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September 03, 2013
An Interview with Author and FTE Doctoral Alumna Monica Coleman
Fran Davis-Harris spoke with FTE Doctoral Alumna Dr. Monica Coleman about her book, Ain't I a Womanist Too: Third Wave Womanist Religious Thought, which was released in May of this year. Dr Coleman is a proponent for the Womanist movement and has been active in this work for a number of years. She stepped away momentarily from her work as a scholar activist to share how she was called and inspired to do this work. Read on to take a journey into Dr. Coleman's life.
Ann Arbor, MI
Trying to find joy in ordinary things
Coffee Shops around Atlanta
Writes daily blogs for four different websites
1.Tell me about your call to ministry and theological scholarship.
Everything falls under a sense for me to break silences. Breaking silence is a particular calling for me. In some sense that is my own way of processing and understanding my work and how I grew up. My parents raised me with a sense of social justice and instilled in me that giving back to the community is what you do and to break the silence in doing so.
God called me to talk about things that other people don’t talk about in churches—sexual violence, mental health and my activist work in ministry.
In terms of my academic work, I feel drawn to write about things I’ve talked to other people about; things that often have minority viewpoints within whatever circle they are in. Sometimes this means giving voice to what happens when Womanist conversations and process theology combines with African Religion. Other times this means to bring Black studies conversations, with work being done in religious pluralism, to the table and give voice to what happens when they talk to each other.
2. You mentioned that giving back and your activist work was the norm from childhood. What kept you committed to this work as a way to do God’s work in the world?
I’ve asked particularly in my activist work, “God why do I have to do this?” I’m not in ministry for all the money or power right (laughs)? I do believe there is a lot of freedom in the call, but the answer always comes back, “Because you can.” That is what I’ve heard from God consistently in all areas. I believe that God has given me a gift. This is what I do well and it’s what feels right to me. God calls us to be who we are and this is who I am.
3. Who or what has inspired you on your journey in this call?
This is a hard question because it’s so many people; it’s a crowded pathway in which many people have been points of inspiration. I’m still a Black literature head, so many Black writers have inspired me like, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Bell Hooks. They are the people I come back to when I lose my grounding.
In terms of how I understand what it means to walk this path, Sweet Honey in the Rock, is a huge sense of my inspiration. Many other academics have inspired me. Renita Weems, was and is still a role model for me. Katie Cannon, Dr. Cone, Cornel West—no one can be that smart, right? Even my Doctoral advisor, Marjorie Suchocki, she made it okay for me to write for the academy and laity, which shaped my career. And of course, Sharon Watson Fluker was an inspiration because she kept all of us so alive on the journey. There are so many sources of inspiration for me.
4. As I’ve heard you speak, I believe I can safely say you are a pastor and a scholar. Do you also consider yourself as a scholar activist?
I do. I think part of being a scholar activist is revolutionizing and making an impact in one’s field. I try to be that kind of scholar activist. When you are really committed to your field, you advocate and fight for those who follow our path. I think it is in the revolution of the soul.
5. What brought you to write Ain’t I a Womanist, Too?: Third Wave Womanist Religious Thought?
I wrote an article in 2004 called “Must I be Womanist?” I began thinking about it way before that, but here I focused deeply on what difference is there in Black feminism and Womanism? I began poking around and reading more and more.
Why do people use different terms to name themselves? What happens when we name ourselves? In the academy naming our identity in this kind of work is where the third wave of Womanism is coming. I began to think about what would work look like if it were to wrestle with sexuality in thought provoking ways. People told me this was a good idea to explore and write more about, so I said okay.
6. For those who are not familiar with Womanism, can you provide a general explanation?
Womanism in the broadest sense, particularly in the religious scholar sense, is interested in putting religion at the center of the lives of Black women. It’s still a big deal to put Black women’s religious lives in the center of our work and our conversation.
In many ways there are waves of Womanism. Third wave Womanism troubles with all those terms we name, when we say Black and when we say women and religious. The complexity of Blackness in the race, what Black means today in the U.S., is different than what Black is in Brazil. There is a complex socialness in this category and we are willing to explore that. What does it mean to be religious and to experience religion broader than Christians and non-christians and atheists? What does it really mean to be woman knowing what we know about gender construction? So it’s the same focus but we investigate it in new complex ways. Then, what do we mean by the religious lives of Black women? It’s less about identity politics and more about ideology politics; less about who’s doing the work. People looking at this work and these questions and issues are different. Some works might be Womanist and some may not. However, the goals are still very much the same—there is still a valuation of the goal of freedom, liberation, quality of life, well-being and wholeness that is the ideology politic of it.
7. I noticed that you used some of your fellow FTE Alumni to contribute their writing to your book. What inspired you to use their work within your book?
I was inspired by each of these individuals because of their innovative work in the field and their role in FTE’s Alumni community. FTE Alums are doing cool stuff. I also had a strong commitment to getting people who were at different stages in their career.
8. In your work focusing on Womanism, in particular, who are a few leaders that helped to frame how you would navigate this work?
Melanie Harris and I had a couple of conversations about this. We were in an FTE cohort together. Katie Cannon has always been a fountain of encouragement and support. Layli Phillips is in Womanist work and I’ve known her since college in the early 90s. She is a friend and gave me a reminder to not stay in the religious bubble. I also definitely felt encouraged by Victor Anderson who pushed me and needled me to look deeper into things and to not give up on a project when I wanted to give up.
9. What would a young person who is exploring their vocation to gain from your new book?
I hope that these young adults see themselves in some of this work, whether it is in Womanist theology or whether it is to get them inspired to get their voices heard. Be straightforward about where you see your role in gender and policy in culture and politics. Give critical reflection to things you care about.
10. What words of wisdom do you have for those coming behind you to do work in the academy and church?
Do good work! Not in the moral sense but in the solid sense. Make decisions where you can see that they are true to your inner core, whatever the outcome of them or the consequences might be. Make decisions that will lead your vision and integrity.
I am invested in the future and strength of theological education, so I say in that context, you have to love it! What keeps you going is that you love it in some core part of who you are. There are always going to be good reasons to not get into the church, so you have to really love it—cultivate a love for it.
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