Scholar, Professor; Author of Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality
Describing the Work
On a good day, I engage with black women about their faith and their sexual decision-making, and sometimes that engagement looks like a church leadership meeting, or a Bible study, or teaching Sunday school. Sometimes that work looks like a blog post. I just had published two weeks ago [at the time of the interview] an article on Black, child-free women and faith. So, it may be a conversation that I’ve had over time with some people that eventually sees the light of day. But, in whatever format it comes out, in whatever way it’s translated to the masses, what I want to do is make spaces for Black women to be as sexually free as I think they were created to be and give them opportunity to have conversations about that because I don’t presume everyone knows that that’s possible or has the skills or tools to live into that freedom. So, giving folks the space to come to their own consciousness, that this is what they actually are desiring, this is what they want, and most importantly, this is what they deserve out of their lives. So, on a good day, that’s the work that I’m here to do, and I get to do in a variety of ways.
The Journey to This Work
Honestly, I do this work because when I was 16 years old, I was friends with the pastor’s granddaughter, and she got pregnant, and another friend of ours also was pregnant unbeknownst to me. That Sunday, she was forced to go forth and repent in front of the church. The second friend, I guess, saw the moment and was like “hey, me too,” and so she came forward. And I remember never getting an answer as to what I was witnessing and why it made sense to any of the people involved, not the young women who did it, not their parents, not the religious leadership that found it necessary. My mother was a mother of the church. I grew up in a conservative Baptist tradition, and I came home, and I said, “I don’t know what I witnessed.” Like, “I just I don’t have words for what I’ve witnessed, and I need to understand why this happened,” because I knew who the father was for both of these kids, and the fathers of these kids [had] parents who were in leadership, and no son came forward. There was no mention of the son. There was no mention of the sin of the son. There was no conversation about forgiving his sin. I just didn’t understand.
And I really had been in the community. I mean my community had women ministers. It had made great strides and [was] making progressive, within a conservative framework, decisions and so it just didn’t make sense because I hadn’t seen women limited in that way. I mean I had heard sermons that were like not-so-great messages about women, but I hadn’t really embodied it or made it connect to me that this could be me that they’re talking about. When I saw these two girls, because literally one was on the row with me, she crossed over me to go walk down the aisle, it was just startling in a way that I didn’t have words for. My mother’s response was, “Of course not. You know they’re men. Nothing ever happens to the men.”
And that was just her response, like ‘where have you been?’ And that was unsatisfactory, so I went to college. And I thought, “in college, I will find the answers.” And I didn’t. And so, I went to divinity school. And I thought, “in divinity school I’ll find the answers.” At the time, Harvard was kind of a choose your own adventure kind of place… I wanted to do women’s studies and religion, and that’s basically all I took. I self-selected courses that allowed me to have that as my entire focus, and I spent the two years of my program trying to figure this out. And I didn’t have the answer, and so I thought, “I got one more shot.” I’ll do a doctorate, and I will try to figure this out. So honestly, if something different had happened at 16, I’d probably be a lawyer right now.
Navigating the Church and the Academy
In various ways, I think I’m more reflective now…but I think, initially, in the beginning, I thought they went hand-in-hand. I thought I was doing this work for the Church. The reason I was going and doing these degrees was because I wanted to fix the Church…For me, it wasn’t a people problem; it was a church problem. It wasn’t just this one church that this had happened to. When I went places, and I’m like, “Can you explain this? Like what happened?” And they would tell me something similar happened in their community, and so I began to see that it’s not a group of people; it’s a logic system that I’m trying to break down. And so, in the beginning I really thought, like, this work has to go hand-in-hand. I can’t do the work and not be responsive to the Church because I’m trying to make an intervention in the Church, so I’ve got to be active. I can’t say you know, “I throw my hands up. It’s an oppressive place. I can’t be a part,” because this is where the people are that I’m trying to help see that this is a problem.
And then the Academy has certain calls and demands…I knew ordination wasn’t what I was called into. I didn’t have a passion about preaching. I didn’t feel that was where I was called to spend time. So, there was a way in which I could be someone’s spiritual director or do Christian Ed somewhere that those were career paths that were open to me, but I began to see that was going to be a really small window. And so, I would need something else. I would need a different possibility.
And then, even in the Academy, the Academy responds with you have to choose your adventure too. So, if you are going to do divinity and seminary work, they want you to have had backgrounds in theology to be ordained, to have some commitment to the Christian Church and upholding it, And I’m saying the bulk of my work is trying to un-end that thing. I realized that might not work as a career goal, so I’ve got to do something else…I was in the doctoral program when I started looking at the jobs that were posted and what careers I could choose, and I was like “yeah, I’m not gonna pass that faith statement.” Like I can’t agree to any of that, so I can’t work in these types of environments. When I began to shut doors in my mind at least, I don’t think there were actually shut, but when I began to shut doors in my imagination, I then started thinking “okay well, where will I do the work?”
But, in whatever format it comes out, in whatever way it’s translated to the masses, what I want to do is make spaces for Black women to be as sexually free as I think they were created to be and give them opportunity to have conversations about that because I don’t presume everyone knows that that’s possible or has the skills or tools to live into that freedom.
…Right after I finished my doctorate, I got hired at a state institution in Kentucky, Western Kentucky University. I was there two years, and within the first year, I was all the rage like you know the Baptist Convention in the area was like “hey, come teach our women’s class,” “hey, come do this and this,” and then I never got invited back and that was a new thing. I couldn’t place what had happened, if my language and lingo was culturally not able to go across the void anymore, if I wasn’t speaking their language anymore, or if I really was just impatient and I wanted change, and I want change now, and if I was unable to teach the bad girls of the Bible and have that be my progressive edge like that was no longer satisfactory for me, and so I began to realize that I’m going to need a different avenue.
So, I can’t do the social justice work I want to do in the Academy. I can’t do some of it in the Church. So that kind of pushed me into public spaces, where I could have the conversations in ways that were as me the individual. But even as me the individual…I was just telling a friend I just started this project on abortion and faith, and I’m interviewing women, but right now, I’ve only interviewed Black women who’ve recently had an abortion. And our plan is to do this public facing work about it because we want to provide qualitative data because there’s a statistic that like 70% of women who’ve had abortions consider themselves faithful; they consider themselves persons of faith. So, we want to have interviews and conversations with these women to say this is what they say. So, I’m having these conversations with folks, but my partner is a minister, and he is typically always in the process of candidating for a church, and so I’m hyper aware how me being the face of a project on abortion and faith is going to be a red flag for some congregations….I’m still doing the work, like at no point do I stop doing the work, [but] there are sometimes some ways and spaces where I do the work and my name isn’t on it, but the people in the work know I did it. Or I do the work, and I write the letter that goes to the governor, but I’m not a signature on it. And that, for me, has to be enough, that I know that this is the fruit of my labor and that I’m doing good work in the world, but I don’t want to jeopardize other things and other avenues. And that’s been a discernment process, and it’s been, like I said, a bunch of different things have happened in life to make me come to the conclusion of this is what I’m willing to sacrifice and this isn’t.
Navigating Politics and Relationships
I’ve gotten better and worse at this simultaneously…I think in the beginning, a friend of mine/faculty colleague said, you know you speak truth to power but not to the people. So, his point in that was that I’d had no qualms…But I do feel some feeling of social connection and some sense of anx about like you really do believe this. I really know you’re wrong, but I have a community. I’m in community with you. And so, to take this away, if I don’t have something else to give you, if I don’t have an easier response than just this is wrong, [it] feels disingenuous. But I can’t hold my peace because that’s also just not in my personality. So, sometimes I’ve done this well, and sometimes I’ve just totally failed where, you know, I had to trust the connections that I made with people: Like I really understand the perspective that you’re giving me and why you believe that this is best, but I’m telling you from my own experiences that this is what I believe and why I think this is right. For example, I do this around LGBTQ community members a lot. I have folks for whom I know they have LGBTQ members in their family…It’s not like I’m living this life where the gay people are ‘an abomination’ and over there. No, the gay people were at Christmas dinner, so I know you know the gay people. And yet, you have a philosophy, a worldview, a religious feeling, that strongly makes you ‘love the sinner, hate the sin,’ and it’s problematic, but I’m in community with you, and sometimes I’m in family with you, sometimes you know it’s deeper than just the community sense. So, how do I speak to you in ways that keeps that bond? And sometimes I get that right, sometimes I cross lines, sometimes over time, the fruit happens.
If I had at any point thought I’m making no impact and stopped, I would have never got to see that I actually did have an impact, but I was committed to the relationship and committed to the community.
I watch it happen over time. I saw it with my own grandmother. My grandmother raised me, and she passed away in March [of 2021], and she was 91. When I was at Duke as an undergrad, I started shifting in lmy logic around gay sexuality and faith, and I was all excited. I had I had new eyes. The scales had been removed, and I had a new way of showing God’s love. I came home, and she was like, “that ain’t Bible,” So, I worked for years and years and years, I mean I’m talking decades, on “We love these people. You make a cake for them every birthday. These are people that you intimately are connected to that also love people who are the same gender. So, what are we going to do about that? Are you saying that God’s love is wrong?” So, I did the work.
The irony was she watched soap operas, and two of the soap operas she watched introduced gay storylines. One introduced a trans storyline…One of them was a transgender woman, and she wanted to have kids…And so, I watched her watch that storyline and not throw up her hands, turn the TV off, or have it be unintelligible, and I thought “You can do this because I kept at it.” So, at no point did you know she make a public statement like “I’ve changed my mind,” but I watched how relationality changed, how her language about gayness changed, how even like the simple thing of like you know when kids get a certain age, and everybody’s like “So you got a little girlfriend?” She would change and say stuff like, “so who are you liking now?” And just even that shift meant that she could acknowledge that there’s a possibility that that little boy isn’t going to like a little girl. And so, I saw that and that for me was an example of like “oh, I got this right,” but it took so many fucking years. If I had at any point thought I’m making no impact and stopped, I would have never got to see that I actually did have an impact, but I was committed to the relationship and committed to the community…
On Measuring Success
I mean in the beginning the goal was a tenure-track job. Get tenure. Get full. And I’ve been literally spending this last year with an executive coach because I’m tenured. I’ve finished my second book. I’ve done the work that I need to do to become full, and I have no earthly desire for it…And that was a goal. I mean that’s what academics train you to do. You go up the ranks of the ladder. And I’ve met those benchmarks. I always knew I could meet those benchmarks. I was successful by their rubric. And I’ve now spent 2021 really trying to understand what is my rubric? What do I see as a benchmark of success? And how well am I doing at it at my own goals? And so, I think this year it’s been less about my place in the academy and [more] about what influence do I want my work to have? What legacy is that work going to leave? And being proud of that.
So, the second book is a book on Black lesbian religious leaders, and I’m actually making the claim that queer leaders are the new path for religious leadership, like straight people should just stop trying. We’re not doing what they’re doing, and what they’re doing is the right way…I had this conversation with a friend early in the project because I’ve been working on this project for a decade because it involved oral histories with these women religious leaders across the country. And I had lthousands of pages of transcripts because I’m having like a two-hour interview about their lives. And I’m looking at reams of paper like where’s the book here? I don’t know what I’m doing. And he said to me, what if what you’re doing is not convincing straight people that queer people are right, but what if you’re convincing queer people that their leadership model is what the world needs and helping assist and being an ally as they lead? What if that’s what the work is?
For me, that’s now a benchmark of my success. Can I do that? Can I point to places and spaces where I’ve used my voice and my platform to say “no, you don’t need to hear from me, but you need to hear from so and so,” or “yeah, you could do it that way but let me show you how so and so is doing it that’s much more effective.” And every time I do that, that for me is like the gold star. That’s me being successful. I still apply for grants. I still have new research project ideas. I plan to be an active scholar as long as I can, so those are also the things that I need to do to sort of feel like I’m fulfilling my call, my passions, but the impact of that work is for me what’s going to matter, not the Google citation metrics, not the senior scholar in my field writing for me for my promotion and tenure file, but rather can I move a needle in a space that needed it moved?
Advice For Those Hoping to Do This Work
So first and foremost, A PhD is a tool. It is a tool, but it is not a necessity. So, as I sit and do financial planning with my own self, trying to make sense of $115,000 educational debt that I have…I have wonderful networks. I have wonderful educational opportunities. I learned a lot from the best people in the world, and I don’t regret that, but I also know what it has cost me afterwards. I look at someone like Candice Benbow and the reach that she has. I just reviewed her book for the back of the book, you know when they have authors who write blurbs, over the summer and just the scope of what she’s able to do, the relatability of what she’s able to do, the platform she’s able to have with nobody’s PhD reminds me time and time again that it is a tool. It is not the only tool you need to open doors.
For me at the time I was deciding and discerning, everyone was telling me after you do a Master’s in religion, there’s nothing else to do but a PhD. You go to law school, or you go to do a graduate degree that would get you a job, and nobody’s gonna hire just an MDiv or an MTS, so you got to do something. And so that’s what I did. Now I look around, and I don’t know that that’s the case, and I don’t know that I want to settle people with the debt that I have to be able to do the work that they’re already doing. So that’s first.
But then I also think that it is a tool that gets homed in a doctoral program, and there are benefits and there are costs to that. I think I lost some of my translatability in my program for timing purposes. I went from always [being] at Bible study to like, I see on Sunday, maybe. Because I was drinking water from a fire hydrant, I was trying to keep up. I was trying to be a master at my craft because soon, they will release me in the world, and it was gonna be all me. I’d have to teach this on my own with no backup. And so, the further away I got from that community, the harder it became to translate my work back into that community.
And me having my foot in the Academy created space to legitimate this as a trajectory in ways that the public doesn’t understand, but the discourse understands, and there’s value in that because now it means that I watched a student take a qualifying exam on Black sexual ethics.
But it did mean that I was able to be a part of shaping discourse in ways that my presence inside the academy made possible. So, to give you a concrete example, while I was a doctoral student after qualifying exams, when I was ABD [all but dissertation], I took over as Co-Chair of the religion and sexuality unit of the American Academy of Religion and, at the time, it was a new unit. It had been in existence like four years before I took over, myself and a really good friend, Heather White. We future cast. What could this field look like? …What could it mean to work in a world where you could be a sexual ethicist, or you could be a scholar of sexuality and culture and get a job? And get a job doing just that? Not you teach three sections of Intro to America, Religious History and then you teach this one class that’s in the thing that you really care about, but what if that’s all you got to do? So, we got to future cast, what would that look like? What was the widest parts of the map that we wanted to see because it didn’t exist? We were creating the space for ourselves because at this point, she wasn’t done. I wasn’t done. And we were just thinking what could it be like if this is all we would do for our careers?
And I put up a Facebook post a couple weeks ago. Nicole Symmonds, who just graduated from Emory. I was on her Dissertation Committee. I put up a post the day of her defense that was just like, you know, ten years ago, when I got my PhD, her work is what I imagined ten years ago. Like someone who could do the work in working with sex workers and creating this sex-positive framework. These are the projects. Like I said, looking at what Candice is able to do. Looking at what Proverbs [Lyvonne Briggs] is able to do. I’m seeing happen what I knew was possible, but I had no idea how to make it happen. And me having my foot in the Academy created space to legitimate this as a trajectory in ways that the public doesn’t understand, but the discourse understands, and there’s value in that because now it means that I watched a student take a qualifying exam on Black sexual ethics. And I just thought this is what we worked for, to have you not have to take German but to be able to study the people you want to study and that be completely understandable by your committee and acceptable by your committee.
So, in that regard, discernment about: What is the goal? Where do you want to have that intervention? Because, as much as I wanted to change the Church, I also had spent a lot of time in elite education. I went to Duke. I went to Harvard. Then I went to Vanderbilt. And in each of those spaces, I had to justify my existence and my interests over and over and over again…So I knew I wanted to be involved in such a way that I would legitimate the things that hadn’t been legitimate for me, and so that’s where I wanted one of my interventions to be. And I knew that. That was part of my discernment of why are you doing this? I’m doing this because I’m trying to get this question answered because I want to fix the Church, but the Church don’t ever get right. I at least want to fix the system that allows other people to be able to ask these questions, and somebody may have a different way of getting to the answers that I didn’t get to. And so, I think any student who’s thinking about a doctoral program has to think about what end goal do they have in mind? Where do they want to be making interventions? Where do they want their work to matter? Because that’s your benchmark for success. Not do I get in a top R1 institution? Not am I fully funded? Not does FTE know my name? But am I making the connections I need to have the impact that I want?