Playing the minstrel?
I ask myself if I’m some academic Latina version of the minstrel. Stay with me on this for a moment. Minstrelsy, if you recall, is that horrible racist performance in blackface, made popular in the 19th century, and lasting well into the 20th century. White actors mainly, but then, eventually, black actors as well, would don blackface (originally made from burnt cork) and perform exaggerated caricatures of what they (and in turn society) believed to be black traits or characteristics. It was racist and insulting, and it was considered entertainment. Latinos were not immune to this insidious practice. I remember blackface being used in Puerto Rico for performances representing anyone other than the urban, cultured Spaniard or lighter-skinned city dweller. And, while we’d like to think of this as being in the ancient past, pre-Civil Rights Movement, Miami’s Spanish language television carried a show with a character in blackface (El Negrito y el Gallego) up until 2013.
Minstrelsy performed many functions, but here I am concerned with two particular ones. First, it ridiculed black culture AND rendered the black subject as safe precisely because it portrayed the black subject as uncultured and intellectually unable to aspire to the benefits that civil society had to offer the more abled, lighter skin subjects. Second, in some cases, it served to highlight the unreasonableness of many of the trappings of white society, again, safely encapsulated in a character deemed too ridiculous to take seriously. In both of these cases, the blackface body and subject was consumed, regardless of its message. When the performance was that of song and dance it was praised in its mockery. When the performance was sketch comedy, the blackface subject always suffered the misfortune of their dimwitted schemes or lack of intellect. So, why would I want to appropriate this term to possibly describe the experience of Latin@s in the theological academy? Minstrelsy operates as the consumable performance of what the dominant culture perceives to be the traits of the conquered, trafficked, violated, and marginalized other, safely performing these traits as commodities. Latin@ scholars in the theological academy experience similar demands to perform the exaggerated roles of our caricatured selves. We are, as much vulnerable as contingent faculty in the academy are, consumable and expendable.
In its 25-year history, the Hispanic Theological Initiative has served the role of anti-minstrelsy. Open to the diversity of who Latin@ scholars are fully, it sought to integrate our stories, cultures, expressions of faith, research interest, community ties and commitments, and, yes, our scholarly interests and intellectual abilities as essential to the theological academy. Not conformed with the roles often assigned to Latin@s in the theological academy as marginal outreaches to Latin@ communities and ministries, HTI encouraged our full development beyond the safe performativity of commodified marginalized scholars. More importantly, in developing strong cohorts of colleagues built around solidarity, intellectual respect, and authenticity (among other important attributes) HTI opened spaces where we could boldly question and lament the low numbers of Afro-latinidad within HTI and the Latin@ theological academy, as we encouraged each other to not reproduce in that sacred space the dynamics of token representation and performativity the broader academy dictated for us.
Playing it safe
A moment that encapsulates racialized performativity in the academy was the review of my dissertation proposal by the department’s oversight board. This group of three faculty members outside my dissertation committee reviewed every dissertation proposal in the department for a final approval signaling that the proposal responsibly and methodically addressed the key questions the Ph.D. candidate proposed to address in their work. I was the first dissertation proposal turned down by this oversight board in… well… there was actually no memory of it having happened within the past 20 years in the life of the Ph.D. program. It turns out that the faculty newly assigned to that board that year had been charged with making of it more than just a rubber stamp of proposals that the candidates’ committees had already approved as meeting all requirements. But this more robust oversight role happened the year the first Latina in that Ph.D. program went up for review. Then a second proposal was also rejected, this time that of a female Asian-American candidate. Following this, a number of white male candidates had their proposals approved without revisions. Beyond the racially charged optics of this moment, the rejection of these two proposals carried with it the explicit rejection of the methods and foci central to the theologies birthed from marginalized and minoritized communities. In my case the oversight board’s concern targeted the very core of my project: the validity of the preferential option for the poor as a biblically and theologically sound doctrinal principle.
At that crushing moment my first phone call was to HTI, to my mentor then, Luis Rivera Pagán, and its director, Joanne Rodríguez. Both were already familiar with these kinds of rejections by the academy of any attempts to move a known and mastered (yes, “mastered” as in dominated intellectually and subjugated culturally) concept outside the prescribed boundaries of the acceptable and safe. They assured me of the soundness of the argument I was proposing to move forward in my dissertation, and more importantly, that I would not lose my status as an HTI awardee over what felt like a complete rejection of my philosophical, theological, and methodological commitments. The network of HTI scholars was also a crucial support, as many shared with me their wisdom in navigating the spaces of safe performativity balanced with transgressive authenticity. This was a song and dance that many of my HTI familia knew too well. Together we learned the spaces in which we had to safely play the roles prescribed for the marginalized scholar, however untrue or caricatured, and the ways in which to question and reshape them toward authentic expressions of the scholars we were and are becoming.
In this example, my performance as a Latina scholar transgressed the safe boundaries set out by the role prescribed to me by the academy at that moment. What had scholarly, academic, and doctrinal validity throughout Latin America, in Catholic social teaching, and certainly within Latin@ theology – the preferential option for the poor – was subjected to question. It became suspect. It required adaptation for consumption within an academy that couldn’t digest an untamed version of this central concept, especially when this was to be used to question middle-class Christianity in the U.S. (the focus of my work). How many other such stories of transgressive performance could we collect from HTI graduates and Latin@ scholars in the theological academy? How many of us have played the minstrel, donning academic blackface, in order to perform a safe, consumable caricature of our identities, commitments, and intellectual abilities?
Playing for real
For 25 years HTI has offered a space for correcting the impulse to commodify Latin@ scholars into exotic yet marginal academic entertainment. During those early years (and even to this day) many of us were sought out as literal keys to unlock the promise that the growth of Latin@ demographics represented for churches languishing from loss of membership and thirsting for new life. HTI refused to have this utilitarian framework shape who we were to become as scholars. But, rather than have us perform and reproduce the normative and safe roles prescribed by the academy, it validated our latinidad – our communities, language and idioms, skin tones and genders, commitments and intellectual methodologies. By seeking scholars grounded in communities of accountability it demanded that we sustain connections with the vulnerabilities of our peoples. It then encouraged us to bring this fully into the academic spaces we occupy, acknowledging ways in which it can be a reason for backlash, mockery, or rejection, and offering a community in which to learn to navigate the impact of our authenticity.
Para muchos/as de nosotros/as, HTI es el espacio que atiende y alienta nuestros idiomas. Aquí hablo no solamente del español, sino de todas las idiosincrasias lingüísticas y teológicas que forman parte de nuestros esfuerzos y nuestras comunidades. Contrario a las dinámicas normalizantes de la academia, el mundo teológico Latin@ promueve hacer teología con corazón y sin miedo. Muchos adoptamos la categoría de hacer teología sin-vergüenza (elemento que adoptamos de nuestr@s colegas al sur). Esto quiere decir que nos comprometemos a entablar espacios y diálogos creativos que empujan la academia blanca, anglo-sajona, a enfrentar sus prejuicios y reificación del racismo sistémico y la exclusión xenofóbica. En estos espacios nos desplegamos como teólog@s sin tener que hacer excusas por lo que elegimos investigar, escribir, enseñar, denunciar, y soñar. Y desde estos espacios nos extendemos hacia otros grupos minorizados, colegas Afroamericanos y Asiático-americanos, quienes también luchan por construir espacios en la academia desde dónde desplegar sus identidades arraigados a aquellos por quiénes emprendemos estas luchas.
The bonds of solidarity that extend to our African American, Asian American, LGBTQAI+, and Indigenous colleagues stem from the acknowledgment that theological authenticity coupled with the urge to thrive in the academy is a hard road indeed. The theological academy revels in the performative, in that which safely portrays the subject of study or inquiry in ways that promote encapsulated versions of who we are.
Space does not permit me to engage the ways in which our religious traditions – institutions rich with performative ethos (often a highly gendered one) – are profoundly tangled with the theological academy’s efforts to maintain what is normative or worthy of close examination within a prescribed boundary of what is safe. We must leave that important discussion for another time. For now, we must note the extremely troubling fact that it is taking the crass murder of black and brown bodies by police, border patrol, and a pandemic that seems to obey the social norms of a racist society to strengthen coalitions within the academy among minoritized groups and between minoritized groups and our white colleagues. In our playing the minstrel, playing it safe, we have yielded much too often to the myth of the scholar who alone, and by the prowess of their own intellect, is able to climb the ranks of the professoriate or other scholarly prestige, independent of communities of origin and accountability. Probably one of HTI’s most important gifts to the theological academy is the understanding that allyship, cohort solidarity, and inter-group advocacy is always an urgent and pressing task, and one for which the academy poorly prepares us, as it is one of the principal ways by which we begin to dismantle the boundaries of what is considered safe representations of who we truly are.
Jugando a vivir
The current moment in the academic world presents us with the growing adjunctification of professorial labor, the loss of entire departments of theology and religious studies (among other liberal arts departments), and the entrenchment of the commodification of higher education. However, it does not elude scholars from marginalized groups the strange intersection between the growth in numbers of black, Latin@, and Asian American doctorates and the precipitous reduction of tenure track, and other secure faculty positions in the liberal arts. In this precarious labor context, are we able to perform beyond the normative? Are we able to move beyond the minstrel act of the safe, caricatured versions of ourselves in order to truly challenge the academy’s understanding of the scholar as a consumable good?
Growing networks of solidarity that inspire, encourage, and nourish transgressive acts of authenticity in the academy – across racial and gender groups and across disciplines – have been vital for living our true selves even when the academy has no room for us (or refuses to make room for us). The current moment requires us to double down on these networks and challenge the safety of prescribed norms to perform to secure our positions while the rest of the academy burns. We are also aware that these safe performances do not guarantee our jobs, our professional stability, or, more importantly, our ways of living authentically as Latin@ scholars. HTI’s model for nurturing and encouraging our development in the varied ways that our identities move and inform our theological and scholarly journey is unique in the academic world. In it there is no room for playing it safe, except as a step in understanding our journey as part of the communities we hope to build.
These networks of solidarity must also include the communities to which our destinies are tethered. Authentically including them in our work in the academy will reshape its spaces, the boundaries it sets for itself and for the closed interactions it considers essential for its educational goals. These are the networks of scholars and activists working for prison abolition, abolishing ICE, and reunifying families separated at the border. These are inter-racial and inter-religious networks of solidarity. These networks that transgress our safe performances of our caricatured selves, that interrupt our syllabi, that confront us with the possibility of becoming more than our prescribed, contrived selves. These are the spaces in which we play at living fully – scholar and activist, and community member, and faith leader, artist and actor – and where, against many odds, sometimes even get it right.