Black Leaders in Academia: An Interview with Karsonya Wise Whitehead

Today I continue an interview series on black leaders in academia. The interviews will take place once a month and feature discussions with African Americans in formal leadership positions in academia, including department chairs, deans, associate deans, and organization directors. My goal is to provide our readers with information on the various challenges and opportunities that come with such positions and an understanding of the type of training necessary to become a successful academic leader. The first interview was with Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, Business and Education and John W. and Anna Hodgin Hanes Professor of the Humanities at Winston-Salem State University. The second interview was with Dr. Jeffrey B. Leak, Professor of English and Africana Studies at UNC Charlotte. The third interview was with Dr. Banita Brown, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Success at UNC Charlotte.

Today’s interview is with Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead (@kayewhitehead), an Associate Professor of Communication and African and African American Studies in the Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and the Founding Executive Director of The Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture. She is the author of four books including RaceBrave: New and Selected Works; Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis, which received the 2015 Darlene Clark Hine Book Award from the Organization of American Historians and the 2014 Letitia Woods Brown Book Award from the Association of Black Women Historians; and Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America. She is also a K-12 Master Teacher in African American History, an award-winning former Baltimore City middle school teacher, a three-time New York Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker, and a 2016-2017 guest commentator and Op-Ed columnist for WYPR 88.1 FM and the Baltimore Sun. She is the creator of the #SayHerName Syllabus and the guest editor for the fall 2016 special “#BlackGirlActivism” edition of meridians journal.


Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead
Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead

Cameron: I’d like to begin with your position as Founding Executive Director of the Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture. What are some of the major duties and responsibilities that come with directing an organization such as this one?

Whitehead: Building on the work and legacy of Emilie Frances Davis, a nineteenth-century freeborn black woman, and on her practice of social identity assertion through her daily writing, the Davis Center exists as a space to empower people to tell their stories. The Davis Center seeks to focus on and produce work that speaks to the ongoing narrative of the history of black women and the ways in which society understands, explains, and deconstructs black history. As the founding Executive Director, I juggle multiple responsibilities—including developing projects; writing books; running teacher Summer Training Institutes and culturally responsive teacher workshops; writing K-12 curricula; giving public lectures around the country; and writing a monthly Op-Ed column and providing monthly commentary to a local radio station about Baltimore City. All of these are designed to explore the ways in which racism, systemic inequality, and oppression continue to miseducate and oppress the black and brown communities.

Cameron: You frequently conduct workshops around the country to aid in the professional development of culturally responsive teachers. Would you say that mentoring other leaders is an important part of being an academic leader?

Whitehead: When I was an undergraduate at Lincoln University, I was selected to be a Woodrow Wilson scholar and spent one summer working with and being mentored by Barbara Jordan. She taught me that careers come in stages and one must know when it is time to be mentored and when it is time to mentor. The role of what she called a “good scholar” is that they understood that as they moved along their educational continuum, they are always in a position to do both–mentor and be mentored–with grace and poise. I believe that it is my job to mentor, to provide council, and to share the ways in which I have learned how to navigate this very complicated academic ground. My father used to tell me that I needed to learn how to fall on my back because if I can look up, then I can get up. I have added to that by understanding that as I get up and begin to climb, I should lift someone else up as I go forward. As a tenured professor, I am now in my third career (I formerly worked as a documentary filmmaker with MTV and MetroTV, a PBS affiliate and as a middle school social studies teacher in Baltimore City) and as people have helped me to make decisions, to figure out my path, to discover who I am and what I have to offer to the world, I am charged with doing the same.

Cameron: You are also currently the secretary of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). What are your major responsibilities in this role and what skills are necessary to be successful in it?

Whitehead: This is my first year serving as a nationally elected officer and I have had a major learning curve. I have spent the year studying the history of ASALH and learning about Robert’s Rules of Order. I have found that the Secretary’s role is one of the most important positions as I am the keeper and recorder of the organization’s history. I believe the secretary must take a neutral role and seek to record the history without emotion or interpretation because in the years to come, when future officers or scholars or ASALH members are trying to understand the decisions that the Executive Council made during this time, they are going to refer to the Official Minutes (my minutes). ASALH is an organization that includes scholars, K-12 teachers, and lay people who love and support black history and as such, the secretary should seek to understand where ASALH fits into each of the conversations. As the secretary, I am also an ex-officio member of every Standing and Ad-Hoc committee, which essentially means that I need to be aware of what is happening in each committee at all times. It has been challenging and rewarding because I know that I stand on the shoulders of Carter G. Woodson and Mary McLeod Bethune and as such, I have agreed to take the torch and be one of the people responsible for telling the world about black history (because, as the ASALH motto says, “If we do not tell the world about black history, they will never know.”).

Cameron: What have been the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of academic leadership for you?

Whitehead: My father believes that I am a born teacher because even as a little girl, every time that I learned something new, I wanted to tell somebody—even if nobody was listening. I enjoy teaching and working with students and watching them make connections to understand how race, class, and gender are socially constructed. I have spent years trying to learn how to balance service with scholarship and it is difficult because given that we are in the age of Black Lives Matter, my work cannot stay in the ivory tower. I must bend my privilege and be deeply engaged in the conversations and work that is happening within our communities. This is what academic leadership looks like to me at this time. I work across fields and across genres –writing books on black women’s history (Notes from a Colored Girl) and on Black Lives Matter (RaceBrave); Op-Eds and books (Letters to My Black Sons) on my work as a #blackmommyactivist; training K-12 teachers in how to become culturally responsive and giving community talks with activist groups. My playing field has increased and the current urgency that exists within our community today demands my attention and has forced me to reevaluate my work and my commitment to helping to co-create a more just society. I consider myself to be a scholar/activist and as such, I work hard to balance the ways in which I lean into both of these environments while being ever ready to shift when and if something happens. It is, I admit, a non-traditional understanding of academic leadership but I would argue that the black community is currently at a crisis point and crises mandate new and radical ways of looking for and implementing solutions.

Cameron: For graduate students and junior scholars who may be interested in academic administration and leadership, what advice would you give? What skills are most beneficial in a successful academic leader?

Whitehead: I think this depends upon the type of academic leader that you want to be. The possibilities at this time are endless—from being defined as a scholar/activist or a scholar/public intellectual—and that is exciting. We are no longer forced to define our work and ourselves by narrowly defined labels. We are free to color outside of the lines and use the skills that we have developed and honed in graduate school (and in life) to impact the world around us. I think that leadership is a very difficult mantle to pick up because it forces you to think deeply about the type of leader you want to be. You decide how wide you want your reach to be and thanks to the Internet, you can be involved in conversations that take place around the country (and around the world). I think it is an exciting time to be a student or a junior scholar, because they have more control over their career path than scholars did five or ten years ago. I believe that young scholars should embrace the change and think deeply about the type of scholar that they would like to be and then commit themselves to becoming that person (keeping in mind that as they grow in the field, their definition of who they want to be will change –embrace that change). These are not easy questions to answer but these are the questions that young leaders must ask themselves and wrestle with: What type of scholar and leader do you want to be? How do you want your work to be seen, understood, and interpreted? Who is your audience and why should they listen to you? And, in the end, how do you want to be remembered?

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. His first book is entitled To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent State University Press, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

Comments on “Black Leaders in Academia: An Interview with Karsonya Wise Whitehead

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    Excellent interview. Such a crucial gift – reading the conscious, powerful, accessible voices and stories of black and brown leaders in the academy. Thank you.

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