“Excitement in higher education was viewed as potentially disruptive of the atmosphere of seriousness assumed to be essential to the learning process. To enter classroom settings in colleges and universities with the will to share the desire to encourage excitement was to transgress.-bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom
I graduated with my MDiv (w/ concentrations in Black Church Studies & Pre-PhD Studies) well over five years ago. At the time, I was a college ministry intern, a resident assistant, an activist heavily involved with three campaigns . in addition to regularly earning a place on the Dean’s List. In spite of my academic mentors leaving, I was filled with an enthusiasm for learning and teaching. This excitement for being both an educator and educatee was something that was passed down to me from the Black Baptist church tradition where my faith was first shaped. Black Baptist preaching traditions due to being part of the heirs of the Radical Reformation emphasize freedom and cooperation with the Holy Spirit in the reading & preaching of the Word. In fact, there was a sect of Anabaptists in the Netherlands who were referred to as “The Enthusiasts” because they were deemed irrational.
In a very similar fashion, Black Christianities and its traditions have been marginalized because Blacks are labeled as “too emotional.” My seminary experience was no different; in a Preaching Class, I was informed I used “too much Bible” and at least on two different occasions, White Professors from “high church” Christian traditions told me that my scholarship sounded too homiletical (read: not White or rational enough). On the latter, I asked other seminarians & grad students of color if they had similar experiences, and to my surprise, my Korean friends who were PhD candidates in Biblical Studies had been told the same thing. Students of Color were being subjected to unjust racist scrutiny because The IVORY TOWER is supposed to be sustained by Whiteness and the White Supremacy that birthed it. The classroom was to be no different; it was to be a space where the marginated would be socialized into accepting their subordinate status in the Church and in the World. The subjectivity of the colored peoples of the world remains the greatest threat to White Supremacy, and unfortunately White Churches are complicit in trying to suppress our freedom.
Every now and then, I have a friend from the academy ask me, “Why aren’t you doing your PhD, Rodney? You should really go back.” Lissen, I have no doubt given the interest in my Masters Thesis and the work I put into it, that I am more than capable of holding my own in a PhD program in Church History or Theological Studies. My issue isn’t confidence by a long shot. My beef is with White Supremacy and anti-Blackness in the Religious Academy. For me, education is about freedom, not submission to racist authoritarian elites and their White Supremacist canon. After I was laid off as Children’s pastor due to budget issues, I can say I was at my lowest moment though I took it in stride. Yet, God had better plans for me. I became a substitute teacher for the public school system early that following year, and with each subbing job, I refused to see it as a burden, but an opportunity to express my freedom. Yes, 88% of the time, the teacher had lesson plans, but I would still find a way to make an impression with my own perspective. If there was a Social Studies textbook that neglected the contributions of People of Color, I would be there to set the record straight. If an English lesson presented problematic essentialist views of women as homemakers, I would interject with some Womanist & Feminist criticism (palatable for high schoolers, of course!).
As a children’s pastor & college ministry intern, a lot of the criticism that I received had to do with the fact that I was too much of an intellectual, that I made things to complicated. I was too focused on the life of the mind rather than letting the little tykes have fun or socializing with the undergrads. Becoming a public educator completely changed my teaching style, and it started to shine through when I started to teach for the Parents’ Night Out at my church. There’s no formal lesson plans, but every now and then, as 4th and 5th grade boys do, they’ll make inappropriate comments, unbeknownst to them that are homophobic or they’ll come to me with questions about gender roles, and I am there to teach them in freedom, to talk to these children as human beings in an open, honest, and conversational manner. By me intentionally taking substituting jobs in classrooms designed for students with disabilities, or in under-served schools that had majority-minority populations (Black & Latin@), I learned to dance with the Triune God along the margins of society. Whereas before, my freedom was restricted but once I encountered the plight of the oppressed and the Word within me was unleashed, I began my journey as transgressive preacher.
The colonizing educational spaces upheld by White Churches today teach us to invest in corporations rather than actual people . The excitement I saw in the pulpits of Black Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches growing up is not something that is to be reserved for Sunday mornings. This is the legacy of the Radical Reformation notion of the priesthood of all believers: the enthusiasm for making education/being an educatee a liberating project starts with the idea that being in the position of student/teacher is always in a state of constant fluctuation. The reason why my friend Drew G.I. Hart and I started the #AnaBlacktivism project was precisely because we believe that the Black Radical Reformation traditions have prophetic truths to offer historic Anabaptist thought. At any moment I can be the teacher, and also at any given moment, I can become the student, with any person regardless of age, race, gender, or economic status having the potential to learn me something fresh.
Rod Thomas (ThM), is an educator, Christian writer, aspiring preacher and layperson at a local Baptist church in Fort Worth, TX. He writes at PoliticalJesus.com and is a syndicated blogger for MennoNerds (MennoNerds.com). Follow him on Twitter at @h00die_R .