Steven Nelson, professor of art history at UCLA and director of the African Studies Center, recently tweeted that he is a member of a rare and exceptional group: one of six full professors in art history, who are black, in the United States. Hyperallergic arranged a conversation with him to understand the context of his tweet and why he thinks that’s the case.
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Seph Rodney: Hi Steven. Can you tell us what made you start thinking about how many black professors of art history there are?
Steven Nelson: It was when students began tweeting with the hashtag #blackoncampus. Seeing this conversation unfold made me start to wonder about what it was also like for me to be black and on a college campus.
SR: You’ve told me that you are one of about six or seven black full professors; how do you know?
SN: Last year when I was promoted to full professor I started making a list. I made two lists in fact. One was of African-Americans in art history, and the other was of people of African descent. With both lists, the total is about 13. I say about, because there may be art historians in other departments that I have missed.
SR: So are all the ones you’ve counted in art history departments, as opposed to anthropology or Islamic Studies?
SN: All but one are in art history.
SR: Why make these lists?
SN: I began to think about why there are so few and came to realize that the process of being promoted is laden with bias — but structural, rather than personal, bias. Once you talk about promotion to tenure, we are promoted by people not within our discipline. Then there is the perception that art history is a white field and a privileged endeavor. Also, many people who enter the professoriate do not go beyond the rank of associate professor. There is small numbers of people of color hired anyway, and even a smaller pool end up being full faculty.
SR: Why do you think so many end up stuck at the associate level?
SN: Because of the publishing. The publishing is significant. And people of color are more burdened with service work, work that is not acknowledged or credited when it comes time for promotion.
SR: How do you feel about this?
SN: Well. It really depends on the day of the week. I’m sometimes just glad I made it through. Then it pisses me off that more people of color haven’t achieved this, and that more people aren’t concerned. My question to others is, “why aren’t you helping?”
I’ve had a total of four black students — two men, two women — in 15 years of teaching here. The two women dropped out for various reasons. One of the men is now an assistant professor; the other is finishing his degree. Black students may well want to pursue art history, but will be discouraged if they get the sense that colleagues and professors don’t value their presence.
SR: So is the field mostly male students?
SN: No. As in art history more generally, most of the African American graduate students are female. The same stands true for junior and mid-level faculty. However, of the seven full professors who are black, five are men. Of the two women, one is not in art history. That clearly says something about the intersection of gender and race in promotion processes. The situation is even worse for Latinos. A lack of student diversity in art history combined with the problems of the winnowing done by the professoriate creates this situation.
Correction: This article originally misstated the number of female students that Professor Nelson has taught; it has been corrected. The final paragraph has also been edited to more accurately reflect the conversation between the author and the interviewee.