PhD Candidate, Studying Black Queer Millennials and Black Church Culture
Describing the Work
So, I am a current PhD candidate, and my doctorate will be in theology, ethics, and the human sciences, and my dissertation is focusing on Black queer millennials who essentially have discovered that Black Church culture and Western Christianity is no longer enough to sustain them spiritually. And so, looking at how many of us have returned to indigenous religious practices, such as Santeria, ifa, candomblé, etc. or added it to Christianity and kind of created our own form of it. So, looking essentially at the faith formation and spiritual journeys and lineages of Black queer millennials in particular. And the reason I’m focusing on millennials is for one, I’m a millennial myself, but two, I feel like out of all of the main generations that are still alive, so Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X and Boomers, we’re like really taking the meat and spitting it out in real time versus looking at my brother’s generation. He’s a Gen Z, and the moment they see something, they’re like do away with all of it. I’m going to create my own thing. And we’re like no, there’s still something good about this, but we are going to tell y’all where you got us fucked up and take that and then do away.
So, and I’m doing more reading about it because I just have this natural like draw to millennials for this project because I easily can just open it up to whomever identifies as a Black queer person, but I think it’s something particular about how millennials are saying it’s not all bad; we’re just going to do it differently, and we’re going to show you and not just blow everything up. So that’s one component. But, on a more broad scale, really just how our sexual identity and gender politics inform our religious and spiritual formation. I don’t know about you, but I come out of Black Church culture where everything that I did, intentionally or not, somebody deemed was an identity marker for me. Then that’s how I’m supposed to show up like you’re a girl, so you have to do this, you have to wear that, and you can’t do this. And it was never any agency or consent involved, so yeah, just looking at how all of that impacts how we then create our own spiritual lives.
The Journey to This Work
So, I went to Spelman for undergrad and got my bachelor’s degree in drama and dance, so I just knew I was about to be out in LA, making all the money, being on camera, going to red carpets and just like Bam, Bam, Bam. And yet here I am, a broke PhD candidate. So yeah, I literally got called to seminary. Whenever it’s time for me to make some type of major transition in my life, spirit always speaks to me through dreams and very intense dreams and like I remember detail for detail. And so, August 6, 2013, I had a dream that I was preaching the closing ceremony of my family reunion. And I had two relatives ask me in the dream, “so what are you doing these days?” And I said, “I’m getting my Master of Divinity at Candler School of Theology” in the dream. And I woke up, and I was like “No, I am not doing that.” And then three weeks later, I was enrolled at Emory.
And it was like every time that I wanted to give up, God would send somebody to remind me that this work is needed or completely remove the obstacle out of my way.
And that first semester was rough because a lot of students, particularly during my time, were coming out of UMC (United Methodist Church). They were there just to complete their ordination process, so they’re very much like, “I’m here to do traditional church ministry,” and I was literally on some God told me to come. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do, but God told me come. And so that first semester I struggled a lot, and I was depressed and didn’t know it. I was trying to perform at this high level, and there were just so many disconnects.
And then Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, God rest her soul, came and taught a J-term the second semester of my first year, and that changed everything. She was the first professor that I had on that level say to me like “if this is what it is you want to talk about and study, do that.” And I was like, I didn’t know that I could talk about embodiment and sexuality and sexual studies and gender stuff in a religious context. She was like, “Absolutely!” And that was the first year I submitted a proposal for AAR (the American Academy of Religion). Did I think my paper was going to be accepted? Absolutely not. I know that they are blind submissions meaning when it’s submitted the committee isn’t reading “Oh, this is Whitney’s paper, so let me choose this one.” t really is a blind submission, and so when I got that email, I was just like, “Wait! What?” Like I can really talk about this. And honestly that advice she gave me, to then write each paper in that vein of sexuality and religion and stuff like that, I did it. Now, of course, there were some courses that I couldn’t, like Old Testament, New Testament, especially when you start writing those exegesis papers. Like I couldn’t because this was the text and that was it, but any other class that I feel like framing it in because then it brought me into something I was actually interested in. So yeah, this was not what I planned on doing, but the most interesting part is that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else right now.
On Overcoming Obstacles and Barriers (Content Warning: Suicidal Ideation)
So, I will say it was very difficult when I first started because now, I’ve just had to accept that it’s trendy and it’s fun to talk about sex and sexuality in like public-facing conversations and not just like amongst your crew, right. When I first started writing about this, “No ma’am, you need to find something else that will really anchor you in one of the guilds and one of the fields. Like are you going to do pastoral care? Are you gonna do practical theology? Are you doing womanist ethnography? You need to figure that out and then that’s where you need to be.” And all the while I was just like, I want to talk about bodies and sex and not like the act of sex but everything else that comes along with talking about sex and how that shows up in how we practice our religions and our spiritual lives, like that’s what I’m interested in.
And it was not easy. It was not easy, but it was people, randomly, that I’m not knowing, like you reaching out saying “hey, so-and-so told me that you’re a seminarian, and you’re talking about this kind of stuff. Can you just send me some books?” Not like me sending them physical books but they just wanted some resources. And it was like every time that I wanted to give up, God would send somebody to remind me that this work is needed or completely remove the obstacle out of my way. Like every time that I tried to leave seminary, I don’t have the money, oh here comes some money. I tried to leave my graduate program, my doctorate program, oh you’re complaining about that? That’s moved out the way. What’s next? I’ve literally tried to stop myself multiple times throughout this journey, and each time God in some form or fashion, whether it was a spirit lead or like a tangible thing removed, was like, “Nope. Keep going.”
And I realized that this work, I don’t say this jokingly or lightly at all, is a matter of life and death.
And I realized that this work, I don’t say this jokingly or lightly at all, is a matter of life and death. I’ve had people that I hope to meet one day that I’ve never met who I’ve had to be on suicide watch with because somebody told them about me, and they reached out to me via Twitter DM. And so, I’m like, I just had one semester of pastoral care. What am I supposed to be doing? And so, literally on the watch, like, Okay, they haven’t responded in two hours. Let me, “hey…” So those types of instances, I can never forget that, that people are literally choosing between life and death because of gender politics and sexuality, sexual identity and stuff. So, to know that I’m creating brave space where people can just exist, it makes it worth it. It does. It gets frustrating because there now seems like everybody wants to talk about it, and I’m like where were y’all at when I was just out here by myself? Something that my therapist had to have a hard conversation with me about a couple of years ago was the fact that I was waiting for somebody else to be the blueprint, and I was called to be the blueprint. I don’t go to a Christian therapist. I don’t go to like a spiritual leader. This particular therapist is a straight up psychiatrist who was going to give it to you straight and she was just like, “Whitney, you are waiting on somebody else when it really is you. And I know that that can be really scary, but you just have to go and do it anyway.” And so here I am.
Advice For Those Hoping to Do This Work/Advice for Beginning the PhD Journey
So many pieces of advice, and it’s stuff people told me before I started my doctoral program…One is nobody is doing all of the reading. This is not to say don’t be a studious scholar; that’s not what I’m saying because there are some books that I will read front to back every single time. And then there are other books: read that one chapter that you need and move on. One thing that really helped me get clear on what I wanted to talk about was when I was preparing for comprehensive exams. And that process can just be so many things: one, I think it’s completely unnecessary because the average person is not doing anything with those exams, meaning like once the exams are done, it’s not like a continuation of the dissertation. It’s very much something to just check off of your list so that you can go on to the next thing. If I would have been clear on what my actual dissertation would have been on, I would have created exams that would have then flowed right into it versus being like, I’m just interested in practical theology; I like womanist theology; I want to talk about queer stuff; and I want to talk about Black Church culture. If I would have just been very specific in saying, no, I want to talk about how Black queer millennials are creating their own Black spirituality and reimagining and reconstructing and deconstructing like Black Western Christianity, my exams would look totally different. They would’ve been like this information flows so freely into what my actual project is about versus this is what I said I want to talk about. And so, what I can say is with the exams that I chose to go ahead and pursue is that I could probably make courses out of them when I decided to teach, but they’re not really influencing my dissertation. So that’s one thing.
Balance is a myth as a doctoral student; something is always going to be in limbo. And once I got comfortable with that, it just made it easier because I was trying to give 100% to my partner, give 100% to myself, give 100% to work, give 100% to school, give 100% to my business…I was burnt out at both ends all the time. And so, just realizing that “okay on today, this is going to get 85%, this is going to get 2%, this may get about 5%,” and then next day, it could totally swap. What you gave 85% the day before is now getting the 2%. So yeah, balance is a myth; you do what you can for that day and move on.
If you feel like you are drowning, say something because I know people say there is no time wasted in God, and I’m still trying to work my own thoughts around that, but I do feel like I could have been done with my PhD by now had I been vocal about some challenges that I was facing, particularly with faculty members because I was trying to protect them, like not tell anybody that they’re not giving me what I need as a student. I was just trying to protect them, but I was literally drowning and struggling. If I said something earlier, I would have found out that I wasn’t the only one, particularly because Black women, even though we go into spaces that are like, “Oh no, everything’s great! We welcome you to just be who you are,” we still go into those spaces like, but I got to be the baddest bitch up in here. And imma show them that I know what I’m talking about, that I got my stuff together. Imma come to class. I’m gonna have it together. And that’s all fine and dandy, but this professor’s over here trippin, and I can’t do what I’m supposed to do because they won’t sign off on something, or they won’t respond to my email, or they won’t… So yeah, if you’re struggling, say something. Don’t be afraid to be selfish, and by that, I mean if you need time to just be by yourself because that’s actually like a source of recharging, do it. Don’t say yes to every invitation…
I was waiting for somebody else to be the blueprint, and I was called to be the blueprint.
Have fun. Now that’s one thing that I have not struggled with was having fun. So, we aren’t super close, but Dr. Ashon Crawley and I talk fairly often. (If you don’t have his book, get it. It’s great.) But one thing he told me when I was applying, I initially started applying to multiple PhD programs and ended up only applying to one, was just have fun throughout your process. Some days that’s gonna be the only thing that keeps you sane, so have fun. If your friends are planning a trip, make the trip work because what you can’t get back are the moments like that. Yes, you want to get out by a certain time, but you’ll figure that out. But those important monumental friend gatherings, family functions, personal accomplishments, tend to those if not the same, a little bit more importantly than you do your academics because all of this stuff is fleeting, but you don’t want to look back and say, “Dang, I wish I would have attended my friends’ wedding.” And I have that as a regret. I decided to stay in Atlanta and apply for this program at Vanderbilt that I ended up not even getting into and miss one of my college best friend’s weddings. I can’t make that up. I could have applied for the program again, but missing her wedding, it’s just like, I missed that.
And then lastly, sleep. And again, I don’t say this flippantly. Sleep because if your body isn’t rested, you literally cannot do the work God has called you to do. There’s no prize; there is no medal for…saying I only had four hours of sleep last night. I spent all night in the library. Okay, and I got me seven, eight hours of good sleep, and I’m here present in class and not nodding off or like so sleep deprived that I’m snapping at everybody. So yeah, I will say sleep. And there were times if I knew I hadn’t missed a class that semester, and it wasn’t like the test or something, I would pull that syllabus out and be like, okay, so how many absences we get this semester? I’m gonna plan an absence for this day, that day, because if you already get three, use them. It’s the same way, I feel about PTO with work. If they’re already giving you two weeks paid vacation, use the vacation. Don’t be on some I just want to make sure that they know that I’m a dedicated worker because if you were to die today, they’re going to put up the post for your position, if not the same day, within a week.
So, sleep, have fun, have your boundaries and yeah, if you feel like you know you’re struggling in any capacity say something because it may not be the person that you’re talking to who has the answer, but they 9 times out of 10 know somebody else who does. FTE has been a wonderful resource for me. I mean just being able to vent to people and knowing that it was staying right there. Just to get it out of me. And as a result, they were able to say so, you know, I was listening to our conversation. I just want to circle back because I actually had a conversation with another student, and they’re actually having the same issue with the same faculty member. Who knew? And had I said something a year earlier, I could have been dealt with it. So I feel like I can give several pieces of advice, and those are the ones that kind of just came.
Have you a good spiritual life. I’m not saying go to church every Sunday. That’s not what I’m saying. Have you a practice that is fulfilling for you, that feeds you.
Navigating the Politics of Academia
So yeah, I would say another piece of advice, in addition to having like your cohort community, and when I say cohort not necessarily the people that are in the same program as you, but I have friends across disciplines who have completed PhDs. And so sometimes you need people who aren’t in your field to just talk stuff through because one, you want to make sure that it makes sense because sometimes if you’re talking to another seminarian, like you can start talking about the eschatological, dododo this, and everybody knows what you’re talking about, but if I’m talking to somebody who has a PhD in piano theory, they’re like, okay, what? So, having them as conversation partners to really flesh out well, what do you mean by that? Okay, and so your methodology? What do you plan on doing with that? Not like a Q&A session, but they’re really just trying to make sense of what your project is and having those conversations helped me to say you know what, that’s actually unnecessary, so let me just leave it out and move on to the next. And then also having people like Kamilah [Hall Sharp] and others who may not be a senior scholar, but they got a little bit more wisdom than you do. Having that group and then having a group of community of the senior scholars who you already know they can put in a phone call and not on some help you get into a program or something, but if you feel like some stuff is going down that is not right, they can work on your behalf without you having to worry about it. They can move behind the scenes and work while you’re still writing and reading and doing what you need to do. Those three tiers have been crucial, and some of those senior scholars again are not in the religious category. But I didn’t find them until I opened up my mouth and said, “hey, I’m over here drowning.”