By Adam Doster, Staff Writer, Loyola University Chicago
There’s a passage in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia that’s always stuck with Badia Ahad, Ph.D., a professor of English at Loyola University Chicago. In it, the future U.S. president lays out what could arguably be described as the first theory of race in the United States. According to Jefferson, Black people held in abundance two faculties: memory and misery. They lacked other basic human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”
The complex interior lives of Black artists and writers have formed the spine of Ahad’s scholarly life. It’s her rejoinder to Jefferson, and anyone else who dehumanizes Black people—an assertion of “this mundane and trite idea that we’re fully human.” Her first book (Freud Upside Down: African American Literature and Psychoanalytic Culture) considered the collision of African American literature and psychoanalysis. In 2021, she published Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture. The seed of the idea was planted back in 2005, when Ahad watched (and then rewatched, and then rewatched again) the buoyant hip-hop concert documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. The film got her thinking about nostalgia, and particularly about its role in Black creative life.
She writes in her book’s introduction that nostalgia has been generally understood as a “pretty form of memory and one that is largely unavailable to Black folks.” Racial violence has, for too many, framed the past as traumatic, not romantic. But a painful past is not without its pleasures, either; it can even offer a sense of optimism for the future. Afro-Nostalgia, then, attempts to locate in the work of artists, performers, writers and cooks “recollections of Black redemption, triumph over white supremacy, and resistance to state-sanctioned violence and repression.”
It’s a convincing and compelling survey, a tour through the growing public archive of an alternative Black historical past that cultivates well-being and builds community. “The past is harmful, but it can also be blissful,” Ahad says. “Neither perspective is the singular one.”
Ahad is also very attuned to the role of Black scholars like herself, and their presence in higher education. For the first 12 years of her own teaching career, she was the only faculty member of color in her entire department, which struck her as bizarre. “It seemed not to match what the city actually looked like,” she says, “and what made the city so beautiful and vibrant to me.”
In June 2020, she got the chance to change that with a new appointment as vice provost for faculty affairs. Her primary charge? Diversify Loyola’s faculty, which no longer mirrored the school’s increasingly diverse student body. She’d given the problem plenty of consideration over the ensuing years, consulting in her spare time on behalf of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. Her husband, coincidentally, works as an executive recruiter. From him, she learned about the importance of proactive recruiting. Sometimes a job opens up in a remote Canadian city, say, and a dozen people in the world are interested and qualified to do the job. You can’t just run an advertisement and wait for applications to flood in. “You’re not sacrificing quality,” she adds, of the hiring push. “You’re just making sure your hiring practices are inclusive, that people are aware of biases that go into the process, and that you’re prioritizing areas of research that have traditionally been ignored or marginalized.”
To that end, Ahad launched a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion liaison program; those representatives were trained and served as equity advocates on search committees. She insisted that deans include Integrated Postsecondary Education Data in their hiring plans, to gauge the true demographic composition of their fields. Of the 84 new faculty members Loyola hired this past cycle, 47 percent identified as people of color, and 29 percent came from underrepresented racial groups. In the English department alone, there are now five assistant professors who don’t identify as white and who teach subjects for which Loyola never had specialists. Next comes a reconsideration of the curriculum for the English undergraduate major, which only requires students take one course (out of 12) touching on the literatures of non-white people. “Our students want to learn these things,” Ahad says.
When she shifts her focus back to her own writing, Ahad will turn inward, to the story of her grandparents’ migration from Livingston, Alabama, to the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, and into a house originally restricted from Blacks. Hyde Park is now an integrated neighborhood that occupies a special role in hyper-segregated Chicago; growing up there fundamentally shaped Ahad’s own identity. The family memoir, she hopes, will be informed by academic ideas but will be looser in tone than her previous work. For context, she’ll rely on sheaves of notes and letters that her grandmother (“a really great lay archivist”) collected over her life.
Recently, Ahad even found the first “book” she ever published, a collection she wrote as a 7-year-old in Hyde Park. Her mom had it bound at the time, and the pages have yellowed slightly over the years; the first story is titled “Smart Sally.” Apparently, young Ahad appreciated alliteration.
“I don’t know if I’m inherently nostalgic personally,” she says, “in as much as I’m inherently joy-seeking.”