Dr. Maya Angelou was a lot of things: a literary heavyweight, a phenomenal woman, a former sex worker (and no, she wasn’t ashamed). She was also a doctor, a fact that Professor Britney Cooper reminds us of over at Salon this week after Mark Oppenheimer argued against what he called “title inflation” at New Republic and wrote that Angelou actually hadn’t earned her title. To that, Cooper responds with this:
Maya Angelou’s scores of honorary doctorates honor a life of work befitting the conferral of doctoral status, since doctorate signals the ultimate mastery of a field. And a master she undeniably was. But the title is also part of an attempt to signal via a title that Dr. Angelou is deserving of a certain level of respect and deference. That deference has never been automatically conferred to black women. It has always been contested ground.
As Cooper points out, there’s a sexist undertone to this conversation, too. Women, particularly black women who have more than mastered their fields, often have to fight harder to be recognized for their accomplishments than men. And the refusal of deference to black women goes back centuries.