For the Life of the World / Yale Center for Faith & Culture

Redeeming Dangerous Memories: Black Women and Racial Injustice / Keri Day and Miroslav Volf

Episode Summary

Theologian Keri Day shares her experience as a black woman and a theologian, not only of the past week, but the long history of racism in America, stemming from the racially inflected roots of America’s founding and emerging even from history that has been erased. She and Miroslav Volf discuss her whole vision of individual and social justice through the lens of Christian faith and practice. Keri also provides a gripping example of redeeming dangerous memories in the form of the 1921 Tulsa Black Wall Street Massacre.

Episode Notes

Theologian Keri Day shares her experience as a black woman and a theologian, not only of the past week, but the long history of racism in America, stemming from the racially inflected roots of America’s founding and emerging even from history that has been erased. She and Miroslav Volf discuss her whole vision of individual and social justice through the lens of Christian faith and practice. Keri also provides a gripping example of redeeming dangerous memories in the form of the 1921 Tulsa Black Wall Street Massacre.

Episode Transcription

Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.

Keri Day: This is a history that has been completely erased. We just don't know about it. Growing up, you don't hear about this at all. And to me, what does it mean to redeem a memory? Obviously, that is dangerous in the sense that it shows the deep racial injustices, not only in how we narrate American history, but also surrounding the real grief and trauma and pain and systematic disenfranchisement that black folks have endured. And it is dangerous because it brings all of this to the fore, and it says that there is a need for America to repent, and make reparations, restorative justice to what has transpired a long history.

Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.

I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. In today's episode, Miroslav Volf interviews theologian, Keri Day, Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African-American Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary. She's author of Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America, as well as Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black feminist Perspectives.

Keri shares her experience as a black woman, not only of the past week but of the long history of racism in America, stemming from the racially inflicted roots of America's founding, and emerging even from history that has been erased, dangerous moments of injustice that . Didn't make headlines, didn't make the 11th grade history book, and so it must be resurrected and redeemed. Keri brings a whole vision of individual and social justice to bear on the troubling moment we're in. She stresses seeking both external justice as well as inward personal transformation, so that in the process of righting systemic, structural injustices, we do not also remake ourselves in the violent image of the oppressor.

Now it's worth pointing out here that in the final eight minutes of this conversation, Carrie hones in on the gripping and utterly shocking story of Tulsa, Oklahoma's Black Wall Street Massacre, which happened exactly 99 years ago this past week, but have somehow failed to make it into most American history books since then. But you might know about this horrifying event because of HBO's recent series, Watchman. And no spoilers here, but that whole series is magnificent as a film treatment of redeeming dangerous memories, especially in racial context. The rioting by an angry white mob resulted in 10,000 black citizens becoming homeless and more than 32 million in property damage by today's currency. Both this event as well as the recent case of Brianna Taylor's death being hidden from headlines, Keri Day suggests for examples of restoring dangerous memories to public consciousness, to ignite systemic change and seek justice. Thanks for listening today.

Miroslav Volf: Keri, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me as part of our podcasts, For the Life of the World. I wish we were conversing under different circumstances. I wish it was in more peaceful times and less volatile times, less turmoil on the streets and a place that we could reflect from certain kind of a distance. And yet, we are in the midst of things and each of us is experiencing these days in a particular way. And I wanted to hear a bit about how you experience it. How has this last week been for you? How has your experiences being a black woman in America frame these events for you?

Keri Day: Yeah. First, Miroslav, thank you for having me on this podcast. This podcast and these conversations, I think, are really desperately needed in this particular moment. How do I feel as a black woman watching this? I think it's first important to note that this moment really should be situated within a long history of what African-Americans have confronted and faced in this country. I know we're going to talk more about that, but I think that there is a tendency sometimes—particularly for communities that live in a bubble that doesn't necessarily include the experiences of African-Americans, what they go through on a daily basis. So I think it's really important to note that this moment is within a long history.

And for me, because of that, it wasn't so much that I have been shocked by what transpired with George Floyd or even initially protests that emerge in relationship with George Floyd. For me, it has been the real broken heartedness and the sadness, not only continually, and this administration's inability to respond with an ethic of care and compassion. But quite frankly, also, in a number of Christian communities, there's still been a disconnect between what is the greatest commandment to love God and to love thy neighbor as thyself, and, in this case, sometimes non-black neighbors or white neighbors, not really understanding what the stakes are. So I felt brokenhearted. That's really how I felt.

I am the daughter of a black man, the sister of black brothers, the niece of black uncles. And I worry quite frankly. I worry, but not only that; I know what it means as a black woman to be looked upon suspiciously, to be doubted not only as I'm moving out into the world, but even in the institutions that I occupy—to be doubted. And so for me, it has really been, once again, feeling deeply the heartache, the pain, and the trauma of what it means to be black in a world that sees blackness somehow as a threat. And so that's how I have felt in this moment, and asking the question: will my white, my non-black neighbors join us in confronting the diabolical processes of racial injustice?

Miroslav Volf: And you speak about this sense of threat and a kind of pressure that comes from the outside, insecurity that it creates. What are some of the theological, Christian resources to address that? Does Christian faith have anything to contribute?

Keri Day: I think Christian faith does. I'm thinking right now of going back into the gospels, and literally reading Jesus's life and ministry and message through the theological category of protest. I grew up in a Pentecostal and evangelical context, Miroslav. And growing up in a Pentecostal evangelical church, it was about the inward. It was about, for example, a focus on atonement, the death and the resurrection of Christ. And that's fine. The death and the resurrection of Christ are really important. But what does it mean to also equally give consideration to the scope of Jesus's life and what Jesus's life meant. And what we find is in the life and ministry of Jesus, Jesus is protesting—religious leaders, political leaders—he's confronting powers, right? So I think that first reading scripture in a way that brings alive that protests is a Christian duty.

But I think also, Miroslav, another thing that has really sustained me has been listening to activists, listening to those who are on the ground. And there are a lot of people of faith on the ground who've been organizing for years surrounding these kinds of questions. So what does it mean for people like me, whether you're a Christian in a church, a lay person or someone that is in another particular community, to begin engaging and asking these questions. There are a couple of things and I could say more, but I think that listening to those on the ground, listening to how they're serving the communities that are directly affected—in this case black communities that are directly effected by police policing, brutal policing and things like this—is really important.

Miroslav Volf: So if somebody were to ask you, "give me a sketch of what in Christian faith should motivate me to stand for not just inclusion, but a full fledged embrace of difference," how would you respond to that?

Keri Day: What should motivate us as Christians first is what's in the life of Christ, right? What do we see playing out in the life of Christ? Because this gives us sort of vision into the very life of God. Now this is important, right? But it's connecting that—how does that apply then to what we are experiencing today? So for example, if we're talking about Jesus as a part of the Jewish community that was underneath—they were underneath Roman imperial oppression—what are the ways in which today African-Americans are underneath white American oppression? Making these particular connections, I think the first motivation is that—you can see I keep invoking scripture, right? There is something about the scriptural text that is meant for our freedom and liberation. It frees us towards a life that is lived with and for others, but it means making these connections, I think, Miroslav. So I think that's the first motivation.

The second motivation that Christians should have is that we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the earth. We are called to serve, which means that it is not simply about asking whether issues that arise: is it serving our interests or our present views? And in this case, I would say white communities, this is a very important point. But rather, it is asking what are the ways in which I can come into contact and engaging African American folks, in ways that allow me to be shocked and surprised by their stories in order to realize the inadequacies of my own thoughts about the world, and in this case about America, in relationship to their stories and experiences. I think that kind of surprise—and we see that going on in the gospels that constantly, we are shocked and surprised by what Jesus has to say about those that are seen as marginalized and oppressed and ostracized and even criminal.

Miroslav Volf: So do I understand correctly, it's almost like an intersection between the gospels and how the gospels have been read by African American communities through the centuries?

Keri Day: That's right. Exactly. I think that African American communities, because of what they've experienced, they've had to precisely what I'm talking about. They've had to read the gospels in some ways with attention to those the least of these, to those who have been counted out and marginalized, as well as, for example, the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, which talks about attending to the poor and the widow to those who have been discounted. Yes, I think that is precisely what I'm trying to say is that we need less of hermeneutics above that don't take seriously our call as Christians to address injustices as central to our identity. We need more of a hermeneutics from below that allows us to do that.

Miroslav Volf: And one of the things that's happening below is—obviously we experience it now—experience, especially experience of black men living under oppression. We hear about their humiliation. We hear about their rates of incarceration, but their pride, their rage, their dignity. It's been a lot of discussion about a black men's experience, which I think is a right thing because they are disproportionately targets of brutality.

But there're also women there, and the case of Brianna Taylor, a black woman who was killed by police in her Louisville apartment—that highlights that there is also another side that is less spoken about. So how has the experience of racism and the experience of this moment being in the life of African-American women?

Keri Day: Yeah. This is a really great question. When George Floyd was killed, those within the black community and by extension others who joined the black community immediately began organizing and mobilizing around George Floyd. And around the time that happened, you did have black women and women of color who spoke up and really confronted the movement itself. And this is something that has happened previous in previous years as well. And part of their lament was why is it that whenever we have major organizing movements against police brutality, that it seems that the ones that are being organized around our African-American men who are getting killed. We know in terms of the numbers that black women are vulnerable as well as black queer people. And the beauty of these laments and these cries for the movement to organize around the lives of black women and black queer people equally is it actually led to, in Louisville, a group of people beginning to organize around Brianna Taylor.

I think that even her name resurfacing—because she died about a couple months ago—her life resurfacing and people organizing and mobilizing around her life really shows that it is important to think about the diversity of those who are vulnerable to police brutality, to a carceral state. And for me that has been critically important. We're talking about within a carceral state, the fastest growing number of people being incarcerated right now, Miroslav, are black women and women of color—the fastest growing group, black queer people within a carceral state. They're rendered invisible altogether. So we still have a lot of work to do, but I've really been grateful that we've seen that it is important to value black women's lives, which was the clarion call during the Civil Rights Movement when Ella Baker and Septima Clark confronted Martin Luther King about this precise issue that racial violence is just not something that happens to black men, but black women and black queer people as well.

Miroslav Volf: Why has there been this shift—or has there been a shift that more women are now being incarcerated?

Keri Day: So for example, the largest group of poor people in the United States and globally, the largest group is women. Black women are disproportionally represented in the United States among economically disadvantaged poor folks. They happen to also be the primary caretakers of children. Talk about poverty. You talk about the absence of good healthcare, the absence of childcare, the lack of a living wage, all of these things converge disproportionately on black women and women of color. And that in many ways, these issues are colored by the racial injustices precisely as black women that they are experiencing even more insidious deleterious forms of stigmatization as poor people because they are black women. Think of the stereotype, the welfare queen. We think of poverty. We think of the welfare queen coming to pimp the system, America’s system, based on her reproductive capabilities.

But isn't it interesting, Miroslav, that in terms of the raw numbers, white women constitute the largest number of women on welfare. But yet you have this image, right? This racialized image of who represents those who are taking from the system. This is why because there is greater racial disenfranchisement alongside economic and reproductive disenfranchisement, precisely that you see more black women in a situation where, for example, they're accessories to a crime. They feel that they had no choice, or they felt pressure along with the boyfriend or husband because they are experiencing cycles of deprivation to participate in certain things. I probably could go on here, but what I've said is some of the reasons why black women are at the center of the carceral state right now.

Miroslav Volf: Yeah, it's almost like there is this quieter side, less visible side of racism, which results in poverty, in inability to hold one's life in one's own hands, but it has a deleterious effects that reverberate through the entirety of social fabric of those communities. Thank you for that insight into experiences of black women.

I wanted to turn to the importance of how system bears upon a people, racialized system bears upon people and therefore the importance of systemic change. At the same time, one of the features of your work is that you emphasize the importance of inwardness, the importance of something like interior transformation. And as I was reading some of your work and perusing, I thought: My goodness, Keri is trying to enact a marriage of two central figures of 19th century philosophy, and this is marriage of Karl Marx and Søren Kierkegaard. One was speaking about need for systemic change; the other one was emphasizing these incredibly importance of inwardness. And I was really struck by that, by the importance—and there're not too many people—there are people who emphasize either one of these, but not too many people who emphasize both of them and both of them together. And you and I can spend a lot of time talking about this, but if you can say just a few words of why do you want this marriage. And then maybe we can go and talk more about what kind of transformations of interior life are necessary for the struggle to be sustained.

Keri Day: This really comes out of the Pentecostal, as I was talking about the Pentecostal evangelical tradition that I grew up in, which really focus on the interior life. And that was very important for me coming into my own as an African American woman, through college and through a seminary. I often felt like there was such a focus on structures to the exclusion of how does truly the individual participate in the remaking of oneself in order to be aware that structural transformation is needed and to know how one should participate in structural justice.

And so for me, as you talk about—I love this language of a marriage of Marx and Kierkegaard—that this is precisely that it wasn't an either-or which is something that sort of concerned and agitated me, but it was a sort of bringing together and saying, "Why can't there be a both-and? Why can't there be somewhat of a third option?" And really this marriage echoes, for example, Howard Thurman in Jesus and the Disinherited. Howard Thurman says it is about structural transformation, as it relates to racial injustice, but here's the problem: Thurman wanted to be clear that in the process of attempting to achieve structural justice, and this case racial justice, that African Americans, in this case, Christians would be equally aware that they are not remaking themselves in the image of their oppressors, that they not give way, acquiesce to the hatred and the bitterness and the fear that really deeply affects the human personality. It deeply affects our psyche. It produces trauma and pain and how we wade through that. So this notion of remaking the self is so critical because the question becomes: after we have achieved liberation or some measure of approximate liberation, the question becomes not just what we will do, but who we will be. And to me that seems to be an equally fundamental question.

Miroslav Volf: Yeah. And you speak also that in some ways the resistance itself, if I understood you correctly, begins in the interior space. As I was reading about it and then thinking about it, I thought about my own experience of oppressive kind of socialist communist regime in former Yugoslavia. And the feeling was that one is delivered to the whim of another, a sense of impotent, sense of crippling fear. And sometimes if one went even deeper, one found in oneself some resources to resist, but the problem always was that it almost seems like they deposited their own oppression into my own soul so that I would respond in equal measure, and have this reactive stance rather than resisting with a view of something that's positive, something that's new.

Keri Day: You're absolutely right. And I've been thinking about this on the question of: when it comes to remaking the self in conversation with structural transformation, which one comes first? And that seems to be an interesting question because it seems to me—for example, when I look at the Civil Rights Movement, what we see among King, among Ella Baker, among others that are really shaping and fashioning what would be a tremendous movement that would change the course of history, that you had both at play, right? That there was a way in which, as you're talking about, Miroslav, that there is this deep existential awakening that is transpiring, that in some ways allows one to see that the simply being remade in the violent image of what's out there can have a detrimental impact on one's own soul.

Even if one gets what one wants externally in terms of structures—in the moment I can't help but also include the Holy spirit here—but the Spirit works through the concrete every day actions and movements of human beings in the world. And this is what I've seen is that throughout history, people are able to do precisely what you described, precisely what I'm talking about in terms of this inwardness that Kierkegaard is referring to, precisely what Thurman is talking about because they're seeing the movement of God in the world being modeled through this movement or that movement, and so forth. Certainly this was King. This was Thurman that they were writing about, what they were seeing and how it was deeply impacting their own sense of remaking and in their case, a remaking in the spirit.

Miroslav Volf: So how does one nurture that? Presumably that's important at the beginning; that's important in the course of engagement; and that's important, as you mentioned earlier, afterward—the kind of the interior life and the integrity, if you want, even of interior life. How does one attend to it? How does one preserve that which has been born so that this plan that started growing when one saw a movement of the spirit somewhere? How does one prevent that plan from being trampled? How does one let it be a sturdy tree so that it can carry a life in the struggle?

Keri Day: For me, it really was confronting the fear that is associated with acknowledging that you have things wrong theologically or some aspect of the world socially. For example, I see many of my white students come to a seminary here at Princeton, a seminary, and as they talk with me about white privilege, about divesting of whiteness, the first thing that they're deeply struggling with is their fear. What does it mean once I acknowledge that indeed, something has gone wrong—my way of thinking, the categories that I have to interpret the world are wrong? Where do I go from here? It's almost like a total breaking down of a system and then a rebuilding. And so for me, it was confronting that particular fear.

And then as I was talking about earlier, taking very seriously the conversations that are going on, which means I actually have to make myself uncomfortable. I've got to go have some conversations with folks that may agitate my sensibilities of what I previously thought, in this case, for example, about race relations or about poverty, right? Or in this case about queer people, I have to actually go and begin to have conversations, to begin to come into community with people who are different from me. And honestly, I don't think there's any way around that. I could say a lot more, Miroslav, but really the fear and really making oneself uncomfortable and beginning to learn something different from others than what I presently know, and then developing the courage to act upon what I know. These are the things that I think are desperately needed.

Miroslav Volf: So, you go and face your fear. You work on your courage and all of it is—I take it and I hear that in your voice, in your stance and read it in your books. All of it is motivated but by some kind of a hope that won't be put down. What's the source of that hope?

Keri Day: To me, the source of that hope—at risk of becoming a Pentecostal preacher this moment! To me, the source of that hope is—and this is not a liberal optimism; I want to be clear when I talk about it. This is not just liberal optimism. For me, there is a real hope that something can be created new. Jesus talks about as he's moving and walking: the Kingdom of God looks like this; the reign of God looks like this, that there is a hope of newness of life. But that this newness can only be embodied concretely in a community that is willing to embrace, to believe that there is another way of being; there is another way of living.

And, someone might say, "This is naive!" There are fundamental differences that might be—our differences might be incommensurable, meaning that we might not be able to get past our differences. Maybe toleration is the best thing we can do. Toleration might be a secular conversation, and I'll say in some cases, in order for violence to not be a possibility within a secular democracy, toleration might be a pragmatic mode. I want to concede that.

But I think the power of the Christian community is not only to speak but to live into this newness of life. We will really have to redeem the dangerous memories of the gospel. And when I say the gospels, I just don't mean like in the canonical biblical texts, but also the gospels as it has continued to be written through the early freedom struggle, during slavery and post emancipation, and to Jim Crow, the stories not only of African Americans but of other racial minorities in this country. That's what I mean by the good news—the ways in which these communities came to understand God in their midst, that God was still a God of freedom and liberation, despite them being locked in the vicissitudes and the throes of racial class and gender oppression.

Miroslav Volf: Keri, you spoke about this phrase, "dangerous memories," and going back to the past and in the past kind of retrieving something that calls into question the present. Can you say more about how that looks like, retrieval and the function of dangerous memories?

Keri Day: Yeah. So when I speak of retrieving or redeeming dangerous memories, I'm speaking of things that have happened in the past that are oftentimes repressed, silence, or erased, as as a way to precisely not have these things speak to the present. It is to erase, to in some ways eradicate. What makes them dangerous and the reason why they need to be erased is because it's implications on how we might live.

So let me give an example. I'm thinking here—we've heard about this on CNN and other media outlets of the Tulsa Riot of 1921. This is, for example, a dangerous memory that I would think about in this moment of which we're talking right now about looting and rioting, and how all protesters are essentially being equated with looters and rioters and the need to completely say they're wrong.

It's real interesting in 1921, the Tulsa Riot, which has been completely erased, completely silenced from our history in America, but this was a massacre of which thousands of whites descended upon African American residential communities, as well as dozens of black businesses that have been built. This was referred to as Black Wall Street at the time. And literally not only killed hundreds of people, but through the looting and the rioting and other things—because of the racism, they wanted these folks gone—through all of that left 10,000 African Americans homeless.

This is a history that has been completely erased. We just don't know about it. Growing up, you don't hear about this at all. And to me, what does it mean to redeem a memory, obviously, that is dangerous in the sense that it shows the deep racial injustices not only in how we narrate American history, but also surrounding the real grief and trauma and pain and systematic disenfranchisement that black folks have endured? And it is dangerous because it brings all of this to the fore and it says that there's a need for America to repent and make reparations, restorative justice to what has transpired a long history.

One could say that the redeeming of dangerous memories is also in how Brianna Taylor was brought to the forefront after the George Floyd incident. Police officers came into her home and killed her in her own home, and then try to cover it up before it became a news, I think, for several days and then died out. That precisely this sort of redeeming, this recovering of Brianna Taylor's narrative as worthy of organizing around, that black women's lives are worthy of organizing and mobilizing around as much as black men's lives because black women have their own experiences of staring down the demonic forces of a carceral state, of being disenfranchised through other institutions and systems in America, such as education, and as I was talking about earlier, wage. We could sit here and talk about the ways in which black women earn the least on the dollar. When you look at, white men, black men, white women, and then black women—they're at the very bottom of wage earners, particularly in blue collar work.

To me, she is a very important—to me, I would be remiss if I did not also say that part of the discussion has been about black women and black queer people as well. Tony McDade—there've been others that have been—their stories have been amplified of being killed at the hands of a policing state that is the United States. And all of these folks, narratives and stories of being killed, are now being heard, as people are marching and protesting around this nation.

The question becomes, when were we redeeming or retrieving dangerous memories—they can be dangerous in the sense that they revive a suppressed history as a way of holding America accountable. But they can also be dangerous in the sense that it re-stokes bitter divisions and hatred. This is part of the conversation.

And I think this is where the Christian community comes in. Again, I really want to push this, that we have a responsibility. In Scriptures, God is constantly calling the children of Israel to remember. Christian communities can play a role because this sits right within our texts, the texts within our tradition of how we can think about redeeming dangerous memories in way that can actually contribute to conversations of freedom and liberation, and also in this moment, for example, help white communities to sea the depth of systemic racism that has been present in this nation that should move them to think differently, to confront their fears, to be uncomfortable and to participate in the work of racial justice. But I want to say that this is central to who we are as Christians because precisely we are aligning ourselves with the gospel mandate. What we have seen in the ministry and in life and message of Jesus to do justice and to articulate this newness of life that I was just talking about, which includes right relations, just relations, and caring and compassionate and inclusive relations.

Miroslav Volf: Yeah. That's a wonderful way of talking about it. You see that in the message of Jesus. But also at the very end of the Christian Bible, there's this phrase that resound. It's almost like a charge or like the promise into the history of the church, which you just sketch: "Behold, I make all things new."

Keri, in this hope, you and I work. And thank you very much for this conversation.

Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologians, Keri Day and Miroslav Volf. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. If you're just hearing about us, we'd be honored if you'd subscribe to the show. It's available wherever you can listen to podcasts. New shows drop at least every Saturday with the occasional midweek.

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