Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems is a scholar, public intellectual, ordained Methodist minister, and a trailblazer in the field of womanist Biblical interpretation. She formerly taught at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) and Spelman College (Atlanta, GA). She served as Visiting Distinguished Professor at Howard University Divinity School (DC) and The Interdenominational Theological Center (Atlanta, GA). Dr. Weems has numerous scholarly books and articles to her credit and has written considerably on the intersections of the lived realities of Black men and women readers and the world making of Biblical texts.
Tell us a little about your research journey—how did you get to where you are now?
My research journey would not be possible were it not for an alchemy of social, political, and intellectual events happening in the 1970s and 1980s that made it possible for me as a young Black woman to imagine that a vocation involving research and Biblical scholarship as a possibility. That alchemy would usher cultural studies into the academy was challenging disciplines’ fixation with the past and forcing more attention on identity and the role readers in front of texts play in making meaning of texts.
Theological studies was undergoing an upheaval even though the Biblical studies field was trying to stave off the assaults, some trying to hide their heads in the sand in denial. Feminist scholars, Black theologians, liberation scholars, and other new underrepresented voices around the world were arriving. Masters and doctoral students in Biblical studies questioned unspoken assumptions, unexamined biases, and marginalized points of view in the field.
I was fortunate enough to be a part of the first critical mass of Black Biblical scholars. I wrote an essay, “Reading Her Way Through the Struggle” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation (1991). Most of us were being trained in the field in the 1970s and 1980s when the historical critical field was beginning to show cracks but was still the hegemonic norm. We were part of the generation that pursued doctorates not just as a result of the Black power, civil rights, student protests, and Black and White feminist movements of the 1970s but because of them. We brought questions about race, culture, gender, and Black religion with us to our research of the Bible. My first research topic focused on women, human sexuality, cultural identity, literary tropes, power and punishment, and how contemporary readers might go about interpreting texts of terror, see Battered Love (1995). My skills as a scholar would sharpen and the field would convulse and expand. But texts, interpretation, identity such as “I and II Chronicles” in The Africana Bible, (2010), human sexuality in “The Book of Song of Songs” a commentary in The Interpreter’s Bible, ISBN 0-687-27818-X (1997) have continued to grip me and dominate my research as a womanist Biblical scholar.
Who or what sparked your particular research interest?
I came to Biblical studies as an avid reader of the proliferation of books and articles written by Black women fiction and nonfiction writers the 1970s. I was also someone who watched as Black feminist critics in the 1970s and 1980s advocated for, and built brick by brick, a new field of studies in the Academy known as Black feminist literary criticism. Thanks to the help of White feminist Biblical/religious scholars and Black Biblical/liberation scholarship, I was convinced that neglected women’s voices in texts, but also underrepresented women in front of texts, namely Black women’s readings of the Bible, were deserving of scholarly inquiry.
As a woman of African descent, how have you navigated challenges in your academic journey?
While the numbers of Black Bible scholars in the U.S. is larger than it was forty years when I was a graduate student, we are still less than 10% in the Academy. In fact, the number of African American Biblical scholars still lags behind Biblical scholars in other fields of religious study, and the number of Black women in the Biblical field even more. Toiling away in academic spaces not created with Black women nor with Black women’s questions in mind, meant having to persuade mentors, colleagues, professors, advisors, reviewers, and the guild itself that Black women’s experiences are proper and serious data for Biblical and theological reflection. That work for Black women scholars of religion meant we had to find, and in some cases, make our own sources. We have had to explain and defend the legitimacy of whatever sources we draw on. We have had to write Black women into their research and do the work as if Black women have always been visible. Forty years and two, perhaps three, waves of Black womanist Biblical scholars/professors later with publications and mentees to our credit is a testimonial that it is possible to survive, even thrive within and without, anti-Black, anti-woman, misogynoiristic spaces. How? By learning how to rise above injury to do the work that you love.
Can you share anything about a current project that you have?
I spent the past year during the pandemic focused at my desk at home writing and polishing off three articles for three academic publications. Friends, colleagues, and students are publishing a Festschrift in honor of the late Dr. Katie G. Cannon, founder of womanist Christian ethics which will be published in 2022. I write about Katie’s journey into academia which began not in Christian ethics but in Old Testament studies as a Ph.D. student in Union Theology Seminary in NY in 1974. Katie loved Old Testament but Union’s Bible department did not love Katie back. She would eventually be dismissed from the program for bogus reasons which I write about in “The Biblical Field’s Loss Was Womanist Ethics’ Gain: Katie Cannon and the Dilemma of the Womanist Intellectual.” Walking Through Valleys: Womanist Explorations in Justice, Leadership, Embodies Ethics and Sacred Texts. (Westminster/John Knox, 2022). I also wrote a chapter “On Leaving But Not Going Very Far” about leaving the professoriate and life as a scholar beyond the four walls of institutions, for Black Scholars Matter (Semeia Studies) which will be published in the next month. And as a sequel to Stony the Road (1991) a new volume of scholarship younger Black Biblical scholars with pressing contemporary questions of their own was published earlier in 2022 Bitter The Chastening Rod: Africana Biblical Interpretation after Stony the Road We Trod in the Age of BLM, SayHerName, and MeToo, (ISBN 978-1-9787-1200-3, Fortress). I contributed an essay, “Better Than We Have Been Trained” a review of Black Biblical scholarship thirty years later, from Stony the Road to Bitter the Chastening Rod.
You have provided a tremendous legacy within theological discourse, broadly, and for womanist scholars in particular. What advice do you have for womanist scholars today?
As Katie Cannon would say, “Do the work your soul must have.” Do your work. Follow the trail that interests you. Find your voice. Ask your questions. Don’t compare yourself with others. Do your work. Write the books and articles you wish someone else had written, do the scholarship you hoped someone else had done so you wouldn’t have to. In other words, “write the books you want to read,” said the late Toni Morrison.
What do you see as the unique religious epistemologies of African American women and how does the Academy benefit from this knowledge?
Making Black women’s epistemologies the center of academic inquiry is an ongoing project as it should be. The entire field of Biblical studies continues to grow, evolve, disagree, regroup, and reexamine itself. So does the field of womanist Biblical scholarship. I couldn’t be happier about that. A new generation of second and third wave womanist Biblical critics have emerged foregrounding culture as central to understanding and interpreting texts and their interpreters. It is moving to know that younger scholars still find inspiration from first generation womanist Biblical scholars. But I am also elated to see that they have surpassed the work of those of us who were the first wave by challenging the unfinished agenda we left behind, exposing the questions we failed to raise, asking the questions their own generation demands to be addressed, by raising new questions, pushing the boundaries, challenging dated assumptions, redefining the field and the terms under which they do the work, and pushing back on assumptions and definitions held dear by previous womanists.
We continue to toil away in theological and curricular spaces wondering if our work really matters. But it does matter. Diversity matters. Race matters. Gender matters. Queer matters. Class matters. All of this – despite the stares and threats of White Supremacist Christian gatekeepers who threaten to roll back the tear-stained victories we’ve made in the field by outlawing our critical theories. Insisting upon their right to make the rest of us live in a world based on their interpretations of the Bible and what they say it says about women, immigrants, queers, Black and brown people, the poor, and even about God. But it does matter. More voices around the table matters.
We are the world.
We are the future.