5 Questions with Faculty: El-Ra Radney

El-Ra Radney wears a hat and scarf and poses for a picture
El-Ra Radney is a new assistant professor in the University at Albany's Department of Africana Studies. He hopes to grow interest in the department and recently shared a bit about himself.

By Bethany Bump

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 8, 2022) — When El-Ra Radney was in sixth grade, his school took a trip to see a performance by the late Sun Ra, the famed jazz musician and cosmic thinker who was an early pioneer of the Afrofuturism movement.

The trip had a formative impact on Radney, who grew up in Detroit and developed a strong sense of Black pride and positive connections to Africa from a young age. This affinity was further solidified by his exposure to Black intellectuals, activists, educators and artists growing up.

Nicknamed “Professor” by family, Radney decided to turn his intellectual passions into a career. He joined the University at Albany as an assistant professor in the Africana Studies department this fall following decades of teaching, training, study and scholarship in the field, citing its dynamic course offerings and distinction on the national stage as one of few colleges or universities with a master’s program in the field.

Radney majored in Africana studies as an undergraduate at Wayne State University in Detroit, and received a graduate certificate in African American studies from Eastern Michigan University, a Master of Business Administration from Davenport University, and a Ph.D in African American and African studies from Michigan State University.

He has held teaching positions at Eastern Michigan University, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, University of Detroit-Mercy, University of Michigan, and the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

What are your top goals and objectives for the department?

To attract students from expansive (traditionally non-interested or non-invested) demographics, help bring more diplomatic solidarity among African Diaspora students who we count among our junior scholars and majors, and continue the work started by my colleagues/forbears in increasing our enrollment numbers. But additionally, to help make Africana studies as necessary and normative as learning how to walk. We see this trend of the necessity and significance of Africana studies growing in the way several states have adopted Africana studies as a requirement now at the college/university and high school levels.

Your research has centered around the concept of the Pan African Metropolis. Can you explain what this is and why it interests you?

The ‘Pan African Metropolis’ is situated within the historical typology of what Black urban sociologists St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton found in 1945 to be the ‘Black Metropolis.’ Hence, cities that were essentially shaped in “the image” of Black society, Black ways of life, Black psychology and Black culture. They found five tropes that make up the Black Metropolis, which can also be extended to the growing field of Black geographies. These five tropes of characteristic personalities or core traits/core values that signified the influences and indications of the import of Black life were: (1) staying alive, (2) serving God, (3) having fun, (4) advancing the race, and (5) getting ahead.

I take their Black sociological model much further by innovating and originating that another unsung criterion exists (Pan African tropes) wherein several Black cities, especially noted here is my hometown of Detroit, that are grounded and shaped by characteristic personalities of Pan Africanism. That is to say, they have cultivated and institutionalized several norms that indicate an agency that is centered on the cultural, philosophical and identity sustaining of African heritage and/or African Diaspora connective values and lifestyles.

Science fiction and movies like the Black Panther have fueled interest in the Afrofuturism movement, which has been around for decades. Can you explain what this movement is and its relevance to Africana studies today?

Afrofuturism is a very significant thriving movement today. Its popularity and instrumentation just seem to be growing unstoppable. One of my visions is to create and discover new counter-narratives for what I call “mapping the Afro-future of Africana studies," whereby I see the challenges, strengths, and opportunities of our discipline’s future will be to find cutting-edge ways of learning, teaching, and training that prepare our students to think more imaginatively about how Africana studies can be wedded to things that suggest Afro-Tech and scientific collaborations, like what Morehouse is currently doing with their VR-Metaversity Program.

But to answer your question about what Afrofuturism is… Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic that combines science-fiction, history, and fantasy to explore the African American experience and aims to connect those from the Black diaspora with their forgotten African ancestry. It has formulated itself as a genre in music (ranging from people like Sun Ra and John Coltrane, George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, “the mothership”), as well as in film with the gigantic success of Black Panther and the Wakandian Afro-future world, and additionally in art and literature. It is a way of using a Black science fiction-future to heal and repair the Black trauma of the past indicative in Black historical suffering, and its voices cry for retribution.

What are some of the key challenges and opportunities faced by those working in Africana studies today?

I think we are challenged to change the “narrative of fiction” associated with the relevance, significance, and magnitude regarding the ‘often unknown’ and for many outside or even ‘hostile’ to our interdisciplinary training, ‘the undiscovered’ foundational skill sets and understanding of the diverse world we live in that Africana studies offers and has provided for so many students who have gone on to very successful and prominent career tracks, from Amanda Seales to Angela Basset to Mae Jemison, the first African American woman astronaut.

Oftentimes there seems to be a sort of miscommunication in our society and sometimes institutional culture or academic aspirational life about how disciplines like Africana studies, area studies, or history benefits the imaginative and critical thinking skill set that many would need and desire to pursue anything imaginable, whether its entrepreneurship, business, social enterprises and/or all the career choices you could name, which even means Africana studies training benefits STEM careers.

What’s something members of the campus community might be surprised to learn about you?

That I have some years of background in the performing arts (with Black theatrical roots in Detroit) and have done a few plays on the semi-professional stage. I also do poetry/spoken word, and I have won a few poetry competitions.

Or that I spent a few years as a youth training in performance guided by Kim Weston (renowned for her version of “Lift Every Voice & Sing,” the African American national anthem), who was a Motown legend under those special Berry Gordy days, and Clifford Fears who was a famous dancer with the Alvin Ailey Company.