The Scholarly Conference and the Souls of Black Folk

 

ca. 1930s --- Writer and Civil Rights Leader W.E.B. Du Bois --- Image by © CORBIS
ca. 1930s — Writer and Civil Rights Leader W.E.B. Du Bois — Image by © CORBIS

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,— a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost…This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius. These powers of body and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten. W.E.B. Du Bois

Last year I stepped into a conference filled with my fellow classmates and (hopefully) future colleagues as a newish student. I scanned the room wishing to encounter a familiar face, hoping not to have to integrate yet another setting. I met eyes with two Africans, apparently seeking the same comfort, chatting on the other side of the room. We met one another by the bookstalls and exchanged pleasantries. What exactly did we want from one another? Did we seek affirmation that we belonged or something more subtle, the mutually acknowledgement that we were in allies in some ill-defined struggle,  although we could not articulate the longing? Having graduated a few years prior, they had yet to find work and were still trying to make their way in academia. Their research had brought their indigenous cultures into conversation with either Paul or the gospels. I can’t remember. None of us were presenting that day nor did we have any real networks we could open up for the other. We were all equally helpless. The conversion, brief and awkward, ended without resolution.

Dissatisfied, I decided to acquire some dinner and find my classmates. As I made through the cafeteria line, I found the black people. They were the waiters, cooks, and janitors. I turned and wondered if anybody else noticed the strange shift in demographics as we went from one room to the next. No one else commented on it so I let be.

As I got ready to present a paper at this year’s conference, I remembered the two Africans (they are not here this year) and the cooks. I feel that I owe them. I owe the black teachers and pastors who gave of themselves so that I might go to places closed to them. I owe my mom, my sisters, brother, and cousins. I owe the black students will find joy in this discipline, that one day they might scan the room and find a friend or an advocate.

The black scholar enters a space, whether one desires it or not, as a representative sample. In the absence of diversity, our work will, in the minds of many, signify the type of scholarship a people are capable of doing. It will confirm or challenge stereotypes about why we should or should not get interviews, scholarships, and jobs. We are never alone in our studies; a legacy that spans generations and continents precede and follow us.  But I reject this premise.  The worth and importance of black scholarship does not hinge on any paper, scholar, or monograph. Black scholars matter because we too have been created in the image of God and theological discourse is the work of the whole body for the whole body.


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