The Reading List: Schatz and Stahl’s Rad Women

When Prof. Brennan issued a call-for-posts about what we were reading, I assumed I’d write about something serious and scholarly: what I’m reading for class (currently: Durkheim in REL100) or for my research (currently: Meer’s edited volume on racialization, religion, antisemitism, and Islamophobia) or as part of attempting to keep up with the field (next on my list: Aydin’s brand-new book on “the Muslim world”). Yet as I sat to write my post, I kept coming back to what I was reading that was serious, but perhaps not as scholarly: two books, Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl, have been in constant rotation as part of my regular reading routine with my nearly-4-year-old daughter. The truth is, these books are rather serious, rooted in scholarship, and speak to what I’ve been thinking about broadly in and outside my classroom and as part of my research.

This won’t be the first time I use our academic, departmental blog to talk about what is ostensibly children’s literature. It also won’t be the first time I try to convince my reading audience that children’s literature isn’t only for children, doesn’t only communicate childish ideas or ideals, and needn’t be compartmentalized to my parenting. In fact, I’ve found that both of these volumes have driven home simple–but not basic–ideas about representative parity in my research and pedagogy, the importance of the study of religion (and its regular absence as we talk about radical activisms), and how the act of reading is itself political.

I will forever claim parenting victory for my then-2-year-old asking to be Patti for Halloween.

We bought Rad American Women A-Z for my daughter a couple of years ago. She loved it. Big, bright, graphic illustrations helped; the alphabet as a central motif didn’t hurt; I assume my excitement about each and every featured woman¹ didn’t hurt, either. She really loved this book. (As in, my 2.5-year-old daughter insisted that she be “P is for Patti Smith, the punker” for Halloween.) The book itself features American women that represent a wide swath of historical periods, racial and ethnic identities, as well as expressions of gender and sexuality. The women represent diverse fields and aims, too, ranging from athletes to education activists, doctors to musicians, architects to strike leaders. Poignantly, “X” is reserved for the “the women whose names we don’t know,” a purposeful acknowledgment of the erasure of women in historical memory and contemporary settings alike. I’ll confess to weeping nearly every time I read this page.

Table of Contents for Rad American Women A-Z

Opening pages, with contents listed via map, Rad Women Worldwide

When Rad American Women’s sequel came out last year, we added it to our rotation. Rad Women Worldwide takes an even larger historical scope, starting in “ancient Mesopotamia” and including contemporary, notable women like Malala Yousafzai. These women, too, represent multiple regions, eras, races, ethnicities, mother tongues, and areas of excellence. They include LGBTQ+ activists like Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera,
anti-authoritarian women’s organizations likeMadres de la Plaza de Mayo, athletes like Junko Tabei, and anti-colonial, anti-imperial native activists like the Quintreman Sisters. Like the original volume, Rad Women Worldwide includes a poignant entry that jolts the reader into seeing the silenced; here, it is titled “the Stateless,” and focuses on the disproportionate number of refugees who identify as women. Like “X” in Rad American Women, “the Stateless” is a hard page to read without choking up.

Reading these two books with my kiddo has meant admitting to her and myself how few women–American or not–I had ever learned about. I have considered myself both a feminist and an activist for my whole life. I’ve done my gender courses. Heck, I’ve even taught them. And yet, it is a shocking realization to have only heard of many of the featured Americans and not recognize even a third of the “global” women. (And, yes, of course, my own identity is at play here: a cis-hetero-white-Jewish-lady may have heard of Emma Goldman [of course!] but not of Filipino doctor Fe Del Mundo [I had not].)

Reading these books regularly–often just a few full entries at a time–also underscores the lack of gender parity in my syllabi and bibliographies for published work. Following the lead of many other scholars, most of whom identify as women, I have tried to make a point to have women not only represented in my syllabi–sadly, a feat in and of itself at times–but to have women represented in a way that reflects women’s participation in the academic production of knowledge. Which is to say, #noallmalesyllabi and #noallmalebibliographies. Schatz and Stahl go to great lengths to remind their readers that for every woman they’ve included, dozens and dozens have been excluded by their authorial choice, or as “X” and “the Stateless” remind us, by systemic and intersectional oppressions.

So these books remind me, in their simple composition, to ask: who am I leaving out? Which systems of purposeful omission am I participating in when my citational practices are heavily white, heavily male? How can I fix that–or, more to the point–how can I fix that so I do not preserve and reproduce sexist, racist trends in the writing of history and production of knowledge? After all, I think: my daughter is listening to me read, watching me model how to make sense of these rad women.

These books also remind me that when we talk about activism, we often ignore religious foundations for that activism. While Schatz and Stahl do a genuinely incredible job of showcasing women in their complexities, the presence of religion is largely absent–even in activists and historical personas for whom religion was a primary motivator. For example, the Grimké sisters, abolitionists who are oft-read in American religious history courses for their use of Biblical literature, are described as Quakers but their activism is not described in terms of their religion. As a scholar of religion, it seems an obvious omission and beyond begging the obvious question (where is religion?) such omissions beg questions about our conceptualizations of secularism, activism, and (perhaps assumed) progressivism.

I’m reading a number of books simultaneously like a good professor ought. In fairness, I also read a ton of silly books made for kids with my daughter that I slog through and attempt to sound excited about. These two books, though, ostensibly aimed at a younger reader (though, admittedly, perhaps not a not-quite-4-year-old), aren’t just for kids. These two are well on their way to becoming dog-eared and well-worn parts of our family library. As I read them aloud, I am often thinking not only of how radical it is to simply be reading to my daughter about powerful women whose lives represent an imperfect fullness of human identity and expression. I am also thinking about how much more they underscore the ways I need to continue to strive for representative parity in my research and pedagogical bibliographies, the ways in which religion is somehow omnipresent and absent when we think about radical activisms and activists, and how the act of reading–aloud or otherwise–is always already a political act. The books that center this kind of reading, both with and for my kiddo, will be on my reading list for the foreseeable future.

  1. *”Woman” and “women” in these works indicate those who identify as women. We can infer this based upon Schatz and Stahl’s inclusion of trans* and GNC women.

The Reading List: Kindred by Octavia Butler–Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings

by Todne Thomas

“History is not the past. It is the present.  We carry our history. We are our history.”  – James Baldwin [1]

Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred Adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings

This month I’m reading the graphic novel version of Kindred adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings.  Originally a novel written by the African American science fiction author Octavia Butler, Kindred tells the story of Edana, an African American protagonist who involuntarily time travels between the present and the plantation era and is forced to save her own life and intervene in the lives of her ancestors.  In particular, Edana (or Dana) is catapulted to the past to save the life of her white plantation-owning ancestor Rufus Weylin and to shape the fates of her enslaved black progenitors Alice, Hagar, and Joe.

In this visual adaptation, Dana’s story emerges out of the black and white print of fiction into the colored hues of the graphic.  The life Dana shares with her white husband Kevin are colored in warm creams and ambers.  The palette of plantation time is more variegated and intense and increasingly consumes their regular sepia-colored present as Dana’s trips to the past last longer for days and weeks.  Blues and greens evoke nature, greenery, crops, and the coolness of river water and the day sky. Evening purples and candle-light yellows color scenes of domesticity and fugitive flight.  The color contrast between Edana and Kevin softened in the context of a domestic comfort (for which they also had to fight) are transferred into scenes that belie no ambiguity signaling the thickness of the color line that bracket white versus black experiences. All the myriad hues of the plantation scenery together attest to the multiple forms of violence and vulnerabilities of plantation life that were experienced by enslaved populations.  The scenes of physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse, of forced separations and the lived conditions of white supremacist terrorism experienced by Dana and the enslaved come off the pages via the frequent pace of their occurrence. They are many.  They are undeniable, especially now because of their visuality.

Though Dana is a time traveler, her passage between a sepia present and a colored past, do not leave her unscathed.  Dana is not merely a witness to plantation violence.  She intervenes in the lives of plantation residents—the plantation-owning Weylins (and Rufus in particular) but most often in the lives of her black ancestors—by advocating for the enslaved and trying to prevent acts of violence, providing medical assistance to the injured, by teaching young enslaved children to read, and even sustaining physical injuries for actions that are interpreted by plantation authorities as insolence.  Edana is beaten and whipped.  She returns with a swollen black eye after being beaten during an early journey in which she nearly escapes rape by a slave patroller.  She carries the scars from a brutal beating by a plantation overseer on her back during another passage home.  During her last voyage from the past, Dana kills Rufus Weylin after he attempts to rape her, but is so quickly transported that her arm—lodged against a wall—is left behind. As spoken by Edana in the Prologue scene that opens the novel, “I lost an arm on my last trip home.” Thus, Edana’s body bears the literal marks of her confrontation with history, however supernaturally mediated.  The traumas of a slave past/present are indelibly imprinted on her form.  But more than that, Edana’s experiences with slavery dramatically changes her visage.  Adeptly depicted in the visual novel, Dana’s demeanor alters.  The increasing occurrence of resident facial expressions—stone cast face, down turned eyes, and suppressed rage—tell their own tale of enslavement; a silent story of slavery as a process that can never truly be heritable, but must be experienced, witnessed, embodied, and broadcasted via the dimming of eye lights, the slumping of shoulders that broadcast resignation.

And yet for all of Edana’s changes, somehow over the course of his coming of age, Rufus changes very little.  The Weylin heir’s childish demeanor and behavior both remain.  The same petulant squinting of the eyes is matched by an enduring pattern of impetuous behavior.  Rufus pursues his own desires and interests for power, sex, and money with almost no concern for the human costs borne by others that result from those choices.  The reliance of him and his infirmed mother (who must eventually be carried) on the bondspeople they exploit illustrate the stunting infantilizations that accompanied planter privilege.  The impetuously furrowed brow of Rufus, the repetition of one-dimensional scripts that evoke, dictate, and predict pseudo-familial care on the part of slaves remain.  Here, James Baldwin’s words in The Fire Next Time hold relevance.

This past, the Negro’s past; of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that if often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible—this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.  I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.[2]

From Baldwin’s purview, the underside of the struggle for humanity engendered in African Americans’ resistance to the abjection of blackness is the stasis of white supremacist privilege, missed opportunities for humanistic engagement, communion, and growth.  For all of interventions Edana made, sometimes hurtling unwittingly across time-space continuums, to save Rufus’ life over the years, Rufus cannot manage to see Edana as kin, her labor as love, her body as her own.  And because of this, this refusal of humanity, Rufus cannot be saved.  Edana is a time traveler, a prophet, a healer, a teacher, even a heroine, but ultimately, Edana is not a savior.  Not for lack of capacity, but because white supremacist plantocracy, for all of its imprints on slave bodies also indelible scars the characters of white beneficiaries, it is irredeemable.  Neither grace nor forgiveness is available for such a non-recognition of humanity.

And, this is the truly revolutionary part of Butler’s Kindred to me as a scholar of religion and race. The novel does not present a resolution or transcendence of the experiences of the slave past, but rather a complex embodied memory that holds a solidarity for some ancestors and a rejection for those who fail to recognize their shared humanity with their descendants.  Genealogy is excised, exorcised even.  Anti-black violence is not absolved. In the midst of an activist context shaped by Black Lives Matter, and its queer women of color leadership’s call for a valuation of black lives and the black life matter of black bodies, this non-forgiveness for the violation of black bodies is profound.  To not forgive, to not give up one’s body/sexuality for white supremacy, to defend one’s body (even from an ancestor) illustrates a thick love for self and black enfleshment in the midst of processes that threaten to commoditize and dehumanize black people.  In his contemplation of black intellectual writing in the Age of Ferguson, Julius B. Fleming, Jr. asks, “What can you do when you study the shattering of your own flesh, when you teach the historical destruction of that flesh, write about it, present on it, find it tucked away in the recesses of archives the world over?”[3] For me, Butler’s Edana and Duffy and Jennings’ graphic adaptation of Kindred provides an answer through their depictions of Edana, a political and spiritual ancestress, a sankofa archetype that calls for an immanent engagement with the past in the present.  More broadly, these conjoined works offer us conceptual and visual portals to excavate black history, to come face-to-face with our nation’s past, our physical and political resemblance to our ancestors in times that are mutually imprinted by anti-black violence and shaped by the metaphysics of fugitivity and freedom movements.

 

 

[1] James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, film, directed by Raoul Peck, (2017; New York: Magnolia Pictures).

[2] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 98-99.

[3] Julius B. Fleming, Jr., “Shattering Black Flesh: Black Intellectual Writing in the Age of Ferguson,” American Literary History 28 (2016): 832.

The Reading List: Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History

I currently participate in a small reading group with colleagues from the Political Science, Romance Languages and Linguistics, and Religion Departments. Many of the works we have read explore the relationship between politics and religion in the context of modernity, and we recently discussed Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004.  Fasolt is Professor emeritus of History at the University of Chicago, and he has written extensively on political, social, and legal thought in medieval and early modern Europe. The Limits of History is noteworthy for its use of a relatively narrow historical case study—an examination of the work of the seventeeth-century German scholar Hermann Conring (1606-1681)—as the springboard for a broad historiographical critique. Fasolt’s engaging and lively analysis moves deftly from close readings of Conring’s works on political authority to a wide-ranging theoretical examination of the social and political implications of historical research.

This work is of particular interest to me in connection with my own research on Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrimage sites, specifically my exploration of historical narratives employed by advocates for the authenticity of Batathota cave temple (shown above in my 2016 photograph) as the true site of Divaguhava, the Cave of the [Buddha’s] Midday Rest, one of the sixteen great pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka linked to the tradition that Gotama Buddha visited the island three times during his lifetime. For those who know something about the modern history of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourses, it is probably not surprising to observe that these narratives, as identified and employed by advocates for the site, are not simply collections of “facts” about the past; rather, even a cursory analysis suggests that these narratives, whether as transmitted through published texts or mediated through oral accounts presented by lay officials at the site, serve a variety of social ends that might be characterized as “political” or “religious” (both of which are vexed categories that demand careful unpacking, particularly when contrasted with one another). What is less obvious is the political work accomplished by my own historical analysis, and this is precisely where Fasolt’s analysis provides some crucial insights.

The substance of Fasolt’s critique is relatively straightforward. He seeks to raise historians’ awareness of the links between historical analysis and the emergence of several key features of western modernity. According to Fasolt, freedom and progress depend upon the distinction between past and present, which the work of historians creates. Historians, through their commitment to discovering what “really” happened in the past on the basis of historical evidence, make possible the emergence of an individual subjectivity characterized by freedom from the past. The doing of history, he suggests, has become so naturalized that we have lost sight of the social and political conflicts that gave rise to it. He writes: “History enlists the desire for knowledge about the past to meet a deeper need: the need for power and independence, the need to have done with the past and to be rid of things that cannot be forgotten. Whatever knowledge it may pick up along the way is but a means toward that end” (Introduction). Thus historical work is an exercise of power, one that can have dangerous consequences, particularly if those who undertake it regard it as “a natural, neutral, harmless, and universally applicable form of thought” (32). As he puts it: “The past, as a familiar saying goes, is a foreign country. Historians are just as active in invading that foreign country, conquering its inhabitants, subjecting them to their discipline, and annexing their territories to the possessions of the present as any imperialist who ever sought to impose his power on colonies abroad. To call their activity a conquest is no mere figure of speech. It is a perfectly accurate description of history’s political effect” (Introduction).

Does this lead him to conclude that we must stop doing history? Not at all. The problem isn’t that we seek knowledge about the past. Rather, the danger of an unreflective historical consciousness is its intrinsic imperialism, at least when it is universalized and naturalized by the quest for objectivity: “History, in all its variations, continues to draw strength from the conviction that there is nothing wrong with the standards of objectivity, only with their implementation” (35). Drawing on the metaphor of a camera, he describes those who operate within an historical consciousness as acting “like the photographer who never looks at anything except through the lens of his camera. We seem to have lost the ability to recognize that history is merely one way of looking at the world, a good way (because our freedom depends on it), but one that neither shows everything to us nor shows anything without refraction” (32). Evoking the language of religion (which is surprisingly absent from his analysis of Conring’s own works), he observes: “Seen from outside … history rather appears to be the intellectual form that secularized Christianity has given to its preoccupation with the salvation of the soul. It is the same preoccupation that was in earlier times cast in the forms of theology and canon law. History is the ritual examination (especially by experts officially trained and licensed) of certain objects (mostly preserved in archives, libraries, and museums) without which the distinction between past and present could not support the weight placed on it by the established church— that modern church embodied in the nationstate whose symbols are printed on every dollar bill and whose members worship at the altar of nature. History serves to keep the modern world united. It is linked to violence in the same way that Christianity was formerly linked to the Crusades” (230).

These are powerful assertions, and they raise troubling implications for those of us who, like myself, regard historical analysis as foundational to our critical work. How does it reposition, for example, the way that I think about my work on Batathota cave temple? While I am only beginning to attempt to work through the implications of Fasolt’s historiographical critique, at least one possible direction for further reflection comes to mind: the recognition that historical discourses are culturally embedded in complex ways, both in the Euro-American tradition of Buddhist studies within which my own work is situated, and in the postcolonial emergence of Sri Lankan nationalist and religious discourses. What is at stake in asserting that a particular event is “historical,” for example, the visit of Gotama Buddha to a particular Sri Lankan cave? The asking and answering of that question by lay officials at Batathota cave temple, and by me as a North American scholar of Buddhism, point to important areas of convergence and difference that I hope to explore in greater depth as a result of having encountered Fasolt’s rich and illuminating book.

Constantin Fasolt. 2013. The Limits of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

The Reading List: Margaret Atwood

Recently a colleague put together a dystopian fiction reading group. We get together and discuss how speculative narratives of a terrible future can illuminate our lives under a president that many fear will make our present reality leap forward into that future. The first book we discussed is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopia that takes place in the near future in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts. The book appeared in 1986, when I was in high school in Boston (and two years after 1984 had us all thinking about Orwell’s dystopic future). I read Atwood’s book a few years later, in college, and haven’t returned to it since then, so this was a welcome excuse for me to re-read it. In addition, I had just finished re-reading Atwood’s Year of the Flood because I had assigned it to my class: “Religious Perspectives on Sustainability.” (After all, what is “sustainability” but a story we tell ourselves about the future?) So I looked forward to reading The Handmaid’s Tale again in light of her more recent work and after so many of my own formative years have intervened.

The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a society in the grip of a theocratic tyranny. Religion in the book is wholly negative, a thing of control, hypocrisy, and fear. The Year of the Flood is part of a series of novels called the “MaddAddam Trilogy.” The first book, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003, The Year of the Flood in 2009, and the final book, MaddAddam, in 2013, so they are much more recent and the product, perhaps, of a more mature author. Somehow during those years between 1986 and 2003, Atwood has maybe not let go of her judgment of religion (or people who profess to be religious), but made her critique of it less vitriolic, and at the same time broadened her depictions of religion to incorporate hope and love as well as fear and hate.

The irony is that the epilogue at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale leaves the reader with a more hopeful sense of the future — that the religious unmaking of society and re-making of it into something inhumane and literally barren — is only a blip in human history, a short and distasteful meandering off the path of if not progress, at least social stability. In a way, this negating of the horrific consequences of theocracy works to emphasize how wrong and powerless those who seek to rule that way actually are. It also makes sense of the way the book is somewhat one-dimensional: the society she creates has no history and no future, like a laboratory experiment that cannot be moved outside of its controlled environment. However, in our reading group we agreed on the chilling realism of how the state easily took control of the financial sector, making it impossible for women to control their own money, and how this combination of technology and patriarchal ideology so effectively subjugated half of the population in a matter of hours.

In MaddAddam, all of American (and Canadian, and in fact the entire global) society is implicated in Atwood’s dystopia, and the destruction goes far beyond the social world, infecting the animals, plants, and earth itself. Yet the group that manages to survive the “waterless flood” does so at least in part because of their ability to embrace religious rituals, worldviews, and morality, creating a blend of ecological science and Christianity that they form into a religion that literally works to save their lives. They value the effects of ritual to bond people together, the meditative practices that cultivate a sense of connectedness between humans and non-human beings like bees or pigs, and the mantra-like performance of recitations that allow them to remember the past and the heroes of the earth, like Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall. Although not all of the members of the religion “believe” in it, their practice of it reflects not hypocrisy, as it does in The Handmaid’s Tale, but a pragmatic and realistic embrace of religion in spite of doubts and skepticism.

These differences give us insight into how authors of speculative fiction can reflect the fears and concerns of their times. While The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on the growing power of evangelical Protestant Christian males to control women’s bodies, lives, and even minds, in MaddAddam the “bad guys” are scientists and business people, who seek to control the genomes of humans, animals, and plants, with little thought for a future beyond the deposit of profits into the bank account.

In the 1980s, “Liberal” America (and Canada) was grappling with a perceived sudden re-animation of a politically active conservative Christian voting bloc and culture. The prevailing narrative of the preceding decades among the “mainline” Protestants told of a growing ecumenicalism, an assumption that religious practice and choices should be private, and the embrace of a civil religion that was bland enough to accept any and every “god” and yet religious enough to distinguish us Americans from the “godless Communists.” (See Robert Bellah, and Will Herberg) Sectarianism – the championing of one version of Jesus over any other – or even any public Jesus talk at all, was unseemly, especially for someone in an elected position. John F. Kennedy had given his speech, almost unthinkable today, denying that his religious commitment would influence his actions as president.

In 1980 all three candidates for president professed themselves evangelical Christians, a clear sign that the religious narrative was changing. With the election of Ronald Reagan, the so-called moral majority gained a public voice and began a struggle, from the school-board level on up, to gain political ascendancy. The Equal Rights Amendment had failed to pass. The perceived progress made in racial justice left feminists of all races feeling that identity politics downplayed gender in favor of elevating male leadership in movements like the Black Power Movement. The triumph for women’s rights of Roe v Wade came under attack, and the anti-abortion movement began to gain a more vocal platform. It began to inspire individuals to threaten and carry out attacks on clinics where abortions were performed. Operation Rescue was formed in 1986, with an explicitly Christian rationale. It is easy to see how Atwood can find a dark inspiration in the news stories of the day.

Likewise, in our contemporary era, where news and social media are filled with stories of genetically modified crops that reap massive profits for global agri-corps who sell both the seeds and the pesticides that they are engineered to resist, and drug companies creating designer drugs that exist solely to replace previous drugs now available in cheaper generic forms, and oil companies proclaim their commitment to a “green” future while seeking government subsidies to pull ever dirtier fossil fuels out of the ground, it is easy to see where Atwood’s inspiration for the MaddAddam series comes from. However, the way she depicts religion in these books has become more humane and humble in the case of the God’s Gardeners, and funnier in the case of the oil-based version of Christianity that one of her characters runs afoul of during the course of the story.

Although the future is bleaker in The Year of the Flood, Atwood’s own vision of humans and the religions they create and embrace seems more open to both the mystical possibilities of a world without clear-cut moral answers, and to the way religion can be a powerful force for human resiliency in the face of civilizational collapse. The Year of the Flood can speak satisfyingly to both the religious seeker and the anthropologist. Its dystopic vision reflects how our fears have changed, from threats to religious freedom to threats to the continued existence of humanity, and perhaps even the earth itself. Personally, I’m very glad to have Atwood’s characters demonstrate a way to persist with grace, grit, and humanity, with or without religion.

New Series: The Reading List

Hello and Happy New Year! We are excited to announce a new series on the REL@UVM blog: The Reading List. We thought that our colleagues, students, alumni, and anyone else who happens to stumble upon this site might be interested in hearing more about what faculty in the Religion department are currently reading. We will highlight texts that we are grappling with for classes, books that shape our research agendas, and articles that we think offer an interesting perspective on current events. We will also talk about what we are reading for fun!

Responding to the 2016 US Elections

The outcome of the 2016 Presidential election was shocking to some, and a surprise to most. However, it is probably not a surprise to anyone who knows us that the REL@UVM faculty have things to say about the election and the way that it impacts our research, teaching, and broader work with campus communities. What follows are links to short comments and observations from a handful of our faculty, with the promise of more analysis and questions to come in the near future.

Trump 2016: The View from Islamic Studies
Professor Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst 

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The UVM Interfaith Center & UVM’s Post-Election Future
Professor Kevin Trainor

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Pan-Indigenous Pipeline Religion
Professor Todne Thomas Chipumuro

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What now? Scholarly Work in the Wake of Trump’s Election
Professor Vicki L. Brennan

 

Trump 2016: The View from Islamic Studies

By Professor Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst 

It’s no secret that Donald Trump ran a campaign that stoked Islamophobic sentiments (in addition, of course, to anti-immigrantanti-Mexicanmisogynisticableist and homophobic rhetorics and staff picks). In the few weeks since the election, we have seen Trump name members of his cabinet who espouse patently and expressly anti-Muslim positions. What seems to have surprised many around the country, however, are the ways in which hate crimes—and Islamophobic or anti-Muslim hate crimes—have seemed to tick upward since the November 8 presidential election. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, reported on November 29 that they had tracked over 860 hate-related crimes since the election. Of these, roughly 6% (or ~54 incidents) were against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims; additionally, Muslim women who choose to veil are at particular risk, given the public ways in which their religious identities are marked. Campuses—assumed to be both liberal havens and safe spaces by many—are not immune to post-Trump increases in harassment and violence against people of color, Muslims, Jews, LBGT+ and other minorities

These issues of violence and harassment, especially as part of campus, are tied up with white supremacy, racisms, and a now-longstanding process of labeling Muslims and Islam as a problem with which to be dealt. As far as how this effects Islamic studies, from conversations at international conferences, digitally, and in person, it is clear that many of us who study Islam have been called upon to talk with the media, offer sessions for students, join panels on our campuses, and write articles—scholarly and popular alike. In other words, as scholars of Islam, it is clear that in a moment of heightened Islamophobia, our expertise is in high demand. As teachers, it is similarly clear that we have been and will continue to be asked to tailor our syllabi to student interest (what *is* Islam, anyway?) as well as public need (let’s unlearn some of the stereotypes that contribute to Islamophobia). Personally, I’ll be on a panel in the spring for Blackboard Jungle and talking about Islamophobia; my REL30: Introducing Islam will specifically and methodically address anti-Muslim rhetoric in historic contexts and today, instead of just referencing it as we go. Moreover, as a scholar-teacher and as an advisor, I have seen the traffic in my office increase in manifold ways to students of color and of minority religious traditions, some hoping to talk through their experiences, others looking for scholarly resources, and others still seeking a safe space in which to talk about bias incidents or fears about racism and prejudice on campus.

The UVM Interfaith Center & UVM’s Post-Election Future

By Professor Kevin Trainor

On November 16th, one week after awakening to the shocking result of the presidential election, I attended the formal opening ceremony of UVM’s new Interfaith Center on the Redstone Campus, located in a building with a complicated institutional history. It began fifty-two years ago with another opening ceremony, presided over by Harvey Butterfield, the Episcopal bishop of Vermont, as he dedicated the newly constructed St Anselm’s Chapel. I have been researching that history as part of a broader survey of the teaching and practice of religion at UVM, and in a future blog post I will give a longer overview and analysis of that history, which provides the wider context for understanding the institutional significance of the new Interfaith Center, and of the recent appointment of Laura Engelken as UVM’s first Interfaith Coordinator. Here I will focus on the ceremony itself, and what I think it might mean for UVM’s post-election future.

While I’m not sure that the election results were ever explicitly referenced in the words of the various speakers that afternoon, the fact of Donald Trump’s election, and its apparent validation of his campaign’s embrace of hateful and violent rhetoric, hung like a dark cloud over the proceedings. Like many people with whom I had spoken the previous week, I felt disoriented and anxious about the future. I experienced the election results as a direct assault upon the values and forms of practice to which I, as a member of the UVM community, am committed. It thus seemed fitting to come together with a large group of UVM community members to inaugurate a new university facility whose mission is defined as “creating space for all people to explore and ethically engage the meaning-making systems that sustain their own lives and communities as well as of others” (Interfaith Center Facebook page). The creation of the new Interfaith Coordinator position and the Interfaith Center, which are administered through the university’s Center for Cultural Pluralism, are evidence of UVM’s dramatically expanded institutional engagement with issues of religious and spiritual diversity, now foregrounded as foundational elements in the university’s commitment to diversity, equity, and justice, as encapsulated in UVM’s Our Common Ground statement. This represents a significant shift in policy and practice. At UVM, as at most state-supported public universities, questions arising from community members’ religious identities were for the most part rendered invisible to public discourse, a situation that many community members have found oppressive.

Several members of the UVM community spoke: Laura Engelken (Interfaith Coordinator), Wanda Heading-Grant (Vice President of Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs), Tom Sullivan (University President), Annie Stevens (Vice Provost for Student Affairs), and Aya AL-Namee (Senior Admissions Counselor, former Student Government Association President and 2015 UVM alumna), each of whom played an important role in the creation of the Interfaith Center. All the speakers spoke movingly of the personal significance that the new center held for them, but for me the most memorable reflections came from Aya AL-Namee. Identifying herself as a Muslim, she spoke of walking about since the election feeling like “I have a target on my back.” As SGA President in 2015, she played a key role in organizing student support for hiring an interfaith coordinator and for creating a safe place on campus for students to explore and practice their religious and/or spiritual beliefs, which culminated in the passage of an SGA resolution.

St. Anselm's Chapel

St. Anselm’s Chapel from p. 20 of A Goodly Heritage: The Episcopal Church in Vermont. Edited by Kenneth S. Rothwell. Burlington, VT: Cathedral Church of St. Paul, 1973.

But what is a fitting space for religious or spiritual practice on the campus of a public university? This is a complicated question, one that I will explore in greater depth in a future blog entry. But the opening ceremony in which I participated hints at some possible answers. A structure that began its life in the early 1960s as an Episcopal chapel, and then served as the home of the Christ Church Presbyterian community for thirty-five years, took on a new institutional identity at the end of 2013 when the university administration decided not to renew the church’s lease. The Christ Church Presbyterian community vacated the building and found at least a temporary home in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. The space they left behind was emptied of its Christian symbols and furnishings, and during this past summer the structure underwent a basic renovation, which included asbestos abatement and the addition of links to the university infrastructure. A large abstract painting by the artist Peter Heller that covers the north wall of what had been the chapel, which he donated to St. Anselm’s in 1963, was covered over with white muslin. It was within this pleasant but largely empty space that the opening ceremony took place.

Apart from the formal speeches, delivered from a lectern located in the middle of the low raised platform in the center of the main gathering space (which in an earlier incarnation served to define the chancel upon which the altar stood in St. Anselm’s), the opening celebration had the character of an extended and largely unstructured reception during which participants were free to come and go, mingle with one another and chat, and enjoy the food and drink that was provided. Two bunches of multi-colored balloons were anchored at either side of the raised platform. Music was provided by a harpist stationed on the right side of the platform. In keeping with the speakers’ frequent references to “religion and spirituality” and “religion or spirituality,” a pairing that implicitly contrasts institutionally organized forms of religion characterized by collective rituals and socially imposed belief systems, and highly individualized and idiosyncratic forms of personal spiritual exploration, there was very little orchestrated movement required of the participants. There was no collective recitation, no singing, no coordinated gestures. After years of schooling, everyone knew how to stand and listen attentively while the various speakers offered reflections from the lectern.

There were, however, two opportunities for coordinated practice. Large blank sheets of poster board were fastened to the walls in the various parts of the complex (the main gathering space, a small room that will eventually include a sink for ritual ablutions, a room designated for meditation with a collection of religious symbols among which individuals can select as their focus of choice, a lounge area with a couch and chairs and a kitchenette), and participants were invited to write in their ideas about how the spaces could be used or what they needed. A large mesh basket was also placed on a table in the main gathering space. Participants were invited to select from a collection of multi-colored ribbons, to write out their hopes and prayers for the future of the center, and then to thread their ribbons into the basket, with the expectation that the completed basket would be placed on display, a multi-colored weaving together of the participants’ materialized sentiments.

PHOTOS ABOVE FROM THE UVM INTERFAITH CENTER FACEBOOK PAGE

A few days after the ceremony, I met with Laura and we talked about the ceremony and how she understands her role as interfaith coordinator. Her plan is that anyone in the community with a UVM ID card will have free access to the center throughout the day. I asked if there would be a set of rules posted, and how center practitioners would address possible conflicts in their shared use of the space. She plans to impose as few restrictions as possible, and hopes that practitioners will learn through practice how to respectfully share the space to their mutual benefit. If conflicts occur, she will help the participants negotiate an appropriate resolution. If this seems optimistic, it is nevertheless clear that Laura is highly attuned to the ways in which religious differences, improperly addressed, can result in conflict. This is apparent from her adoption of a plastic blowfish as a kind of informal mascot for the Interfaith Center. The blowfish, or fugu in Japanese, is a highly prized culinary delicacy in Japan. Because the flesh of the fugu is highly poisonous if not properly prepared, it must be approached with knowledge and careful attention. Properly handled, it is a delight, but carelessly consumed, it is deadly. Given the poisonous discourse of religious difference that has recently dominated our public life, I believe we have good reason to celebrate the university’s new commitment to creating a safe and supportive space for members of the community to openly explore and engage their religious and spiritual commitments.

Pan-Indigenous Pipeline Religion

By Professor Todne Thomas Chipumuro

In my introductory Religion and Globalization course, our final unit explores what anthropologist Thomas Csordas terms “pan-indigenous religion” or “the surprising juxtapositions…[that] take place at the initiative of those…whose agency and ability to give voice the dominant society is still reluctant to acknowledge” (2007, 263).[1] Our intellectual journey has included a discussion of how pan-indigenous religion and the (anti-globalization) protest religion of Rastafarianism facilitate the formation of ecumenical solidarities that are built upon shared experiences of colonialism, racialization, and ethnocide and similar struggles against impoverishment and marginalization that are precipitated by neocolonialism. In class on Thursday, December 1, in student group presentations about indigenous reggae, students made their own connections between our discussions of global indigenous struggles and the contemporary events surrounding the Dakota access pipeline. In particular, they noticed the paradoxical ways in which globalization fuels the global capitalism and inequalities that make the pipeline appear a feasible economic development strategy while simultaneously underlining the shared terrain in which pan-indigenous solidarities can be expressed and performed in and around the activist at Standing Rock. To provide a contemporary example of how pan-indigenous solidarities are being expressed, I screened a short video that depicts Kereame Te Ua and Maori women performing haka—a Maori life-cycle and war ritual—on the front lines of the Standing Rock camp on Thanksgiving Day. It is my hope that we will all continue to use the classroom, informal, and undercommons spaces to learn, teach, and converse about our contemporary moment and birth emergent solidarities for our collective liberation.

[1] Csordas, Thomas. Introduction: Modalities of Transnational Transcendence. Anthropological Theory (2007): 259-272.

What now? Scholarly Work in the Wake of Trump’s Election

By Professor Vicki L. Brennan

In the days following the election I felt as though I were in a fog, upset about what seemed to be a validation of the role that misogyny and racism had played in the election, anxious about what a Trump presidency would mean for the United States and the world more generally, and unsure about what I could or even should do to respond to and act on any of this. I joined the ranks of many who made donations to nonprofit organizations. I vowed to make my own political commitments more clear and also to avoid the insularity and negativity found on social media sites. But still, I wondered (and still do): What now? What role do we as scholars have to play in Trump’s America? These questions seem especially vital given both the nature of our expertise (see my colleagues comments above for evidence of that) but also due to the fact that our expertise seems less valued and respected than ever before in a supposedly “post-fact” world.

Scholars of religion are responding in a number of ways. What follows are links to statements, op-eds, and analyses that have appeared in the weeks since the election that provide some answers to the question: “What now?”

Disciplinary Resolutions and Statements: The annual meetings of scholarly organizations most relevant to my own research and teaching interests took place soon after the election; the American Anthropological Association meeting from November 16-20; the American Academy of Religion from November 19-22; and the African Studies Association from December 1-3. I decided to stay home this year, so I viewed the meetings from a distance, via text messages from friends, live-tweeting feeds, and blog posts made by those in attendance. Based on these observations, it seems that for many these meetings were sites for the building of solidarity and plans for action.

A number of the scholarly associations with which members of our department are associated issued resolutions or statements in response to the election:

Op-Eds, Blog posts, and other Analyses: Scholars of religion have also been publishing their takes on the election in a variety of venues. These are just a few of the things I have found useful for understanding the role that religion played in the election, the impact that a Trump presidency might have on religious communities in the United States, as well as possible answers to the question: What do we do now?

Omid Safi writes about how to respond to hatred with love at On Being, and uses the iconic film Star Wars as a potential guide to our action:

Somehow our means and our ends have to be consistent. We can’t hate our way out of Trump. There is still the need for love, for love to move into the public spaces. There is still the need for that love to be called justice when it is public, and for that same love to be tenderness when it moves inward. In confronting the Dark Side, let us never turn to the Dark Side. Let us not become the very quality we so despise.

In the days since the election, various lines from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon have been echoing in my mind–certainly his observation that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, the second time as farce”–but more crucially his reminder that we live in a world that has already been shaped by historical forces:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Historians have much to offer to our understanding of our own time, how we got here, and how we might move forward. For an example of how historians of religion are responding to Trump’s election see: Kelly J. Baker in the NY Times on the alt-right, the KKK, and white-collar Supremacy. The bloggers at Religion in American History have also made a number of posts on the election, including one by Elesha Coffman on conservatism in the 1980s and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the current moment and another by Janine Giordano Drake on the Federalist papers and the electoral college.

With the nod to Marx we might also note the need to fully comprehend the role that economics–and particularly the rise of inequality globally–played in the US election. Cornel West writes on the end of American neoliberalism:

What is to be done? First we must try to tell the truth and a condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. For 40 years, neoliberals lived in a world of denial and indifference to the suffering of poor and working people and obsessed with the spectacle of success. Second we must bear witness to justice. We must ground our truth-telling in a willingness to suffer and sacrifice as we resist domination. Third we must remember courageous exemplars like Martin Luther King Jr, who provide moral and spiritual inspiration as we build multiracial alliances to combat poverty and xenophobia, Wall Street crimes and war crimes, global warming and police abuse – and to protect precious rights and liberties.

For those of us who want to integrate these historical lessons into our classes, Savage Minds includes a link to the Trump 2.0 syllabus in their round-up of materials on how to teach the current moment.

As scholars we need to be able to speak to the questions of truth, facts, and reason that have emerged in the wake of Trump’s rise. I hope to write about this issue in more depth in the future, since questions of religious “truth” and cultural forms of knowledge lie at the center of my research and teaching. For now, here are links to two articles that I find thought-provoking at this time: First, Biella Coleman discusses politics, performativity, truth, and lies in a post that offers a possible role that scholars who analyze religion might play in addressing our current crisis

Fake is only fake if you’ve bought into a notion of the real. And the question of what is real is even more urgent and vexed today. But theory and scholarship won’t get us out of this predicament. What we need is a pragmatic practice that recognizes the centrality of fantasy, emotions, fiction, performance, and myth for politics and political messaging.

And finally, Chimamanda Adichie reminds us that “Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about” on the website for the New Yorker:

Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion. Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. It does not have to be like this.