One of Mark Anthony Neal's proudest moments as an educator happened while he was waiting in the drive-thru at a Durham KFC.
It was around six years ago, when his weekly black-studies webcast, Left of Black, was still in its early stages. Back then, it was shown on a local-access channel. He had no idea how many people he was reaching.
"I was at a KFC one day, and my food wasn't quite ready," Neal recalls. "So they asked me to pull to the side. And eventually the guy came out to bring me my food. And he stopped, and he goes, 'I know you. I saw that episode with Cornell West that you did. Good stuff.' And for me, that was the moment—the fact that a dude working in the KFC found some value in the work we were doing. That's what this is about."
What it's about for Duke University's esteemed black popular culture professor can be summed up by his own words: "I am absolutely committed to the idea of an academy in which the work we do in the classroom extends beyond the four walls of the classroom."
He's used and provided many platforms for doing that: books, podcasts, webcasts, social media, and, of course, the classroom. And many people, like that guy at KFC, have benefitted from his work.
Natalie Bullock-Brown, a professor in the Department of Film and Interactive Media at Saint Augustine University, is Neal's copanelist on the weekly WUNC podcast #BackChannel. She considers him a mentor—and she's not the only one.
"He has people who, I would say, call him a mentor at schools throughout the country," says Bullock-Brown. "That's just the type of person that he is. He's very generous in sharing platforms that'll allow for his younger colleagues to flex, and grow, and shine."
Neal, who just turned fifty, has written extensively on popular culture, hip-hop, and black masculinity. In 2014, he opened the Center for Arts, Digital Culture, and Entrepreneurship at Duke, where he offers courses on all aspects of black culture and masculinity, including signature courses on Michael Jackson and the history of hip-hop, which he teaches alongside acclaimed Durham producer 9th Wonder.
His work is laudable in part for his genius at identifying the best texts and digital platforms he can use to engage his students in continued conversations about pop culture, black-music history, Black Lives Matter, slavery, Jim Crow, and all things interconnected through the ages.
Neal's hip-hop class has roots in the Bronx high school class he taught in the early nineties. Other teachers considered it the worst class in the school. The kids had run the previous teacher out. But, for Neal, the turning point came when he brought a song by Guru and Gang Starr into class to illustrate the crucial link between hip-hop and jazz.
"To this day, I tell folks that that was the most rewarding teaching experience that I ever had," he says, "and one that continues to inform how I teach."
A commitment to honesty also informs his teaching. "We tell [students] from the beginning, this will be the space where you can have the most honest conversations about race and gender and sexuality than you'll have in any other places," he says.
Black masculinity is the main focal point of Neal's career—and the subject of his books New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005) and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013).
That career focus "wasn't necessarily my idea," he says. His path began when the former English major went into American studies at the University of New York at Buffalo. "My dissertation adviser, Alexis De Veaux, was an out black lesbian. And somehow we created this relationship, the young hip-hop head, the older black lesbian. You know, I still refer to her as my intellectual mother."
After he graduated, De Veaux urged him to write a book about black men.
"What De Veaux trained me to think about is that there is actually a long trajectory of feminist scholars that have nothing to do with [white feminism]," Neal says.
To prove it, he mentions Anna Julia Cooper, who was born enslaved in Raleigh in 1858. She went on to become the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctorate. Cooper, he notes, "was writing as a black woman feminist in the eighteen nineties. You know, that has nothing to do with Gloria Steinem."
The "hip-hop head" in him comes from the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx, where he grew up. He was there in the seventies, when DJs started spinning records and making breakbeats in the park.
That background, naturally, impresses 9th Wonder.
"Mark Anthony Neal has taught me that, speaking about hip-hop, speaking about culture, you have to be as objective as possible," he says, "even if you're talking about faults. We have to do that sometimes. A lot of people don't like when we have to do that. Academia makes you look at things from a broad scope. You can't be closed-minded about it."