Black Studies Scholar, Shani Mott, Dies at 47

Shani Mott, a scholar of Black studies at Johns Hopkins University whose investigations into racism and power in America extended beyond the classroom to her employer, city, and even her personal household, died in Baltimore. She was 47.

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

Despite spending her career in some of academia’s elite locations, Dr. Mott was a firm believer that study should be grounded and tangible, rather than succumbing to ivory tower abstraction. She urged students to reflect critically on their personal backgrounds as well as the realities of their surroundings. There was a lot to look into in Baltimore, a city with a tangled and often nasty racial history.

“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 concentrated on American novels, both popular and literary, and how they reflected the type of racial discussion permitted by the publishing industry and other cultural gatekeepers. This investigation related to a bigger subject in her research: how massive organizations influence how race is discussed and experienced in America.

As an active member of the Johns Hopkins faculty, she investigated how the university engaged, or did not engage, with its own employees and the predominantly Black city in which it is located. Dr. Mott was a primary investigator for the Housing Our Story project, which interviewed Black staff workers at Johns Hopkins who were not represented in university archives.

“What she had a keen ability to do was to say and remember that we’re thinking about 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 earned her doctorate at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Mott taught her pupils that racism is a constant in American society, but the harsh reality can still be shocking. In 2021, she and Dr. Connolly hoped to refinance their property, which is located in a historic, largely white area. However, the appraisal was far lower than they expected, and their refinance loan application was declined.

They filed for a loan again some months later, believing that race had a significant influence, but this time they concealed evidence of their race, such as family photographs, and had a white coworker stand in for them when the appraiser arrived. The second appraisal was almost 60% higher than the first.

Months later, in 2022, they sued the mortgage business that declined the loan, the appraisal company that was hired, and the individual appraiser who was present at the property. All parties denied any bias, and the individual appraiser countersued for slander.

On Monday, Dr. Connolly announced a deal with the mortgage company. The slander action, as well as the litigation involving the appraisal company and the appraiser, are still pending.

Dr. Mott saw it as a depressing real-world example 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 March 16, 1976, in Chicago. Her mother was a teacher, and her father was an Army veteran who lost his sight during the Vietnam War.

After graduating from Wesleyan University, she went on to get her master’s and PhD degrees at Michigan. Her dissertation looked at midcentury American literature, specifically those in which Black authors depicted white characters and white authors portrayed Black ones. Such attempts by writers to “free themselves from the racial boundaries” that the country maintained were ultimately ineffective, she found.

She believed her work outside of academia to be congruent with her research. In Baltimore, she urged kids to serve at Orita’s Cross Freedom School, a program that offers teaching and recreation to Black youth while their families are working. During the 2020 Covid pandemic, Dr. Mott and her family created a series of YouTube videos including children’s books on Black history and culture. Her spouse and their three children, two daughters and a son, survive her.

She was diagnosed with cancer in 2021, yet her coworkers stated she kept a full schedule of teaching and extracurricular activities. According to Dr. Connolly, Dr. Mott gave an eight-hour deposition in the appraisal suit just days before her death. She refused to take her pain medicine, he explained, so that she could respond to questions clearly.

“She burned through two oxygen tanks and was in a wheelchair the entire time,” the doctor stated. “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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