student body or Mary B. Zeigler’s work on Gullah Geechee lexical heritage, or an entire panel on black vampires in Speculative Fiction.  I heal my professional aches and pains over tea and make new professional acquaintances at dinner. I gain new perspectives on my own work during the Q&A segment of my panels which always runs—always, always runs over time because of such engaging conversation and constructive criticism. 

But this is what happens at all professional conferences, right? I suppose on some level that is a correct assumption. I would interject, however, that the difference with CLA is that many of its members describe it as “home”. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a colleague put their experience at MLA or ALA in those terms.  Like Willow Springs, you have to be from there (CLA) to really understand how things take shape. If you are a scholar doing work in African American Literature or the literature and languages of the African Diaspora, you owe it to yourself to at least engage with this community once in your career. You have to put your hands in the care of CLA and believe you will be transformed. And you never know who will show up at CLA—you just may find yourself shaking hands with the greatest conjure woman on earth. Winking smile