Dr. Rosetta E. Ross, an ordained United Methodist Elder, is professor of religion at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She pioneered womanist scholarship analyzing religious dimensions of Black women’s Civil Rights activism with her book Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights. Recently, Ross founded the biennial peer-reviewed journal Black Women and Religious Cultures.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
My research journey began before graduate study with interest in legacies of religious women Civil Rights activists. My doctoral research explored grassroots Pentecostal CRM leader Victoria DeLee and pursued questions about embodied and empirical meanings of religious thought. Being introduced to Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and liberation theology during graduate study prompted and fueled my proto-womanist and proto-liberationist sensibilities. The trajectory of my work (two books and 40+ essays, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries) integrates women in civil rights, womanist agency, and liberation thought through interdisciplinary analyses. In my earliest to my recent work—from the book chapter “A Womanist Model of Responsibility” to the recent essay “’Now Who Are Your People?’ Continental and Diasporan Women Encounter Each Other”—I explore activism as religious expression, womanist agency, and transcontinental legacies of women in liberation thought. I conceived and founded Daughters of the African Atlantic to facilitate transcontinental conversations that build on work of African and African American foremothers who collaborated during the late 20th century. My co-edited book (with Rose Mary Amenga-Etego) Unraveling and Reweaving Sacred Canon in Africana Womanhood emerged from continental and U.S. Diasporan African women meeting in the early 21st century to renew legacies of collaborations by our foremothers. These themes also are prevalent in my teaching and professional involvement through courses (including organizing study travel with students in Ghana), mentoring, and guild leadership, the latter including the AAR groups (Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society; Women and Religion; and Class, Religion, and Theology units), as well as the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians and Daughters of the African Atlantic. Recently, I founded the journal Black women and Religious Cultures as a space for expansive discourses on Black women, religions, and spiritualities. The journal’s transnational editorial board helps me maintain collaborations with Black women across Africa and its diaspora. My current scholarly project explores Black women’s CRM field and administrative work as religious activist practice.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
The community in which I grew up and the civil rights leader in that community, Victoria DeLee, sparked my interest in studying religious ethics. My disciplinary study and scholarly pursuits emerged from nascent ideas about Black religion and Black women’s leadership for justice and fairness. I was prompted, both by consistencies and apparent inconsistencies in Christian witness, as well as the seeming clarity of religious commitment to civil rights activism. I entered graduate study with questions about what difference Christian “identity” makes in a person’s interpersonal and social engagement. Disciplinary study of religious ethics, research on Civil Rights Movement (CRM) achievements and personalities, and scholarship in Black religious studies and African American history stimulated evolution of my research to recognize the many Christianities as well as the diversity in African American religions. I did not learn about liberation thought until I entered graduate school but I immediately saw connection of CRM ideals to world-wide independence movements that were sources of liberation theology. Learning of women’s diminished place in early liberation thought and practice as I became acquainted with womanist theory sharpened my research focus on women’s agency, in general, and Black women’s moral agency, in particular. My recent archival research on the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) created richer resources for analyzing the social markers of class, gender identity, gender privilege, race, and education as they define our worldview and shape the meaning of religious practice and impact embodied experience.
As a woman of African descent, how have you navigated challenges in your academic journey?
Challenges in my academic journey have not been dissimilar or unrelated to “ordinary” challenges encountered by Black women navigating misogynoir and its intersecting attendants: patriarchy, racism, class bias, etc. In addition to this general reality, specific challenges have related to presumptions of incompetence, sabotage, being a pioneer, scarce resources, etc. My primary anchor has been the foundational spiritual and moral center implanted within me from my parents. Family and friends regularly shape and help strengthen my spiritual center. Throughout graduate study and my academic career, family, including my life partner, and a circle of long-term trusted friends who have offered feedback including encouragement, assurance and reality checks. In addition to a community of support, my self-care includes gardening and communal religious ritual. Gardening has both released stress while feeding my spirit and creativity. Participating in communal ritual affirms what I value and believe to be most important. Beyond these more routinized navigation strategies, I have sought advice and support through specific challenges from mentors, persons who faced similar issues, and persons with specific expertise.
Can you share anything about a current project that you have?
My current writing project explores women’s administrative and field work contributions to the NAACP (1927 to 1979) as religious practice. The project theorizes expansive boundaries of Black women’s religious experiences by developing a definition of African American religion that draws on Darlene Clark Hine’s analysis of Black women’s interiority and Charles Long’s discussion of religious consciousness to argue that African American religion, of necessity, is resistance. The book’s format will be similar to my earlier text, Witnessing and Testifying. The current text considers the women’s relationships, whereas the earlier book did not. My other significant project is the new biennial journal Black Women and Religious Cultures, which released its first issue in November 2020. BW&RC publishes peer reviewed interdisciplinary traditional and non-traditional scholarship on Black women’s intersectional realities in religions and spiritualities of local, national, and transnational contexts. Hosted by the University of Minnesota (USA) Press, BW&RC welcomes submissions by and about Black women of any generation and identity, from any geographic area of Africa and the African Diaspora. Joining the mailing list at this link allows visitors to view the first issue.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the intersection of race, gender and religion?
Since the primary body of my scholarship explores Black women’s activism as religious expression, the intersection of race, gender, and religion is immediate in the overwhelming majority of my work. I was initially concerned with providing an ethical analysis in telling the stories of women exemplars of religious practice to counter near exclusive focus on “great men” as Black leaders. To this day such work remains scarce. I am extremely grateful for Karen Crozier’s outstanding book Fannie Lou Hamer’s Revolutionary Practical Theology published in 2020. As my own work evolved, I began a deeper analysis of Black women’s identities (including transnational identities) to acknowledge diverse meanings of the intersections of race, gender, and religion in Black women’s activism based on factors such as class, education level, geographic location, etc. My essay “’Now Who Are Your People?” notes the element of longing for home as a religious concern of many Diasporan African women, in contrast to the sense of being in place as experienced by Continental African women. Additionally, I note one colonial legacy experienced with greater intensity by many African American women that may be framed as dissonance in encountering or relating to religious diversity, an identity factor that is different from most continental African women who ordinarily are socialized in multi-religious worlds. These illustrations exemplify that while many Black women share commonalities in religious meaning and experience, there also are transnational as well as local factors that produce difference and diversity. My current project explores activism as religious practice for Black women associated with the NAACP.