I have been a Professor in the Sociology of Race, Gender and Education for 25 years. One of only 35 rare ‘Phenomenal’ Black women professors in Britain in a sea of 20,000 white professors. My students ask me “Was it always my dream”? The truth is I would have never believed it in a million years!
Growing up in Trinidad in 1960s the only ‘Professor’ I knew was the local calypsonian and DJ. My parents did not go to university, and the only books in the house were a row of bright red Encyclopaedia Britannica. My grandma and aunties were schoolteachers in the villages, and I was being groomed for motherhood and marriage. A Professor. Never!
I was 14 when I got my Star Trek ‘beam me-up Scotty moment’. It was 1972 when I saw the Black feminist activist Angela Davis on TV. Defiant, beautiful and strong with her signature afro and arm held aloft in the proud Black power salute. I was hooked. The struggle for racial justice would become my burning path and YES, a woman can do it! I migrated to England, got my PhD and wrote the book Young Female and Black exposing the racism Caribbean girls like me faced in British schools – I never looked back!
Whatever is your back story that brought you to academia, being a professor is not a random career. It takes tenacity, strategic focus, publications and lots of late nights and tears. To make it there are 3 vital things you need to know.
First: Build your Passion.
To build a world-class research profile you need to be driven by raw passion and commitment to your topic. The subject you are studying is not an accident – it is your calling. But nobody tells you it is tough to stay married to your subject for 10, 20 or 30 or in my case 40 years. A PhD is an intense relationship with your material and there are times you want to divorce it and run away, but don’t let people or circumstances derail you. It is your true possession in changing times.
My first lectureship was at an ivy league university in USA. I arrived from London all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. A formidable Dean called me into her grand panelled office. She sat me down and grilled me on my plans for future research. I was finally liberated from my PhD and wanted to go in new directions. She stopped me in my tracks, looked me in the eye and said, “your research is on young Black women and education, that is what you will do, that is all you will do, you will be known for that”. She was one of the first African American Deans in an elite university. I did not understand at the time, but she knew the power of exceptionalism. That was the best advice anyone ever gave me. Find your ‘cheese’- the thing that makes you stand out. Hone your niche, make it better, adapt it, but never let it go. Being a professor means you are the very best at what you do – a world expert – it’s your currency, your gift hold it tight.
Second: Find your Mentors.
You need trusted mentors and allies especially if you’re Black, Asian or working class to successfully navigate the corridors of power. In the Academy who you know is as important as what you know! Universities are steeped in the system of apprenticeships and being taken under a supervisors or tutors wing allows you opportunities to flourish. You need their endorsement to work on research projects, build your CV, write a letter of recommendation, hear about a fellowship, or postdoc. I was mentored and supported by some wonderful white feminist scholars along the way. They were not officially appointed mentors – we found each other. These academic allies were trailblazers in their own right and paved the way for breakthrough teaching and research opportunities. They counselled me in which journals to publish and taught me about diplomacy in departmental politics. The most generous mentors passed on amazing opportunities which they did not have the capacity to do themselves, such as strategic national appointments on funding bodies or government advisories. My black academic sisterhood nurtured my soul and provided a powerful ‘other’ network of love and friendship that sustained us in our journeys into the heart of elite, white male institutions.
I must be honest, this advice on navigating the system through finding influential mentors is pragmatic rather than coming from the heart. Though universities speak the mantra of merit and talent rising to the top, this is only half of the story. There were times I was pigeonholed as the ‘race lady’, and told my success was only because I was in the right place at the right time doing ‘trendy race and gender studies’. But my support system and driving passion prevailed and I stayed the course. To be a professor and change the world you need to protect your time and stick to the right folk. You will know them when you meet them. They are your fairy gold dust!
Third: Carp diem! Seize the day
The best things happen when you least expect them. Happenchance may seem like the anthesis of an academic career which needs careful staged plotting and planning. But if you seize the moment and knock on a door of a professor you admire it can suddenly open a world of new and exciting research possibilities. At a conference, a chain reaction of connections, travel and collaborations randomly unfold. On LinkedIn or Twitter you connect to someone inspirational that inspires an idea. You fall pregnant, step off the career treadmill and write your best-selling book -like I did! Good can come out of the unexpected. An ambitious scholar publicly trashed my seminar paper, I was humiliated but thank god he did. A week under the duvet and I came back fighting. Black British Feminism was born.
Life is like a river, it takes you into uncharted waters, if you meet a rock or dam, regroup, and find your way. My first research job was complete happenchance fuelled by my mental health. I had crashed and burned after an intense period of teaching far away from home and family. I took sick leave. I was rudderless, lost and depressed. A friend encouraged me to apply for a project on crack and cocaine which was sweeping the streets of London in the late 1980s. It was daring and dangerous and I knew nothing about drugs (truly!). By sheer luck, I got the job and found the racist media labelled it a ‘Black epidemic’, but it was actually a white problem linked to heroin use and women being overprescribed tranquilisers. The challenge revitalised me and set me back on my path to Black Feminist intersectional Sociology, and 10 years later I became the first Professor of Race Equality. Happenchance can be magical if you seize the day!
When I feel doubt my affirmation is ‘I have something to say’. My pathway to professor has been a mad crazy roller coaster ride filled with highest highs and the lowest lows, but it’s a mighty privilege to have a platform to say it!