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Speaking from the heart about Black religion in the African diaspora

On three days at the beginning of April, scholars mingled on the Yale University campus with musicians, artists, pastors, poets and students to discuss the contours of contemporary black religion—half a millennia after slaves from Africa began arriving in the New World and confronting the dominant Christian culture of their masters.

Participants at the interdisciplinary conference, the Middle Passage Conversations on Black Religion in the African Diaspora, were encouraged to “let down their hair,” speak from the heart and stay away from the more formal presentations so characteristic of academic conferences.  And to encourage a more conversational tone the use of prepared notes at the eight panel sessions was strongly discouraged, if not outright verboten.

Townes and AttridgeThe yield? A dramatic outpouring of open discussion over topics that, typically, might be deemed politically or theologically unsuitable for public airing outside, and in some cases even inside, the black church community.

Tracy C. West, professor of ethics and African American studies at Drew Theological School, grappled with the question of how Martin Luther King Jr. and some other powerful black male religious leaders can, at the same time, be both revered for their leadership and held to account for sexual transgressions against women that she suggested sometimes rise to the level of ministerial misconduct.   

Cornel West of Princeton University, one of the nation’s foremost black public intellectuals, called to task presidential candidate Barack Obama, on the verge of becoming the nation’s first black president, for failing to “tell the truth” about slavery in Obama’s widely praised speech about race in America.

Another panelist, Kelly Brown Douglas, a professor of religion at Goucher College, chided the black church community for what she termed its “notorious” lack of responsiveness to the HIV/AIDS crisis —linked, she argued, to homophobia and a list of “isms” that, when adopted by the black community, help “feed the agenda of white male hegemony.”

An outpouring of personal stories

But along with the hard-edged critique there was a sharing of personal stories, many very poignant—like the one told by Evelyn Harris, a teacher and singer with the group Sweet Honey in the Rock, who acknowledged that for 33 years her artistry was fueled by heroin before she kicked the habit five and one-half years ago, with the help of a human “angel.”  Or the story of ecumenical education consultant Anthony Reddie, whose family moved from Jamaica to England but kept a chest of personal treasures with them to remember their Jamaican slave heritage.

“The ‘conversations’ model of the conference brought out insights that might have been buried in more formal presentations,” said Yale Professor of African-American Studies Elizabeth Alexander, who participated in one of the panels. “Yale's campus was charged, dynamic, and transformed.”

Emilie M. Townes, the organizer of the April 3, 4, and 5 conference and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, said after the conclusion of the gathering, “The conference was the first event for the new Middle Passage Initiative on Black Religion in the African Diaspora at the Divinity School.  One of the key features of the Initiative is to foster communal dialogues concerning crucial issues and questions facing Black communities that participants can then take back to their communities and home institutions.”

“I think the conference succeed far beyond my wildest dreams in doing so as we were able to engage the head, the heart, the spirit, and the body in our two and half days together,” said Townes, who is serving in 2008 as president of the American Academy of Religion.  “I look forward to YDS hosting smaller gatherings over the years and the first being one that focuses on the interfaith and interreligious dimensions of Black religious life.”

About 300 people attended, including, in addition to those from Yale, students from Harvard Divinity School, Andover Newton Theological School, Drew University, Union Theological Seminary in New York, Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA, and the Episcopal Divinity School.

The Middle Passage Conversations conference featured some 40 leading scholars from across the country who engaged in eight moderated panels exploring the ways in which they understand Black religiosity in their work.  "Middle Passage" refers to the forced transportation of Africans during the Atlantic slave trade.  Africa was the "middle" of the triangular voyage followed by ships that made their way from Europe, to Africa, and then to the Americas and Caribbean to deliver boatloads of slaves.

African American scholarships fully funded

On the second day of the conference, at the African American Alumni Reunion Dinner, Yale Divinity School announced the completion of funding for five endowed scholarships honoring the African American heritage at YDS, which dates back to the antebellum era when escaped slave James W.C. Pennington audited courses on the campus.

In making the announcement, Dean Harold Attridge said funding of the scholarships—completed with an infusion of money out of YDS accounts —was in keeping with a personal commitment he had made at the beginning of his tenure as dean to intensify efforts at diversification on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle.

The five scholarships affected are the Mary Eileen Fuget-Hayes Scholarship, the Adam and Julia Joseph Scholarship, the Ronald B. Packnett Scholarship; the Jason Richardson Memorial Scholarship; and the A. Knighton Stanley Scholarship.

African American Alumni Dinner

Presentations of works of art were intertwined with the conference, including the opening plenary slide show presentation by painter, sculptor, writer, and performance artist Faith Ringgold, who chronicled her tumultuous 40-year career passage as an African-American woman artist.  Throughout the conference, in the gallery of the Institute of Sacred Music, was the exhibition Visual Exegesis: Religious Images by African American Artists from the Jean and Robert E. Steele Art Collection.

The conference concluded with the performance of a play written, directed and acted under the leadership of current black students at Yale Divinity School.  The play, entitled Living Water and written by Meredith F. Coleman-Tobias ’09 M.Div., tells the story of a young black woman from Alabama whose journey home to be with her HIV-infected father leads to discovery of the family’s slave heritage, which gives her strength and hope.

Neichelle Guidry ’10 M.Div., the lead actor in the play and student coordinator for the conference, said, “One of the most profound aspects of the conference was the integration of the arts at the end of each day. So, while we spent the days working through [issues and questions] with thoughts and words, this play exhibited that we can work through them in equally valuable creative and artistic manners.”

Turning a page in the weltanschauung

The Middle Passage Conversations conference as a whole was a signal event for some of the attendees, even those who have devoted their lives to such issues.

“It was another page in my weltanschauung, which has been static for 50 some years,” said Bernice Cosey Pulley ’55 M.Div. of New Rochelle, NY.

Holding a teething baby in one arm and a conference program in the other hand at the opening plenary, the Rev. Anthony Bennet of Mt. Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport, CT explained that he simply “could not pass up the awesome invitation to dialogue about issues related to the diaspora of African peoples.”

The conference was presented jointly by Yale Divinity School; Yale Institute of Sacred Music; Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Fund; African American Studies Department; Religious Studies Department; Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program; Whitney Humanities Center; Saint Thomas More Center; Expanding Horizons Program; The Fund for Theological Education; New England-Maritimes Region of the American Academy of Religion; and the Initiative on Religion and Politics at Yale.

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