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  • Eliminating Ignorance
  • Katie G. Cannon (bio)

When I reflect on my relationship to and understanding of the lead-in essay, “Silent Scripts and Contested Spaces,” I see that my connecting point began more than a century ago, in 1867, through my mother’s lineage. Two years after the Civil War ended, a white Presbyterian minister named Reverend Dr. Luke Dorland of Toledo, Ohio, was commissioned by the Freedmen’s Committee of the Presbyterian Church, USA, to organize churches and create schools for the newly freed slaves in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Like millions of enslaved African Americans, my great-grandmother, Martha Zella Barringer, had been brutalized, beaten, and treated like chattel property.

Family lore has it that Martha was about ten years old when she and several other former slaves on the Barringer property were spotted by Dorland as he rode a mule down one-lane wagon paths deep into the rural countryside looking for youth to attend Scotia Seminary, one of the schools the Presbyterian Church commissioned Dorland to create. Scotia’s charter stated that the school’s mission was to instruct Negro girls in religion, the arts, and the sciences, which were usually only taught in high-grade seminaries.1 Dorland identified Martha [End Page 114] as a child with intellectual curiosity and a zeal for learning. Beginning with the most rudimentary levels of knowledge, my great-grandmother Martha completed her elementary and secondary education. Prepared in mind, body, and spirit, she was a member of the first graduating class from Scotia Seminary, a teacher training school populated by newly freed African American females.

According to Dr. Marianna Davis, an early chronicler of the odyssey of Black women teachers, education is the oldest and the most important field where “Black women have given great service and have struggled the longest for opportunity.”2 Despite a scarcity of funds, multiple obstacles, deplorable living conditions, with few textbooks and supplies, Martha Zella Barringer and other black women served as the freed people’s vanguard for knowledge. It is said that great-grandmother Martha was an outstanding educator who brought her knowledge and skills for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic to students in “ramshackle schoolhouses of rough-hewn planks.”3 Moreover, former enslaved people who became teachers were not just educators. Their trademark was a courageous commitment to emancipatory epistemology. Access to higher learning enabled former slaves to serve as worship leaders, missionaries, community organizers, politicians, and radical diplomats.

Since my task is not to tell the story of black women as educators since the end of the Civil War but rather to respond to the introductory essay, you might wonder why I began with a story about the teaching legacy in my family. I did so because I want to discuss how institutionalized domination in the past bears on the present, so that women of color in contemporary classrooms, and all who cast their lot with us, can move from what is to what can be.

When I juxtapose my experience as one of the senior racial/ethnic women in the American Academy of Religion (AAR) since the 1970s with the powerful evidence articulated by this current generation of women of color teaching in religious studies classrooms, a fundamental point in the lead-in essay echoes through the centuries. Examining the teaching trajectory from post–Civil War to post–Civil Rights, women of color educators continue to be weighed down, for a little more than a century and a half, negotiating our survival in an academic world dominated by whites and men.

In view of the history of women of color as educators, especially in the academy of religion, we are fully aware that the increase of racist misogyny [End Page 115] we experience did not instantly pop up on its own. In coming to terms with the painful struggles and disrespectful exchanges women of color encounter in religious studies classrooms, we know these existential realities are neither happenstance nor accident. Indeed, it is likely this hegemonic stranglehold is intrinsically connected to the superior/inferior foundational paradigms, methods, and canons operative in our educational institutions. Social construction of gendered racism and concrete policies of inequities situate women of color in...


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pp. 114-120
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