What has the 20th century meant for African American women in higher education? Over a steaming cup of tea, I smile as I fall into the trap of naming names and citing trends to answer this question. The names are hauntingly familiar. Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was one of the first three African American women to earn a Ph.D. degree in 1921. Mary McLeod Bethune founded Bethune-Cookman College, which was originally launched in 1904 as a girls’ school. As SisterPresident at Spelman College, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole produced hundreds of young scholars and, with her fundraising acumen, provided them with the resources they needed to compete. At Smith College, the first African American woman president of a majority private school, Dr. Ruth J. Simmons put an emphasis both on science and on attracting young, disadvantaged Black women.
Lists are dangerous, though. You can’t list SisterPresident Cole without thinking of Dr. Gloria Scott at Benedict, Dr. Niara Sudarkasa, formerly at Lincoln University, the late Dr. Marguerite Ross Barnett, who led the University of Houston, and dozens of others. Once you start playing the name game, you run the risk of stepping on toes by leaving someone out. However, there aren’t that many toes to step on. African American women have long been underrepresented in higher education, both at the historically Black colleges and universities, and in the majority world. In 1973, the first year for which the National Science Foundation has data by race and gender, a scant 163 of us received the Ph.D. We were less than half a percentage of the 33,755 total degrees granted that year. By 1998, there were more than six times as many of us as in 1973, but the 1,081 sisters who received the Ph.D. in 1998 were just 2.5 percent of the nearly 43,000 receiving doctorates.
We are few, but in the century, we have moved from the periphery to the mainstream of higher education. And increasingly, African American women have matriculated at every level of achievement. We don’t have our share of degrees, and the hurdles get taller the higher up Black women climb. Still, the 20th century has been a period in which African American women have made an indelible mark on higher education, both as scholars and as subjects of study. It took a woman who earned her Ph.D. just last year though, to remind me that when we measure the role African American women have had in higher education, it is important to measure, consider, and lift up the impact we have on each other.
Dr. Shireen Lewis earned her Ph.D. from Duke University in 1998. Her dissertation, soon to be published as a book, is titled Race, Culture and Identity in Francophone West African and Caribbean Literature and Theory: From Négritude to Créolité. I am privileged to know her as a sisterfriend who sees the big picture more clearly than most. In the throes of that lonely time, dissertation writing, Shireen turned pain into power by creating a Dissertation Support Group in Washington, D.C., that has, in two years, helped six African American women get over the Ph.D. hump. Her need to create this support group came out of her increasing sense of isolation and alienation while writing the dissertation.
Meeting every three weeks at Sisterspace and Books, the nation’s only bookstore that specializes in books by and about African American women, Shireen says, “We have created a nurturing, noncompetitive community where we mentor and support each other. We guide each other through the dissertation process based on our own experiences and our sense of how things work in the academy. We are aware that many times it is more a question of navigating the politics of the process and less about our actual ability to research and write a defensible dissertation. On a fundamental level, we are introducing a new paradigm of mentoring and support for doctoral candidates so that they can live up to their full potential.”
When I listen to Shireen talk about her Dissertation Support group, I am reminded of the Rev. Cecilia Bryant of Dallas, who challenged a group of successful women to replicate themselves “seven times over” in order to attain their success. We talk it, but too few walk it, preferring to play “Queen Bee” or “Final and Only.” Too often, we see younger sisterscholars as competitors not collaborators and inheritors of the dream. Alternatively, some of us are too busy to mentor and are too heavily weighed down by our own pursuits. Some sisters don’t give back; and others seem to deliberately block. Some African American women are as harsh, if not harsher than their White counterparts. Given the hurdles we’ve cleared, we cannot afford to be as harsh!
I think of my own mentor, Dr. Phyllis Ann Wallace, who put her hands on dozens of scholars, mostly African American and mostly women, but she touched “a few good men” as well. Few of her protegees can match her generosity of spirit and time. I think of Dr. Shireen Lewis as a woman in her image, one who managed to unselfishlessly give back, even as she struggled to navigate the system herself.
How will African American women shape higher education in the 21st century? It depends, perhaps, on how many embrace the challenge thrown down by Cecilia Bryant, or how many replicate models like that developed by Shireen Lewis. Nearly 7,500 African American women received the Ph.D. between 1990 and 1998. How many lives did these women touch? How many have they mentored? If each replicates herself seven times, that represents a cadre of more than 50,000 sisterscholars ready to teach, research, transform, and replicate. Are we equal to the challenge?