Azmera Hammouri-Davis, MTS candidate, attended the third annual Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture Conference at HDS on February 28 and March 1, 2019. Below is her reflection following the conference.
In a time where violence, hatred, racism and fear are being propagated with increased levels of intensity, our imagination is our greatest weapon. How can we imagine a world beyond the one we are living? And what must we do to cultivate, sustain, and value the power that our imagination carries to elicit this crucial work? This is the message that shot through my veins as I listened to Kendra Rosalie Hicks speak ever poignantly and astutely at the third annual Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture Conference (BRSCC) at Harvard Divinity School on March 1.
In 2016, the BRSCC was initiated by HDS student leaders Karlene Griffiths Sekou, PhD candidate, Taylor Stewart, MDiv '18, and others through the organization Harambee: Students of African Descent at Harvard Divinity School. I had the privilege to attend this conference in 2016 as a student in the Diversity and Explorations Program and seeing the passion and purpose in the work of these scholars heavily inspired my decision to apply to HDS.
I am a first-year Master of Theological Studies student at HDS, and I am focusing on questions of identity and belonging as they relate to African and African American religions. This was my second time attending the conference, and it was the first time I heard Hicks speak. She spoke about her epistemology for creating a better future for black women in the face of direct, cultural, and structural violence. I recently returned from an HDS course in Israel and Palestine, and this could not have been more timely.
Rooted in the grim reality of increased death of black women that emerges as a symptom of displacement and economic disenfranchisement, The Estuary Projects aims to disrupt these stark endings by challenging the audience to view these conditions as "fertile ground" for the birth of "the creation of a new world." Rather than "spending a disproportionate and unnecessary amount of time putting out fires and resisting the systems of oppression" that we are plagued by daily, Hicks invites us to "spend time thinking about, playing with, and helping cultivate life affirming systems."
The Estuary Projects is significant for multiple reasons. Not only because it draws attention to what Hicks calls "an apocalypse in Roxbury," meaning the murder of 11 black women in the Boston neighborhood within 12 weeks, but also because it is a physical manifestation of praxis enacted. When scholars discuss how bridging the worlds of theory and practice are crucial to the integrity, livelihood, and meaning of their work, Hicks leads by example in producing this project.
The Estuary Projects is a curation of art installations that "allow us to locate ourselves in our lineage, re-learn how to imagine and implement small experiments that can shift the course of our history forever." By honoring the lives of the 11 women who were killed, we are able to engage in a collective remembrance, an introspective imagining, and a hopeful experiment of what a more just world could look like. Organizers of the 2019 BRSCC included HDS students Fatema Elbakoury, Jarred Batchelor-Hamilton, Ashley Lipscomb, Christina Desert, Veronique Jones, and HDS alumna Karlene Griffiths Sekou.
Collectively, they engaged with these principles and conjured their own manifestation of this experiment by honoring HDS Senior Lecturer Cheryl Giles with the Sankofa Award, an honor that highlights a community member who reflects the best of human contributions to the flourishing of the Black community at HDS.
As I listened to Hicks speak, I thought about what new structures that build our world would look like. A world unencumbered by ransacked notions of hegemony, domination, and repercussions of colonialism that continue to manifest in the forms of structural, psychological, social, economical, political anti-blackness transnationally. If we are going to build a new future, then on what foundation will that future be built on and for who will it be built? If we are going to teach a generation—what will we teach them and for who specifically will we teach? Of whom will we teach them about?
Dr. Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University states "The superstructure of the Western world elevates the individual over the society and therefore enshrines an ethic of one against others in a situation of existential tension." Building on Dr. Asante's claims, Hicks invites us to conceive of a world that relinquishes itself from the Western systems of domination and control, and become in tune with the Afro-centric orientations and ontologies that allow our souls to survive such trauma.
University of Louisville Assistant Professor Michael Brandon McCormack spoke of "joy as resistance" in his panel presentation, and in so doing he alluded to HDS Professor Cornel West, someone who I had the privilege of learning from last semester. I've experienced Professor West invoke this theory of joy as resistance into practice through critical pedagogy in our classroom, and bared witness to the power of transformation that permeates when done with intentionality.
Much like the principles that bell hooks explicates on in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, McCormack mentions how profound Professor West's praxis is in calling for a radical love that can not only transform the spirit of a space, but also embodies the "values that create the possibilities of bringing people together" to build and honor community. It is this subtle, soft-spoken and often overlooked feminine energy that The Estuary Projects highlights.
Accompanying McCormick was MDiv candidate and artist Aric Flemming, along with MTS alumna and University of Connecticut PhD candidate Steve Núñez, who spoke about the potentiality of placing Aristotelian Theology in conversation with Trap music. These presentations exemplified the subversive power that scholarship can have in challenging traditional conceptions of knowledge production.
Hicks spoke of the feminine energy that often remains unseen yet is effervescent and ever present. The energy whose value is questioned because of its intangibility and innate inability to transform into material forms of masculinity that are conceived of as normal renditions of activism. The Estuary Projects invites us all to engage in the undertaking of shifting consciousness and elevating our own notions of the value of imagination, so that we might be able to build the world we all know to be possible.
While masculine renditions of direct action and resistance are acceptable and viewed as the status quo, The Estuary Projects legitimates life of black women and asks that we call attention to what Patricia Hill Collins identified as the intersectional forms of race, class, and gender-based dominance and oppression. It is equally important to invoke the softness, the tenderness that in the words of Hicks, will "embolden people to have the audacity to imagine something new." Indeed, by lifting up the voices of these black women and honoring the souls and lives with whom they've interfaced we can lay the foundation for a new cultivation of joy and happiness to be created amongst our generation.