I really love my seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. Faculty and staff there are committed to issues of justice and spiritual growth. It is also a place where only about 45% of the students are white. I want to support a place like that and more important, learn from the variety of perspectives and experiences of my classmates. It is a place where I can focus on issues important to me, like being a good ally by attending to my white privilege. I am convinced that my anti-racist work as a white Southern academic should also include theological and religious frameworks. I needed to get in touch with my Jesus.
Part of the institution’s commitment to spiritual formation is the annual faculty, staff, and student weekend retreat, which the founding faculty built into the design of the programs. We just recently had one at the Pinnacle Center in the North Georgia mountains, where we spend two days worshiping together and getting to know one another. We build deeper relationships as classmates at a setting like this, where we pray and take communion together. This year, the dean announced he had been working with friends in Union Point, Georgia, to plan a work day at a historic cemetery near the original location of Mercer University. Here’s what he said:
This summer I learned of a neglected African American cemetery located nearby the Penfield cemetery. I have partnered with African American activists and other leaders to help them with a clean-up effort on October 26. I would very much appreciate it if you would join me as we honor this sacred space and practice remembrance.
He noted that enslaved persons were buried there.
Here is what I wish I had thought: Does it make a difference that the dean is a straight, white, cis-male? Were faculty invited to discuss this topic, welcoming voices from faculty of color? Could groundwork have been laid so that the announcement would have had context for the benefit of the students, most of whom were African American? What is motivating me to want to participate?
What I actually did, though, was volunteer to clean up the cemetery.
A few days later, the dean sent a reminder and included additional information that a filmmaker friend and seminary grad would be filming for a documentary. A few days after that, I learned that a group of African American students had submitted a letter to the dean to express concerns about the project. I have not seen this letter, but the seminary grapevine is real. That was the day I discovered the “Savior Barbie” Instagram account. If you haven’t heard about it, below is a Huff Post article, along with 2 examples of Barbie’s posts.
White Savior Barbie pokes fun at people who suffer from “White Savior Complex,” the term used to describe the white Westerners who travel to third world countries and make the entire affair an exercise in self-congratulatory sacrifice. (Huff Post). The account owners, who remain anonymous, point out, “We have both struggled with our own realizations and are definitely not claiming innocence here.” “Barbie Savior, we hope, is an entertaining jumping off point for some very real discussions, debates, and resolves.” It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with doing volunteer work to help people. WSB targets the idea that Africa needs saving from itself and white people are the ones who can do it. Barbie Savior is there for a photo op, the ultimate selfie. This kind of thinking supported colonialism, conquest, and slavery. It is white supremacy.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting for a minute that the McAfee dean is in error. I have no idea until and unless he discusses it what the process was for bringing this opportunity to the students. For all I know, he brought it to the faculty first for them to unpack together. The letter from students is said to contain references to a diversity strategic plan, which I imagine calls for voice and conversation and inclusion in initiative planning. I have no doubt he is prayerfully and profoundly considering what they have written and will respond appropriately. This is not about him; it is about my own complicity in maintaining racist systems in which the White Savior Complex operates.
So just what was I thinking? My first thought was what a great service project! As a Southern Christian who knows what “Decoration Day” is, I have cleaned old cemeteries for as long as I can remember. My second thought was about the historical significance of the place, for yes, I was in part motivated by it being a very, very old African American cemetery that was the final resting place of former enslaved persons.
My third thought was about my friend Edeltress in Baton Rouge, who had taken me on a detour to her ancestral cemetery one day while we were on a school visit for work. “Do you mind?” she asked me. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here. I was a little girl and my parents brought me.” So we drove to a countryside in Louisiana that I couldn’t find today if I had to. “Here it is,” she said. But looking around, I couldn’t see a graveyard. Just what looked like woods, undergrowth, weeds–way back, about a hundred feet off the side of the road. Edeltress laughed. “Oh, you’re looking for a white cemetery. This is how our cemeteries look.” We tramped around the site, being careful not to step on the graves, and on the way home, she told me stories about her father, who had driven an old broken-down truck so that his white neighbors would not recognize him for a landowner and successful farmer. My people were dangerous. So that is the image I got in my head when the dean asked for volunteers. I thought of paying tribute, in this small way, to my friend.
That is why I am going to acknowledge my white privilege, acknowledge the concerns of my classmates–for they hold us accountable for thinking of and processing these issues before complying–and then go clean up a grave yard. But you won’t see it on Facebook or Twitter. I will not take a selfie with a tombstone. Does this make me admirable? Is this sufficient acknowledgement, or am I assuaging my conscience? Am I asking the right questions? I don’t know, but it gives me something to ponder as I pull weeds.
White supremacy can look like skin heads carrying swastikas; it can look like angry white people wearing red hats. It can be masked by well intentioned white people who secretly voted for Trump. And it can be a white seminary student who fails to do the work of problematizing a workday over the graves of enslaved persons. There is another White Savior resource I find relevant here. White Savior: Racism in the American Church (2019). The film “explores the historic relationship between racism and American Christianity, the ongoing segregation of the church in the US, and the complexities of racial reconciliation” (imdb). I recommend it. The film closes with an African American minister from the Bronx discussing being an ally. “Being an ally,” he said, “means asking ‘What do you need? and sometimes that means just shut up and listen.”
At the end of the day, I believe in a place like McAfee. It exemplifies the complexity of racial reconciling and justice. The messiness of it. It is a place where we can make all the mistakes–and there are many–and learn that the sky doesn’t fall when we make them. It is a place where, sometimes, we can just shut up and listen.
All my brainiac friends don’t get excited. This ain’t about Judith Butler.
There is one part of being a professor that I actually don’t mind: the annual review process. I also enjoyed (!) the Tenure & Promotion process a few years ago, which is very similar, just a little bit higher stakes. Am I a glutton for punishment? Do I also enjoy visiting the dentist or gynecologist? No, I think find the review process meaningful because, at least so far, when I have paused to give account of myself professionally, I have come out on the plus side.
My friend Nichole, also an academic–and one whose good opinion I value and want to keep–helped me start the process this year. She has told me several times that she ought to hang out a shingle for all the counseling she gives me. I don’t argue with her. This time, I was bemoaning my lack of discipline and motivation for writing. “Whitlock,” she said, “what are you talking about? You spent a year interviewing people for your book. And you had an edited collection published this year!” I guess, I told her, I hadn’t thought about those. I tend to focus on the writing that I don’t get done. I wonder if other academics do that. I wonder if other women academics do it. It is a very prohibitive and debilitating habit.
With that in mind, I approached my annual review, which this year must meticulously be entered into an online system. One good thing about having to enter each tiny part of publication information into separate fields is that you can’t miss what you’ve done! In the hope that I won’t lose sight of it this time and thereby break my nasty habit of null productivity (I made that up just now), here is a list of what I have done this year:
I was invited to speak at TCU as part of the Green Honors Chair Lecture Series. I was awarded a sabbatical (see previous post). I chaired a dissertation committee and served as external member on two from Georgia Southern. I wrote a book review that I’m now revising, and I have one book chapter in press and one published. I wrote an invited afterword in a special edition of a journal. I was invited by the dean to give a lecture in her speaker series. I gave three conference presentations. I researched for a book. As far as service (the bane of most academics’ existence), I am associate department chair. I served on a department-level tenure and promotion committee and on a college-level one. I taught an online course for the first time (and liked it!). And: I started seminary at Emory’s Candler School of Theology and moved from my apartment into a bungalow in Atlanta. I started back to church and joined the choir. I made new friends and reconnected with old
All in all, this has been one of the best years I’ve ever had.
A sabbatical is a powerful thing. At my university, they aren’t actually called sabbaticals; They are “Enhanced Faculty Leave.” They are competitive, awarded based on a research proposal. At universities that honor the writing processes of its faculty, sabbaticals are given about once every six or seven years. Sabbaticals, not Enhanced Faculty Leave. Why can’t my university call a sabbatical a sabbatical? Because it would imply to the voting (Republican) public that we lazy, blood-sucking socialist/communist academics were getting something for nothing. That’s about what folks think of academics. Just once I’d like our leadership to take a break from politicking local legislators for additional funds for things like football programs and inform the public that about once every six or seven years, professors need time. Just time. To let the fields lie fallow, which is what has to happen for re-creation, creativity, and good writing to take place. As an act of resistance, I will call my Enhanced Faculty Leave a Sabbatical.
It takes a while to settle in to a sabbatical–I still haven’t completely done it yet. I keep waiting to have to get up and get ready to go somewhere or do something. What I feel beginning to happen is my mind “un-tensing”–relaxing. I’m mentally starting to sort through how I want to approach my various writing projects. I got out a large yellow pad yesterday–the kind people used to hand write dissertations on years ago. I love those yellow pads; you can tell I’m ready to get down to business when I break out an official pad. While I always have top-notch pens, I’ll write on anything. So yesterday I wrote out a list of every project I want to work on this semester. Here’s the list: 1) two conference papers, 2) an essay for a book about my mentor Bill, 2) a book review that’s a year over due, 3) a review of a manuscript for a publisher, 4) my annual review documents, 5) an essay for a new curriculum studies handbook, 6) a book. Thank God I’m on Enhanced Faculty Leave and not a lazy good for nothing sabbatical.
Putting everything on a list is helpful to me. Now, I have sense enough to know that these can’t all be 6 separate writing projects. The conference papers will have to have some framing in common. The book will mine from what I write in them, etc. This prevents me from having to start with a blank page, which is self-defeating to me. If I can only cut and paste a little, I can go forth steadily. Usually. First, I’m going to do the mindless work of the annual review documents. I’m not being flip about taking them seriously. I do. But, it’s like filling out a job application when you have a good resume in front of you. You just lift from on document and put it on the other. This will be time consuming, but little thinking is involved. Next, I will finish the book review before I lose a good friend, the long suffering journal editor, Alan Block. I’m giving myself a week and a half to get these projects done. The others will need framing up theoretically. And that gets tricky. More on this later.
One of my friends is, like me, a recovering fundamentalist Christian.
She suggested that I might get to the root of my issues, whether about relationships, teaching, or writing–whatever–by forgiving myself. It took a recovering fundamentalist to recognize that and present it in that way. The closest I ever got thinking about forgiveness was when my therapist (the one I pay) suggested that I look back at the girl who married young because of gender role social expectations and not so subtle pressure from family. She asked me to engage with that young woman, going back even to the smart tom-boy who felt different and often alone. When I did that very hard work, I asked the young me for forgiveness. I realized that I did not feel like I had taken care of her. I remember that was a very hard session.
But forgiving myself now–that’s different from looking back at me then. Forgive, for what? The issue is the essentially the same it seems. Since my divorce, I have felt robbed of the 16 years I was married. (Side note: it has been 16 years since my divorce. Geez. Get over it.) Robbed, as though they were taken. Passive verb. I had blamed the fundamentalist church, my parents, my husband, Alabama–anyone, everyone. But me. Thing is, I’ve been furious with myself for having done this to myself–and for staying in it for those years. I did this. Me. (Now suddenly the anger issues my paid therapist brought up that I couldn’t see became very clear and noticeable). My unpaid counselor friend calls it discipline fundamentalism. I try to be “good,” but all that old unforgiven baggage surfaces and I act out (yes, there has been acting out), leaving me guilt laden and sorrowful. I make a pact with myself and resolve to do better. Trouble is, that doesn’t work. Hasn’t worked.
In addition to forgiving my self, I will tell myself as often as I need to hear it, “it is enough.” Not “I am enough.” I know I am–my issues are not about confidence or worthiness. I’m just never satisfied with what I’ve accomplished. It’s almost always writing. When I can’t dig in and write a lot, I will read, or now, write here. That’s enough. It’s working. Even writing it now I feel a tremendous sense of relief and peace. So whatever I do, it’s enough for today.
You may ask what this deep reflection has to do with fundamentalism. I think the imprint fundamental Christianity has had on me as a female has been about judgement. Naturally, I was taught at all costs to be a good girl because I would be judged by God. Here on earth, meanwhile, I was expected to be good and conform so I would be judged acceptable by others (what will the neighbors think). I learned to be good so that my daddy would not lose his temper. Be good, be good, be good. And if I were ever human–spontaneous, uninhibited, free-spirited (and all the behaviors these entail)–I felt that judgement upon me from all sides and fell short. So, forgiveness and acceptance is the first, deeply internal step to recovery from fundamentalism. It is the step that allows me to see that judgement is something that somebody else does. And it has very little to do with me. More on this later.
I have lately begun surrounding myself with friends who are either Sagittarius or who have backgrounds in a counseling or therapy profession, or both. I did not start out to purposefully do this, but once I noticed that I seemed to be collecting these kinds of people for friends, I kept keeping track. Now, It is altogether possible that they are drawn to me, so I am trying to figure out what it is that is appealing about me for these inquisitive, curious archers and advising helping professional types. I suspect it is that I tell a good story and tend to have some sort of conflict (I refuse to say drama), entanglement, or crossroads in my life that I am seeking input for. I don’t mind saying that I like to get different viewpoints about what’s going on in my life. It helps me make decisions; it also means I can change my mind based on what seems to be most suitable.
They have different approaches, these groups of friends. I don’t think any of them are both Sagittariuses and therapists. If I could find that person, I’d try very hard to move next door to her. Anyway, what this means is that I get different categories of feedback and support. Generally the Sagittarius free-forward-moving spirit helps me break out of my Virgo straight jacket and see my own possibilities. A Sagittarius cheers me on with, “You can DO it! You must GO for it!” as she is boarding the plane for her own next adventure (did I mention that my friends are almost exclusively women friends?). A counselor/psychologist, on the other hand, mainly asks me questions and insists that I feel my feelings before acting on them.
Let me try to back myself out and try to figure out what it is about me that these bits of cheers and counsel meet. Reading the paragraph above, my Sagittariuses pick up on the doubtfulness, tentativeness, resistance, and hesitancy that I counter with impulsive acting out. My mind-pros insist I get to the root of those feelings, which I avoid by impulsive acting out. Reading the paragraph above, I am surprised I have any friends at all. I think I do tell a good story, and am just endearing enough that they keep me around. I am glad they do.
What does any of this have to do with the topic, writing? Well, that’s mostly what I am doubtful, tentative, resistant, and hesitant about. And that is not a good thing, since I really, really need and truly want to be writing. Lately I’ve had the thought that even though I am a professor, I don’t have anything that I want to especially profess. That’s kind of like being on the Island of Misfit Toys. It is not that I don’t feel worthy or lack confidence; I have friends who have those issues as demons. I feel plenty worthy and confident. I think I haven’t found my joy, my bliss in it yet. I don’t think I’ve found a way, even after over a dozen years of being in the academy in one way or another, to do this job, this work, joyfully. And I truly believe it can and should approached and engaged with joy. So, joyfully onward today. My day, my work, my terms. My bliss.
Today, January 8, is Elvis’s birthday. He would have been 79 years old, which seems astonishing to me. So on this day, I will offer some random thoughts about Elvis and me. Because of those various threads that run through one’s life from age to age, stage to stage, place to place, Elvis runs through mine.
I saw Elvis in 1975 when he came to the new civic center in Huntsville, Alabama. My parents, who have never been to a concert before or since, sent away through the mail for tickets. It’s really remarkable to look back that it ever happened at all–but we went. I, nerd that I am, was having a little temper tantrum because I was having to miss the last day of my 5th grade class. That didn’t last long. My parents remind me that I commandeered the one set of opera glasses they bought and saw Elvis magnified throughout the concert. As I have done since then whenever conversations turn to how his body became ravaged and bloated from drugs, I can testify here that in 1975, Elvis looked good. He was in shape physically and vocally; he was on his game in Huntsville. Of all the things I have done in my life, I am glad I saw Elvis Presley in concert. I am glad my parents sent off for those tickets.
But let me back up. Elvis was a fixture in our house my whole life. My mother owned several original 45 records, and I think eventually she collected every album he ever recorded. I have listed elsewhere all my mother’s Elvis collectibles, so I won’t do it again here. Those records were treasures. The tacit understanding among us was that Elvis was different from the other singers from the 50s they had listened to as teenagers. Even now in my mind there is Elvis and there is Everyone Else. And, as I have also written before, as a good Southern boy, he was ours.
I am listening to the Elvis station on Sirius radio as I write this, a rare live recording of Doncha Think It’s Time. His voice is familiar and comforting. I know all the retorts, have heard them all. Elvis stole black music. He didn’t write his own songs. He was just a performer. He let himself go physically. He split his pants and busted notes on stage. He shot out tvs and caroused with the Memphis Mafia. He did drugs. He mad b-a-a-a-d movies. He posed for a picture with Nixon. And you know what? I’m at the point in my own life to where I say, “So?”
Finally, then, what of Elvis and me? Elvis knew who and what he was. He used his gifts. He had fun and worked hard. He loved his mama and his daddy. He gave back. He never stopped seeking (the last book he was reading was called The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus). And he sang. I’ve decided not to make any more excuse for Elvis. Or me. He is what he is, was what he was. Coming back to this blogging space, I will confess something. When I started it, I was very careful not to reveal anything really personal about myself. As a result, there were chunks of explanation–and really good stuff–that would have been through lines to tie the anecdotes together, making it palpably uninspired. So, like the open casket picture the Enquirer touched up from Elvis’s funeral, I’m writing this for myself, but you are invited to view.
More on this later.
For your listening pleasure, here is Elvis singing the best song ever recorded.
Somebody I used to know once told me she thought happiness was overrated. I’ve thought about that statement for going on a dozen years now, and I think she was wrong. Well, I think she was talking about pleasure, about following one’s desire, about gratification–and all of these are different from happiness. Not only is happiness not overrated, I don’t believe it is rated nearly highly enough on our collective list of priorities.
I was recently on a long, 9-hour drive from Atlanta to South Florida when I began running through my usual thoughts: money, work, goals, writing, weight. I was even running scripts through my mind of events that I envisioned happening so that I would have a ready response. For example, I pictured a scenario in which my boss asks me to assume additional duties at work. I was amazing myself at my sardonic, pointed remarks to her. Then I thought to myself, “I have a 9-hour drive and I am going to sit here and make myself miserable the whole time? This is my vacation, what if I only thought happy thoughts the whole drive, heck, the whole trip?” So I practiced. I made myself happy, or so I thought at the time. Looking back, I think it’s more accurate to say, I rejected negative thoughts for positive ones. Happiness, a deceptively simple notion, is more complicated than it seems.
I’m reading a book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Bright-sided: How positive thinking is undermining America. Ehrenreich has nothing against positive thinking per se, but she argues it has become a tool to lull Americans into compliance with a neo-liberal, consumerist culture. It is, according to her, in the best interest of institutions to keep the population thinking positively because it deflects attention off inequities of capitalist society by focusing on ourselves. Be positive, work harder, pick yourself up, you can do it (!), you deserve it, and my own personal favorite, “everything is going to be just fine/work out….” Ehrenreich goes on to present some amazing survey results: even though we Americans have embraced the power of positive thinking, we don’t report that we are very happy. There are plenty of other, frankly, negative countries whose people are happier than we are. Being happy is not the same as thinking positively. Positive thinking is something you can choose to do; and while I’ve heard it suggested that we “choose happiness,” I think it is more of a state of being. I”m sure the two are connected somehow, and maybe I’ll think about that later.
I can be negative. I am often cynical and suspicious (of politics and banks, for example). I get the blues and feel lonesome. I come from a long line of worriers–it would have been a piece of cake to have found something to worry about the whole drive down to Florida. But, I am a happy person. I am not jolly, and I don’t feel euphoric all that often. So am I sure about this happiness thing? Yeah, I’m sure. I haven’t figured out yet whether happiness is situational, contextual, or even genetically influenced. In fact, I have just begun to think about it at all–apart from that comment about it being overrated all those years ago. Lots of thing “make me happy”: music, Taco Bell, marathons on TNT, watching the ocean, people in my life. But really, I think these things bring me some joy; they bring me feelings of happiness. Happiness, it seems to me, is what you are left with if feelings were stripped away. I think it would and should be articulated differently by different people. For me, it is serenity of the soul. But that’s just a way of saying it. Can one “get happy”? What is happiness? How does happiness fit in with the violence all around us? That is, can our own happiness intersect with that of others? What does that look like? What good does being happy do us? That’s a lot of questions for something so taken for granted.
More on this later.