Redemptive Difference: What Can a Black Woman Teach Me? PDF-NOTE: Internet Explorer Users, right click the PDF Icon and choose [save target as] if you are experiencing problems with clicking. Print

Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, Brite Divinity School

Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas is Associate Professor of Ethics and Director of Black Church Studies at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, and an ordained pastoral counselor within the American Baptist Churches. She is the author of Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics, editor of Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society, and co-author of Black Church Studies: An Introduction. She is the 2007 recipient of the American Academy of Religion Teaching Excellence Award.

As a seminary professor, but one who is not a preacher, I am occasionally confronted by someone at church asking me, “Why are you wasting your time working at that cemetery?” This question stems not from an anti-intellectualism (stereotypically ascribed to the black church), but rather from a very reasonable hermeneutic of suspicion that: 1) questions whether the study of religion should ultimately lead to the weakening or demise of one’s faith; and 2) resists the notion that something as sacred as one’s faith should be exposed and subjected to the debasement and devaluation of all things black, which they perceive to be characteristic of predominantly white institutions. In my academic context, when I enter the classroom as a professor of Christian ethics and black church studies, the first thing that many students engage is neither my mind nor my subject matter, but rather the fact that I am a black woman. My very embodiment creates dissonance for many students who (as I’ve been told) immediately ask themselves, “What can a black woman teach me?” (Floyd-Thomas, 2002).

Further, as a black Christian, and a woman, in the academy, I function within a professional realm that is inclined to view my “racialized-engendered religiosity” as a three-fold impediment to my ability to engage fully in the “objective, critical” study of religion. I am either a little too much this or a little too much that; a kind of academic purgatory that serves to preclude me from being considered entirely legitimate. If we apply this to the faculty taxonomy that prevails in most predominantly white schools, I would be regarded as too Christian whereas the seminary/divinity schools would likely regard my Christian orientation as too black, and on both fronts too womanish.

Therefore, as a black scholar and black Christian, I function somewhere on the margins of two institutions, each of which exerts pressure on me to compartmentalize my life as a Christian from my life as a scholar, and each views my dual allegiance with suspicion. This is the reality for many of us who identify as racial-ethnic minority scholars who both study and practice our religion or faith. How do we process and respond to being treated as doppelgangers for “real scholars” in the academy and/or as “sell-outs” as people of faith in our religious communities? Such is the conundrum and curse of the tertium quid, described by W.E.B. DuBois (1903) as one

straightly foreordained to walk within the Veil. To be sure, behind the thought lurks the afterthought, — some of them with favoring chance might become [human], but in sheer self-defense we dare not let them, and we build about them walls so high, and hang between them and the light a veil so thick, that they shall not even think of breaking through.

This crisis is the inevitable extension of the relationship between my personal convictions as a black Christian and my vocational goals as a scholar-teacher. However, this life is not mine alone, but it is the life of many religious racial-ethnic minoritized (RREM) scholars who are wedded to religious praxis and religious scholarship. It is this indeterminate, insider-outsider existence that enables us to mine the resources and cultivate the wisdom necessary to navigate these two worlds, and even transform them.

Many black scholars enter the ranks of the academy holding fast to the value of religion, along with the promise of education, thinking that the academy presents an ideal and viable context within which to teach religion so as to redeem the legacy of black religion. Disillusionment, however, comes fast and furious in the face of what Bible scholar Fernando Segovia calls the “alien” and “alienating” academic culture of deception that permeates theological education and religion scholarship. Many RREM scholars who experience the deception and alienation are torn between the hope of their religion and the promise of their education. Some scholars, such as Renita Weems (2005), are very careful and intentional in naming and identifying the hermeneutical dilemma:

As a Hebrew Bible scholar and preacher, I reside in two homes — the academy and the church. These two are jealous, demanding lovers that insist upon my undivided attention and unswerving loyalty. They unrelentingly ask, “Which one will you be — a preacher or a scholar?”

This struggle is representative of the dynamic tension between modernism and postmodernism. In modernity there have been two things that have been objectified and against which the modern intellectual tradition has constructed itself: dark peoples and religion. This negative objectification has served as the quintessential “other” against which white Western intellectual identity has been constructed.

Modernity has been imbued with a Calvinistic orthodoxy that accepts the predestination of social stratification that separates a chosen elite from the disinherited masses. Conversely, postmodern rhetoric advocates a civic humanism that purports the primacy of reason over faith, professing a secular vision of equality for the previously disinherited. Modernist institutions have adopted postmodern agendas as their modi operandi, in order to advance into the next millennia (Giddens 1991).

Although couched in postmodern rhetoric, colleges, universities, and even seminaries hold unwaveringly to modernistic objectives, having undergone only a superficial transformation to combat the liberating potential that religion holds for marginalized people. The educational institution as a “learning machine” is the most instrumental means of doing this legerdemain, in that it is more concerned with designating social roles than dealing with human personhood (Foucault 1995). Thus, the self-reflection required for autonomy and agency is prohibited for minoritized groups. Consequently, their professional options are not self-determined, but rather imposed. Simply put, rarely do institutions grant the freedom and autonomy to their one and only professor of Asian studies, black church studies, Islamic studies, Jewish studies, Latino/a church studies, or Native-American studies to apply her/his expertise to design her/his positions or racial-ethnic programs. Therefore, RREM scholars find themselves in a double-bind: They are often precluded from lending their expertise toward shaping core courses that have become normative fields within a Eurocentric model while simultaneously their efforts to design programs for which they are the only experts in the institution are stymied, constrained, and resisted by the status quo.

Therefore, RREM scholars have found it necessary to construct a minoritized religious humanity outside the realm of the modern/postmodern categories of race and religion. The goal here is not to erase racial-ethnic or religious identities, but rather to act with the same authority on behalf of our religions and religious communities as have white religious scholars such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As RREMs, we ought to be able to expect to do the same for the broad spectrum of our religious traditions.

Toward this end, What constitutes the faithful pursuit of our profession as RREMs?

To quote Martin Jaffee, a scholar-practitioner of Judaism:

Religion is an intense and sustained cultivation of a style of life that heightens awareness of the morally binding connections between the self, the human community and the most essential structures of reality. Religions posit various orders of reality and help individuals and groups to negotiate their relations with these orders....Religion is a method for connecting...worlds.

For religious scholars who are situated socially at the margins of both our faith communities and Eurocentric academies, our vocational task is not merely to reside on the margins and manage our two connecting worlds but rather to use the epistemological insight of being a tertium quid to change those worlds (Freire 1981). This entails undergoing a risky process of maturation and fortitude, a rite of passage marking not only a coming of age within our communities but also a coming to grips with their perversions — racism, ethnocentrism, misogyny, elitism, and xenophobia. To assist with this arduous labor as sustenance for the journey, I offer the following four womanist tenets as critical insights for RREM scholars:

A) Claim radical subjectivity. RREM scholars must unapologetically claim our insider/outsider vantage point, utilizing it as the point from which to teach and speak on behalf of our communities. Our pedagogical imperative is to allow our presence to serve as a reminder of the need for change and growth while simultaneously facilitating and enabling it.

B) Cultivate traditional communalism. Develop the ability to bridge both the academy and religious community in such a way as to use the practical wisdom of each to evaluate the qualities of the other. Of fundamental importance is to dispel the myths of “collegiality” and “political correctness,” that are routinely adduced to maintain a veneer of civility, but in actuality serve more to undermine the formation of authentic, effective community (Copeland 1999).

C) Practice redemptive self-love. Redemptive self-love is the assertion of our humanity and authority as RREM scholars in contradistinction to white solipsism and religious antiintellectualism. It is the practice of self-care in the midst of excessive scrutiny wherein we must protect ourselves from internalizing images of ourselves that suggest we are inferior, incompetent, heretical, or sacrilegious.

D) Seek critical engagement. Critical engagement is the unequivocal belief that we are agents of change who play a profound role not only in the liberation of our religious communities, but also in the true enlightenment of the academic study of them. A holistic and integrated sensibility can transcend the imposed stigma of being tertium quid by seizing the freedom to be ourselves.

To give expression to these four womanist principles, one will have to embody what social critic bell hooks (1994) describes as engaged pedagogy. She claims:

That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that there is an aspect of our work is that not merely to share information but to share the intellectual and spiritual growth of our [communities]. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our [communities] is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

We are called, therefore, to knowledge production that does not detract from our religious heritage, racial-ethnic identity, or academic training, but to lend the expertise of each to infuse the other so as to make these worlds livable and lovable again. The RREM scholar’s demonstration of merging previously antagonistic realms actually offers a demonstration of a more inclusive, imaginative, and intimate production of knowledge about the sacred.


Copeland, M. Shawn. “Collegiality as a Moral and Ethical Practice.” In Practice What You Preach, edited by James F. Keenan, SJ, and Joseph Kotva Jr. Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 1999.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Floyd-Thomas, Stacey, Katherine Allen, and Laura Gillman. “Interdisciplinarity as Self and Subject: Metaphor and Transformation.” Issues in Integrative Studies 20 (2002): 1–26.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1981.

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Jaffee, Martin S. “Why Religion Matters.” Interview as part of “The American Scholars Project” funded by the Lily Foundation, June 16, 1999.

Segovia, Fernando. “Theological Education and Scholarship as Struggle: The Life of Racial/Ethnic Minorities in the Profession.” Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 2:2 (November 1994): 5–25.

Weems, Renita J. “Running the Race for Future Generations: Can You Handle the Faith Without the Fulfillment?” In Blow the Trumpet in Zion!: Global Vision and Action for the 21st-Century Black Church, edited by Iva E. Carruthers, Frederick D. Haynes III, and Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.


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