By Dr. Terrance Dean | 7-31-2020

Editor’s note: The blog series “5 Questions” is a Westar Think Tank initiative designed to provide a window into current religious issues from diverse perspectives. They are not intended to represent Westar scholarship.

In this rich episode of “Five Questions with a Scholar,” Westar Think Tank Fellow Terrance Dean, PhD, sat down with Dr. Michael Brandon McCormack, Associate Professor in Pan-African Studies, Director of Undergraduate Studies, University of Louisville. Dr. McCormack shares his thoughts on COVID-19 and its impact on the Black community. He also addresses state-sponsored violence, and, as a resident of Louisville, KY he provides an insider’s look on the recent protests over the death of Breonna Taylor. He raises a critical question about the lack of media coverage of Black women who experience violence. He also tackles Dave Chapelle’s recent stand-up comedy special, 8:46, and how the place of comedy in the face of tragedy is a form of protest. Then, Dr. McCormack treats us to his vision for the ultimate discussion between himself and a group of philosophical and theological thinkers (both living and dead). What we wouldn’t give to be in on this discussion. But, reading about it is the next best thing.  

Our world is experiencing two critical moments: one, is the COVID-19 pandemic, and the other is racial injustices aimed at Black men and women. As a scholar, theologian, and minister, what messages and/or scriptures do you find befitting for this moment, and why do you choose those messages and/or scriptures? 

Well, first, the pandemic has fundamentally challenged our entire way of being and how we show up in the world. It has helped us to reprioritize things that matter, or, are of “ultimate concern.” Early on, it forced many of us to slow down and be still. In that stillness was an opportunity to meditate on the precariousness and preciousness of life and those we share it with.

In addition, it was an opportunity to reevaluate our sense of purpose, or vocational calling in the world. As we began to witness Black people dying, not only as a result of the pandemic, but also as a result of vigilante and state-sponsored violence, questions of precariousness, preciousness, and purpose took on a more prophetic urgency, which called many of us out into the streets to bear witness to the sacredness of Black lives.

As it relates to the protests, I’ve been thinking about the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. In fact, I posted a mini sermonette on this text on my Facebook page. After citing Luke 18: 2–5 (NIV), wherein the unjust judge finally ensures that the widow gets justice, lest she eventually “attack” him, the post was as follows:

A Sunday morning sermonette:

Unjust and callous AF (As F**k). He KNEW she deserved justice. Nevertheless, he refused for SOME TIME. But, she kept coming and disturbing his privilege. He was not converted. He still did not fear God. But, he DID fear her. He understood the inevitability of EVENTUALLY. And he did not want that smoke. Won’t she do it?! Amen.

As I’ve been thinking about discourses on abolition, I’ve also been thinking about Mathew 12:45. If we consider state-sponsored violence, as manifested in the prison-industrial-complex and militarized policing, as a demonic force that needs to be “cast out,” or abolished, then we must also be thinking about what we will be putting in place to fill this void.

In the narrative, the demon not only returns, but brings seven other more powerful demons to reoccupy the host. This is why advocates of abolition are challenging us not only, or even primarily, to think about abolition in the negative sense of “casting out the demon of the carceral state,” but also to fundamentally reimagine the social order, and what we need to put in place in order to be safe, reduce violence, support mental health, provide jobs with living wages, ensure access to health care, and the like.

These things ensure that police are not abolished in such a way that simply leaves a void to be filled with the vicious return of a police state, but also seven other demons that will hold us captive to even more death dealing systems.

You are from Louisville, Kentucky where the murder of Breonna Taylor happened. The recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery have reignited an issue that has plagued us for centuries when it comes to race relations in our world. As a theologian, what do you think the concept or purpose of God means in this moment, especially for Black people as they attempt to make sense of these horrific experiences?

James Baldwin says something to the effect of, “If the concept of God is to have any validity, any use, it must be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, it’s time we got rid of Him.” I think this moment has shown us just how frequently the concept of God is still used to diminish us, justify our captivity, and make us more indifferent to human suffering. Think of those who used God to justify defying the stay-at-home orders implemented to ensure public health. Or, the “Christian” Facebook group that used “God” to justify the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

So, if we are to deploy God-talk, we have a responsibility to deploy it in such a way that leads to Baldwin’s and James H. Cone’s and Katie Geneva Cannon’s emancipatory ends. I think interpretations of Christian theological claims concerning the incarnation, wherein God takes on the flesh of the poor and despised, stands with the marginalized, and is put to death by state violence, leaving a grieving mother, but whose presence and power cannot be extinguished by death or contained by the grave, but inspires solidarity with the “least of these” continues to have resonance in this moment and speaks to Baldwin’s concerns.

But, more millennial womanist thinkers, and not necessarily Christian, claims, such as “I met God, she’s Black” are also finding resonance among many young Black, feminist, and/or queer activists. For these folks, God becomes incarnate in ways that fundamentally disrupt white supremacist heteropatriarchal normative assumptions about the divine and the social order. For many of these young people, it may be “time we got rid of Him,” but that does not mean they have jettisoned “God” altogether, but met her afresh in the presence of Black women.

This may be in the presence of Black women clergy who have been on the frontlines of protest or in the presence of essential workers, healers, therapists, social workers, conjurers, educators, and other “ministers” who have borne witness to God in such a way that has made us “larger, freer, and more loving.”

The murder of Breonna Taylor has prompted national attention on the violence against Black women. However, historically, Black women have been marginalized and left out of the discourse concerning recognizing their bodies, identity, and presence when it comes to violence and their lived experiences. Malcolm X once said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.” Why do you think this occurs, and what can we do to bring to light why this happens to Black women so often?

Dr. Brittany Cooper recently discussed this in Time Magazine. She called attention to the ways that Black women, as frequent victims of state violence, are rarely acknowledged in the same ways as their Black male counterparts. She called particular attention to the ways Breonna Taylor’s murder was, at least initially, overshadowed by the murder of George Floyd.

Yet, here in Louisville, Breonna Taylor has been at the center of the protests. I have appreciated the ways that the murder of this young Black woman—an EMT and essential worker—during a global pandemic, has galvanized our community to “show up for her” and to demand systemic change. Much of this has been the result of the leadership of Black women community organizers and activists in Louisville who have been on the frontlines in the streets. Nevertheless, our outcry for Breonna is a rare instance when compared to the disproportionate attention given to Black males.

In the midst of these protests, I’ve also been reading a lot in order to ensure that I too, as a Black male, do better on this front. To sharpen my analysis, I spent time reading Charlene Carruthers,’ Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, Feminist, Mandate for Radical Movements. Carruthers’ point that abolitionist work must be simultaneous with the dismantling of patriarchal violence, as they are two sides of the same coin, is well taken.

I’ve also gone back to revisit Angela Davis,’ Freedom Is A Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement—especially the chapter, “Feminism and Abolition: Theories and Practices for the Twenty-First Century.”

I’m also hoping to finally make time to read Andrea J. Ritchie's, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color. These books along with countless other resources have added to my perspective concerning the realities of Black women vis-à-vis state-sponsored as well as domestic and other forms of violence. I think all of us must do this work of informing ourselves on these issues, and it must translate into how we show up for Black women and girls.

Comedian Dave Chappelle recently released a stand-up special, “8:46,” commemorating the minutes by which the police officer kneeled onto the neck of George Floyd, murdering him. Many scholars often refer to comedians as preachers. There is a certain homiletical approach in the stand-up act. You are a trained homiletician; what do you make of Chappelle’s stand-up on Black death, and the marking of Black life in time?

Well, Chapelle is certainly an interesting figure. Complicated, to be sure. We must bring critique to bear upon some of Chappelle’s commentary on LGBTQ issues in his, Sticks and Stones Netflix show and some aspects of 8:46. That said, 8:46 was interesting because it constituted Chapelle’s response to his role as spokesperson for/from the Black community on the contemporary uprising. Chapelle was on to something when he suggested that in the protests, the streets are “speaking for themselves” and neither need, nor “give a f***” what celebrities or comedians have to say.

On the other hand, here in Louisville, a local comedian has been on the ground with protesters offering important commentary. Eric Kimbrough has been on the ground daily providing Facebook livestreams of the protests. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, so all of his comedy shows have been cancelled. But, he brought his humor to bear on how he showed up in the streets.

What’s fascinating is the seeming dissonance between his humor and the seriousness of the situation. At first glance, it seemed disrespectful, as if he were making light, or a mockery, of the protests. To be sure, Eric Kimbrough is a “fool,” in the endearing sense Black folks use the word. Yet, it cannot be overstated that this fool has been an active protester, ridiculing the powers that be as an alternative mode of protest. He enabled viewers to laugh to keep from crying and laugh in the midst of crying. This, perhaps, is a Blackened, and more profane, version of, homiletician, Chuck Campbell’s notion of the preacher as “holy fool.”

Years ago, a professor quipped that they wished prophetic speech wasn’t always so earnest. Why couldn’t bearing prophetic witness mean “clowning” the powers that be? I think we see that in Dave Chapelle’s 8:46. And those of us in Louisville see that in Eric Kimbrough’s livestreams.

If you could be in a room with three philosophical or theological thinkers, living or dead, discussing COVID-19 and the protests happening across the world, including the teachings of Jesus, which three would be your conversation partners? Why? And what message would you think they would have for us on how to engage and deal with this crisis using theology, Christianity, and our faith? 

I will be ornery here and insist on transgressing the question. This is my imaginative scenario, so each of my thinkers gets to phone a friend to join the conversation!

I begin with Howard Thurman. Thurman’s mystical-prophetic wisdom would surely be invaluable at this time. He would cause me to lean in and absorb all his jewels on the “luminous darkness” that we find ourselves in and to think afresh about, Jesus and the Disinherited. But, I’d ask Thurman to get Malcolm X on speakerphone and make sure Betty Shabbaz is on the call! What a dialogue that would be! Malcolm’s righteous rage and Dr. Shabbaz’s womanist wisdom in conversation with Thurman! Malcolm and Betty’s Islamic insights would also add a necessary interfaith component to the dialogue.

Then, without a doubt, I’d want Toni Morrison in the room! Morrison’s command of the scriptures and her literary genius would add a poetics to the conversation that would be magical. I’d want to hear her expound on what it means to be “flesh that needs to be loved” in 2020, in the midst of dueling pandemics. I’d humbly request that Morrison ring James Baldwin, because the two of them in dialogue would be incredible. Baldwin’s moral outrage at America would add a quality of conviction to the conversation. And, my goodness, what would he and Malcolm have to talk about these days?!

To round out my imaginary conversation, I’d want a contemporary voice in the room. Now, here, it’s hard to decide. There are so many powerful living voices that I would want to talk to right now. But, for the sake of argument, I’d invite Patrisse Cullors. As a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, it would be important to hear her voice. As an activist, who is also an artist, her imagination would surely light up the room. But, she also brings an alternative set of theological lenses into the conversation—lenses that engage Christianity, but de-center it, in order to offer up reflections on modes of religious praxis, especially African-derived practices, that resonate with Black youth, for whom the church might be a site of religious meaning-making, but not necessarily their spiritual “home.”

I’d ask if sister Patrisse would set up a Zoom call with Darnell Moore (because Darnell’s fashion game would be so fierce that we would HAVE to see it!) LOL! These two voices from the contemporary movement for Black lives, both of whom have profound theological insights, would, no doubt, add a rich, textured, queer, perspective on the interplay between abolition and the kind of healing justice we need in this moment.

Now, because Patrisse hit Darnell on Zoom, the platform is always open to hacking! So, who knows who else might insert themselves into our conversation! I’d like to imagine the young Muslim teenager from Minneapolis, who lost three brothers to police violence, and spoke with such conviction and fearlessness in the face of officers in the midst of a protest might bomb our Zoom session. Such a youthful voice would keep us honest.

But the ancestors might choose to come through our screen as well. And wouldn’t we all be slain in the spirit if sisters Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman blessed us with their ancestral presence? Perhaps Sojourner and Harriet would escort Breonna Taylor or Elijah McClain to bear silent witness. And maybe all of those precious Black folks who have lost their lives to COVID 19 might be in the chat room sending encouraging messages to the living, helping us to breathe in the midst of everything that is conspiring to make sure that we can’t.

Now, I have absolutely NO IDEA what message would emerge from this great cloud of witnesses. But I have no doubt that the collective wisdom of our ancestors and our contemporary activists would offer us the light, heat, faith, hope, love, rage, and renewal that we need to meet this moment with wisdom, dignity, power, and fearlessness.

L-R: Drs. McCormack and Dean hosting a dream discussion with Howard Thurman, Malcolm X, Betty Shabbaz, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Patrisse Cullors, Darnell Moore, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain

__________________________

Michael Brandon McCormack, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. He is also an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Humanities (Program in Religious Studies). His research interests include the intersections of Black Religion and Cultural Studies; contested relationships between the prophetic tradition in Black religion, Black moral panic, and the cultural productions of the hip-hop generation; African American Religion and Religions of the African Diaspora.

Dr. Terrance Dean received his Ph.D. in Religion and African American Diaspora Studies from Vanderbilt University in June 2019. His research interests include gender, sex, sexuality, Black religion and Homiletics, rhetoric and communication, African Diaspora, Black Cultural Studies, James Baldwin, and Afrofuturism. In 2005, Dean was a John Seigenthaler Journalism Fellow from Vanderbilt University, and in 2014 he earned his Master’s in Theology from Vanderbilt Divinity School. Dean is a professor in Black Studies at Denison University.

He is also the author of the Essence Magazine best-seller Hiding In Hip Hop - On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry from Music to Hollywood (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books - May 2008), including, Reclaim Your Power! A 30-Day Guide to Hope, Healing and Inspiration for Men of Color (Random House/Villard - May 2003); Straight From Your Gay Best Friend – The Straight Up Truth About Relationships, Love, and Having A Fabulous Life (Agate – October 2010); Visible Lives: Three Stories in Tribute to E. Lynn Harris, (Kensington – May 2010). In 2011, Dean made his fiction debut with his novel, MOGUL (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books – June 2011).

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