July 19 2024

You’ve Got to Find Your Voice: What James Cone and Anna Deavere Smith Taught Me About Religion Reporting

Nathan C. Walker

Two newspaper are being printed on a modern press

The jury for the AAR's annual Journalism Awards recently announced the 2021 journalism award winners: Jaweed Kaleem, Jeff Sharlet, and Adelle Banks. Read more about the winners and their reporting.

“Come on. You’ve got to find your voice!,” erupted Dr. James Cone during one of my advisement sessions when I studied at Union Theological Seminary. Leaning over his desk, my professor’s physical presence was just as animated as his vision, challenging me to claim my uniqueness.

Who, me? I thought. The founder of Black liberation theology and author of God of the Oppressed is telling me—the effeminate, white, gay seminarian who used to live in a trailer on a desert farm in Fallon, Nevada—to find my voice? Where do I look?

I came to his office with the transactional intent to have him sign a registration form but left transfixed by a new vision of my future as a Unitarian Universalist minister.

Since his death in 2018, I have continued to reflect on Cone’s challenge. He inspired me to articulate what it meant to simultaneously experience white privilege and sexual oppression, to be both a racial majority and religious minority, to know both class warfare and social mobility, to benefit from both patriarchy and feminism, and to be both the oppressor and the oppressed. He raised my gaze beyond my self-doubts to discover how these complex struggles could be expressed as a blueprint for the emancipation of self and others.

Cone’s challenge reminded me of legendary actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s approach to crafting her one-woman plays. While interviewing people about the LA riots of 1992 or the race riots in Crown Heights the year before, she listened for them to "sing."

What she meant by sing was the moment when her subjects dropped all pretenses and began to simultaneously think and speak. As a linguist, Smith knew they were singing when their unique utterances, semantic patterns, dialects, and ticks were spoken as unfiltered revelations.

These interviews became essential elements of Smith’s award-winning productions Fires in the Mirror (1992), Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1993), and most recently, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education (2016). In each of these masterpieces, she inhabited the voices of the oppressed.

During the pandemic, I kept recalling Cone and Smith when serving on the 2020 and 2021 journalism awards committees for the American Academy of Religion.

While reading dozens of international submissions, I kept scanning for the journalists who had found their voice and who artfully captured people singing.

Rather than descriptive or transactional articles, I left feeling animated and inspired by the journalists who claimed their distinct standpoints. They expressed their uniqueness, either through the subject matter they prioritized, the journalistic forms they applied, and most importantly, by serving as strategic amplifiers for those who found their voice.

Overall, serving on this jury reminded me of two invaluable lessons. Cone’s insight is one for the ages: only you can find your voice. And once found, Smith reminds artists and journalists of their duty to amplify voices that sing.

This alliance, between those who sing and those who broadcast, makes religion reporting possible.

Reverend Dr. Nathan C. Walker is a First Amendment and human rights educator. As president of 1791 Delegates—a public charity named after the year the Bill of Rights was ratified—he manages The Foundation for Religious Literacy and founded ReligionAndPublicLife.org. He is a member of the AAR’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion and chairs its journalism award committee.