This Is Not an Antiracist Reading List, OR, the Treachery of Allyship
By Megan Goodwin and Yohana Agra Junker.
Though it began as a sole-authored curation, this piece developed in conversation with a reviewer, Dr. Yohana Agra Junker, Faculty Associate in Theology, Spirituality, and the Arts at the Pacific School of Religion, and in consultation with her colleagues Dr. Oluwatomisin Oredein and doctoral candidate Tamisha Tyler. Asterisks (*) mark spaces where thoughts or assertions were reworked or expanded upon in response to the reviewer’s insights and provocations.
We hope this will make more visible the collaborative spirit, labor, and goals of the piece, which—as Junker envisions— “echoes and reverberates across many contexts and through many bodies.” Our collective effort responds to Dr. Nayantara Sheoran Appleton’s imperative to “pla[n] beyond a hollow academic rebranding” and contribute to the unending work of decolonizing the academy.*
“Race is happening,” Professor Lauren Michele Jackson quips in her searing critique, “What Is An Anti-Racist Reading List For?” Dr. Jackson is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at Northwestern University who famously does not do hot takes.* 1 And the challenge she issues to those who would compile or consume an antiracist reading list is as cool and measured as it is graciously, unexpectedly hilarious. Jackson asks us—with, it must be said, unfathomable patience—to be curious about whose guilt might be assuaged by the compiling or consuming of such a list, what work a list of resources does with no pedagogy attached to it, what we expect to happen once that list is Out There.* We cannot know if the resources offered will be read, if the ideas will be understood in the way we might hope, if meaningful change can follow a compilation of resources necessarily constrained by the compiler’s own social location and willingness (or not) to provide some vestige of pedagogy to guide the consumer and their consumption of The List.
This is not an antiracist reading list any more than “The Treachery of Images” is a pipe, though it bears striking resemblance to one. What follows is a compendium that responds, with gratitude and no little trepidation about fucking it up, to Dr. Jackson’s invitation toward curiosity and action.* We should be suspicious of any pat attempt to address or correct the “happening” of race by throwing citations at it, despite the maddening persistence of that scholarly impulse. The reader’s own embodied experiences and social location do, should, must color any reception of this piece.* So too the social location of the author: Dr. Jackson deftly critiques whiteness, white supremacy, and performative white allyship without naming it as such. Any attempt by a white woman to address white supremacy, including the piece you are currently reading, deserves to be met with suspicion by readers who are Black, Brown, Indigenous, or otherwise people of color.*2
This simulacrum is offered, however imperfectly, to use the platform of Feminist Studies in Religion to amplify the crucial work of Black scholars of religion, theology, Islamic studies, and biblical studies, in hopes of helping colleagues committed to antiracist work rethink syllabi, reconfigure learning objectives, shift research considerations, expand networks, and—most importantly—acknowledge our debt to and celebrate the richness of Black scholarship in religion.*3
This is not an antiracist reading list in part because at this moment when Race Is (Always) Happening (Again), it is not enough to be antiracist. As doctoral student Ahmad Greene-Hayes reminds us: “the record shows that one can be anti-racist and still be anti-black.” Anti-Blackness does not exhaust systemic racism, of course. But anti-Blackness holds perverse pride of place in America’s hierarchy of white supremacy. Indeed, enslavers came to believe they were white as forcible conversion to Christianity remade commodifiable “strangers” into enslaved Black people, as Dean Emilie Townes’ In a Blaze of Glory shows (Abingdon 1995, 94). America’s anti-Blackness, its conviction in white supremacy, is rooted in religion. So too is the study of religion.
In the study of religion as elsewhere, race is happening. “Never mind that race is always happening but it is especially happening now, urgently happening,” Jackson observes, “and god help you if you’re not paying attention (though history will probably pardon your procrastination for history, too, is belated).” Certainly we who study religion have pardoned our scholars, our departments, our prize lists, our edited volumes and esteemed panels at national guild meetings, for failing to pay attention to race – or, to be more specific, for failing to credit the invaluable work and incontestable personhood of Black scholars. So too have we non-Black religious studies scholars pardoned ourselves for appropriating and claiming as our own the research of Black scholars, particularly Black women scholars, without proper citation or even glancing acknowledgment of their labor.*4
If ever there were a time for religious studies scholars based in what is now the United States5 to name, disrupt, and attempt to exorcise anti-Blackness from our research, our classrooms, our publications, our guilds, that moment is, has always been, now. But confronting and dispelling the complicity of religious studies and its scholars in anti-Blackness is insufficient, and our field of study needlessly, violently, willfully impoverished, if those efforts do not also forefront the theories of religion offered by Black thinkers, both within and beyond the academy.
What follows is not an antiracist reading list. Call it rather an informal and incomplete snapshot of responses to, context for, and comment on our current riotous moment by Black scholars and thinkers of religion, theology, Islamic studies, and biblical studies. This compilation includes formally published work as well as social media reflections and other public-facing scholarship. Brief synopses accompany formal publications and public scholarship entries; social media posts and interviews stand as they were released. All social media content, public scholarship, and interviews have been included with the explicit consent of the authors (Chance the Rapper and Jay Smooth excepted), with the intention of being in conversation with those authors rather than the curators of their work.
African American Intellectual History Forum: HBO’s Watchmen
(February 2020, organized by Ahmad Greene-Hayes)
This week marks the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, the white supremacist pogrom that anchors this graphic novel-inspired television series. Doctoral candidates Ambre Dromgoole (Yale), Ahmad Greene-Hayes (Princeton), and James Howard Hill Jr. (Northwestern) offer trenchant commentary on the religio-raciality that infuses the expanded Watchmen universe. Dromgoole’s “Hugging History” explores the series’ invocation of sense and memory through the lens of her research into Africana religions and musical techniques. Greene-Hayes’ “Black Gods Among Us” draws on Arthur Huff Fauset’s germinal Black Gods of the Metropolis to imagine “the black hero” as “gods that Black people could touch, feel, and see.” Hill’s “Watchmen, Haunting, and the Religious Imagination” reads the jarring, disjointed progression of the series as a reflection on the “haunting, irrational, atheological dislocation of a nightmare otherwise known as the United States of America.”
“Pessimism and Abolition Theology, Greene-Hayes’ response to Darnell L. Moore’s “Let’s Get Free: A Case for an Abolition Theology,” is available through Chicago Theological Seminary.
Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies
University of Pennsylvania
“The George Floyd killing: Will anything good come from the violence convulsing America?” (3 June 2020, Dr. Butler with Jelani Cobb, for ABC Religion)
“US charging of four officers involved in George Floyd’s killing ‘a first step but not enough,’” (4 June 2020, Dr. Butler for France24)
White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America is forthcoming from UNC Press in spring 2021.
J. Kameron Carter
Professor of Religious Studies
Indiana University, Bloomington
Above a photo of the current president lofting “a bible” (not his bible) in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., after having protestors dispersed with tear gas to facilitate the photo op, Dr. Carter writes, “The violence of American political theology, right here” (1 June 2020).
Black Rapture: A Poetics of the Sacred is forthcoming.
Chance the Rapper
Professor of Hebrew Bible
Brite Divinity School
Dr. Gafney writes, “Eric Garner‘s corpse, spirit, and relatives would like a word with the New York police commissioner voicing his outrage over the murder of George Floyd.” She continues, “I say in all seriousness while the murderer staring down the young woman recording him made this killing particularly egregious, we have had a flood of black men whose murders were recorded and televised. That this is what it took for universal condemnation is itself condemnable,” (3 June 2020).
Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne is available through WJK Press (2017).
Biko Mandela Gray
Assistant Professor of Religion
Dr. Gray eviscerates the “not all cops” / “bad apples” argument against defunding the police in this thread. He concludes, “the meaning of that [extrajudicial] killing is always up for debate, depending upon one’s perspective. But the officer who kill cannot escape the fact that they are killers. And their colleagues cannot escape the fact that they enable(d) such killing on a daily basis,” (1 June 2020).
“Religion in/and Black Lives Matter: Celebrating the Impossible” is available through Religion Compass (7 January 2019).
Associate Professor of Religion, Temple University
Research Associate, Women’s Studies in Religion Program, Harvard Divinity School
Dr. Junior raised concerns about Religion News Service’s decision to use a graphic photo of William Brown’s murder to illustrate Dr. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes’ op-ed historicizing murderous police violence against Black people. Including the photo “was insensitive,” Junior insists; “I question whether that image was necessary to make that point.” This trenchant and necessary critique echoes that of NPR CodeSwitch’s Gene Demby on “If and When to Share Videos of Violence.”6
Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon, written with Jeremy Schipper, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press in September 2020. While at Harvard, Junior will continue her research on “the life and legacy” of Black Christian preacher Jarena Lee.
Lerone A. Martin
Associate Professor in Religion and Politics
John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics
African and African-American Studies
“American Religion and the Rise of Internal Security,” with Kathryn Gin Lum
The FBI and Religion, ed. Johnson and Weitzman(University of California 2017)
This prologue “sketche[s] the fraught religio-racial landscape” upon which the FBI was founded and provides historical context for religious movements the bureau would later target as threats to “racial, ethnic, economic, and social order” in the 20th and 21st century United States (30-1).
J. Edgar Hoover’s Stained Glass Window: The F.B.I. & Christian America is under contract with Princeton University Press.
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
University of Alabama
Providing a genealogy for this moment in our nation’s history, Dr. Newton observes “history of violence doing what it do,” (2 June 2020).
“Scared Sheetless: Negrophobia, the Fear of God, and Justified Violence in the U.S. Christian-White Imaginary” is available through the Journal of Violence and Religion (12 March 2020). Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures is forthcoming from Equinox in October 2020.
Assistant Professor of Black Religious Traditions, Constructive Theology, and Ethics
Brite Divinity School
“Pandemic Predispositions: Minority Trauma Responses in Higher Education” Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning (18 May 2020)
Dr. Oredein provides crucial perspective on the need for teachers to provide new narratives of perseverance, strength, and productivity for historically marginalized students – “to encourage their students who have experienced historical neglect to allow themselves to feel the weight of this moment, to not tirelessly fight through it.” She challenges instructors to re-evaluate approaches to assessment with an eye toward valuing students’ full humanity.
Oredein co-hosts and contributes to the “Feminists Talk Religion” podcast, which she describes as “the brainchild of Nikki Hoskins,” with Sarah Emanuel, Midori Hartman, Susan Woolever, and Naiara Leao. “Feminists Talk Religion,” a Feminist Studies in Religion production, is available wherever you get your podcasts. She is expanding her exhortation to “white friends, colleagues, and associates who have joined the anti-racist movement” not to run away from the vulnerability, exhaustion, anxiety, and pain of antiracist work, but rather to breathe into it” for a forthcoming piece for Feminist Studies in Religion.
Tia Noelle Pratt
President and Director of Research
TNPratt & Associates, LLC
Dr. Pratt launches the #BlackCatholics syllabus project, intended to guide “those who want to learn and think critically about issues such as: anti-Black systemic racism; white supremacy; racial justice; anti-racism; Black Lives Matter; the impact these issues have on the Church; and moving from individual level to organizational/institutional level thinking about these issues,” (5 June 2020).
The #BlackCatholics syllabus is available on Pratt’s website. Her interview on African-American Catholic identity, sex abuse, and systemic racism is available through the Classical Ideas Podcast (15 May 2020).
“Roundtable: ‘Religio-Racial Identity’ as Challenge and Critique”
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
(June 2020, edited and introduced by Dr. Laura McTighe)
This roundtable takes Dr. Judith Weisenfeld’s meticulous archive of Black religious innovation in New World A-Coming (NYU 2016) as a theoretical imperative to address the “race problem” of religious studies (McTighe 2020, 299). Dr. Jamil Drake, assistant professor of religion at Florida State University, delves into biopower and Black folk religion in “Folk Religion and the Medical Engineering of Rural Black Laborers” – especially poignant during this quarantine, offering historical context for anti-Black racism as comorbidity. Dr. Sylvester Johnson, Assistant Vice Provost for Humanities at Virginia Tech, complicates Black radical agency, resistance, and survival in “Red Squads and Black Radicals: Reading Agency in the Archive.” With McTighe, Women with a Vision—a New Orleans-based, Black women-led grassroots nonprofit—challenge religious studies scholars to reframe their inquiries through “Theory on the Ground,” conceptual frameworks developed in and through times of struggle. In “The House We Live In,” Dr. Weisenfeld, Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton, reflects on the origins and goals of New World. Weisenfeld proposes the roundtable’s articles extend “‘religio-racial identity’ to model approaches for locating the analysis of connections between race and religion as central to the work of religious studies.”
Drake’s To Know the Soul of the People: American Folk Studies and Racial Politics of Popular Religion, 1900-1940 is forthcoming.
“Hip-Hop radio pioneer. Social justice wartime consigliere.”
“The Illipsis: on Ferguson, riots, and human limits” (26 November 2014, for Fusion)
After a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who murdered Mike Brown, Smooth exhorted viewers to understand riots as a “byproduct” of the disease of systemic racism. “We are weighing the destruction of property against the loss of a life,” Smooth explains. “Riots are a thing human beings do because human beings have limits,” he continues. That this video is nearly six years old and still as—if not more—relevant as ever shows “how sick…how predictable and sick this white supremacy groundhog’s day [is] that we live in.”
Assistant Professor of African American Religions
Harvard Divinity School
“White Evangelical Support of Trump Makes Perfect Sense When You Examine the History of the Christian Right,” Faithfully Magazine (7 October 2019)
Dr. Thomas provides a damning archive of evangelical complicity with “the moral exceptionalism” that characterizes white conservative evangelical “religious and political alignments with the GOP.”
Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality is forthcoming with Duke University Press.
The Lady Imam
“American By Force, Muslim by Choice,” Political Theology (2011)
Dr. wadud reflects on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11/2001. She notes the persistence of elevated security in and surveillance of domestic travel, the academic and social dismissal of Muslims’ knowledge production, and an uptick in racialization of Muslims in the US and racism within American Muslim communities.
wadud creates videos, podcasts, and blogs available through subscription to her Patreon.
Kayla Renée Wheeler
Assistant Professor of Area and Global Studies and Digital Studies
Grand Valley State University
“On Centering Black Muslim Women in Critical Race Theory”
The Maydan (5 February 2020)
Dr. Wheeler charges “activists, Islamic Studies scholars, and critical race theorists” to disrupt anti-Black racism specifically against Black Muslim women. Black Muslim women’s embodied experiences, Wheeler insists, meaningfully complicate understandings of Islam and must figure in any attempt to challenge anti-Muslim hostility.
The #BlackIslam syllabus is available through Wheeler’s website. Her interview on contemporary Black Muslim fashion in the contemporary US is available through the Classical Ideas Podcast (9 June 2020).
Shannen Dee Williams
Assistant Professor of History
Dr. Williams exhorts Catholic leaders “NOT [to] forget Black women & girls as victims of police, state, & vigilante violence. Black women & girls have been on the front lines of the fight for racial justice within & outside of Catholic boundaries for centuries. Black history is Catholic history,” (4 June 2020).
Subversive Habits: The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States is under contract with Duke University Press.
Alexander F. Hehmeyer Associate Professor of Religious Studies
and African and African American Studies
Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress (Duke 2016) resists a narrative of unfailing progress toward racial justice. Reading Black intellectuals and artists like W.E.B DuBois and Toni Morrison with the social theory of the Frankfurt school, Dr. Winters complicates the concept of hope by calling for a “continuous engagement with loss and melancholy.”
Disturbing Profanity: Hip Hop, Black Aesthetics, and the Volatile Sacred is under contract with Duke University Press.
Race is and always must be happening in the study of religion. There is nothing exhaustive, nor even sufficient, about the snapshot offered here. This brief catalogue merely signposts the vital contributions of Black members of our guild, without which the study of religion would be much less than it is or should be.
This is not an antiracist reading list unless it helps the reader take antiracist action. “That’s the thing about the reading,” Jackson reminds us. “It has to be done.”*
There is no help, nor should there be any absolution for us, if we fail to pay attention to the work of Black colleagues, if we debase ourselves and profane that work by failing to affirm and demand that their lives—that Black lives—matter.
Nor is it enough to ask for a list, to scroll through its entries, or even to read the works cited. The reading must be DONE: syllabi expanded; classes restructured; departments and committees made not just “inclusive” or “diverse” but conducive to the flourishing of Black faculty members in their full humanity.* Antiracism, as Jackson teaches us, is not merit earned toward promotion but the purpose of scholarship, the work of lifetimes.
We are late enough as it is.
A small bit of pedagogical direction, by way of post-script: should the reader feel moved to share or amplify this post, Feminist Studies in Religion encourages you to help build this too-short collection. Black colleagues, we welcome suggestions for work you’ve done, complete or in process, that should inform how the academy thinks about religion. Non-Black scholars, how have Black colleagues and their work shaped your thinking? We encourage you to include short synopses of recommended works whenever possible. In addition to the gratitude extended to Dr. Yohana Agra Junker and her Black colleagues Dr. Oluwatomisin Oredein and doctoral candidate Tamisha Tyler who offered crucial insights into the post’s occlusions, the author would like to thank the Feminist Studies in Religion e-board for their thoughtful and constructive collaboration, Dr. Jackson for her provocative and too-timely article, Daniel José Camacho of Sojourners for raising awareness of Dr. Jackson’s work, and doctoral candidate Jorge J Rodríguez of Union Theological Seminary for the wit and scathing, spot-on critique of the academy he lends to this post’s hyperlinks.
Megan Goodwin is a cultural theorist of American religious intolerance, focusing on race, gender/sexuality, language, and politics. She is the Program Director for Sacred Writes: Public Scholarship on Religion, a Luce-funded project hosted by Northeastern University, and a visiting lecturer in Northeastern’s Department of Philosophy and Religion. Her first book, Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions (forthcoming, Rutgers University Press), argues that Americans interpret religious difference as sexual threat to white women and children. Her next project considers why and how American whiteness is (or feels) threatened by Muslims and Islam. A full list of her recent publications is available on her website. Goodwin is also an expert in pedagogical design. She was an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship for creative and innovative pedagogy in the humanities at Bates College from 2014-2016. Her teaching has been profiled in Women in Higher Education, Sowing the Seed, and Elle. See more of her pedagogical design work here.
Yohana Agra Junker is an educator, agitator, visual artist, and Faculty Associate in Theology, Spirituality, and the Arts at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. She received her Ph.D. in art and religion from the Graduate Theological Union. In her artistic and educational practices, she explores the human capacity to imagine and retrieve generative ways of being even in the face of impossibility. An ongoing learner of ancient healing modalities, her research probes the intersections of ecology, decolonial and Amerindian ways of knowing, and art-making. When she is not writing, making art, researching, teaching-learning, or communicating, you can find her conspiring about the poetics of resistance in Richmond, California. Born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, she has been living in the United States since 2010.
- Thanks to Dr. Junker for correcting the author’s failure to include Dr. Jackson’s full title. As Junker points out, members of the academy too often do not afford Black colleagues, and especially Black women, the professional titles they have earned. This observation recalls Dr. Susan Harlan’s poetic rebuke, that those who win their authority more easily are “always dying/ to performatively divest [themselves]” of it.
- The author was taught from a young age to think she was white, as James Baldwin laments. She is a contingent faculty member at a private New England university; she is a cisgender woman; she is queer and disabled but passes, when she can keep her mouth shut, for straight and able-bodied. She includes this information to honor Black colleagues’ requests that we who were taught to believe we were white name our privilege and resist any pretense toward impartiality or neutrality, as that pretense allows white supremacy to flourish in and beyond the academy. She is quite deliberately avoiding “I” statements because we have heard quite enough from white women for several lifetimes. And yet white women owe a specific and irreconcilable debt to people of color, in what is now the United States, very specifically to Black Americans, and perhaps most specifically to Black women. The author believes white women can only begin to make amends by loudly and unabashedly condemning white supremacy whenever the opportunity presents itself and frankly even when the opportunity has not. So here we are.
- Further thanks to the reviewer for the push to explicitly name this theft of Black colleagues’ intellectual labor.
- A final thanks to the reviewer for her call to name the intentions and goals of this piece.
- Decolonial scholars and thinkers, especially Indigenous scholars and thinkers, have proposed this phrasing to disrupt any assumption about the inevitability or persistence of the American nation-state (or of any nation-state, for that matter). The author cannot trace the origin of this phrasing, but if you’re not following the work of Dr. Kim Tallbear, Dr. Debbie Reese, Winona LaDuke, and others – well, now’s the time.
- Thanks to Vox’s Kainaz Amaria for sharing this resource and for her consistent push to consider the violence done to Black and other marginalized peoples when “good journalism” only represents those vulnerable groups in their moments of suffering and heartbreak.