Black religion specialists call for conversion

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(RNS) – Recently, an assistant professor of African studies at a Catholic university was preparing to supervise a doctoral student’s oral exam when she heard about the theology department, where she serves as a student advisor and teaches cross courses.

The professor was informed two weeks before the exam that a comparative theologian would attend the exam with her. The exam did not go smoothly due to the clearly different expectations of the two examiners. The episode upset the professor, who is black: “There was a reluctance to see me as a peer,” she said, “and a reluctance about my qualifications as a specialist in religion.”

Although her posts are in art history and African studies, “I’m an expert on religion,” she told Religion News Service. “This is who I am.”

This professor’s experience is part of a nascent conversation about racism at the highest levels of academia, particularly in theological schools, theological departments, and religious studies programs. Black religious scholars say their work is systematically undervalued and their advancement blocked through a bias that views the study of black religious experience as secondary to white theology.

The phenomenon was recently highlighted to many by Cornel West resignation from harvard in June after being refused tenure. Among West’s complaints was that “all of my classes were encompassed in African American studies, including existentialism, American democracy, and the conduct of life.”

West’s experience has left some black academics wondering what steps they need to take to get their profession to accept them.

“I mean, man, Cornel West can’t even get the tenure. How am I supposed to do it? Said a graduate student in theology, who, like the assistant professor, requested anonymity for the sake of his work.


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Anthea Butler, president of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “I think theological schools have a really big problem in terms of race.

Anthéa Butler. Courtesy photo

Butler, who listed several black professors who have defected in recent years from Ivy League theological schools, offered proof of the problem that Yale Divinity School does not have black tenured professors – no, a she alleged, for lack of candidates.

Butler herself said she was invited to apply for a position as an associate professor of African-American religious history at Yale in 2018, and on the recommendation of the research committee, she wrote a second book and received a scholarship. researcher invited to school, only to be told she hadn’t. don’t get the job. Soon after, she obtained her professorship at Pennyslvania.

A spokesperson for Yale Divinity School said in an email that the school could not comment on staff matters, but noted that of the 15 tenured professors hired since 2012, seven are people of color and the one of the four instructors promoted to associate professor last spring. , three are scholars of color.

A religious scholar from Yale wants to get to the theological roots of the problem.

Willie James Jennings, associate professor of theology at Yale, wrote in his 2020 book, “After Whiteness,” about white supremacy in theological education, saying it permeated the imaginations of his students and his. . “Whiteness is not something outside of the academy that has infiltrated the academy. The academy is formed in whiteness, ”Jennings said.

Willie James Jennings.  Photo courtesy of Yale University

Willie James Jennings. Photo courtesy of Yale University

Jennings conducted an experiment asking students to imagine what an educated person looks like. “Most of them basically describe a white guy in a white coat,” he said with a wry chuckle.

Another religious scholar who requested anonymity said that the methodology of the departments of religious studies and theology is anchored in the academic standards developed during the European Enlightenment of 17e and 18e centuries, and they continue to value abstract and conceptual knowledge over experiential or practical wisdom that tends to inform the spiritual life of black people.

In this context, the professor said, the expressions of faith of black Americans are treated with suspicion, or labeled too political or not deserving of serious study. As a practical example, he recalled viewing a collection of African art and religious objects at his university last year with a donor. In the middle of their conversation, the donor commented, “Well, none of this is real.”

To ignore the traditions and modes of creation of dark senses is to persist in ignorance, said this scholar.

“African religion is everywhere,” said Jacob Olupona, professor of African and African American studies at Harvard. “African Christianity is everywhere. Africa, the indigenous religion is very strong in Brazil and the Caribbean. So how can you now refuse to include them in the conversation? ” He asked.

Jacob Olupona speaks at Harvard Divinity School in 2018. Video screenshot

Jacob Olupona speaks at Harvard Divinity School in 2018. Video screenshot

The answer, according to Olupona, is that racism does not allow white academics “to recognize the contributions of blacks to the creation of knowledge in the academy or in society.”

In addition to the conceptual injustices, there are the daily slights and insults of living in a white-dominated academia.

Oludamini Ogunnaike, assistant professor of African religious thought and democracy at the University of Virginia, recalls an orientation during his first tenure-track job at the College of William & Mary.

“I started to absently walk into the faculty’s orientation room while reading my package,” Ogunnaike said, when an administrator stopped him and directed him to another room.

“I wasn’t really paying attention,” he said, “so I walked into the teacher’s room – which had an almost entirely black audience – and after a minute or two I realized I was. in the wrong room. “

Oludamini Ogunnaike.  Photo courtesy of the University of Virginia

Oludamini Ogunnaike. Photo courtesy of the University of Virginia

When Ogunnaike found the right room for the teachers’ orientation, he looked around and saw that he was the only visibly black person there. Rather than being angry with the administrator, he said, “I’m more upset with the system that racially sorts professors and staff like that, and the fact that most of my white colleagues seemed not to notice or not to be disturbed by these hierarchies.


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Even when the opportunity for a promotion presents itself, the experience can be busy. Emilie M. Townes left Yale Divinity School after being considered dean in a research process that she said felt “dishonest”.

“I felt like I was hiring diversity,” she said. “They weren’t considering me seriously.

The experience left such a negative impression on him, said Townes, that when Vanderbilt Divinity School asked him to apply for the same position, “they had to work hard to convince me that it would be a serious process.” Townes became Dean of Vanderbilt in 2013.

Emilie M. Townes.  Photo by Daniel Dubois / Vanderbilt University

Emilie M. Townes. Photo by Daniel Dubois / Vanderbilt University

Townes said she was fortunate enough to find mentors early in her career: “This is true for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality – if you don’t have a mentor. solid from someone, it’s a really hard argument to churn. “

But young black academics say it can be difficult to find mentors they trust and understand their work.

A black doctoral student at a Catholic university recalls an article on black theologies and sacramental theology which returned with a comment from a professor that her article was “a lot, and” too much, too ambitious, “without substantiating it. affirmation by particular critics. . She asked for clarification and received none.

She asked herself, “Is it a lot because it’s actually a lot, or is it a lot because my ideas are new?”

“They would never tell a white man he was too ambitious,” she said. “If anything, the ambition would be applauded, right?”

Even positive comments from fellow academics can be hard to sort out, Ogunnaike said.

“When the feedback is positive, you wonder if it’s just condescending praise or someone trying to feel better or being a ‘good anti-racist’ by supporting a black scholar – your race, but not you and your work are seen. ”Ogunnaike said.

But sifting through the racism woven into even useful commentaries is a burden. “How much of this criticism is valid and useful and how much is based on prejudice? Which parts should you take seriously and which should you reject? Ogunnaike said. “It’s exhausting.”

A teacher at an East Coast school discovered that tackling racism is more than an intellectual or academic task – it is mission work.

“Racism is really a religion,” said the professor. “He has rituals, he has a doctrine that guides people to see things as they are.

“You can’t imagine yourself outside of racism,” the professor continued. “You have to act yourself. Christians would call it repentance.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the events of a review.

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