I earned an M.A. in African and African American Studies from a rather well-known university in Ohio a few years ago. With the exception of a class on African Literature, I spent most of my time in that program studying 20th-century African American history and literature. Considering the title of my degree, I have inwardly felt like a fraud when it came to the “African” part of it. Sure, I came out of that one course understanding the relationship between Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, and Joseph Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness. However, I knew more about Du Bois’s theory of “double-consciousness” than I did about post-colonial theory and orality. So, when I learned that Professors Althea Spencer-Miller and Kenneth Ngwa were co-teaching Africana Studies and Religion this past spring semester, I felt compelled to sign-up. I knew that I couldn’t make up for every “Africana” course I didn’t take in the past. But I also knew that I could add more resources to my toolkit as I continue to think about and research the histories and cultures of persons of African descent.
I came away from this class understanding how cultural formalism can be used to evaluate the oral tradition embedded in Africana literatures. In addition to Du Bois’s thought on colonialism, I’ve been introduced to the theoretical writings of Aimé Césaire and Edouard Glissant. I have thought more deeply about the complexities of the African Diaspora, and diaspora in general. My classmates and I were challenged to think about “home,” “memory,” and “identity” as we read about the experiences of Haitian immigrants living in Miami and New York. We thought about the impact of the African film industry on the global entertainment market. We listened to the slain rapper 2Pac muse about a “Black Jesus,” a Christ who could relate to life in the ‘hood. We talked about the lyrics to “Victims,” a song by South African Reggae singer, Lucky Dube. We learned about the ideological roots of Rastafarianism, and watched YouTube videos of a Santeria worship ceremony. We also watched video clips from Dave Chappelle’s comedy series on the constructions of race in America. We considered how the lived experiences of individuals influenced biblical interpretations and religious identities. On the last day of class, we danced to melodic Caribbean rhythms. We were encouraged to really feel the creative and spiritual forces behind the music.
The class was not only rich in terms of content and methodology; it was also unique because of the individuals that gathered around the table in Seminary Hall 210 on Wednesdays at 1:15pm. We were an interdisciplinary crew. Dr. Ngwa teaches Hebrew Bible. Dr. Spencer-Miller teaches New Testament. My classmates were in Biblical Studies, Historical Studies, and Religion and Society. Every degree program in the Theological School had at least one representative. We were also a multicultural group. A Jamaican woman and her Cameroonian male colleague led the class. Two men from the Congo were present. Three of us were from South Korea, two women and one man. Two white women were also present, one from Florida, and one from California. One Hispanic woman from Texas sat among us, along with a woman from Japan. One of our white male classmates was from Florida, and the other from Arkansas. Three African American women, one from Illinois, one from Ohio, and the other from New Jersey were also at the table. We each brought our respective beliefs, sexualities, and cultural values to the weekly discussions.
Our differences helped us to learn from one another, and caused us to agree to disagree with one another. However, our study of Africana theories, religion, and music, and literature helped us to see how much we had in common among ourselves and with the individuals that we read about. All of us are a part of our own cultural Diasporas. All of us have moved away from our homes and are struggling to reconcile our memories of home in the new spaces we have found ourselves in. All of us are reconstructing our identities as we engage fresh ideas and ideologies. We are each creating new narratives and new reflections as a result of our time in Africana Studies and Religion. I came into this class wanting more “African Studies,” and I am pleased with what I have learned. And, I also came out with a better understanding of the worlds that make up the Graduate Division of Religion, and I’m grateful that my world is connected to this community.—Tejai Beulah, GDR student