MN Bosses: “Academia” Category, Dr. Yaba Blay, Professor & Publisher, Drexel University
According to numbers compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2011 (the most recent year in which numbers are available), six percent of full-time instructional faculty at the nation’s colleges and universities were Black. In total, there were, at that time, 1.5 million professors, associate professors, adjuncts and other instructors at the country’s “degree-granting postsecondary institutions.”
One of the members of this exclusive group is Dr. Yaba Blay. A professor, producer, editor, ethnographer, “cultural worker” and more, Dr. Blay is Co-Director and Assistant Teaching Professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University. Beyond that, her work focuses on culture and identity, more specifically, according to her website, “global Black identities and the politics of embodiment, with particular attention given to hair and skin color politics.”
In other words, her work cuts to the heart of what we are and how we perceive one another. It’s work that needs to be done. And it requires a strong and knowledgeable voice to share those findings. For her efforts — and for being that voice — Dr. Blay is a Boss.
MadameNoire: Describe your job.
Dr. Yaba Blay: I don’t have just one! And I really don’t think of what I do as a job; not on some “I love what I do so much it doesn’t feel like a job” type talk. No, it definitely feels like a job. Many jobs. But I don’t use that language to describe what I do. It’s just what I do. It’s who I am. I have a deep love and appreciation for Black people and Black culture. I always have. So it’s always made sense to me to focus my work and energy towards Black people and Black culture. I’m a professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University, but for me, my classroom extends beyond the gates of “the academy.” Whether it be college students or folks who follow me on social media, I push us to think critically about the complexities of who we are and all that we have, and continue, to experience.
MN: What do you enjoy most about your job?
YB: I enjoy the freedom that my work affords me, not only in terms of time, but in terms of voice. Everyday, I get to be authentically Yaba.
MN: What has contributed most to your professional success?
YB: Having my daughter at the age of 19, the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I didn’t want anyone to ever have the opportunity to call me a “teen mother” and then point to some failure that I experienced because of it. I didn’t want my daughter to look at my life, our life, and ever for one moment think that she kept me from being all that I could be. I wanted her to see how much she inspired me to be my best me. I graduated from college on time with honors and then went on to earn two masters degrees and a PhD. I couldn’t have done any of it without her or without the support of my parents who helped me to raise her.
MN: What’s your best advice for anyone wanting to make a career for themselves in your industry?
YB: Many people have reached out to me to talk about the possibilities of getting a Ph.D. and they’ll all tell you that I’m a very anti-academic academic. I don’t believe the Ph.D. is the final credential necessary to authenticate someone’s intelligence. There are a lot of folks out here with Ph.Ds who aren’t so bright – not speaking of myself or my colleagues of course! And there are many folks without doctorate degrees who I consider my teachers and mentors. People need to understand the level of commitment that comes with pursuing a doctoral degree. It’s not easy. In fact, in can be tortuous. My doctoral training was one of the most challenging moments in my life. I remember sleeping with a notepad and a recorder on my nightstand when I was writing my dissertation. My research would literally wake me up out of my sleep. I was committed to the work, not the degree. That’s the type of commitment one needs to get through.
MN: Can a woman have it all? How do you define that?
YB: In theory, a woman can have whatever she wants. “All” includes everything she throws on the list. Will it be easy to have it all? No, not at all. Any woman who wants it all knows that.
MN: Your favorite quote?
YB: “What good do your words do if they can’t understand you?” – Erykah Badu
MN: Should we “ban bossy”?
YB: Not at all. Bossy, though perceived as negative or even pejorative when assigned to girls, is an attribute we should encourage our girls to have. As a society, we tend to teach girls to just be nice, knowing fully well that girls and women need be much more than nice to be successful in a world that is increasingly competitive. I think we do well to teach our girls to boss. Why not? Can’t be a boss if you’re not bossy.
MN: iPhone or Android?
MN: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, all, other, or none?
MN: What’s always in your purse?
YB: Lip conditioner. I’m obsessed with smooth, moisturized lips.
MN: Who’s the one person – dead or alive – that you would like to meet and why?
YB: My paternal grandfather, Amgbo Blay. I am named for him – “Amgborale” is my middle name. When my mother was pregnant with me, my father had repetitive dreams about his father, who had died some years before I was born. For my father, his dreams were a sign that his father was returning. Through me. In Akan culture, we do believe in souls coming back to learn whatever lessons they didn’t learn the first (or second) time around. I always wonder what my grandfather has learned through me. I wonder what about me is him.
If you want to be a boss, you have to think like one. Check out more on our first annual selection of MN Bosses here.