Willie James Jennings exposes one of academia’s greatest problems: Non-white students don’t feel like they belong.
“Western education has offered us a distorted vision of what an educated person should look like, and we theological educators have accepted it.” So writes Willie James Jennings in After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Jennings, a prominent figure in the theological academy and an ordained Baptist minister, quite clearly means for the second half of his title to be taken ironically: The world of theological education, he argues, makes many students—perhaps every student who is not white and male—feel like they don’t belong.
After Whiteness is Jennings’s latest contribution to the world of theological education, following The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race in 2010 and a biblical commentary, Acts: A Commentary, The Revolution of the Intimate, in 2018. In 2015, he won the Grawemeyer Award in Religion, the most prestigious prize for a theological work in the United States. He has also written over the years on Black theology, liberation theology, anthropology, cultural criticism and more.
Almost three decades in the classroom have given Willie James Jennings an education in the foibles and flaws of academia, and his take on them is pointed.
Almost three decades in the classroom have also given Jennings an education in the foibles and flaws of academia, and his take on them is pointed. Anyone who has gone to graduate school in any number of fields, theology included, will laugh—and cringe—in recognition of Jennings’s description of the Platonic form of a professor, a man he once interviewed for a position at Yale:
A tall, dark-haired, baritone-voiced, perfectly groomed bearded man dressed like a professor in the middle of a celebrated career. He had 1.5 years of study in Germany, knowledge of German language, theology, biblical languages, seminars, blue suit, brown wingtip shoes, slow speech, legs crossed, quiet confident comportment. This US-born-and-raised scholar even spoke in the interview and during his public lecture with a slight German accent.
I’ve met that dude, seventeen billion times.
In her review of After Whiteness for America, Renée Darline Roden writes, “Not only did I recognize the type, I recognized the desire that stirred within Jennings in response.” Roden, who also recently reviewed Olga M. Segura’s Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church for America, noted that she herself in graduate school “longed to conform in some way to the image of what I thought a competent scholar ought to look like. It’s a rather self-destructive wish—to hope for distorted vision.”
In After Whiteness, Jennings notices during the interview his and his colleagues’ desire to imitate that ideal of a white professor. “I had learned to love an intellectual form that performed white masculinist self-sufficiency, a way of being in the world that aspires to exhibit possession, mastery, and control of knowledge first, and of one’s self second, and if possible of one’s world.”
Willie James Jennings: “The cultivation of belonging should be the goal of all education.”
After Whiteness reminded me of Anthea Butler’s review for America of James Cone’s memoir, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, published shortly after he died in 2018. Cone, whom Butler calls the “father of Black theology,” authored several monumental texts, including Martin and Malcolm in America, Black Theology and Black Power and The Cross and the Lynching Tree. He experienced as a student and a young professor many of the pressures (subtle or not) that Jennings describes.
The very first chapter of Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Butler writes, “chronicles Cone’s struggle to strip away the identity white colleagues attempted to foist upon him. From the time he was told he did not have the grades to get into a doctoral program to challenges about who he truly was as a theologian and scholar, Cone leaned on both his family and the black community of educators who nurtured and continued to support him.”
Because Cone lived through some of the most tumultuous times in U.S. history, he “tells a story that will be familiar to other black intellectuals who were confronted with racism in the classroom,” Butler writes. “One can feel Cone’s anger—from blurting out to his professor in grad school, ‘You are a racist!’ to struggling with the dichotomy of white theologians who wrote about the Gospel without considering the state of the civil rights movement and violence in the United States—rising in the cadence of his writing.”
Theology does not exist in a doctrinal vacuum. It is culled from the culture of the people and the times in which they live, as well as from Christian doctrine and the life of Christ.
That context is crucial to understanding Cone’s work and his importance. “The richness of black culture undergirded his theological mien, and it is the first important lesson of the book: Theology does not exist in a doctrinal vacuum,” Butler comments. “It is culled from the culture of the people and the times in which they live, as well as from Christian doctrine and the life of Christ. It does not ignore the signs of the times.”
Cone himself told Robert Ellsberg in an interview published in America in 2018, “I write because writing is the way I fight. Teaching is the way I resist, doing what I can to subvert white supremacy.”
Cone was also interviewed for America by George Anderson, S.J., in 2006. “Both Catholic and Protestant theologians do theology as if they do not have to engage with the problem of white supremacy and racism,” Cone said. “Not all of them ignore it completely, but some write as if slavery, colonialism and segregation never existed. In fact, white supremacy is more deeply entrenched now than it was in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, because back then, the country acknowledged its racial problems more directly.”
If you noticed these past few weeks that we have taken a bit of a deeper dive than usual into one author or theme, you’re a close reader of America’s literary criticism. In this space every week, we will feature reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
- America writers on baseball through the years
- Phil Klay sounds like Pope Francis
- Who is the next great Catholic novelist? Is it Sally Rooney?
- Jonathan Franzen writes the American Middlemarch
James T. Keane