January 27, 2003

Stewart's students make AAR trip to Toronto


By Michael Terrazas mterraz@emory.edu

It was her first semester on campus, and Dianne Stewart realized that these students were something special.The time was fall 2001, and the assistant professor of religion was leading her first graduate seminar at Emory, discussing the seminal “womanist” work of theologian Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness.

“I had never heard,” Stewart recalled, “a more erudite discussion, or one as engaging and exciting, of this book. My first thought was, ‘Your ideas are so compelling, and I can’t publish them—but we should do something.’”

A year later, that “something” was realized as Stewart watched six of those students—Renee Harrison, Emily Holmes, BaSean Jackson, Veronice Miles, Nevell Owens and Meghan Sweeney—each present a paper on womanism at the Nov. 22–26 meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), held in Toronto. And not only did the students receive invaluable experience for a possible career in the academy, but Williams herself was on hand to respond to the students’ work.

“They got a standing ovation,” Stewart said with pride. “They were perfect on that day; the only drawback was that we only had about five minutes left for questions [after their presentations].”

“’Surprised’ doesn’t quite cover it,” said Owens, a second-year doctoral student in religion, when asked how he felt upon learning he and his classmates would get that opportunity. “Dr. Stewart said, ‘You all don’t know how good you really are.’”

But Stewart knew. She also knew the students would respond energetically to Williams’ work. “Womanism” is a term coined by Alice Walker in 1983 to represent a school of thought for African Ameri-can women who’d grown leary of the racism they perceived in the mainstream feminist movement. Whenever a noted feminist happened to be black, Walker noted, that individual was invariably identified as a “black feminist.” White feminists received no such qualification.

“Black women realized that race and gender qualified every dimension of their life experiences,” said Stewart, now in her second year at Emory after teaching at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “Their critical academic discourses began to examine the meaning of being both black and female simultaneously.

“[Womanism] signifies black feminism,” she continued, “but some people interpret it to be broader than activism or even theory, to include the very experiences of black women, as they negotiate their existence within various contexts of oppression.”

Black women theologians have been the group that has taken the term most to heart, Stewart said, creating a corpus of work in womanist theology. First published in 1993, Sisters in the Wilderness was the first womanist text to challenge a central Christian tenet (the doctrine of atonement) and created somewhat of a storm in theological circles.

“Delores Williams is one of the most controversial but competent womanist theologians,” Stewart said. “It wasn’t surprising to me that the students loved her work.”

But it was surprising, she said, that the AAR accepted a proposal from a junior faculty member to have six graduate students present papers at a major conference. What’s more, Stewart said, at least one academic publisher has expressed interest in publishing the students’ work.

“It was the ingenuity of their ideas that encouraged me to move forward with the proposal,” she said. “Their critical minds convinced me to do it.”






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