The Blackademic Life: Tracing the History of the Black Academic Novel


Professor Lavelle Porter (New York City College of Technology) was studying African-American literary satire when he began to think deeply about fiction related to academia. As he learned that some of his most beloved books were actually black academic novels, The Graduate Center alum was eager to explore the literary subgenre.

The fruit of that effort is The Blackademic Life, Porter’s in-depth exploration of black academic literature and the black intellectual’s tumultuous relationship with institutional academia.

“I want to both signal the importance of higher education, but also call attention to the ways that higher education has been one of the most important institutions for perpetuating racism,” Porter tells SUM.

“I think black scholars are important because they call attention to that history, that the university is not an objective, disinterested institution. It’s one that has had particular agendas in the past, that are anti-black. I’m interested in the ways that black academics challenge higher education to be more inclusive.”

The book serves as a literary study chronicling the development of black academic fiction from 1876 to present day. Porter examines works by W.E.B. Du Bois, Samuel R. Delany, Alice Walker, Percival Everett, and many more academic literary offerings that highlight the plight of black people in higher education institutions.

In The Blackademic Life, Porter explores the pressure placed on black people in academia to serve as representatives of the race. This, he says, is partly because majority white institutions have incorporated so few black students and faculties that it’s almost “inevitable.”

“In many instances, black scholars are one of very few in the institution. Therefore, they become a kind of stand-in,” Porter explains.  “I look at the way that black scholars, through fictional work, play with that idea and resist it and try to challenge it.”

However, Porter does not solely focus on majority-white institutions. The Blackademic Life talks about historically black colleges and universities and their part in shaping the world of the black academic.

Additionally, Porter highlights the Black Lives Matter movement and the stories of black faculty members who have had their legitimacy challenged due to their critique of white supremacy.

“I draw on Du Bois … he talks about how all black literature is propaganda in some ways,” he says. “I talk about how all these works are inherently political.”