Professor Mikell Delivers Life of Learning Address at Faculty Convocation

Professor Gwendolyn Mikell in regalia behind Georgetown University Podium at 2017 Faculty Convocation

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March 30, 2017 – The Department of Anthropology is inspired and in awe of our colleague, Professor Gwendolyn Mikell, who delivered a riveting Life of Learning address at the Spring 2017 Faculty Convocation. Professor Mikell’s speech chronicled unjust challenges because of race and gender; a love of books and ideas and dialogue; the importance of mentoring, and colleagues, and cohorts, and generosity; and a life-long dedication to re-shape institutions to be more interesting, effective, just, and forward thinking. What Professor Mikell has accomplished in and out of the academy is nothing short of remarkable. She founded, launched, and built. She was the first, the pioneer, the ceiling-breaker in many a room. We all have benefited. 

I am deeply honored to give the Life of Learning lecture this year.  I congratulate the Vicennial medalists, and offer special thanks to our President, and my wonderful colleagues Brennan, Terrio, and Rizvi in Anthropology, those in CCAS, and those in the African Studies Program and the SFS Core faculty. You have enriched my life, and shared with me a deep commitment to a life of learning.  Some of my good and hearty friends with whom I often share a glass of wine, are here in the auditorium today. Last but not least, I am grateful for family—for my late husband, the anthropologist and diplomat Dr. Elliott P. Skinner of Columbia University, and for my daughter Luce Mikell Remy a Hoya graduate of the Law Center – because they gave me love, laughter and joy, and they often held my feet to the fire of scholarship! 

When President DeGioia extended the invitation for me to give this lecture, I experienced shock first, then pleasure, and then confusion.  I told my daughter that evening that while it was wonderful, it was a bit puzzling because I thought that people didn’t give such talks until they were in their 70s.  That’s when she said, “Well Mom, I hate to break it to you, but you are almost there!”  Imagine that I have been at Georgetown for 41 years!   In all those years, I have been happiest while learning, teaching, doing research, writing, plotting, and building so as to apply new ideas that make the University and the real world better.  So many Georgetown alums – all those young, bright, brilliant, energetic, inquisitive and sometimes devious students who have filled my classroom over the years – have indeed helped to keep me feeling younger!

The Inspiration for a Life of Learning

I decided to use the theme of “Race and Justice in a Life of Learning” because there was no other way to explain the journey through academia that I’ve taken. Much of the inspiration for this life of scholarship came first from my upbringing in Chicago. My parents, both Black people from rural Mississippi, were the children of parents who owned large farms, and paid school tuitions and boarding fees from the corn, potatoes, cotton and timber that they sold from the land. After graduation, one by one, their older siblings migrated to Chicago at the end of the Depression, then my mother came in the late 1930s, and my father came when he returned from service in the Pacific after World War II. They married, and (of course) my mother taught us to read and write at ages 3 and 4, and then sent us to school to frustrate the teachers. My father was a welder for Electro Motors, making the trains that carried freight throughout the country. But as the economy changes, he re-invented himself several times, becoming a small entrepreneur with a home decorating business, and then training to be a stationary engineer for one of the food processing plants.

During summers, I communed with my cousins on our grandparents’ Mississippi farms, but it was the travel to and from Mississippi that sticks out in my mind.  It was a perilous journey, as whites tried to rear-end us, and flip this car of those ‘uppity’ Chicago black folk, hoping to role it over into the ditch. When we got out of Southern Illinois, we knew we had triumphed once again.  But the theft of those long-held farms still troubles me, so I have a love-hate relationship with that whole Mississippi thing.  Between our strict upbringing in the Afro-Baptist and Pentecostal traditions, and the regular communication between teachers and parents, there wasn’t much room for us six siblings to go astray.  Our house was on the edge of a transitional neighborhood, so as we headed to the library, we packed our book-bags with stones and we fought our way through a Slavic area in one direction, or fought our way through an Italian neighborhood in the other direction. 

Race was an ever-present influence in the background.  I marveled that Martin Luther King would try to march through Cicero without expecting that white ethnics would assault him.  Years later, I would recognize in St. Clair Drake’s Black Metropolis a description of the racial animus between those Chicago neighborhoods.  Nevertheless, as a teen-ager I loved art, and books, and poetry.  So I spent many happy Saturdays in classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and studying at the Chicago Public library downtown.

Despite segregation in Southside schools of the 1960s, the most delightful thing about being at Francis W. Parker High School on the Southside of Chicago was the endless opportunity to learn.  We were on an education campus with a large green space in the center, and with elementary, high school, and Wilson Junior College on different sides of the square.  Former Illinois Senator Carole Mosley-Braun was one of my 1964 classmates.  My high science teacher, Mrs. Irene Worrell, seeing that I was a biology enthusiast, took me to the University of Chicago to be mentored for the science fairs, some of which I won with my chromatography projects on Drosophila mosquitos.  Mrs. Worrell insisted that I ignore the advice of a white guidance counselor who tried to dissuade me from applying to U. Chicago.

That generation of determined black teachers prevailed, and there is no way that we can ever repay them! We did not know that we were part of a historic experiment, a master plan in which, once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, these teachers would push us black egg-heads through the doors of the major universities.  To them, a serious strand of racial justice was to produce a cohort of black scholars who would penetrate all the professions. In that way, I became one of the hundreds of black heirs of Martin Luther King. I may have been the only one surprised by my entry into the University of Chicago’s freshmen class in the fall of 1965.

Being at UC was like ‘nerd-heaven’ in one way, and it was a painful experience of learning to ignore racial aggressions in another.  We seventeen black students who entered UC in 1965, discover that we were path-breakers, because the class before us had only one black student, who became our ‘big-brother.’  We understood in a fundamental way that it “had taken a village to raise a child;” and that with these gifts came an obligation to work for racial justice, and opportunity for others.  We created a peer village among ourselves – as we banded together against the hostility of white students who had never before been in contact with blacks on an equal basis.  We tutored each other, taught calculus, and celebrated achievements.

I discovered that the social sciences could also be a source of activism, at the same time that I kept an eye on the battles over desegregation and Black Power that were consuming major American cities.  There were the sociologists of the Park School of race relations; the radical professor Richard Flacks who taught us African history right after the coup against President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana; the sociologist Morris Janowitz, who worked with Samuel Huntington on civil-military relations; and the black professor Charles Long of the Divinity School, who adopted us as his charges. In Sol Tax’s anthropology class, I learned about ‘Penny Capitalism;’ and the anthropologist Raymond Smith, hired me to do ethnographic work in his study of Black kinship on the West side of Chicago.  Intellectual life could be exciting!

In the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Columbia University, I enjoyed working with Morton Fried who was a specialist on the state in Asia, with Conrad Arensberg on Ireland and urban communities, with Margaret Mead on urban ethnography, with Charles V. Hamilton on Black American politics, and with Elliott Skinner on African political economy.  All this taught me to use anthropological insights on culture, fitted together in productive ways with insights from political science and economics, to understand socio-political realities of the cold-war world.

I was fortunate to be able to do political anthropology research in Ghana with a doctoral fellowship through the Ford Foundation Middle East and Africa program.  Black scholars, who had been “firsts” a generation before, had convinced the major foundations that “justice” required them to create a new generation of non-whites to study the world, and I was lucky enough to receive one of those grants.  In addition to exploring the linkages between culture, economics, and politics in cocoa cash cropping villagers in Brong-Ahafo Ghana, I experienced such psychic freedom working and learning in an African environment.   While completing my dissertation at Columbia, and teaching at Rutgers University-Newark, I enjoyed the exchange of ideas between the intellectual and the diplomatic communities.  The desire for more such inter-disciplinarity brought me to Georgetown University,  where  I embarked unknowingly, on the more difficult challenge of race and justice within the academy.

Navigating “Race” and “Justice” within the Academy

There were some who advised me against coming to Georgetown.  “They are Jesuit, and they have never tenured a black person there,” said my Chairperson Dr. Wendell Jeanpierre of Rutgers University.  But, I was arrogant enough to push back and retort: “Well, I guess I’ll have to be the first.” My assumption –modeled on what I had seen in of the universities in Chicago, New York, Newark, and Boston –was that every university now had a coterie of young Black, Asian, and Hispanic tenure-track faculty who had been “firsts” a decade ago.

Nothing was further from the truth at Georgetown in 1976.  There were no tenure-track black faculty members on the main campus, and I did not yet know Pat King over at the Law Center.  So I did indeed become a “first” as I battled the resistance to racial diversity that existed on our main campus.   I have so many anecdotes about the initial refusal to recognize a black woman as a real professor: the students who would not come into my office, and the campus officials who refused to believe that my faculty ID card was real, and the colleagues who would not take my scholarly discipline or my research on the black world as legitimate. Those were tough times. 

Moving through promotion and tenure taught me about the social reinforcements that black faculty members need in order to survive.  I must give credit to a few of my Black colleagues at Howard University across town, with whom I drank coffee, talked over my articles, discussed and developed my ideas about culture and politics, and exchanged ideas about their work on the ‘Group of 77’ that made up the Non-aligned Conference within the United Nations.  They introduced me to real Washingtonians who had known Alaine Locke and Zora Neale Hurston, to the Marie Reed Learning Center, the new DC Statehood crowd, and the old ‘talented tenth’ of which W. E. B. DuBois spoke.  Despite the gulf that existed between Howard and Georgetown Universities, they kept my intellectual fires alive. 

Although I helped to build the new Black Studies Department at Rutgers-Newark in 1974, Georgetown was not ready to address the black American experience or even ‘diversity’ broadly when I arrived.  President Fr. Timothy Healy (whom I call my “classmate” because we both came in 1976) and Fr. Thomas King of the Theology Department were comrades-in-arms, and I co-taught a course on Food and Justice with Father King.   Within the Jesuit community, President Timothy Healy‘s vision for Georgetown’s faculty diversification and ‘research one’ status was jolting and controversial, but history shows he was right on target!

Fr. Healy’s mentee, our President Jack DeGioia was a consistent advocate for students and a supporter of racial justice in South Africa, and I found this inspiring.  I was proud of Georgetown students who demanded that the University use sanctions to help end apartheid in South Africa.  With more student demands for additional courses on Africa in the early 1980s, the African Studies Program in SFS was born, and I developed a broader cohort of faculty colleagues, who grappled with issues of globalization, institutional diversity, and this helped push faculty and administrative initiatives on diversity.

Thankfully, Georgetown was in Washington DC! When my book on Cocoa and Chaos in Ghana came out, it was exciting to debate with economists at the World Bank (WB) about their errors in judgment regarding how the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) hampered African development.  Time proved me and other social scientists correct, and the World Bank’s ‘Washington Consensus’ to be flawed.  While the interface between theory and practice was a productive one for scholars, it had taken too long for economists to acknowledge the interface between culture, political, and socio-economic reality.  

As a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, I celebrated as we scholars climbed out of our ‘ivory towers.’ At Georgetown, interdisciplinary conversations helped lessen the gulf between the subjects we taught in the College and in SFS, and wider American problems.  We expanded the SFS curricula to include the CULP and then the STIA major.  I thought to myself, that Georgetown was catching up, and that perhaps we would make our mark in academia and on the world!

My time at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) in Princeton in 1991 and 1992 had an enormous impact on my research and writing.  I had regular conversations with Clifford Geertz who argued for “thick description” to understand the intersection of law-history-culture-economics in property relations of Ghanaian cocoa-farmers, and with Joan Scott the feminist historian at IAS, who encouraged me to delve deeper into feminist descriptions of Ghanaian women’s experiences. At IAS, I also engaged the work of Michael Walzer on Spheres of Justice, and John Rawls on A Theory of Justice, and it complicated my thinking.

At Princeton, Cornell West, Nell Painter, Walton Johnston and others encouraged me to rethink the intellectual pathway toward understanding justice and the black racial experience.  Joan Scott told me to continue the important research on gender justice and the experiences of African women.  Colleagues Betty J. Harris, Tekyiwaa Manuh, Jeanne Toungara, and Carleene Dei came to Princeton for our conversations, so we celebrated when the book African Feminism: The Politics of Survival in Sub-Saharan Africa was published. I have to give a shout-out to my then teenage daughter who endured the small-town pumpkin patch feel of the New Jersey countryside, and the parochialism of Princeton; and a shout-out to my late husband who endured the commutes from Metro Station to Columbia University in New York City.  Later, at Georgetown, it was a thrill for me to sit on this same stage as we awarded Clifford Geertz an honorary degree.

I was intrigued with what it meant to pursue justice in intellectual issues, in the public sphere, or within the university.   Such broader questions inspired me to do more comparative work in Freetown Sierra Leone and Monrovia Liberia, and in Ghana and Nigeria on gender violence, peace and conflict resolution issues as the wars unfolded, and again in the aftermath of my attendance at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women.  To many African men, “feminism” was a dirty word.  But I worked with so many wonderful Ghanaian, Nigerian, Liberian, Sierra Leonean and South African women feminist scholars on these issues.  Subsequently, it was an honor to be elected President of the African Studies Association (ASA), and to co-chair the ASA women’s Book prize committee from 1997 through the early 2000s. 

A major concern for me in the late 1990s was collaboration between scholars and policy folk.  This was the same controversial reality that Margaret Mead confronted and endorsed during the 1940s, focused in her case, on the winning of WWII. Her instincts ran counter to the animosity between academia, government and the military in the mid-20th century, and the price  Margaret Mead paid it was that she never held a tenure track position at Columbia.  Yet, I decided that this was a fight worth undertaking.  As President of the African Studies Association, I encouraged our scholarly associations to pursue conversations with our government in order to influence American policy in positive direction.  I encouraged anthropologists in the AAA to pick up the challenge, even if I did not convince all my colleagues!

Civil wars in Africa made me focus attention on how the social sciences contribute to the promotion of gender and democratic justice.  As a fellow of the United States Institute of Peace, I explored how women’s peacebuilding facilitated civil society and international interventions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria.  Later, this led me to research African interventions at the UN and the Center for Strategic Studies of National Defense University (NDU) for Gabon, Nigeria, and Ethiopian conflicts.  Upon my return to Georgetown, SFS Interim Dean David Newsome appointed me to be Director and to build the African Studies Program.  So this became my fulcrum for change, as I expanded curricular and research collaborations within SFS, and hired new black and white Africanist colleagues into the SFS faculty.

My scholarship also enabled me to work with other institutions in the Washington DC area, and to mentor students who would go into international NGOs and into the U.S. Foreign Service.  As Interim Chair of the Africa Program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) the year before the bombing of the World Trade Center, I started to shape our discussions of African culture and policy just as the African Union was finding its legs, and to imagine diverse directions.  I remember that in the days after 911, as I caught a glimpse of sharp shooters on the roof of the Foggy Bottom buildings, and felt the depression in Washington; I realized that this was about to become a very different city.  I set about rescheduling CFR events in New York and Washington, and imagine new ways to educate policy makers on the cultural nuances of the work of international politics. 

With the State Department sponsored U.S. Dialogue on Islam fellowship, a number of us who worked on Nigeria, engaged with colleagues in Kano as we ‘guestimated’ the impact of a possible 2003 Iraq invasion.  Another concern was how Georgetown students might engage this Post-911 reality, as well as the post Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings.  We went on to create our Tanzania Swahili summer program in 2003; Director Scott Taylor’s Rwanda Spring Break Program after 2009; and other African studies collaborations as our colleagues Professors Calisto Madavo, Lahra Smith, Amadou Kone, Alex Thurston, Ken Opalo, and others focused their research on some challenges of the Africa and the US interface.

In 2006, professionals from the United Nations and the Carnegie Foundation requested that I  subject the Africa issues during the two tenures of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to scrutiny, and I asked Georgetown to assist in my examination of what Annan contributed to global peace.  Anthropologists who use participant observation and qualitative research, don’t usually do this kind of research, but I relished the challenge.  President DeGioia, I cannot thank you enough for your prescience in saying yes!  While the Kofi Annan conference did cost the University, we gave Kofi Annan an honorary degree, and mobilized our faculty members and students to participate in the dialogue with other scholars, policy folk, United Nations representatives, African Union representatives, civil society advocates, 3rd world journalists, and Kofi Annan himself.  It energized my research and my draft manuscripts of those research conversations.

Being an art enthusiast, and having supplemented my ethnographic research with analysis of artifacts in the Smithsonian collections as a young professor, I was thrilled to be asked to serve two terms on the Advisory Board of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.  We worked to diversify the Museum’s traditional collections with modern artistic creations, and to strengthen relationships with the broader African American community.  In 2015, with President DeGioia’s support, we brought the Museum’s Director, anthropologist Dr. Johnnetta Beusch Cole, to our campus and engaged our faculty and students, with the exhibitions that celebrated the Museum’s 50th anniversary.

Bringing the Challenge back Home

Let us bring the race and justice challenge back home.  I was lucky to overcome the difficulties I faced earlier in my Georgetown career.  Nitsche said: “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” But I choose to interpret this in a positive way.  Georgetown’s Jesuit environment of “women and men for others” has allowed my own moral imagination to flourish.  It has encouraged me to consider how my scholarship on the U.S. and Africa can address the complex intellectual, racial and justice issues I have lived through.  I have been able to watch the development of Georgetown’s understanding of pluralism and justice,  and to see student interest in justice mature, as well.

True, racial diversity in Georgetown’s faculty happened too slowly and sporadically.  In the 1990s, I was condemned to watch a number of black faculty members arrive and then leave. Some were unhappy, some were inadequately mentored; and still others were attracted away to places that appeared to value their expertise more than did Georgetown.  Black male faculty members who left often felt that they faced a more inhospitable environments here than their female counterparts, but I shall not comment on that.  Clearly, I have fared better.  Yet, few other black faculty members were asked to chair their departments, assume a named chair, become Dean, or to be recognized in a special way by the University.  Only recently have the faculty of various departments in the College been willing to recruit and tenure talented young Black faculty members.  So to repurpose a biblical idea, I wondered when ‘black prophets will be honored in their own town.’

Yet there is promise.  In the contemporary moment, as we struggle to reconcile the tensions between the “Black Lives Matter”  and the “Make America Great Again” movements, American institutions are challenged to rise to the occasion.  President DeGioia has provided us with an example of the leadership role that educational institutions can provide.  I am pleased that in 2016, President DeGioia responded to the challenge that the 1838 sale of 272 slaves posed for Georgetown’s national and international reputation.  Under his leadership, the Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation initiative is being institutionalized, and the Working Group on Racial Justice was tasked to craft Georgetown’s institutional response to racial injustice. Provost Groves’ support made the African-American Studies Department a reality.

I am pleased to be one of the Co-Chairs of the Working Group on Racial Justice, working to build the Research Center on Racial Justice because the significance of these initiatives cannot be over-estimated.  We are in the midst of envisioning how to produce research and policy recommendations that lessen racial injustices; and how to maximize faculty development in the process of designing equitable futures.  My colleagues at other educational institutions are watching us because they believe we can set a new university paradigm for merging research and praxis on U.S. racial justice and public policy challenges. 

How to give back to Chicago and to those in the Midwest was among my concerns in 2013, when young black scholars gave a dinner in my honor during the American Anthropological Association meetings, and invited me to talk about a life of scholarship.  Since 2014, I have reconnected with my black fellow graduates of Parker High School and the Paul Robeson Academy that now sits on that campus.  We are trying to describe our variant of the story of civil rights and professional success.  Some of us are interrogating our professional accomplishments.  Some are asking how much further we might have progressed if there had been no institutional racism within our fields.  Other ask whether MLK’s dream ever could have succeeded, given white political resistance.  This research project will continue to produce new research over the next few years, and I have integrated it into my classroom as we find ways to connect African-American legacies to those world realities studied by Georgetown students. 

I must give a shout-out to my students this semester—my research collaborators in the Race and the Black Diaspora course projects.  Some are doing oral interviews and historical research at three black Washingtonian churches that addressed the needs of slaves and the emancipated from 1838 onward; or exploring the development of Black Greek  Organizations and the Black House on Georgetown’s campus.  Some are doing survey interviews with my fellow ‘heirs of Martin Luther King’ at Parker High School.  Together, we are enjoying the learning process.

To conclude…My life experiences make me sensitive to how race and justice intersect within American life.  I have invested in a career mission of research, scholarship, social justice, and human betterment; but I do not believe that these can be separate and isolated missions. The responsibility to help bring about educational, racial, and humanitarian justice is a version of the early mission that I absorbed as a young person in Chicago, as a graduate student in New York, and as a faculty researcher at Georgetown in Washington DC .   Yes, the Jesuit philosophy here influenced my decades of research and writing on Africa and the U.S.  The beauty is that I have managed to integrate it into what I believe to be a rich intellectual career, and a lifetime of experiences with the Black World here and there.   Congratulation Vicennial medalists!  Thank you President DeGioia!