Tell Them We are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities. Directed by Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams. Arlington, VA: PBS, 2017. 82 minutes.
Living Thinkers: An Autobiography of Black Women in the Ivory Tower. Directed by Roxana Walker-Canton. New York: Women Make Movies, 2013. 75 minutes.
Tell Them We Are Rising is a historical exploration of education for Black Americans. Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, educating Black Americans in the South was illegal. Immediately following emancipation, colleges emerged to educate the newly freed people. Over time, these colleges became known as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), providing postsecondary educational opportunities for Black Americans up until the time of integration. One of the lasting legacies discussed in the film is the juxtaposition between two famous educators of the time who were highly influential in HBCUs: W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Du Bois believed in the intellectual growth of Black Americans through the liberal arts and Washington supported the ideals of trade labor where students learned specified skills for a particular industry. In essence, Du Bois took the approach of northern educators of learning for the sake of knowledge and Washington appealed to southern stakeholders because he desired that student walk away with distinct skills. This film provides layered history adding the perspective of how formerly enslaved people and their descendants were educated and how HBCUs continue to have an impactful legacy.
These institutions were the birthplace of many social movements, and they are often presented as being led and formed by Black men. However, Tell Them We Are Rising showcases the Black women at the helm of change at HBCUs, though they were not in the limelight. It is unfortunate that even within progressive movements like racial justice, sexism has stifled the visibility of women. Acknowledging that progress often is not inclusive of all people allows for substantial critique of how we educate students and advocate for justice in the classroom.
In Living Thinkers: An Autobiography of Black Women in the Ivory Tower, a 2013 documentary by Roxana Walker-Canton, we get a glimpse of the early educational experiences and current-day professional lives of Black women in academia. The film is part of The Living Thinkers Project, a multimedia project that has collected the narratives of one hundred Black women faculty, administrators, and staff in US colleges and universities. In the film, the women chronicle the various factors that have shaped their overall impressions of academia. As fellow Black women in the ivory tower, we found their descriptions of higher education to resonate with us. Many of the incidents they recount are familiar to us personally, or they have been shared by our Black women colleagues. We believe the similarities further underscore Patricia Hill Collins’s idea of a commonality of Black women’s experiences. These stories can comfort Black women who ask themselves, “Is it just me?” because the answer is a resounding “No!” and can remind us that racism and sexism are structural and systemic and are deeply embedded in academia. The systematic nature of racism, sexism, and patriarchy is often hard to grasp for those whose raced and/or gendered lives are not marginalized. However, The Living Thinkers Project’s firsthand accounts show how the intersection of these identity categories affect how women of color experience life in academia.
Despite the challenges the women identified, in Living Thinkers many spoke of triumph and even thriving in academia, and many have been in academia for decades. They have successfully journeyed to tenure and beyond, occupying named professorships and even positions as deans. Their stories are important and deserve to be told, providing a more balanced view of academia as a site of both oppression and liberation. However, missing are the voices of more junior faculty and administrators. While the film does include interviews with Black women students, there are still gaps in the voices represented. By including the stories from junior professionals together with those from undergraduate/graduate students and senior Black scholars, Living Thinkers would chronicle a fuller range of Black women’s experiences in academia.
These two films, presenting different aspects of academic life, are complementary in addition to filling in important gaps about higher education on their own. Tell Them We Are Rising focuses primarily on the significance of institutional spaces for Black scholars whereas Living Thinkers creates an important platform to illustrate the ways that racism and sexism operate at institutional and interpersonal scales for people of color. The films can also be shown together to create a dialogue about the historical and present-day contributions of Black women to the academy.
Reynolds-Dobbs, Wendy, Kecia M. Thomas, and Matthew S. Harrison. 2008. “From Mammy to Superwoman: Images That Hinder Black Women’s Career Development.” Journal of Career Development 35, no. 2 (December): 129-50.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 2018. “Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw Defines Intersectionality.” YouTube video, 6:41. Posted by Rich Russo, Sept. 13.