Throughout the years, the world of academia has offered a place for connections. And despite the disproportionate numbers of Black women educators across the country, several Black women professors at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln women share their experiences in fostering space for community.
UNL’s diversity in faculty has been minimal over the years, especially regarding Black women faculty. According to 2021’s diversity data collected by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, only 12 Black women are in tenure-track positions at the university. This is compared to the 248 white women and 486 white men who are tenured professors or in tenure track positions.
This disparity exists nationwide. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article reported that as of the fall of 2019, only 2.1 percent of tenured associate and full professors at U.S. universities and colleges were Black women.
Jeannette Eileen Jones, a history and ethnic studies professor at UNL, was excited when she started college as an undergrad at Hofstra University, a private liberal arts college in New York. She was the first in her family to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and she knew from the beginning that she wanted to be mentored by Black professors. As a history major, Jones took classes outside of her track to be in classes led by Black professors. Jones said she found three Black professors who supported her during her college years.
“They were like my bulwark. They basically had my back. When I decided to go to grad school, they encouraged me. I felt as if I had some safety with them,” Jones said.
Jones also joined the African Peoples Organization, which she said was similar to UNL’s primary Black student organization, Afrikan People’s Union. She held several leadership positions within the organization, which helped her gain a sense of community among fellow students. She said many of them found each other in classes as well, especially classes that centered on Black studies and were led by the Black professors on campus. Jones said they had to deal with the invisibility of being Black students on a predominantly white campus, as well as threats to their student organization’s programming.
When Jones continued her education in the history graduate program at SUNY-Buffalo, she was surprised to find that there were no Black professors in her department. She turned to the professors in the African American studies department, who she ultimately included in her dissertation and comps committees and worked as a teacher’s assistant.
“I needed Black mentorship. I needed Black professors who saw me and understood what I was going through,” Jones said.
In 2003, Jones was the second Black woman in the history department to earn a doctoral degree. She met the first woman, Lillian Williams, who graduated in 1979. Jones said she learned about the radical presence Williams had on campus in the 1970s, particularly in creating an African and African American Studies department.
When Jones completed her doctoral degree, she interviewed at four different universities, including UNL. Jones said what mainly led to her decision to accept the position was UNL’s extensive research programming. But within a month of her being at the university, Jones said she learned that many of her colleagues did not want her there.
“I felt like I had a target on my back. There were people who expected me to fail, who did not think I was a competent scholar,” Jones said.
Jones was alarmed by the isolation, and she ultimately took 18 months off in 2007 as a part of her pre-tenure track to pursue her post-doc. Jones said that was the best decision she ever made. During that time, she finished her postdoc in Germany, wrote her book “In Search of Brightest Africa”, wrote an article for a volume she was co-editor of, and was heavily involved in community service on campus and within her profession.
Jones got tenure, but she said those six years were hard on her. She said despite the presumptions about her qualifications, her constant was her dedication to the minority students on campus.
”I always say I never wavered in my commitment to students of color because I was that student in university. You’re around a lot of white power structures, and you’re a Black student, and your voice is not as amplified as it should be,” Jones said.
Jones is currently the primary advisor for the collegiate chapter of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. She also has collaborated with the Black Student Union, a coalition of all Black student organizations at UNL. Jones said these collaborations have kept her grounded despite the racial politics on campus.
Last August, Jones and other professors testified at the Board of Regents meeting when regents member and governor-elect Jim Pillen introduced a failed resolution to remove Critical Race Theory for Nebraska’s universities. Jones said she was proud to see the advocacy on behalf of students of color, and she said she will continue to support them.
“We just have to be mindful of the forces outside who want to depress our stories, who want to attack our profession, who are opposed to what we call ‘Truth and Reconciliation.’ Meaning before you can reconcile any nation, you have to come to truth, to grips with the truths of its founding, of its prosperity,” Jones said Jones.
Jones offers classes like the History of Hip-Hop, Introduction to African American Studies, and African American Women’s History. For Jones, the importance of her work is also speaking up for the community.
“As long as I’m here, I’m going to be committed to change; I’m going to be committed to speaking out against these kinds of attacks on our very being, our academic freedom, our ability to teach our courses. I still teach my courses,” Jones said.
The fight can be tiring, and Jones said the imposter syndrome can be a lot at times. But she said she always reminds herself that deserves the recognition she receives for her work.
“My advisor told me recently that I’ve got to have a mantra: ‘I’m a historian, I’m a creator, this is what I’m meant to do. And I’m good at it. I’m damn good at it,” Jones said.
Sociology professor Lory Dance said she did not imagine herself becoming an educator. But she was surrounded by it from an early age. She grew up watching her mother work as a kindergarten through sixth-grade teacher assistant, and she said the impact she had on her students– and the teachers she supported– was undeniable.
“We would bump into people who were now young adults, and they would say ‘Ms. Dance, thank you for pulling me aside. Thank you for taking time with me,’” Dance said.
Dance grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, which was a predominantly Black city. Dance’s mother passed away two years ago, but Dance said she continues to honor her mother’s legacy through her work as a professor.
“I’m told that I’m a very creative professor, that I do creative assignments, and they engage and make students excited to learn,” said Dance. “That creativity, that finding creative ways to engage, that’s my mom. That’s my mom because I watched her do it at the K through 6 level”.
Dance said until college, she had an immersion in a community that was all Black. She said she remembers her school’s Black student population increased as the white flight took place, and white families were quickly moving out of the area. Once she started her undergrad at Georgetown University, Dance said she struggled because of how different it was from her hometown.
“It wasn’t just predominantly white. It was predominantly wealthy, and I came from a low-income background,” Dance said.
Similar to Jones, Dance found professors who made it possible for her to be successful. Dance said there were three male professors from ethnic backgrounds that significantly impacted her because they saw her and saw themselves. A conversation with her best friend led her to UNL because her friend emphasized the importance of Dance’s ability to disrupt and challenge how white students operated in the world. Dance said it was also important to her to be a professor of color to students of color because she remembers how much it meant to her as a student.
Today, Dance said it’s the students, her research on urban spaces, and creating equity and inclusion that bring her joy in her profession. Dance said that since she started at UNL, she sees students being more and more vocal about racial justice. She said it gives her reason for hope, but the powers that be are moving too slowly.
“Diversity is that we got all these people who look different. Equity is you’re doing something to make sure that they’re included. Equity and inclusion go together,” Dance said.
Dance said what keeps her grounded is exercise, which she is slowly getting back to as she heals from her open-heart surgery. She also said she’s grateful for the friends she’s surrounded herself with; they have supported her during her healing journey.
“I choose my friends because, with love, they will tell me about myself. I mean with love. I don’t choose friends who are abusive, but I choose friends who aren’t afraid to tell me to take it easy or to slow down,” Dance said.
Both professors’ advice to students, particularly students of color, is to build community.
“You need to seek out multiple mentors, multiple people that you can talk to. They may be people of color. More importantly, they see you. They see your complexity. They’ve shown you who they are not by what they say but by how they act,” Dance said.
Jones emphasized the community students can build among each other. She said it’s important to acknowledge each other, even in passing. She said when they don’t acknowledge each other, students further isolate themselves.
“You don’t have to go to every event, but go to events that are being put on by Black and African black organizations, for Black students, and others you can do as well, like indigenous history. And LGBTQ+ events, Latinx events. And you don’t have to stay there long. But again, it’s about building a community,” Jones said.
These Black women professors at UNL will continue to cultivate community for themselves, in their classrooms, in their work, and in their circle. They are the emblem of perseverance and showing up for one’s work and the generations that come after. Toni Morrison, the late writer and professor at Howard University, talked about that perseverance.
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else,’” she said.