Celebrating Black Excellence in the Many Forms It Takes: Professor Anthony Foy

Professor Anthony Foy has occupied many roles on campus since 2005, dedicating his time and energy to not only teaching students, but also mentoring them in navigating Swarthmore and beyond. He is an Associate Professor of English Literature, current coordinator of the Black Studies program, a position he has held twice before, and former coordinator for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship chapter at Swarthmore. Inspired by his own journey to academia, Foy not only teaches, but also helps students think broadly about their own futures.

Foy completed his B.A. in English at the University of California, Los Angeles and earned his M.A. in African American Studies and Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University. As a graduate student, Foy received several writing fellowships and a postdoctoral fellowship from the Ford Foundation. As a student in college, however, Foy did not think about becoming a professor until he participated in a summer program for undergraduates where he got to learn more about graduate school and was encouraged to pursue academia. This experience inspired Foy to introduce possibilities to his own students.

“Because of my own personal experience, I know that I, too, am here not to simply teach or do research, but to also find ways to mentor students and broaden the way they think about their possibilities,” said Foy.

Foy’s investment in mentoring students in this way made it particularly meaningful for him to become co-coordinator in 2012 and sole coordinator from 2013 to 2019 of the Mellon Mays program, which supported underrepresented students pursuing Ph.D.s post college.

“I was very happy to take over Mellon Mays because it meant that I could introduce this possibility to a lot of students who might not otherwise have any kind of encouragement to think about this as a possibility,” Foy said.

Through Mellon Mays, Foy has been able to not only broaden the way students think about future career paths, but also bridge the tension between being an activist and an academic.

“As a teacher, you can have these sorts of conversations with students in or out of class that might raise their consciousness, which is very important … But the other thing that can happen as you become a professor is that you can have a larger voice in shaping the larger curriculum and shaping these institutional structures, as well as making institutions more accessible and public-facing” said Foy. “So my investment in Mellon Mays has been about our potential to change a significant part of society through these institutional interventions, too.” 

In addition to this investment in Mellon Mays, Foy is also dedicated to the Black Studies program at Swarthmore.

“I’ve always found the Black Studies program to be a welcoming home, which isn’t to say that the English department hasn’t been a welcoming home … But for someone who’s an interdisciplinary scholar who’s invested in thinking about Black people and Black culture, it is really important and useful to have an institutional home of some sort,” said Foy. 

According to Foy, Black Studies has grown throughout his time affiliated with the program.

“I think that what has happened more recently is that … the Black Studies program is increasingly a place where we can begin to imagine what it would be like to grow this academic unit — it may be a department, it may not be a department — to do even more for students,” Foy said.

Foy is excited that the program has grown enough to be in the process of hiring a tenure track professor solely for Black Studies.

“We’re currently hiring for a tenure track line in Black Studies and jazz, or music more broadly, which for us is momentous. On the fiftieth anniversary of the program, we’re actually in a position to bring in a tenure track member who’s not divided by various, and sometimes competing, demands,” said Foy. 

Events like this, according to Foy, energize the steering committee for the program to think more about the direction in which it’s heading.

“It feels like a really great moment for us in the program to envision how we want to move forward,” Foy said. 

The students actively involved in the program also contribute to the growth of the program.

“We also have a lot of really, really great students who are actively involved in the program. We’ve got a handful of students who are writing theses in Black Studies, which is amazing,” said Foy. “I think that one thing that students don’t always realize is how inspiring it can be for us to see the work that you all do. And you don’t always see that because you see mostly see us grading your papers and being difficult and challenging … but there are all sorts of ways in which we gain from the work that you’re all doing.”

For Foy, the fact that Black Studies is not a department is not a result of institutional barriers and is a practical matter. Foy believes, however, it is still a worthwhile conversation to continue having.

“I do think that this has been an important part of the conversation among us in terms of whether or not we wanted to be a department. Just because we’re not a department does not mean that the institution is blocking us at every turn … There are some real, practical concerns involving the capacity of those of us who are running Black Studies to be able to run it as a department even while we’re also serving our home departments and meeting all sorts of other obligations,” Foy said.

When asked about Black excellence at the college, Foy responded that there is plenty of it at Swarthmore. He, however, did clarify that the definition of Black excellence to him is more inclusive than it is historically.

“I do have a concern about the larger concept of Black excellence because there is a much longer tradition of foregrounding very visible public figures … and using their accomplishments as a model for a larger Black community, representing what is best about the Black community,” said Foy. “But that notion of excellent representatives often leaves a lot of people who are doing important things in the shadows … I would like us to think about a much more capacious understanding of what excellence means for us.”

In thinking about the celebration of Black excellence at the college this year, Foy hopes that by expanding the definition of Black excellence, Swarthmore can be consciously working towards making the community better for Black students.

“I also know that we’re in a difficult moment when we’re asking all sorts of questions about ‘how do we we really put into practice these ideals so that they feel like more than just a marketing ploy?’” said Foy. “I know that’s a theme that has come up consistently in these conversations and I agree that we have to ask ourselves how to make this a better place for Black students.”

That said, Foy also believes it important to celebrate the occasions the Black Excellence series is acknowledging.

“At the same time, it is worth celebrating these really important occasions and I don’t like the alternative, which is not to celebrate,” Foy said. “We have to mark these occasions in part to remind ourselves of the earliest motivations and arguments for creating a Black Studies program and a Black Cultural Center … The college is really different now than it was fifty years ago, and while it’s not strictly because of Black studies or the BCC, [they’ve] played a significant role in that.”

In the future, Foy hopes for the college to create spaces that support Black students and grow in diversity.

“I want Swarthmore to be the sort of place that feels to Black students like it will support what they want to do,” said Foy. “I’ve always imagined that the future will be more diverse across the board, including a more diverse faculty, quite frankly.” 

While Foy acknowledges that there is work to be done, he is appreciative of the community that already exists on campus.

“I will say that I’m really, really grateful to my colleagues … I think we have a fruitful community that we’ve managed to create among ourselves. But I’m also really grateful to my students … I think the Black students at Swarthmore are amazing and, again, it’s so inspiring for us to work with the Black and other students of color here who are doing such remarkable things,” Foy said.

“It’s inspiring, energizing, and keeps us on our toes — which is important, too.”

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