Rev. Dr. Mitzi J. Smith, Ph.D. is the J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA. Prior to joining CTS, Smith taught for over thirteen years at Ashland Theological Seminary’s Detroit campus. Her latest book is Minoritized Women Reading Race and Ethnicity (co-edited with Jin Young Choi, 2020). You can learn more about Rev. Dr. Smith and her publications at her website and on academia.edu: www.mitzijsmith.com and https://ctsnet.academia.edu/MitziSmith. Twitter: @MitziJSmithPhD
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
My research journey began when my first academic mentor Cain Hope Felder offered me the opportunity to revise for publication a paper I wrote in a master’s class on ancient slavery and the New Testament (published in the African American Jubilee Bible, 1999, when I started the Ph.D. program at Harvard University). My second academic publication is an essay on the apocryphal text The Acts of Peter and the Twelve. After earning the Ph.D., I wrote two essays for True to Our Native Land, the first African American one volume commentary of the NT (2007). My first book on the Acts of the Apostles, based on my dissertation, was published in 2011. My evolution as a womanist NT scholar began in my first academic teaching position at Ashland Theological Seminary’s Detroit campus. The justice issues facing my students and poor black women and their families in Detroit, Flint and other Michigan cities compelled me to raise the consciousness of my students and readers about justice issues impacting them and how it matters for biblical interpretation. Increasingly, my writings privilege the intersectional lived realities of black women as frameworks for reading sacred texts. Prioritizing the intersectional lived realities and interlocking oppressions of black women allows me to raise different questions, to read differently and radically center black women. My approach is a womanist inter(con)textual conscientization and decolonization as demonstrated in Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
My research areas are womanist and African American biblical interpretation, ancient slavery, and New Testament studies. The questions/concerns that arise from my experience as a black woman and from black communities and churches as well as the work of other African American, womanist, and other nonwhite scholars, like Katie Cannon and Cain Hope Felder, sparked my interest. The precarity of black life in the US and beyond ignites my research interests. The undeniable reality of black women’s lives impacted by the interlocking oppressions of sexism, racism, classism, unbridled capitalism, and heterosexism frame my research. These systems of oppression emerge from institutionalized religion’s infidelity and con/sensual pact with the violence of empire or state. Sacred texts and interpretations/interpreters are not unaffected by the entanglement, and therefore require that we read readers and sacred written texts critically, employing diverse perspectives that expose and loosen white supremacy and empire’s grip. Freedom, hope, justice, equality, and equity spark my interests.
As a woman of African descent, how have you navigated challenges in your academic journey?
The challenges can be many, diverse, and overwhelming. Black women biblical scholars are still less than 10% of the academy. The temptation to quit a doctoral program or to leave the academy (if not pushed out) can result from a combination of racism, sexism, elitism, and/or lack of support, isolation, devaluation of our work when it does not center whiteness, imposter syndrome, attempts to silence or render us invisible, presumptions of incompetence, and so on. It is important to develop a community of mentors; no one mentor can be everything we need. People have mentored us that we fail to identify as such. My mother was my first mentor; she taught me to pray but also the importance of getting off my knees, assessing my options and possibilities, being resourceful, and seeking help. She was an imaginative woman of prayer, hope, and perseverance. Other black and nonblack women and men on the journey were informal peer mentors; we listened to, encouraged, and assisted each other. I discovered a peer-mentoring community through the Wabash Center in my first year of teaching that encouraged me to marry my research passions with my teaching/syllabi. Wabash continues to be a resource. I cannot overstate the importance of self-care inclusive of a weekly day off from everything work, healthy eating, exercise, meditation, a hobby, remaining hope, and laughter. We must work smarter and healthier, especially as single black women or single women period. Writing is always a challenge. Some people ask me how I publish so much; some insinuate I have help. It helps that I was a legal secretary who typed over 120 wpm. But I did not publish my first book until five years after I earned my Ph.D. I had some mishaps, including a stolen laptop and external drive with my revised dissertation on it. I had to focus on my passions and developing my path and not let others dictate my unfolding story based on their own perceived or real limitations. It is an act of self-care to imaginatively mind our own stories, while building upon legacies of our ancestors and predecessors.
Can you share anything about a current project that you have?
I am currently working on three or four book projects. One is a sequel to Stony the Road we Trod. African American Biblical Interpretation (1991),which was edited by an early mentor Dr. Cain Hope Felder. The follow-up volume is entitled Bitter the Chastening Road: Africana Interpretation in the Age of #BLM, #SayHerName and #MeToo and will be published toward the end of 2021 (Lexington Books), if all goes well. About thirty black scholars committed to write essays for Bitter the Chastening Road (co-editors Drs. Angela Parker, Esau McCaulley, Ericka Dunbar); in 1991 our numbers in the academy were less and our presence even more precarious. America (and the academy) still falls short of its promises. Justice eludes us. This is the hermeneutical soil that births this project. Another project is a book on biblical interpretation (what it is and how it can be done) with my former HUSD MDiv professor, Michael Newheart. We are writing the proposal and will submit it to a publisher soon.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the intersection of race, gender and religion?
Scholars agree that a common element of the phenomenon called ‘religion’ is the canonization of authoritative sacred texts. All religions have sacred texts. For Christianity, of course, it is the Bible. As a womanist biblical scholar, I read the sacred texts of the Christian religion (Hebrew Bible and Second/New Testament with apocrypha) through the framework of and in dialogue with black women’s experiences, epistemologies, traditions and artifacts, privileging freedom and justice (see Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation [Cascade, 2018] and I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader [Cascade, 2015]). The Bible, as sacred text, is both a subject and object of interpretation. I read the Bible critically, and I sometimes read black people and how they engage(d) or interpret sacred texts. For example, in my essay, “‘Unbought and Unbossed’: Zilpha Elaw and Old Elizabeth and a Political Discourse of Origins” (Black Theology 9.3 : 287-311), Zilpha and Elizabeth, two 19th century black itinerant preaching women, interpreted their own revelations and calls to public preaching ministry using Pauline texts like Galatians where Paul describes his own call; they understood their calls as special, as did Paul, while maintaining Paul’s command that women generally keep silent in public worship services. Their interpretation of Paul legitimated their calls and compelled them to public preaching against the status quo of institutionalized religion. Whether or not religion is oppressive or freeing depends on how we interpret sacred texts and what theologies and ethics we construct as a result. Reading black interpreters and reading the Bible differently from a womanist and/or African American perspective, contribute to, un/recover, and/or (re)construct theologies and ethics that are oppressive or freeing as components of religion.