Five Questions with Rev. Dr. Courtney Bryant

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. The blogs are not intended to represent Westar scholarship.

In this segment of “Five Questions with a Scholar,” Westar Think Tank Fellow Terrance Dean, PhD, sat down with Rev. Dr. Courtney Bryant, who is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College. She addresses COVID-19 and what black communities did, as well as how black women’s political and social activism have been erased. She also talks about the way that black women are deployed as a means to someone else’s ends. Dr. Bryant then cogently describes how scripts of empire can be challenged in the minds of the dominant culture. And finally, in describing her dream conversation partners, she discusses the incomparable bell hooks and her view that true liberation disrupts and imagines power outside of domination.

You live in New York, and at one point it was the largest epicenter impacted by COVID-19, especially for people of color. As a theologian, preacher, and ethics scholar, what message did you consider people of color in crisis needed to hear in that moment, and what role did you think the Church played in mitigating the ways we approach black health and life during this pandemic?

Back in March and April, things were really ugly in New York. Death and the threat of death were everywhere. The virus ravaged the Harlem and Bronx church communities. Many of my peers lost parents and cousins, and I watched as my brother saw friend after friend contract or die from COVID-19. People were without jobs and waiting on a government who had proven time and again that our communities were not a priority for assistance.

Simultaneously, our communities were taking the police to task because of the new spate of extrajudicial violence across the country, culminating with George Floyd. During that time, I remember thinking, “Our lives are in immediate danger, and no one is coming to save us,” and that the fate of black people in America required a kind of self-reliance that many communities, not only black communities, shy away from.

When I say self-reliance, I don’t mean some kind of backwards attempt to place the moral responsibility of the multitude of death-dealing circumstances that plague black communities on the shoulders of those most affected, but the possibilities that come from acknowledging that the powers that be often have no sense of empathy, responsibility, or accountability for or to communities of color. Any progress or provision to be made would have to come from within the community.

The brand of self-reliance I hoped for was similar to the model of the Black Panthers’ policing of their own neighborhood and providing for the needs of the youth in their own communities. It was a sense of womanist redemptive self-love (that is, resiliency producing love in the face of a system that says you don’t matter) that held possibilities. A love that bucked the negligent trend of American society when it comes to black people, and that proactively put programs in place to educate our communities about the importance of PPE and the correct way to use it. It was healthy adults working from home finding ways to be of service to essential workers with no childcare plan, or the drawing of communal resources, like food, medical supplies, money for transportation and transportation alternatives that might serve as a buffer to the legion of risks our communities endure simply to survive in a capitalistic system dependent on our lives as its fuel.

If no one was/is coming for us, we had/have no other choice than to rely on ourselves, each other, and God. For this Baptist preacher and social ethicist, that means that the community of the saints and the institution that is the Church is integral, but only as it operates in a countercultural and community-facing way.

In New York, where many black churches have become places of soulful entertainment rather than soulful transformation, that’s a tall order. Hit hard by the virus and stunted in their ability to gather and collect tithes, many churches are in trouble financially. Consequently, we were confronted with both a community in need and the institutions that typically offer assistance floundering as well.

While the need for resources was great, the biggest thing black churches in New York have provided is hope and a sense of community through the World Wide Web. However, I am fearful that that sense of community doesn’t translate into material assistance for the growing number who choose not to participate in a church community. The church’s willingness to reach beyond the church walls is imperative in this season, as is the development of creative means of doing so.

My message of communal and self-reliance is a call to black churches to prioritize being that community resource that we desperately need both materially and spiritually. In these harrowing times, that sense of communal cooperation is imperative and will continue to be so if we are to take an active part in our survival.

We have been witnessing black women at the forefront of protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement across the country, particularly confronting race, racism, and police brutality. Do you feel that black women often go unrecognized for their work and efforts on the frontlines, and if so, what do you think is the cause of this?

As a womanist scholar, I know all too well how black women’s political and social activism have been erased. This erasure is surely a product of patriarchy and the notion that a good black woman stands behind her man, her father, and any other male figure more rightly bestowed the privilege of leadership because of his anatomical make up.

Many would say that the apprehension around black male leadership is an assimilationist tactic on the part of the black community to be seen as credible and relevant in the eyes of our white counter parts. While this is true, I believe that patriarchal powers are and have been alive and well in the black community, with or without the influences of white supremacy, since our time in the motherland.

Still, the significations assigned to the black family and its assumed failure in leadership and the relentless pursuit to diminish black men cannot be disregarded. In order for black people to be perceived as normal or appropriate, many black communities, particularly those affiliated with black churches, believe there must be a man at the head of all movements, and that women in leadership roles dilute the leadership capacity, authority, and manliness of men so in need of affirmation and opportunities to demonstrate their worth in a racist patriarchal society.

While the erasure of black women’s leadership has been the trend throughout black history in America, in this particular cultural moment, the dominant presence of black women in politics and in protest is undeniable. In fact, while there are surely black men on the ground like Senator Cory Booker, Rev William Barber, and Rev. Al Sharpton, these men are being eclipsed by leaders like Tamika Mallory, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, or the cadre of politicians like Keisha Lance Bottoms, Stacey Abrams, or Kamala Harris. This, in part, can be attributed to a decentralized model of leadership adopted by this generation. Much like the model of Ella Baker, they have recognized that rather than follow a leader, the masses must be taught leadership skills so that in the event a leader is trampled underfoot by the powers of domination, there is always another, in fact many others, that can persist in the fight. In a lot of ways I think this model of leadership is best coordinated by women who have learned how to work without the fanfare of recognition, and interestingly, because it has been so effective, these women are getting the exposure they have rightfully deserved all along.

The death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Sandra Bland, and countless other black women who have suffered violence under state or police sanctions has shown us that oftentimes black women’s visibility and lives are not equal to their counterparts. As a scholar who does work around black women’s bodies and agency, what do you think can be done to address this issue, and what texts/books would you recommend as a primer and resource for people to read on black women’s agency and visibility?

This question of the relationship between agency and visibility is an interesting one. Indubitably, injustices and violence meted out against black women fail to motivate the watching public (even those in the black community) to action in the same ways black men’s suffering do.

I believe this can be attributed to the disposability of black women, the lack of value most communities hold for our existence, and the entitlement they feel to our labor and contributions. From black churches to the highest positions of political power, black women are deployed as a means to someone else’s ends rather than ends unto themselves. This puts us in precarious positions of vulnerability, as we experience the tripartite oppressions of race, sex, and class.

Books like Shawn Copelands, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being and Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen, Bell Hooks’s Yearning, and Chanequa Walker-Barnes Too Heavy a Yoke are excellent primers on the erasure of black women, as well as the strategies necessary not only for seeing black women, but identifying with our plight. That requires more than reading but exposure and relationship to black women who are peers.

I am a strong advocate of experience trumping the prescribed order of society. It is only when we experience black women as human beings, rather than the designations imposed upon us, that the scripts of empire are challenged in the minds of the dominant culture.

Still, despite how vulnerable invisibility makes us, a lack of visibility can be used to our advantage.

One of the most impressive strategies I’ve seen deployed by black women politically, socially, and personally is the trickster ethic. I was first introduced to this tactic at a conference in a workshop delivered by Fallon Wilson. Within this schema, the oppressed wage attacks on unsuspecting systems and individuals that have discounted their power because of a failure to see them rightly. This strategy acknowledges that some systems are too tyrannical to confront head on, and instead engages in guerrilla warfare tactics to disrupt and transform. For example, the grassroots organizing done to elect Alabama Senator Doug Jones was delivered through the hands of politically astute black women that the Republican party ignored, to their own detriment. I would like to see more victories won under the cloak of invisibility, or better said, by better understanding how our obstacles can be used to our advantage.

In this upcoming tense political climate, the role of black voters seems to be a contentious debate over the ways in which they will vote in November. There seems to be a reliance on black women to take to the polls and support the Democratic Party. We’ve seen this happen in the last election when it was expected that black women would support Hillary Clinton because of gender allegiance. Do you feel there is too often a reliance on black women to fix, solve, and resolve issues in their communities, society and world, yet not receive the due diligence of support and resources in return? Why does this burden often fall on black women in the first place, and what is your remedy or recommendation to prevent this from happening?  In addition to feeling entitled to the work and labor of black women, as discussed earlier, the images in the minds of the public are not just deleterious of black women but hold us to impossible standards.

As Chanequa Walker-Barnes argues, the Strong Black Woman archetype, though a strategy of survival, does harm to black women too. We are seen as suprahuman, capable of enduring pain, limited in emotional registers, and the hero always here to save the day, while simultaneously being in need of saving.

Is the country’s reliance on black women egregious? Yes! Are black women uniquely equipped to problem solve? Unfortunately, again the answer is yes. Oppression has taught us innovation, resiliency, patience, and strategy.

The question becomes what can we leverage to ensure that as we are being the answer to everyone’s problems, the problems that we personally face are not swept under the rug?

For me, the answer is collaboration.

While many black women, because of our place in the social order, are uniquely equipped to deal with multiple antagonisms at a time with limited resources, the work of remedying the problems of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, corporate greed, and so forth is not black women’s alone.

Understanding this begins with looking at these problems as the responsibility of those who have cultivated and benefited from them for years. This requires a communal vision, and accountability.

It requires us to ask who has been invited to the table, who is actively doing the work to procure justice in the United States, and what we are doing to shift the responsibility from those who are being locked out of opportunities to those who hoard them.

The choreography of liberation will not mimic domination.

In other words, liberation will not be accomplished by handing black women the work the rest of the country is afraid to get involved in. If anything, liberation will disrupt those technologies for shared responsibility, diversity of thought and effort, and willingness to include black women among those who benefit from change.

If you could be in a room with three philosophical or theological thinkers, living or dead, discussing racial, social, and political injustices, 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?

Katie Cannon, bell hooks, and Karl Barth. I would engage Cannon because I miss her terribly and believe she represents so much of what is excellent about womanist scholarship. She was an intellectual giant, a beautiful writer, a gracious human being who theologized from the gut. In knowing her, I was able to become more myself—to tap into what was important to me and my community and to write from that place.

I believe that she would have a message of communal cooperation in this season akin to my first answer. She always believed in the power of the oppressed and their ability to not only survive, but thrive through the many resources God has given us. Like Zora Neale Hurston, she celebrated the unique power and dynamism of black life. I believe from that understanding, she would be well suited to offer a message of hope and power in these trying times.

Bell Hooks is the scholar who radicalized me. I remember carrying a duffle bag full of her books everywhere I went in my early 20s. Her work taught me that true liberation disrupts and imagines power outside of domination. This is a prevailing thread in my work.

I would want to sit with her to learn how the events of the last seven years have contributed to her feminist philosophy, particularly when younger generations seem to have shifted from her message of love over and against exploitation to a by-any-means approach.

I believe she would take a pragmatic approach when it comes to the 2020 elections, and like Angela Davis, would push to stop the bleeding, rather than buy in to idealistic sentiments that render Biden and Trump equals. I also believe she would press for individual and communal responsibility in addressing the urgent needs of those who are struggling. It was she who taught me to imagine something greater, even if it may not exist yet.

Karl Barth’s assertions of the supremacy of God and the importance of humility when engaging in theological work have stuck with me for the whole of my education and my burgeoning career. There is something about the way he frames God and his dismissal of human efforts at righteousness that I find integral to responsible theologizing. Like the Barmen Declaration, I am sure Barth would have to be vocal in his agitating opposition to the Trump administration’s atrocities against the vulnerable.__________________________

Rev. Dr. Courtney Bryant is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College. She is a womanist, and Christian social ethicist. Her current projects focus on the erotic as a divine resource for moral agency. From the vantage point of black female corporeality, she considers the impact of Eros on identity construction, the materiality of liberation, and relational ethics. Bryant is also an ordained reverend.

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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