Note: Excerpt from Notes of a Native Daughter (Eerdmans 2021) as part of the book series Theological Education between the Times. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Citations have been omitted.
This small book is about how to bear witness to more liberating futures in theological education. Yet before we can envision potential futures, we must be honest about experiences of trauma, pain and brokenness that now mark the theological academy. Here I offer extended “notes” or meditations on the struggles so many African Americans confront and endure within theological institutions. My account might be read less as a philosophical argument and more as a testimony, a form of speech that unapologetically bears witness to how theological education is experienced among those from the underside of American society.
Testifying about Hard Matters in Our Schools
Testifying is a familiar mode of religious speech for me. I grew up in a black Pentecostal church, and at the center of our worship experience was testimony service. Testimony service was visceral and verbal, emotional and demonstrative, a collective and highly democratic enterprise. Often testimony service ended up being the entire worship experience. When one stood up to testify, one offered a narrative of how one had overcome through the work of the Spirit. A woman might stand up and testify, only to hear others respond with cries, laughter, celebration or even a song. Testifying was a highly unpredictable style of worship, as the Spirit could be felt at any moment, pulling the entire congregation into a series of communal shouts and dances. Most important, testifying was a way to mediate divine presence. When one testiﬁed in the midst of the congregation, God’s presence was invoked, leading the entire community into experiences of transcendence, deliverance, joy, healing and so much more. Testifying was not merely an individual act. One didn’t tell a story solely for some kind of personal cathartic release or relief. This oral practice formed the community in love, intimacy and belonging. Even children would lead in testimony service, instructing the adults to testify “as the Spirit gave utterance.” Testifying was a communal act; it forged a truly democratic community drawn together by ﬁlial bonds of love, care and accountability. We trusted that God would speak through our sisters and brothers as they testiﬁed to God’s goodness, mercy and grace. We uttered our stories in hopes that we would experience the power of the Spirit to be healed and made whole.
This process was not for the faint of heart. Testifying about our stories of God’s care involved telling the truth. We told the truth about hard matters. I remember people standing to testify about the social and economic predicaments they faced, telling the truth about the inequality of social structures and economic institutions. Others in the congregation would talk back, nodding their heads or offering high- pitched shouts to afﬁrm that God would deliver the speaker (and themselves) from the hardships of life. I also recall members who would stand and tell hard truths about the congregation – about ﬁghts, slights and bickering among members – in hopes of illuminating the reality of broken community. Sometimes apologies were spoken in testimony service and people would ﬁnd their way to the person who was wronged, only for screams and shouts to break out in celebration of restored relationships and healing from wounds. Testifying was about bearing witness to a God who could heal in the midst of brokenness and help us face the truth of who we were and could be, if only we could participate in the loving work of the Spirit.
Likewise, in these pages I tell the truth about difﬁcult experiences that mark theological education, not out of spite or bitterness but to demonstrate the toll that broken community takes on all of us. I not only reveal failings of theological and church contexts but also reveal my own shortcomings as I have searched for firmer grounding within these spaces. If we are to be made whole, we must speak the truth as we have experienced it, being transparent about our collective pain even as we await the Spirit’s resurrecting power…
People of Color “Learning to Pass” in the Academy
Learning to pass is a form of what Du Bois called double consciousness. As a person of color, you operate in a world that was not created for you, a world that has defined itself through categories that deny your humanity. Structural racism and its intersectional realities sit at the center of the theological academy’s institutional life. Yet, this is a world that I attempt to make my own, even my home. And indeed, in part the theological academy is home, for it has been the context out of which I have been trained intellectually and theologically as a black woman. Moreover, black scholars have deeply shaped this home. I have embraced myself as a native daughter of this context, despite the diverse forms of structural racism that persist there. However, to be respected intellectually in the white spaces of theological education has entailed living an exilic existence, often leaving behind other aspects of my black and Pentecostal identity that do not conform neatly to methods and dispositions of intellectual rigor and soundness. I have had to exist in ways that feel fragmented and compartmentalized in order to demonstrate academic prowess. A number of students and faculty of color also find themselves feeling fragmented in this way in order to prove their intellectual worthiness. Learning to pass is thus about garnering a particular kind of respect within white academic spaces, and this is achieved at a profound cost to who you are.
What has led to the need for intellectual passing within the theological academy? The chief reason is that professional theological education in the United States was established in service to a white religious structure and order. Take my present context of Princeton Theological Seminary. Founded in 1812 by the Presbyterian denomination, the seminary was established to oversee the ministerial education of clergy – meaning white males…
These young white clergymen were of a particular standing as well. Most came from white families who held land and property, benefiting in many ways from America’s slave economy. In short, ministry as a profession was oriented toward young white men from wealthy backgrounds. Many of the men who attended Princeton Seminary early on were graduates of Harvard, Princeton University and Yale, among other Ivy League colleges. This seminary envisioned producing white male clergy who not only led their respective parishes but also offered leadership in the social and political matters of a young nation, including social issues such as slavery. Clergymen were sought after to lead and ponder the nation’s affairs. Princeton Theological Seminary was largely about producing “sound” ministers who could uphold and defend the Christian faith in an increasingly modern world, who could speak to the pressing social issues that threatened to tear apart the nation. The seminary had a highly classist and patriarchal understanding of who it was producing as leaders: white men of character and sound mind who would lead their communities and nation into God’s truth. The early days of professional Protestant theological education were thus about the ministerial formation of educated men.
Within white institutions like Princeton, when professional theological education was extended to people of color, it was in service to civilizing them. Professional theological education was not created with African Americans in mind, although “exceptional” African Americans would later gain entrance into white seminaries for the purposes of “cultural contact” in service to Christianizing them (although it is important to note that African American seminaries were also emerging by 1867 – a point to which I return in chapter 3). Princeton faculty saw their engagement with black persons as connected primarily to the project of civilizing and Christianizing racial others. Blacks who were enslaved represented the African heathen who were in need of saving from their pagan predilections. And black enslavement in America was inextricably tied to Protestant colonial impulses around the world…
To be honest about the beginnings of theological education, we must admit the racialization of professional theological education. Underrepresented, historically disadvantaged communities certainly recognize the ways in which theological education is tethered to a white power structure. Black students and faculty develop strategies to navigate this theological context successfully. One such strategy is intellectual passing, in which one accepts and integrates oneself into the work-reward structure of the academy, even when one feels harm and exhaustion from doing so. As a black woman, if I go along with the dominant categories, paradigms and practices of my theological institution, I am much more likely to experience career mobility. This is a hard truth that even people of color hate to acknowledge.