Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and Bible

Image of Professor Nyasha Junior, interviewee of this recording

Professor Nyasha Junior

 

How did Hagar become Black? That is the historical puzzle biblical scholar Professor Nyasha Junior of Temple University investigates in her new book, Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and Bible (Oxford, 2019). 

Hagar first appears in Genesis chapters 16 and 21 as the Egyptian slave of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Due to her inability to conceive with Abraham, Sarah offers Hagar to her husband as a surrogate and Ishmael is born. 

And Hagar bare Abram a son; and Abram called his son’s name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.  (Genesis 16:15, King James Bible)

Later, Sarah miraculously gives birth to Isaac and commands Abraham to drive Hagar and Ishmael out of her home.  

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.  (Genesis 21:14, King James Bible)

We actually know little about Hagar’s origins from the biblical text other than the fact that she is an Egyptian. Over the course of her teaching at Howard University, a historically Black university, Professor Junior often encountered certainty among her students that Hagar was Black. On the other hand, she also met people to whom this was an entirely new idea. Professor Junior wanted to understand how this relatively obscure biblical character came to embody her contemporary identity, particularly among African Americans.

Reimagining Hagar is what scholars call a reception history, an investigation into the afterlife of the biblical character Hagar. After explaining Hagar in her ancient setting, Professor Junior leaps forward to the pre-Civil War period and the debates between pro- and anti-slavery forces. What she finds is surprising and begins the process of unravelling the mystery of how Hagar became Black. I spoke with Professor Nyasha Junior on October 2, 2019.

—Fred Rowland

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So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 7…The End

The Religion Graduate Student (RGS) passed her dissertation defense and graduated “with distinction”. In the lead-up to her oral defense she reread her dissertation twice, came up with potential questions, and then performed a mock defense with some of her graduate student colleagues. It was a bit hectic bringing her committee members together on November 14, 2012 and one member skyped in, but in the end everything proceeded smoothly and at the conclusion attendees raised glasses of champagne mimosas to toast the newly minted PhD.

In our (bittersweet) concluding interview on February 22, 2013, RGS had just graduated and I had read her dissertation beginning to end. First she filled me in on the details of her big defense day. Then we discussed the content of her dissertation, the writing process, her thoughts about graduate education, and her immediate post-graduation life. In contrast to my medieval notions, the defense did not resemble an inquisition. RGS was satisfied with what she had accomplished but identified a few areas of her dissertation that needed work. She had some trouble describing the writing process and she mourned the many dozens of pages she had written that never made it into her dissertation. The routine she tried to establish at the start never quite came together. In the end it was “tasty treats” that helped her to the finish line. Graduate education is definitely not sustainable and RGS was still struggling to balance her monthly budget, now on an adjunct’s wages. It’s tough to be a scholar in the twenty-first century.  

This interview occurred almost three years to the day from the first time RGS and I spoke about the journey awaiting her. In my first blog post of this series, I described the dissertation as a “ritual initiation in which the student is dropped deep into an unfamiliar wilderness area with nothing but a compass and asked to find her way out.” Having now completed my seventh and final interview with RGS, I am thrilled to know that RGS found her way out of the wilderness. She has now entered the world of scholars. I congratulate RGS on her achievement and thank her for allowing me to share in the journey.     

(Listen to previous interviews: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

—Fred Rowland  

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So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 6

Good news! The Religion Graduate Student (RGS) handed her committee the final rough draft of her dissertation! We met on October 17, 2012 for our sixth interview (and, boy, was I relieved to hear about this). Her defense was set for November 14. I was surprised to learn that she felt “one part relieved and nine parts nervous” because she was not exactly sure as to what constitutes a dissertation. Hers contained some personal narrative and first-person usage and she wondered whether this was consistent with the stereotyped notion of scholarly objectivity. This highlighted the ambiguous and solitary nature of dissertation research and writing.

Since we met in February, she explained that she had been doing nothing but writing. Her reader-friend, Susan, kept telling her to stop working on the introduction! You’re stalling! Plough ahead, write, write, write. In addition to the archival sources from the AFSC’s Nationwide Women’s Program (NWP), most of her other sources came from previous course readings and recommendations from advisors and committee members. With the exception of family life, she emphasized that she had ZERO social life during this latest interval. Did I mention that she had ZERO social life? 

Surprisingly, RGS wrote her chapter 4 on religion, which had been causing her the most anxiety, faster than any other chapter. She argues that Quaker positions on authority and personal testimony infused the NWP long after its early Quaker members had been succeeded by more secular feminist ones. This Quaker perspective allowed the NWP to register the voices of women in far off places (South Korea, South Africa, Taiwan, Mexico, Philippines) who were subjected to the early phases of globalization.

Finally entering the last mile of her dissertation run, we talked about the alchemical nature of the writing process and the fragile nature of memory as one moves through the confusing and foggy middle part of the journey.

(Listen to previous interviews: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

—Fred Rowland

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So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 5

The Religion Graduate Student (RGS) and I got together on February 24, 2012 for our fifth interview. She was now entering the third year of her project and she appeared a bit more upbeat than the last time we met. During the fall break she had written productively every day and she subsequently sent advisor John Raines some work that he liked. RGS spent a lot of time reworking her introduction so she could properly frame her second chapter on globalization and her third on the sources at the Nationwide Women’s Program (NWP). She worried that this might not be the best way to go about writing (according to some advice that had filtered through to her) but she now accepted that this was the way that she worked.

Among her sources RGS was struck by the disconnect between masculinist and feminist narratives of globalization. From a masculinist (economic) perspective, it’s all about corporations, institutions, trade agreements, and finance, while the feminist perspective produces primarily ethnographies, highlighting the effects of globalization on women’s bodies. The NWP, as RGS was now seeing, served to bring together these universal and local perspectives, functioning as a clearinghouse of sorts. It’s a reminder that international communications did not start with the Internet. She would be handing in her third chapter a few days after our interview.

As is inevitable, life intervened as RGS was writing in the fall. The Occupy movement broke out spontaneously in September 2011 and Occupy Philly grew up around Dilworth Plaza. When RGS attended a few Occupy Philly general assemblies, she was surprised by the ahistorical nature of the conversations. She realized that her work provided historical context to the issues discussed at Occupy Philly and this strengthened her sense of purpose. References to Occupy Philly would find their way into her dissertation.

Though tempted to do more reading — always more reading — she was now focused on writing, writing, writing. We talked about emotional blocks, the struggle to establish a routine, the messy details of life, and the way the dissertation just hangs around her neck and, according to a friend, is like an abusive relationship. Sounds like fun, huh?

(Listen to previous interviews: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

—Fred Rowland

 

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So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 4

On October 14, 2011 I interviewed the Religion Graduate Student (RGS) for the fourth time, so she had now been working on her dissertation for a year and a half. Her project was still moving in fits and starts. Over the summer she had gone through a rather rough stretch, in which she entertained a lot of doubt and uncertainty about the overarching theme of her work. After reading her 50 page first chapter in the middle of the summer, her advisor John Raines suggested that she was not “writing where her passion is”.

Acknowledging this, RGS went back to texts on globalization that she was most interested in — by Stiglitz, Sachs, Sen, and Wallerstein — and began reexamining her ideas. The chapter had looked at the second wave women’s movement from which religion had been expunged, but it included no references to globalization. The books on globalization made no reference to feminism and religion. She began “looking for the gaps” in the conversations on feminism, religion, and globalization and she returned to the Nationwide Women’s Program (NWP) archive to see if these sources might provide some explanation. She found that the notion of progress seemed to be embedded into each of these narratives in important ways.

By the time we met RGS had realized that she would probably end up using very little of the 50 pages she had submitted during the summer. On the other hand, she had a good fall schedule that left her free on Tuesdays and Thursdays and she was getting up each and every morning to work on her dissertation between 6 and 8. Though she had not written a lot since the summer, she was ready to push ahead. The “full body dissertation” routine she had tried to establish when she began in early 2010 had flagged a little: for exercise, she was walking now instead of running because, as she explained, it was harder to talk herself out of walking. She was now hoping to finish her dissertation within the next six months.   

(I found myself wondering if she had passed through that “dark night of the soul” that all seekers of knowledge encounter just before the dawn.)

—Fred Rowland

 

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NEW! Refworks institutional login

You can now create an account in Refworks using your institutional login (TU AccessNet). If you already have a Refworks account, you can associate it with your institutional account.

Creating a new account: https://refworks.proquest.com/

  • Choose Temple University, login using your AccessNet, provide email and name, and Voila! You’ve got an account!

AccessNet Login

Associate an existing accounting: https://refworks.proquest.com/ 

  • Log in using your existing account, click on Settings and then on Associate Credentials

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Questions? Contact Fred Rowland

 

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Sights and Sounds of America’s Tenth Man Contest

Christine Woyshner image

Christine Woyshner

 

The 1930s American South was a region of deep racial segregation as the social norms of white supremacy and the terrorism of lynching kept white and black Americans in separate and unequal spheres. The Commission on Interracial Cooperation was an Atlanta-based initiative of white liberals and black leaders to increase understanding and cooperation between the races. Of its many programs, an essay competition called the Tenth Man Contest encouraged white schools to teach black history and culture. At its height, the contest reached 90 school districts in 23 states. Students participating in this program studied numerous textual sources, engaged in a variety of artistic activities, and visited black schools and businesses.

One of the rich legacies of the Tenth Man Contest is an archive of the student papers submitted to the competition. In her article, “‘I feel I am really pleading the cause of my own people’: US southern white students’ study of African-American history and culture in the 1930s through art and the senses” (History of Education, 2018, URL), Professor of Education Christine Woyshner uses this archive to analyze the ways that white high school students understood and interpreted their encounter with the black history, society, and culture. These encounters were often sensuously rich as white students described their visual and aural impressions of African American art, literature, schools and neighborhoods.

I spoke with Christine Woyshner about her article on April 30, 2018.

—Fred Rowland

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Sights and Sounds of America’s Tenth Man Contest

Christine Woyshner image

Christine Woyshner

 

The 1930s American South was a region of deep racial segregation as the social norms of white supremacy and the terrorism of lynching kept white and black Americans in separate and unequal spheres. The Commission on Interracial Cooperation was an Atlanta-based initiative of white liberals and black leaders to increase understanding and cooperation between the races. Of its many programs, an essay competition called the Tenth Man Contest encouraged white schools to teach black history and culture. At its height, the contest reached 90 school districts in 23 states. Students participating in this program studied numerous textual sources, engaged in a variety of artistic activities, and visited black schools and businesses.

One of the rich legacies of the Tenth Man Contest is an archive of the student papers submitted to the competition. In her article, “‘I feel I am really pleading the cause of my own people’: US southern white students’ study of African-American history and culture in the 1930s through art and the senses” (History of Education, 2018, URL), Professor of Education Christine Woyshner uses this archive to analyze the ways that white high school students understood and interpreted their encounter with the black history, society, and culture. These encounters were often sensuously rich as white students described their visual and aural impressions of African American art, literature, schools and neighborhoods.

I spoke with Christine Woyshner about her article on April 30, 2018.

—Fred Rowland

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So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 3

 

On Feb 24 2011 I spoke to the Religion Graduate Student (RGS) for the third time. She has now been working on her dissertation for approximately one year. She explained that it was going well but in “fits and starts,” more than she had anticipated. Though it was a little unconventional, she began writing the introduction first because, as she explained, she was having trouble with the overall argument. When she received feedback from her women’s studies group, it was clear that her introduction was not a genuine introduction but different pieces of the chapters she intended to write.

When I asked her to define her topic, it was interesting to hear her say that this used to cause her anxiety. Now she is comfortable in explaining that she is working with an archive, focusing on Nationwide Women’s Program (at the American Friends Service Committee) during 1970 and 1980s. These primary sources will tell us things about blending of the religious and secular in the women’s and the anti-globalization movements.

We talked about the major challenges she was facing, which can be summed up as “time and money.” Struggling to support herself, find time (and mental focus) for her research, while at the same time squeezing some enjoyment out of life takes great effort. We also talked about her various support networks and the roles they play in facilitating her research process and keeping her sane.

This was a fun interview. We laughed a lot. Unfortunately I had to cut some of the laughter due to static…I laugh loudly.

—Fred Rowland

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Settler Colonialism and the American West

Andrew Isenberg

Lawrence Kessler

 

The Fall 2017 issue of The Journal of the West is devoted to the concept of settler colonialism as it applies to the American West. Settler colonialism describes a form of colonialism in which settlers seek to eliminate the indigenous people from their land and replace them with settlers from the metropole. It has been used to describe many historical and contemporary encounters, including those in the United States, Australia, and Israel. Settler Colonialism differs from accounts of, say, the British in India, where the colonizers were intent on subordinating the native population and using it as a labor force to extract wealth.

Historians Lawrence Kessler and Andrew Isenberg contributed an article to this special issue, “Settler Colonialism and the Environmental History of the North American West,” (access restricted to Temple affiliates) which adds nuance and complexity to the standard settler colonial account by using an environmental history approach. The European conquest brought deadly microbes (smallpox, typhus, cholera), domestic animals (horses, sheep, cattle, pigs), and a market-based economic system. Kessler and Isenberg illustrate the ways that both whites and Indians were often responding to unexpected environmental contingencies. They show that between the arrival of Europeans and the eventual US removal of American Indian tribes to reservations in the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of years of trade, negotiation, cooperation and accomodation, in addition to warfare, between the various colonial powers and the natives. Most importantly, the two authors restore some of the agency to Native Americans that settler colonialism accounts often gloss over.

Lawrence Kessler earned his PhD in History at Temple University and is currently a Fellow in Residence at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine. Andrew Isenberg is a professor of History at Temple University. I spoke to them both on April 3, 2018.

—Fred Rowland

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