by Jamall Calloway
The lack of a consistent Womanist presence places Union in turmoil. To fill the empty space, the administration hires well-trained and talented Womanist scholars to teach intermittently, but that fails to account for the absence of a full-time, tenure-track, black woman on the faculty. This is the humiliating predicament in which a seminary most known for its liberation identity finds itself.
But on April 7, during the premiere of a new documentary, the school saw a glimpse of its history, a reminder of itsraison d’etre. The premiere of visionary Womanist filmmaker and Union alumna Anika Gibbons’s “Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology,” brought the voice of Katie Cannon inside James Chapel to disrupt the “epistemological sea of forgetfulness” and admonish us to “tell our truths, ‘anyway’, even when they tell us our truth is a lie… tell it, ‘anyway’.”
Attendees felt the kinesthetic energy of Kelly Brown Douglas (above) as she explained her struggle with her faith in the church while the church was unloving towards her dear friend, Lloyd. Douglas also described how black male preachers, her brothers, radicalized her by insisting on what she could and could not do as a female clergyperson. The documentary sat viewers at the feet of Jacquelyn Grant as she explained how we must “move beyond those single issues and develop real liberation for all of God’s people.” And with passion and wisdom, we felt the heart of Emile Townes as she preached how the moral imperative for black women is to “not live in the foils of old, old wounds. It is not life giving; it is not healthy…”
Key architects in the field told their stories, their experiences and spoke about the past and future of the Womanist theology, including Union scholars who created space for the blossoming of Womanist theology in its early days. Notably absent was Delores Williams, who did not participate in the documentary. Although Williams’ brilliance and work has done so much for the field, if Womanism has taught us anything, it is that black women have their own agency, their own right to say “no”, to refuse, to decline. Delores Williams’s name is synonymous with Union, and her blood, sweat, tears and energy are all over these hallways, just like her spirit permeated the scenes of the documentary. In fact, Delores Williams is disrespected more by the absence of a black woman on faculty continuing her legacy more than by her absence from a documentary that only starts a much-needed conversation.
After the documentary, Katie Cannon, Sonia Sanchez, Teresa Delgado, Jacquelyn Grant, and current M.Div. Student Aimme Rogers blessed Union with their insights on a discussion panel. Sonia Sanchez explained the history of teaching about black women in the United States and the hell she experienced in trying to do so. Teresa Delgado talked about studying under Delores Williams and constructing a Latina theology. Aimme Rogers explained how she plans on constructing a holistic approach to health and wellness for people, starting with growing nutritious food for the body.
The film, and the dialogue it sparks, is necessary. It is important. Womanist theology and the relationship it has with this historic institution do matter. Union — the institution, its faculty, and its students — is part of a legacy that altered the trajectory of modern theology.
Union’s crucial challenge now is to not rest on that history, to not simply rely on that history without honoring it with unmitigated integrity; if we continue to rest, we will continue to disrespect that history by bringing in new students who do not see and cannot experience the continuation of that history. If we fail to honor and continue that history, we are shaming our past and we are shaming ourselves. This documentary was not just a film, it was not just a braggadocio’s reminder of what happened here — this documentary was a prophetic call to repentance.
The film will be shown at the American Academy of Religion conference in California later this year.