Unessays in the Time of Corona

Spring semester has come to an end here at the College and in many respects it ended with a bit of a whimper. Classes closed via Zoom with a “Whelp. Guess that’s it.” Content was delivered, grades submitted, commencement postponed, and now what’s left of the “summer” has begun in fits and starts.

Before I leave last semester behind, I want to share some of the beautiful brilliance my Honors students produced. The original ending for Black Religion and Black Nationalism (HONS 381.06) was a scaffolded unessay assignment. But when campus closed and we all went home, we decided this would be too much. Instead, we’d end by offering our own reflections on where we’d been and what we’d learned together. I still wanted to have some fun with it, though (read: I was bored), so I wrote a sort of sci-fi short as a framing device. It seemed fitting for this sci-fi novel of a life we’re living these days.

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The result was what I hoped and knew it would be. These beloved students deeply

Mazzy Unessay Painting

Mazzy Weiland, “Stop Killing Them”

moved me with their incisive, creative “somethings.” Mazzy Weiland painted. Jay Scott (re)wrote and soulfully sang Strange Fruit – 1820 or 2020? Zainab Dossaji crafted her freedom dreams into a Letter to the Graduating Class of 2220. Katya Caleca mapped out a Real History of Charleston Tour to counter all the horse-drawn myth-makers. Reagan Kilpatrick drafted a Policy Memo for instituting reparations at the College. Morgan Walker-Brown made a movie-trailer for our class. Vernon Kennedy created a minor in Social Justice and Equity and made an official website! Ayana DeVaull composed poetry. And others also wrote poetry, made photo collages and crafted essays.* 

This class was truly a gift and so, as my last word on this weird semester, I wanted to share their gifts with the world. To bring that time capsule to life, in a small way.  

“What did Malcolm do today?”

by Ayana DeVaull

Malcolm or Malik

Rose and fought for everyone.

Searching for himself,

* I asked permission from each of them before sharing, of course. For any of my wonderful students checking this out and wondering where yours is, it isn’t here because either A) I didn’t get your consent to post it and/or B) I haven’t paid for the upgrade that allows me to embed audio/video files. 🙂


Beyond the Most Segregated Hour

Been a minute since I’ve posted on here, but now that grades have been submitted and the COVID-19 quarantine continues, seems as good a time as any to update the ole website. This past winter (December 2019 – February 2020) I had the opportunity to partner with award-winning religion journalist Adelle M. Banks in a series of co-reported pieces on integration and segregation in American religion, courtesy a funded media partnership between Sacred Writes and Religion News Service. Our collaboration was titled Beyond the Most Segregated Hour: Reparations, Restructuring, Relationships. At times it felt learning an entirely different language (one with “ledes” and “nut graphs”) and the start-to-finish time was dizzying compared to what we’re used to in academia (from blank page to published in 1-2 weeks!) but I am quite proud of what we produced together. And, due to a partnership with the Associated Press, our pieces got picked up all across the country!

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Black Religion and Black Nationalism from Slave Rebellions to Black Lives Matter

This will be my third time teaching my Black religion and Black nationalism course at the College of Charleston and I’m finally starting to get the hang of it. The course is designed to introduce students to the religious ideas and practices from across the African diaspora that gave rise to the political tradition now known as “Black nationalism.” While the tradition is often imagined to be secular (even anti-religious), this course explores the deep religious roots of Black struggles to create a new nation—from the foundations of Black religion and Black nationalism in the era of enslavement, rebellion, and emigration; to the rise of religio-racial nationalism in the Great Migrations and Black Power eras; to our contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. The course also examines the emergence of “religion” and “nationalism” as modern categories. So, without further adieu, here it is! RELS115 S19 Syllabus

This is what theology looks like!

 Rev. Osagyefo Sekou (center) and Rahiel Tesfamariam (right) march in Ferguson, MO

Religion, Race, & Empire


Syllabus Cover Art: Nikolaj Cyon, “Alkebu-Lan” Or, Africa, Uncolonized https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/africa-uncolonized

The idea of our department’s senior seminar (#RELS450) is that it center on the specialty of the faculty member teaching the course but be broad enough for buy-in from students with a variety of interests. So, I designed this seminar where we would interrogate the mutual construction of “religion” and “race” as categories in the context of colonialism (where we’ll explore these issues in South Asia, Southern Africa, and U.S. empire). The mission statement of the course, in a sense, is that it is not just about theory, but also practice. My contention is that religious studies is often real good at cultivating a keen understanding of theory, but not always as successful at demonstrating the “real world application” of that theoretical perspective. The course argues that there is a practical importance (and moral imperative) to critically analyzing the world around us with an attentiveness to “religion” and “race” as constructed categories deployed in the context of empire. With this in mind, I lightened the reading load (and sadly had to cut a lot of readings out of the syllabus) to afford us the time to apply our analytics to the world outside the classroom and to do that, in part, by working on a semester long research project. What I’m doing in lieu of assigning those readings is bringing them into class with me and offering them as resources for further research on the part of students. So, without further adieu, here’s a link to the syllabus!  RELS450 Syllabus

What Catholics Can Teach Us About Being Better Humanists

IMG_5197I preached this past Sunday at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, a community I am proud to call one of my spiritual homes. Here it is, linked. But given revelations regarding the sins and crimes of the Catholic Church this week, I feel I need to say a few more words as well.

I am a bit of an oddball in this community. I am not an “ex-” or “lapsed” or “I-was-raised Catholic” Catholic, but a bona fide Catholic member of this UU congregation. (Trust me, it’s complicated.) I preached on what I called the Catholic humanist tradition, on why I am committed to the dignity of and justice for all human beings not in spite of my Catholicism but because of it. I stood before the congregation and shared some of the gifts I’ve been given from this Catholic humanist tradition – the tradition of saints Francis and Clare, of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, of Cesar Chavez and Oscar Romero, of Sr. Thea Bowman and Fr. George Clements – in the hopes of offering some lessons from one humanist tradition to another. But I knew that, for good reason, UU churches serve as spiritual safe havens for all sorts of people, including many “recovering Catholics.” And so, before I invited the congregation to see Catholicism anew, I confessed that, even as a self-identified “practicing” Catholic, I consider myself in good company with those who have been hurt, marginalized, oppressed, and enraged by Catholics and the Catholic Church. Two days later, the Pennsylvania grand jury released their report on a generation of abuse and violence perpetrated by priests and enabled by the institutional apparatus of the Church itself, a report that (once again) revealed the moral bankruptcy of an institution more invested in protecting its own power than in safeguarding the lives of its parishioners. If you read my sermon, you will note that my sense of what it means to be Catholic, what it means for me to claim a “Catholic humanism,” stands apart from that institutional apparatus. It has roots in it without a doubt, but also remains both deeply skeptical and robustly critical of it. Needless to say, I could not have written this particular sermon if I had been preaching this Sunday instead of last. So, as I share the text of my sermon, I want to say that today (as I do every day), I write as one of those hurt and enraged by Catholics and the Catholic Church. And when friends ask me how I can remain Catholic in the face of such moral monsters, I can tell them about my own sense of the tradition and what keeps me calling myself Catholic. But I can also say, truthfully, that there are more than enough reasons why someone would decide that they cannot and will not make that distinction. And I, for one, will not work to convince them otherwise.

Centering Black Catholics, Reimagining American Catholicism

Notre Dame Cressler Poster 03-22-2018 previewI recently had the privilege to lecture at the University of Notre Dame on the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Black Catholic Movement in April 1968. The lecture, “Centering Black Catholics, Reimagining American Catholicism,” was sponsored by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. The Cushwa Center supported some of the dissertation research that eventually became my book Authentically Black and Truly Catholic, so it was especially cool to come full circle, as it were.

You can actually watch a recording of my April lecture on YouTube, here. I also just published a revised and condensed version of my lecture at Zocalo Public Square, here.

Interview w/ Emma Green of The Atlantic

2. Eckert Communion

When I tell people that I study black Catholics, most kind of blink their eyes and go, “What?” We assume Catholicism is European in its essence, and that black people are Protestants. But the majority of black Christians in the Western hemisphere are actually Catholic, and the majority of Catholics in the Western hemisphere and the Americas are not white.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of chatting with Emma Green of The Atlantic about my book and the history of Black Catholics in the United States. Check it out!