January 21 2018

Making the Way Together

by Emilie M. Townes, Vanderbilt University Divinity School

Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.

Among the many important things that feminist theologian Letty Russell taught me is the importance of seeing one’s work in the academy as activism—or perhaps better put, that a key component of scholarly work should be done through the framework of activism. Indeed, Russell was one of three people I dedicated my 2008 AAR Presidential Address in memory of, honoring scholars whose work embodied scholarship and activism.1 She taught me that it was important to be passionate about what I teach and also about how I teach it.

Russell employed a form of intersectionality (though she did not use the term) to help us understand that gender, racial, and class oppressions operate in society, the church, and in many of our classrooms. Her early works, The Future of Partnership, Becoming Human, Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective—A Theology (1974), and Household of Freedom: Authority in Feminist Theology (1987) gave me a place to find my voice as a divinity school student and later as a doctoral student coming of age in the 1980s. She also taught and wrote before the rise of womanist thought in the theological disciplines; her work helped me name what was missing in so much of what I was studying and hearing in classroom lectures: the fact that some of us, if not most of us, live in a richly complex world that cannot be fully captured by universals or heuristics grounded in flat absolutes. It was through Russell’s work that I first encountered the notion that we are complex bodies who cannot be defined or confined to a single notion of class, gender, or race. As I look back over my career as a social ethicist, I see how her work laid the foundation for me to be able to embrace the interstructured/intersectional methodology of womanist thought.


So what have I learned over the years as I continue to mature as a teacher and scholar from this strong foundation? When I paired Russell’s work in theology with legal theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s introduction of the term intersectionality into academic discourse to explain how race oppression and gender oppression interact in Black women’s lives (1989), the first thing it taught me was to question the notion of objectivity. In my presidential address I argued:

i don’t believe that scholarship is or should be an objective enterprise

here, i am not equating objective with rigorous

they aren’t the same thing at all

and i will always argue for deep-walking rigorous scholarship

what i am arguing against is the kind of disinterested research tact that doesn’t figure in that our work is going to have a profound impact on someone’s life in some way and some how

i worry when we think that we are only dealing with ideas and concepts as if they have no heart and soul behind them

if they matter to us, they will matter to others

and we should do our work with passion and precision and realize that we should not aspire to be the dip sticks for intellectual hubris


The second value that intersectionality taught me is that it is vital that scholars of religion deploy the knowledge we have amassed into public arenas. Too often, the public representation of religion and religiosity are simplistic caricatures that cordon off any possibility of understanding the heart and soul of various religions. This becomes even more problematic when we shape global and domestic policies around those caricatures rather than real flesh and blood. 

It is crucial as scholars that we assume the responsibilities of being public educators because we live in an increasingly polarized world in which religion matters as beliefs and practices. 


Through the lens of intersectionality, I have also learned that genuine intellectual engagement means engaging a wide variety of sources—it is more than repeating and reoutfitting our scholarship in exactly the same ideas and concepts that we learned in graduate school. I believe that the best teaching comes out of a spiral of inquiry where we move from concepts to tools that help us and our students craft scholarship that will contribute to the academy and to the lives beyond the halls of academy—to our societies. In other words, we must think in more expansive ways than our disciplines have taught us. Yes, it is important to master our respective disciplines, but there is more for us to know and engage. We are so much better at what we do when we step outside the boundaries of our training and begin to talk to colleagues in other disciplines rather than take comfort in the boundaries of our training.

Intersectionality—for me, exploring how class, gender, race, sex and sexuality play an unseen heavy hand in everyday experience—encourages us to grow our scholarship large and expand our pedagogical tool kits. So in many ways, I think that by embracing the interstructured emphasis of womanist methodology, I am continuing to grow the foundational ideals that Russell and Crenshaw helped forge. It is not surprising that it was in the work of Alice Walker, a writer who is not an academic, that things began to break open for me as I (and others) looked at her four-part definition of “womanist” in her 1984 collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.2


Russell, Crenshaw, Walker! What a triumvirate! What they produce for me is the somewhat ironic realization that a key piece of what gives intersectionality its pedagogical spark and fire is its focus on particularity. In my own work, I often focus on Black societies in the United States and begin by talking about the various shapes and textures of womanhood in them. I want to be very particular about the particular as I explore the vastness of it and as I try to understand the various assortments of Black lives—sociocultural and religious. If I do well, then I open the door to conversations with others who are not Black folks or even the Black folks I’m talking about and with. This is the crucial move in intersectionality: to concentrate on particularities rather than universals. If I am exploring the deep nuances of Black lives, then I am taking seriously my particularity—not as a form of essentialism (and that would be a long conversation in itself), but more as epistemology where my scholarship and teaching can meet and greet others in our intricately and intimately interwoven postmodern culture.


With particularity firing the furnace of intersectionality, we are opened to a more expansive awareness and vision for our research, writing, and teaching. It also helps us think through our curricula. Far too many of us are holding on to curriculum models that are dangerously close to being on ontological suicide watch. We’re gearing up for a curriculum revision at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and I am beginning to wonder if it might help my colleagues and I to think of what we are attempting to undertake is actually a curriculum transformation. I don’t fully know all that I mean by this, and it may only lead down a rabbit hole, but I do know that the questions that students are asking me in my classes today are not the same ones they asked in 1989 when I began teaching full time.

I am not suggesting that we mindlessly rush to “change,” but I also do not want to be a part of a faculty that is the last bastion of irrelevancy. I also don’t want to be a part of a faculty that practices a kind of fifty-two-card pickup style of curriculum that is more touchy-feely than rigorous and analytical. I want a balance that helps educate our students for the worlds they are already in and the worlds they will help shape and create. I must admit it is hard for me to see what the rigorous new curriculum might look like, but I know in my bones we have to look for it—together as a faculty dedicated to teaching, learning, scholarship, and doing so with eyes pointed to creating a more just world.

Leaning into intersectionality may well help us get there, but I suspect that it will not be without quite a few disciplinary tantrums and fending off urges to hoard our turf. We will have to give up the urge to see our curriculum as a possession and think of it more as gift and challenge to live into our commitments. If I learned anything from Letty Russell, it is that we make the way together. 


1 In addition to Russell, the lecture was also given in memory of Catherine Bell and Rosemary Skinner Keller. See Townes, Emilie M. 2009. “Walking on the Rim Bones of Nothingness: Scholarship and Activism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77(1): 1–15. ^

2 Walker's four-part definition of womanist (1983):

1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.)  A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown."  Responsible. In charge. Serious.

2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: "Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented."  Traditionally capable, as in: "Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.

4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender. ^


Cannon, Katie Geneva. April 2, 1997. “Translating Womanism into Pedagogical Praxis.” Paper presented at the Loy H. Witherspoon Lectures in Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

———. 2014. “Pedagogical Praxis in African American Theology.” In The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology, edited by Katie G. Cannon and Anthony Pinn, 319–330. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics." University of Chicago Legal Forum: 139–67.

Russell, Letty M. 1974. Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective—A Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press.

Simpson, Joanna. June 2009. Everyone Belongs: A Toolkit for Applying Intersectionality. Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW). Ottawa.

Townes, Emilie M. 2009. “Presidential Address: Walking Across the Rim Bones of Nothingness: Scholarship and Activism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77 (1): 1–15.

Walker, Alice. 1983. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Emilie M. Townes is the dean and Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, becoming the first African American to serve as dean of the Divinity School in 2013. She was the first African American woman to become president of the American Academy of Religion (2008). Editor of two collections of essays, A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering (Orbis, 1993) and Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation (Orbis, 1997), she has also authored Womanist Ethics, Womanist Hope (Scholars Press, 1993); In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Abingdon Press, 1995); Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Issues and a Womanist Ethic of Care (Continuum, 1998); and Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). She is coeditor with Stephanie Y. Mitchem of  Faith, Health, and Healing in African American Life (Praeger, 2008) and Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) done with Katie Geneva Cannon and Angela Sims.

Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.