As someone who came into academia fairly late in my working life, I was struck by the fiendish entanglements and constraints that race played within university art history departments. There is, however, always a danger that individual, somewhat anecdotal experiences become extrapolated and regarded as having a wider, near-universal application. Looking around at the art history departments across the United States with which I had varying degrees of familiarity, I perceived that African American faculty were frequently, somewhat predictably, there to teach African American art. It was similarly apparent that African faculty were there to teach African art; Chinese academics taught Chinese art; and so on. In other words, there existed the appearance of a pronounced and decidedly unsubtle stay in your laneness that was applied to art history faculty of color.
When I became a field editor for caa.reviews, the online review portal of the College Art Association, what started as an impression rapidly became a cast-iron certainty. In looking to assign books and catalogues for review, I took to the Internet, perusing the faculty pages of university art history departments across the nation, looking for people whose areas of scholarship might make them suitable for reviewing a particular book. Of course, questions of agency and choice in what led faculty to their areas of expertise and research interests are open-ended inquiries that necessarily complicate these considerations. That said, it rapidly became apparent to me that even the most cursory scrolling through such faculty pages confirmed that faculty of color were indeed tied to teaching art history that was in effect bound up with perceptions of and attitudes toward ethnicity and race.
This contrasted, dramatically and markedly, with white academics, who without exception taught the subjects they had chosen, and/or had been interested in researching for their doctorates. Scrolling through faculty web pages, it didn’t take much to guess the subject areas of faculty of color, but contrastingly, it was pretty much impossible to guess, or even speculate, on the subject areas taught by white scholars (a number of whom also had responsibility for teaching African art, African American art, or African Diaspora art). White academics taught the widest range of art history topics, while academics of color were shackled (if that’s the correct word) to a much narrower band of subjects that were in turn aligned with the worth with which faculty of color were perceived.
The above extract is from “It’s Time to Share”, text for Panorama, Anne Monahan and Isabel L. Taube (eds.), “Self-Criticality,” Colloquium, Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 6, no. 2 (Fall 2020)