Scholars Call Campus Meeting Historic
by Gary James '10
October 26, 2007
For the first time ever, scholars in the fields of Black Studies and Religious Studies have come together to discuss the role of Africa in teaching and learning about African-American religious traditions in the United States.
The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, the Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies, and the Center of Inquiry for the Liberal Arts collaborated to recruit 15 scholars to come to campus for a Consultation on the Interdisciplinary Teaching of the Black Experience. Three of the distinguished scholars - Dr. Maulana Karenga, Dr. Dwight Hopkins, and Dr. Victor Anderson - participated in a panel discussion Thursday night in Korb Classroom on the "The Role of 'Africa' in African American Religious Historiographies."
"To my knowledge this is the first time in the history of the United States that African-American Religious Studies scholars and African-American Studies scholars have come together formally," said Dr. Dwight Hopkins, Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago. "People will be reading about this for the next 10 to 15 years."
Dr. Hopkins used his allotted time to propose a teaching agenda and a typology and definition of African-American Religious Studies to a help stabilize the teaching. He suggested more specificity when referencing and analyzing African peoples, languages, and religious practices as well as African-African communities and religions traditions.
"The remnants of the retentions of African spirituality transcend a single individual and have multiple material expressions among the 40 million people of African descent in North America," Hopkins said. "In a word, African Religious Studies is interdisciplinary, grounded in a profound sense of African lineage, and geared toward contemporary human flourishing and social relations equalities, and the norm is helping people for helping society."
Dr. Victor Anderson stressed the topical limits of the current curriculum at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, where he is Professor of Theology. For him it is important that scholars move outside the traditional realm of simply analyzing the black Christian church.
"The interdisciplinary teaching of the black experience is profoundly ethical. It’s ethical because of what’s at stake. It is a stake in what I call an ethics of openness, an ethics that take the ambivalences of my own multipositionality and uses them to diacritically interrogate my own commitment to giving the best and the wisest interpretation of black experience with the widest ranges of sources and insights into the religious lives of black people."
And, according to Dr. Karenga, it is by analyzing African text –oral, written, and practiced – that scholars can give greater meaning and provide a wider perspective in the dialogue about the role of African culture in teaching the black experience and in improving the human condition. He used the actions of Harriet Tubman to illustrate this point.
"When people talk about Harriet Tubman, it’s almost like a folk story. It does not add to reflective [analysis]. She said when I stepped across the line to freedom…I became sad because all the people that I love were back on the plantation in the holocaust of slavery. And I decided that day that I would spend my life going to get them so they can share in this good. At that moment she redefined freedom as a benefit of individual escape to the collective preference…of the whole community."
"I think it’s great," said Associate Professor of Religion Yvonne Chireau, one of the fifteen visiting scholars. "I think the people were very well chosen. They are different representations, different disciplines, different generations, and perspectives. The problem sometimes is that you just get this narrow single focuses so you can see that they don’t all agree. There doesn’t have to all be agreement. That’s where we do that intellectual work to try to find the answers."
"I thought the panel was excellent because we had a broad and diverse view on the subject matter," Dr. Hopkins said. "It’s also important to understand the historic nature of this event. For many of us who were around in the 50s and 60s this is the first time that we can think of in the movement in the streets and the movement in the academy that the subject matter of these two disciplines have been brought together."
In photos: Top left, Wabash coach Bob Johnson chats with Dr. Dwight Hopkins. At right centere, MXI Director Tim Lake stands behind the panel of Hopkins, Anderson, Karenga. Lower left, Anderson making his remarks. On homepage, Hopkins, Dean of the College Gary Phillips and Karenga chat before the panel got underway.
Photos by Clayton Craig '08