Reaching the Mountaintop of the Academy: Personal Narratives, Advice, and Strategies From Black Distinguished and Endowed Professors
reviewed by Lakia Scott - March 28, 2017
Title: Reaching the Mountaintop of the Academy: Personal Narratives, Advice, and Strategies From Black Distinguished and Endowed Professors
Author(s): Gail L. Thompson, Fred A. Bonner II, & Chance W. Lewis (Eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681233207, Pages: 164, Year: 2015
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What does it take to reach the mountaintop in academia? Ten prolific urban education scholars answer this central question in Reaching the Mountaintop of the Academy: Personal Narratives, Advice, and Strategies From Black Distinguished and Endowed Professors, edited by Gail L. Thompson, Fred A. Bonner II, and Chance W. Lewis. The authors included in this edited volume answer this inquiry by sharing pivotal moments in their own schooling experiences. They also provide insights about how these accounts have helped them achieve the distinction of a high ranking in the professoriate. Couched in testimonies of triumph and tragedy, these compelling narratives are inspiring. Each contributor is transparent in sharing unique and deeply personal stories that have influenced their personal or professional pathways in education. Using a critically racialized lens, the interwoven themes that frame the text are clearly evident. Editors Thompson, Bonner, and Lewis are intentional in discussing the roles of race, social factors, and cultural factors that continue shaping access to opportunity in education. Critical race theory and the practice of providing counter-narratives stemming from mainstream ideologies make this edited collection particularly appealing for various audiences in academia.
It feels moving to read that a majority of the contributors are first generation college graduates (eight of the authors), while the others have also emerged from humble beginnings. This is important in considering the historical aims of education and opportunity for African Americans. As evidenced in narratives across different contexts of time and geography, it is clear that implicit and explicit barriers for people of color still remain regarding education. This is no different for academic practitioners. There are startling statistics regarding the racial composition of higher education faculty members presented in the introductory chapter. These numbers shed light on why this text is a necessity for people of color who seek to enter and sustain professorial roles in the ivory tower.
As an early career faculty member, an African American woman, and a first generation college graduate, the chronicles of the contributing authors resonate deeply. They are also indicative of the tenacity necessary to secure ones role in academia. One recurring theme is grit as a personality trait. Merriam-Webster defines grit as a noun meaning strength in mind or spirit (2017). Many of the books contributors discuss significant setbacks that could have curtailed their academic pursuits. However, in spite of these challenges, they are persistent in recognizing their purpose and working diligently to overcome adversity. In particular, editor Thompson shares her tragic childhood experiences (e.g., her parent's divorce, a siblings death, and her own suicidal thoughts). These difficulties also provide greater context for understanding the plight of African American children who are living in poverty or are on the outside of societal margins. Similarly, contributing author Veronica Evans Lewis highlights her belief that intellectual ability for students of color is not enough to guarantee success through her own schooling experiences. Instead, other factors like encouragement and guidance help predicate positive academic outcomes for her and members of her family. The desire to pursue an education is one that rings true for many. This is especially true for those who have limited access to this resource. Similarly, education becomes a tool of liberation and freedom. Those who possess education can unlock the doors of opportunity.
Carter, another contributing author, presents similar themes of grit in recruiting and retaining faculty members of color. Many chapters allude to faculty members who believe that they have to do more and be more in the ivory tower such as those written by contributing authors Beachum and Strutchens. It is fitting to mention the notion of double consciousness (Du Bois, 1903) to situate this theme within the text. Du Bois postulates that two competing identities exist in that one critically analyzes the world as an African and as an American. This internal conflict requires unifying both identities and is a continual process. It is also an interaction for African American academics where they are identified as being Black and being a scholar. However, editor Bonner argues that this dualized self gives people of color an added advantage in being able to see inside and outside of the academy. In this sense, people of color have the unique ability to code switch and code stitch remnants of their cultural selves in both spaces.
Along the same lines, various contributing authors also provide testimony of overcoming obstacles through prayer and devotion. There are nostalgic moments in the text that reference hymns and biblical structures learned from childhood. These moments were called upon during times of challenge. In this way, it is important to remember the continuing role of religion and spirituality for many African Americans. Even through times of slavery, the Gospel and biblical pedagogies provided a strong religious foundation for many. This helped people restore the spirit and focus the mind on moving forward. Through these stories, the connection to spiritual growth and faith development is also an indication of grit.
Having strong and supportive networks is another guiding tenet presented in Reaching the Mountaintop of the Academy. Editor Bonner discusses how family members and church members set high academic expectations and reminded him of the importance of establishing agency. Editor Lewis, a descendant from a strong lineage of educators, echoes this sentiment in recognizing the impact these people made on his career expectations, goals, and trajectory. Contributing author Gloria Ladson-Billings eloquently details her affinity for the renowned sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois. He cultivated her continuous journey throughout various phases of her education. In reading Du Bois, Ladson-Billings credits him for helping her navigate critical questions about urban sites. He also continues to fuel her passion for reforming inequitable schooling practices. Additional chapters highlight more elaborate examples of mentorship. However, it is also equally refreshing to read the discussions presented on family and community as a restorative component in continuing research endeavors by contributing authors Milner and Watson.
In addition to delivering timeless narratives, deeply important implications are provided for a variety of audiences. First, graduate students stand to gain invaluable advice from those in highly ranked faculty positions. These older colleagues have traveled the scholarly journey and have much to share. This wisdom can be directly applied to any stages of graduate programs. Specifically, these chapter authors share the importance of identifying mentors, establishing a dedicated work ethic, and being relentless in one's pursuit of an education. In addition, early career academics will also find the book worthwhile. In particular, strategies for increasing scholarly productivity, developing a solid research agenda, and identifying a healthy work versus life balance are some of the key points shared. This volume could also assist tenured faculty members and administrators in understanding ways to better support faculty members of color.
Perhaps one of the most powerful points in Reaching the Mountaintop of the Academy is understanding that the proverbial mountaintop is only reached when one can also fuel the desire of others to fight for the same just causes. This text departs from others because of its unapologetic nature to compel readers to fight for equity and access for people of color throughout all levels of education. These detailed narratives solidify the notion that education is still stratified based on race, social factors, and cultural factors. Collectively, these issues have particularly negative repercussions for students and faculty members of color. Ultimately, it is up to us to lead the charge in attaining educational parity. Only then can the mountaintop be reached.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of Black folk. Cambridge, UK: University Press.
Grit. (2017). In Merriam-Websters collegiate dictionary. Retrieved from