Home News Shani Mott, Black Studies Scholar Who Examined Power All Around Her, Dies at 47

Shani Mott, Black Studies Scholar Who Examined Power All Around Her, Dies at 47

Shani Mott, Black Studies Scholar Who Examined Power All Around Her, Dies at 47


Shani Mott, a scholar of Black studies at Johns Hopkins University whose examinations of race and power in America extended beyond the classroom to her employer, her city and even her own home, has died in Baltimore. She was 47.

She died of adrenal cancer on March 12, said her husband, Nathan Connolly, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins.

Though Dr. Mott spent her career in some of academia’s elite spaces, she was firmly committed to the idea that scholarship should be grounded and tangible, not succumbing to ivory tower abstraction. She encouraged students to turn a critical eye to their own backgrounds and to the realities of the world around them. In a city like Baltimore, with its complicated and often cruel racial history, there was plenty to scrutinize.

“How do we think about what we’re doing and how it relates to a city like Baltimore?” is how Minkah Makalani, the director of the university’s Center for Africana Studies, described some of the questions that drove Dr. Mott’s work. “There was this kind of demanding intellectual curiosity that she had that she brought to everything that really pushed the conversation and required that people think about what we’re doing in more tangible ways.”

Her research focused on American books both popular and literary, and how they revealed the kind of conversation about race that was allowed by the publishing industry and other cultural gatekeepers. This work connected to a larger theme of her scholarship: how big institutions determine how race is discussed and experienced in America.

As an active member of the Johns Hopkins faculty, she pointedly explored the ways the university engaged, or did not engage, with its own workers and the majority Black city in which it sits. In 2018 and 2019, Dr. Mott was a principal investigator for the Housing Our Story project, which interviewed Black staff workers at Johns Hopkins whose voices had not been included in the campus archives.

“What she had a keen ability to do was to say and remember that we’re thinking of things that are real, not just abstract,” said Tara Bynum, an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Iowa who received her doctorate at Johns Hopkins.

Though Dr. Mott taught her students to understand racism as an ongoing force in American life, the hard reality could still be jarring. In 2021, she and Dr. Connolly were hoping to refinance the mortgage on their home, which sits in a historic, predominantly white neighborhood. But the appraisal was far lower than what they were expecting, and their application for a refinance loan was denied.

Believing that race played a key role, they applied for a loan again several months later, but for this appraisal they hid evidence of their race, such as family photographs, and had a white colleague stand in for them when the appraiser came for a visit. The second appraisal was almost 60 percent higher than the first.

Months later, in 2022, they sued the mortgage company that denied the loan, the appraisal company that was contracted and the individual appraiser who was at the home. All parties have denied that bias was involved, and the individual appraiser countersued for defamation.

For Dr. Mott, it was a discouraging real-world illustration of what she had long researched.

“People say it all the time: It’s one thing to study something, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually experience it,” Dr. Mott said in a 2022 interview with The Times. She understood discrimination through her work, she said, but “to actually be living a kind of life that was always a dream and then to have someone in 45 minutes come in and just ruin that, or try to — it leaves me feeling angry.”

Shani Tahir Mott was born on March 16, 1976, in Chicago. Her mother was a schoolteacher, and her father was an Army veteran who lost his sight in the Vietnam War.

After graduating from Wesleyan University, she received her master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Michigan. Her dissertation focused on midcentury American literature, particularly books in which Black authors portrayed white characters and in which white authors portrayed Black characters. Such attempts by writers to “free themselves from the racial boundaries” that the country kept in place were ultimately unsuccessful, she concluded.

She considered the work she did outside of academia consistent with her research. In Baltimore, she encouraged students to work alongside her as volunteers at Orita’s Cross Freedom School, a program that provides instruction and recreation for Black youth when their families are at work. In 2020, when many of those children were stuck at home during Covid, Dr. Mott and her family produced a series of YouTube videos in which they read and discussed children’s books celebrating Black history and culture. Her survivors include her husband and their children, two daughters and a son.

She was diagnosed with cancer in 2021, but colleagues said she continued to keep a packed schedule of teaching and outside projects. Days before her death, Dr. Mott gave an eight-hour deposition in the appraisal suit, which was still pending, Dr. Connolly said. She declined to take her pain medication, he added, so that she would be able to respond to questions with clarity.

“She burned through two oxygen tanks and was in a wheelchair the entire time,” Dr. Connolly said. “And her ability to speak forcefully and to be direct and, frankly, to be so crystal clear about how real estate works and, in particular, instruments within the structure of a mortgage transaction, it was a master class.”


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