This professor is his own MAN

By challenging traditional ideas around academia, Mark Anthony Neal has broadened what it means to be a scholar.
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June 1, 2016

CLICK. A video of R&B musician Jill Scott fills the screen. She’s belting out “Strange Fruit,” a ballad written in the 1930s to protest the lynchings—hangings and other mob violence—that were terrorizing African-American communities. “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,” Scott sings, deep and throaty. “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Mark Anthony Neal pauses the music. “One of the things we know about lynchings is that they were spectacles,” the professor of English and African & African-American Studies tells the 100-plus Duke undergraduates taking his “History of Hip-Hop 6.0” class. “Hundreds of people were invited to witness.... It was America’s first reality programming.”

“One of the things that strikes me,” Neal notes, seventy- seven years after Billie Holiday first stunned nightclub audiences with the song, “is how relevant it still is.”

CLICK. Up come four black faces, all from New York in the 1980s: Graffiti artist Michael Stewart, who lapsed into a fatal coma while in police custody. Eleanor Bumpurs, a distressed elderly woman killed by police during an attempted eviction. Sixteen-year-old Yusuf Hawkins, gunned down by a white mob that feared one of their own was dating a black man. Michael Griffith, struck by a car after he was chased onto a highway, Neal tells the students, “by hordes of white folks who couldn’t figure out why the niggers were in their neighborhood.”

“The political hiphop that emerges in the 1980s,” Neal says, “emerges as a counter-black public sphere”—an alternative to more mainstream black conversations—“trying to make sense of these events.”

CLICK. A video appears of what initially looks like a street party. It is, in fact, Public Enemy’s protest song “Fight the Power,” which calls for revolutionary change and derides the racial attitudes of certain white icons. “I’m black, and I’m proud,” sings leader Chuck D. “I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped / Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

Since he arrived at Duke in 2004, after teaching at three other universities, fifty-year-old Neal has been challenging some foundational assumptions about higher education: whose history is worth studying; who should be called a student or a teacher; how much distance scholars must put between themselves and their subject matters; what type of language belongs both in essays and in the classroom.

At a time when professors have been exploring how to communicate beyond the academy, and in particular with the communities they study, Neal has become a national role model. As an Internet-savvy public intellectual, he has produced a vast body of work designed to be consumed both inside and outside the university: video interviews, blog posts, magazine articles, and books written in accessible and often personal language. He has opened his classroom to non-students and co-teaches with rapper and music producer Patrick Douthit (9th Wonder). He has modeled how to use social media, like Twitter.

“He’s changed what knowledge means,” says Guthrie Ramsey, a professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania whom Neal considers a mentor. In using new platforms and language to reach non-traditional audiences, “he has created a model for an entire generation of scholars.”

Neal has done this, admirers say, without compromising rigor. “He’s not dumbing down ideas,” says Treva Lindsey A.M. ’06, Ph.D. ’10, an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at The Ohio State University who was a teaching assistant for Neal at Duke. “He’s thinking about accessibility, about how knowledge is produced in different spaces. [His] public scholarship eradicates a lot of academic jargon, but it doesn’t take away the theory. It doesn’t take away what’s analytically rich about the subjects that he’s engaging.” Neal carries those democratic impulses into his racially diverse classrooms, too, she says—not just by teaching alongside 9th Wonder, but also by “presuming everyone in the room is a scholar. Honestly, I learned how to teach by being his TA.”

It’s not just how Neal shares his knowledge that opens the academy—it’s also what he chooses to focus on. As a self-described black male feminist, Neal has called attention to female and LGBT artists and scholars who might otherwise escape notice. And as a scholar of hip hop, he has argued that not just groups like Public Enemy but also lesser- known rappers sit on a historic continuum with gospel, blues, and jazz musicians and deserve a place in the American canon.

“The musical archive that Dr. Neal holds in his head: It’s a way of reminding us that this has a history—there’s nothing that doesn’t have a history,” says Monica Miller, assistant professor of Africana studies and religion at Lehigh University and author of the 2012 book Religion and Hip Hop. “He always brings to the fore those we are not listening to—trans folk, queer black folk, women—and for black history, that’s big.”

“For my generation, we take it for granted: We’re teaching hip hop and religion; all I’ve got to do is e-mail my coordinator and say, ‘Here’s my course description,’ ” says Miller, who received her Ph.D. in 2010, fourteen years after Neal received his. “But [his] generation did that work of legitimation. I don’t have to write out, ‘Why hip hop?’ I can point to Dr. Neal’s work.”

Neal, in turn, can point to the professors and older students who mentored him, and to life-changing books he read by feminists, black nationalists, and music critics. But he also can trace his intellectual origins back further: to a New York beauty parlor where neighborhood women doted on him, and to a darkened living room that exploded with music.

HE WAS BORN with a big name. When a mother calls her only child Mark Anthony Neal, the initials— and the expectations they create—are unmistakably aspirational. “She wanted her son to be somebody,” Neal says over coffee at Parker & Otis, one of his haunts near downtown Durham. “At a very young age, she encouraged me to embrace all three names. I was the kind of kid who wanted to lay in the background and just flow with things. But my name wouldn’t allow me to do that.”

Elsie “Elena” Neal was North Carolina-born, Baltimore- raised, a domestic’s daughter who moved north as a teenager, got married a few years later, and eventually found work in a public-school lunchroom. She was 4-foot-11, darker than some of her siblings (which troubled her), and a chatty, even gossipy, presence in their South Bronx neighborhood, he says.

“Everybody knew I was Elsie’s son and should be protected and watched accordingly,” he says. “It was a different kind of moment in black communities: You were somebody’s son or daughter, and the community functioned as an extension of that.”

One member of what Neal calls his “extra family” was Muriel Bolding, who owned the beauty parlor next door to the tenement where he lived. Not only did Neal’s mother bring him there most afternoons, but on Fridays—when Neal’s Seventh-day Adventist school dismissed early for Sabbath—Bolding picked him up after class and they walked back together to her shop. Still wearing the black tie and green jacket of his school uniform, he’d make himself at home amidst the soap operas and women’s voices.

“A lot of my views on gender were framed by the fact that, at a very young age, I spent time around black women: various shades, various shapes, various class levels,” Neal says. He basked in the customers’ affection and observed their strength up close. “And whether or not I was conscious in paying attention to all the stories, I heard all the stories.”

If Elsie was “social to a fault,” her husband, Arthur C. Neal Jr., was the opposite: “a man of very few words,” their son says. He was tall and lighter-skinned, and Elsie used to say she married him in part for his “good hair.” He dropped out of tenth grade and left rural Georgia in his twenties, joining his sister in New York and working as a short-order cook. When Elsie was temporarily back in Baltimore planning their wedding, she wrote him letters, but he didn’t respond. It wasn’t until right before the wedding, Neal says, that she found out he couldn’t read.

Literacy notwithstanding, Neal considers his father “my first intellectual”—the first person to teach him the value of African-American arts culture. On Sundays, his only days off, Arthur would cook breakfast for the family and put on records by gospel quartets like the Mighty Clouds of Joy. In the afternoon, when there wasn’t a Mets baseball game on TV, he’d make a musical segue to the Hammond B-3 organ players like soul-jazz pioneers Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff. Sitting on a love seat, its clear-plastic covering crinkling under his weight, he’d nurse a small glass of Johnny Walker and listen quietly with the lights off.

“What he listened to became part of how I heard the world— without him ever saying to me: B.B. King is a great artist; you need to listen to him. Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century,” Neal says. “We never had those conversations. But if it was something that my father found important, I knew it had to be.”

That living room also served as a sanctuary, says Neal’s childhood friend Joan Morgan, now an author and cultural critic. “The soundtrack outside was chaotic and often violent,” she says. “We have fond memories of the neighborhood, but there was always this notion that something could pop off. You needed to be aware. You needed to be able to run. There was a peace to that music playing in Mark’s house. I think it trained us both how to find the world in a piece of music.”

BY THE TIME HE WAS THREE, Neal says, his mother had already informed him that he was college-bound. “There was never a doubt,” he says. To set an example, Elsie herself enrolled at a satellite campus of The College of New Rochelle while her son was a teenager. (Afterward she became a teacher assistant and later a special-education teacher.)

When he graduated from high school in 1983, Neal—certain that his adult development required distance from his mother— moved 400 miles away to the eastern shore of Lake Erie, where he majored in English at the State University of New York at Fredonia. It was a heady year in African-American history. Jesse Jackson was kicking off his presidential campaign. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam was on the ascendancy. There was a black Miss America, a black U.S. astronaut in space, and a new federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. But there were just 105 African-American undergraduates on the Fredonia campus, out of a student population of almost 4,900, when Neal arrived that fall.

Mesmerized by the knowledge and charisma of some of the upperclassmen, Neal joined the Black Student Union. Its president, a recent Nation of Islam convert, introduced him to writing by African-American authors and lent him a copy of Haki Madhubuti’s essay collection Enemies: The Clash of Races. Neal carried the volume around until it was tattered, and he mined its extensive bibliography. On weekends he planted himself in the E185 section of the campus library, where black-themed books were shelved. He scarfed down extracurricular reading even as he struggled academically—his graduating GPA, he says, was 2.19.

Neal earned a bachelor’s degree in 1987, then worked for a data-entry company in New York. He missed the intellectual engagement of a campus. Reading The Death of Rhythm & Blues, Nelson George’s 1988 history of modern African-American music, reawakened Neal’s long-held dream to be a writer. Instead, after a series of jobs that didn’t suit him, he was hired to teach at a Bronx high school with a tough reputation. “They were willing to make me a sacrificial lamb,” he says—but, in fact, that academic year proved the most rewarding teaching experience of his life. He introduced hip hop into the classroom—this was 1990, when KRS-One’s record Edutainment was tackling issues like police abuse and homelessness, and Public Enemy was declaring, “We got to fight the powers that be.”

“What I learned there is that you can’t teach if you don’t find ways to connect with the students,” Neal says. “Sometimes you’ve got to connect with the students where they are.”

THOSE WHO KNEW Neal earlier in his life are not surprised that he now calls himself a feminist. “We were raised by strong, determined women,” says Morgan, his longtime friend. “We had great fathers, but the driving force of how to walk through the world, and how not to be swallowed alive, was these fearless mothers.”

But while activism came naturally to Neal, especially around issues of race, his full embrace of feminism came later—really, he says, after he started his Ph.D. work in American studies at the University at Buffalo in 1993. By then he had married, earned a master’s degree at Fredonia, launched a radio show that featured his father’s music collection (those records formed an archive for his dissertation research), and started developing his voice as a writer. In reaching out to non-academic audiences, both in newspaper columns and on the radio, Neal was learning to become a public intellectual, though he didn’t know those words at the time.

The start of Neal’s graduate- school career had coincided with Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings, during which attorney Anita Hill accused the nominee of inappropriate conduct. “I admittedly followed the party line on this one, seeing the charges of sexual harassment as clearly an effort to defeat Thomas’ nomination,” Neal wrote in his 2005 book New Black Man. Around the same time, he wrote, he was “disarmed” by female activists who described his leadership style as sexist. “I was generally respectful of black women and didn’t trade in the kind of rhetoric that depicted black women as bitches and hos, so how could I be a sexist?” he wrote.

Those views started to change as he read feminist scholars such as bell hooks, who challenged African-American men to “face the reality that sexism empowers them despite the impact of racism in their lives.” At Buffalo, he was mentored by Alexis De Veaux, an openly lesbian former Essence writer, who taught a class called “Red and Black Feminism.” (Neal was the only male student.) “He was already very developed in his analyses of race, class, gender, sexuality,” says De Veaux, who is now a professor emerita. He also seemed “a little shy,” she recalls. Later she realized that his quiet came, in part, from being a good listener. “He didn’t need to promote himself in ways I often found young men in a classroom where the peers were primarily female.”

It was De Veaux who urged Neal to write New Black Man, in which he rejected the sexism and homophobia found in parts of African-American culture. The book, written in straightforward language, was published shortly after Neal joined the Duke faculty (and reissued in 2015 with a new postscript). “It gave us a different way of being a man that wasn’t tethered to dominating or objectifying black women,” says David Ikard, a professor of English and director of Africana studies at Florida’s University of Miami.

“It was groundbreaking,” De Veaux says of the book. “Here was a black man, an emerging scholar, coming out of a community in the Bronx at a time when notions of black masculinity were very limited. Black men have very often felt they [needed] swag just to have a 24-7 presence in the world.” Neal, she says, “was at the forefront” of suggesting there were less-swashbuckling ways to be black and masculine.

Being both a feminist and a scholar of hip hop, of course, has forced Neal to confront the misogyny found in many rappers’ lyrics and videos. He has been forthright about hip hop’s “gender problem,” urging musicians to rethink their use of sexually explicit images and lyrics that convey an ambivalence toward, and sometimes an “outright hatred” of, women. But he also has urged critics to take a step back and examine how consumer demand, particularly from the white men who make up a large share of the audience, fuels the product. “In the case of young white males, hip hop represents a space where they work through the idea of how their masculinity can be lived,” he wrote in 2004, adding that those men are looking to draw inspiration “from the hypermasculine ‘black buck.’ ”

ACADEMICS SOMETIMES are viewed as dispassionate observers—and that is not a wholly unfounded stereotype. “There’s this understanding that you’ll have a critical distance from your work—if you’re too close, it can bias you,” says Ohio State’s Lindsey. But as Neal gained professional stature, his writing kept returning to the soundtrack of his youth and early adulthood. “And that strengthens the work,” Lindsey adds. “His familiarity with black popular music allows him to dig deep and to uncover the sonic and the emotive and the historical in ways that someone who doesn’t have an intimate, pleasurable connection to black popular music could.”

Penn’s Ramsey describes Neal as one of a cohort of scholars who—because of their own personal experiences—have helped hip hop gain relatively rapid traction in the academy. Jazz emerged a century ago, he says, but “it wasn’t until sixty years later that you started having dissertations written on jazz.” By contrast, “you had a group of writers in Mark’s generation who grew up with hip hop as one of the soundtracks of their youth. Coupled with their academic pedigrees, they were able to accelerate its road to academic legitimacy.”

Likewise, Neal’s work on gender has been deeply personal, as when he has written about his shortcomings as a husband and his efforts to become a more engaged father.

Just as he has pushed against academic aloofness, Neal also has fought against insularity. One of his inspirations has been the late historian Manning Marable, whom Neal interviewed back in his Fredonia radio days. Starting in the 1970s, Marable wrote a column for black newspapers—“stuff that was meant for folks to be able to read in the barber shop and the beauty parlor,” Neal said during a 2015 webinar sponsored by the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity. “When you’re talking about being a…scholar of color, the audiences that you are most interested in impacting on are not going to read your 256-page scholarly monograph.”

The difference now, compared to Marable’s early days, is the Internet, and particularly the multimedia opportunities it offers. “I say to my colleagues: What would black studies look like on Instagram? On Snapchat? On Vine?” he says. “If we’re going to reproduce the field, it has to be accessible to young folks. That doesn’t mean we don’t do the work that a traditional academic department’s supposed to do. But how then do we build platforms that make that work accessible to a seventeen-year-old? To the twenty-one-year-old college student?”

As a younger professor, Neal started writing music reviews and columns for PopMatters, a Web-based magazine covering popular culture. In recent years, as it’s become easier to create online platforms, Neal has developed two of his own, designed to bring what he calls a “curatorial eye” to black studies: a multimedia blog called “New Black Man (In Exile)” and a weekly video webcast called “Left of Black,” produced by Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies. The show is among the center’s most-watched fare: Neal’s 2011 interview with music and marketing executive Steve Stoute garnered almost 20,000 YouTube views. More recent episodes have appeared on The Root, a popular black news site owned by Univision. The Web platforms, in turn, are linked to various social media—Neal himself has more than 40,000 Twitter followers.

“He had a Twitter account before most academics even knew what Twitter was,” says Ikard. “He would say, ‘David, get a Twitter account.’ I was like, ‘Twitter? What’s Twitter? That just sounds like something for teenagers.’ Next thing you know, Twitter is where everything’s happening.”

Neal also directs Duke’s Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship, which produces digital content about race and gender. What’s striking about his Internet presence is how much it showcases voices other than his own—not just superstars like Stoute and philosopher-activist Cornel West but also lesser- known thinkers, particularly women, younger scholars, and non-academics. “I don’t want to take that lightly,” says Joseph Winters M.T.S. ’01 Th.M. ’02, an assistant professor of religious studies at Duke who teaches a hip hop and religion class. “The academy, like the rest of world, can be very competitive. To have someone like Mark Anthony Neal give people a spotlight, that’s pretty major.”

It’s quite possible that, a decade from now, it will become more commonplace within universities to give colleagues the spotlight, to rein in jargon, to make wider use of popular and social media, to write from the heart, to narrow the distance between the researcher and the researched. If that happens, younger professors say, they’ll be standing on the shoulders of pioneers like Neal.

“What MAN does so well,” says Lindsey, using the initials that Neal’s mother carefully chose, “is model the kind of scholar that a lot of us strive to be.” 

Yeoman is a journalist based in Durham. His recent work has been published in Audubon, The American Prospect, and Popular Science.