Meet Ph.D. Ebony Thomas
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas taught elementary language arts, high school English, and creative writing in public schools for several years after graduating with her B.A. in English Education from Florida A&M, a historically Black university in Tallahassee, Florida. She earned her M.A. in English (focusing on 19th century British and American Literatures) at Wayne State University in 2004, and then graduated with her Ph.D. in English and Education from the University of Michigan in 2010
What was it like transitioning from an HBCU to Wayne State?
I transitioned from FAMU in 1999 and started my Wayne State degree in 2000. I took a year off from going to school because I felt I needed the time between my bachelors and any kind of Master’s program. I found the transition to be quite enlightening. Academically, FAMU prepared me absolutely. I think it’s no coincidence that FAMU is one of the top institutions for black professors. Part of that is because the standard or definition for success was going on to get a postbaccalaureate degree. So because of that, I felt I needed to accomplish the next degree to do well. But the FAMU English degree prepared me really well. Now when I was there in the '90s, it was a bit disheveling because it was such a traditional program. But the focus on the canonical texts were helpful. When we wondered why, we realized it was because they needed us to pass our subject exams so we could continue our education. So the transition academically wasn’t difficult.
However I did experience classroom racism for the first time once I transitioned to Wayne State. It didn’t affect me like I thought it would, in part because my K-16 education was in predominantly black classrooms. Did it derail me enough to leave the program? No. Not at all. In part because I had amazing professors -- Michael Scrivener, Ruth Ray, and others. Even when I encountered the few times where my peers weren’t supportive, my professors were extremely supportive, always.
What cultivated your desire to continue education?
Well initially I was pretty ambivalent actually. If I can get my into my head at the age of 23, I think part of it was knowing I would get my Master’s, but I was never sure about the Ph.D. But the dream at the time was that I wanted to be a novelist -- to write novels, get married, and start a family! But once I finished at FAMU, I knew I wanted to put myself in a better financial situation. Being out on my own for the first time, I saw how I could make a better living by adjuncting and teaching in Detroit. Part of the reason I got the M.A. in pure English was because I’d be qualified to teach in a multitude of classrooms as well. So that was my initial impulse.
But I really went on to get the doctorate and go to University of Michigan because of those Wayne State professors who encouraged me. They thought I was doing work, and really pushed me to enter academia full time.
Is there a particular reason why you chose to study 19th Century Literature?
Yes, and I can even tell you the professor and the class. At first, I wanted to do creative wrting because I’d dreamed of writing novels. But initially I took courses with Ruth Ray and Bill Harris, trying to do the writing minor. But what changed things for me was taking Robert Aguirre’s “Race and the Victorian Novel” in 2002. It was that short spring semester in 2002, and that course really changed everything for me. I loved it. That was my first introduction to postcolonial theory beyond the surveys I’d taken as a Bachelor’s student. That class was rigorous, [taught by a] brand new professor 16 years ago, [who was] sharp, had just graduated from Harvard, and he had high expectations for us. He put us through the paces. That was one of the best courses to date that I’ve taken. And it really helped me think about ways in which I could look at how race operates in children’s fiction and media. I’d really say that Dr. Aguirre’s class, and Voices of the Other: Children’s Literature and the Postcolonial Context [by Roderick McGillis], a book I read in Dr. Scrivener’s class, was when I really began crystallizing my thinking around the work that I’d get to do.
Was this the impetus of your being engaged with Critical Race Theory as it pertained to underserved students in Detroit, which seems to be one of the preoccupations of your current work?
Actually no, because I didn’t encounter CRT (critical race theory) until I was well out of the classroom before I developed that consciousness. I first read CRT in 2006. But it’s because CRT has been critically marginalized within English and the Humanities. My bestie Dr. Kya Mangrum at University of Utah and I talk about this all the time. It’s been taken up in some of the social sciences. But it’ll have to be your generation of English faculty and scholars that’ll bring in CRT because I feel as if there’s been some skepticism around CRT in English literary settings. But at one point even postcolonial was something some professors would raise an eye at. So naturally, it will require your generation to bring into the fold these new ideas and new paradigms to the table.
What was your strategy of engaging in the canon, particularly the 19th century, when there is very little black representation in the time period?
Oh absolutely. I was the only black student in that field of literary studies. There were others who studied 21st century work, or contemporary work, but this is the reason I became an education scholar. Part of the reason is that our critical concerns are hard to match up with the literature from the 19th century. But to be frank, I did it because I wanted to think about children's literature, the origins of children's literature. And I wasn’t thinking about African American children's literature (which I’d later write about), but I wanted to look at how race operated in those early narratives.
But part of it was that my upbringing was so full of blackness, from the schooling to my neighborhood, that I wanted to look at things from new textures and nuances. It was a time where social media was just becoming a thing, and there were all these wonderful people all over the world that I wanted to interact with. So that helped to open my world. At the same time, I recognized, over time, that race is an inescapable reality, but I wanted to still delve into the world as best I could.
Can you talk a little bit about being a black woman in academia.
Your generation has made us think so much more about that. There were some black women scholars who were thinking about that, but I didn’t begin turning to black feminist thought until I was a professor. There was just no space for that. There was no one doing black feminism. And the hard thing is that there’s very little value historically placed on that work. But this was something I experienced even at FAMU. Because that space was very conservative. So this new critical consciousness is a careful thing to navigate. Even growing up in Detroit, no one in the community was trying to hear about feminism. The struggle for black people for so many, even my mother, is the struggle of the black man. But we recognize that things are always intersectional.
Wow. So how important is it to begin to bring these new scholars to the forefront? What does it look like?
I think Wayne State can be the leader in this way. The premier university of a major, historically and predominately black metropolis has the power to bring faculty to the forefront who are representations of the city. I think it’s important that we always ask the question “how can we continue to diversify our faculty?” Getting professors from overseas, from different backgrounds, from different understandings. This, to me, is the current responsibility of the institution.
The reality is, I’ll always have a special love for Detroit. And anything you might not get from the school itself, the city of Detroit will offer it up to you. I stayed in University Towers and back then there was nothing around, and yet Traffic Jam and Cass Cafe were the stomping grounds. There was still so much to immerse myself in. The Scarab Club would have poetry meetings, I mean there was always something. We made it work. There was a great social and dating life. Detroit has a train now! So the city is growing, and I think it’s the perfect place for continued growth, the perfect place to lead the charge on behalf of the city.
By Benjamin Earl Turner (M.A. Candidate)