The mid-day plenary today at the American Academy of Religion National Conference was a conversation between Kelly Brown Douglas and Michelle Alexander, and the work in their respective books Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness.
Michelle Alexander told a moving personal story about the first few years following the release of The New Jim Crow, before it was widely read and transforming perceptions across the United States. She described presenting the material from her research, and after each presentation she heard an internal voice say, “All sound and fury, signifying nothing.” She found this extremely jarring, and it followed her as she continued to speak nationally.
It changed for her when, while visiting the University of Denver, Professor Vincent Harding (1) told her, “I read your book, and I hear what you’re saying. But I feel like what you’re really saying here is, ‘What you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.'” For Alexander, this changed everything.
She told of how she realized that railing against the institutions and systems contributing to mass incarceration was all sound and fury, signifying nothing, when it was not spiritually grounded and directed toward action. She spoke of needing to honor and remember the divinity of every person.
Alexander’s experiences reveal, I think, a turn toward practice. She clearly cared about the work she was doing, fighting for racial justice against police departments in California and then digging into the prison industrial complex. But what was it rooted in? I ask the same question when I think about scholarship than is not rooted in practice. If I engage in study that I deem important, what is determining for me that it is important? Desire for acceptance? Prestige? Love?
I am not suggesting that Michelle Alexander was motivated by any of these things, nor do I pretend that I could uncover her motivation. Rather I want to turn a light upon the change that occurred for her once the divinity of every person became a foundation, a grounding rod for her work. Did her words at that point of change then signify everything, rather than nothing? Did it radically transform the important work she was already doing? Did people start turning en masse toward her work and her message once her words carried the new meaning of her spiritual orientation?
So I wonder: is scholarship that is not grounded in spiritual practice and spiritual perspectives all sound and fury? I am not so sure, but I sure am wondering.
I would like to thank Kelly Brown Douglas and Michelle Alexander for inviting me, and many others here at the conference, into their important and insightful conversation.
(1) I began my studies at Iliff School of Theology, where Dr. Harding taught for 33 years, in 2014, the same year that he died. I feel his legacy around me through the many people he touched and transformed, though I never met him.