Jessica B. Davenport has a PhD in religion from Rice University and MDiv from the Candler School of Theology. Her research is in black religion, aesthetics, and visual culture. Jessica is the associate director and editor at large at projectCURATE, a Houston-based organization that focuses on issues at the intersections of religion, race, and social equity.
Biko Mandela Gray is assistant professor of religion at Syracuse University. His research interests are race, religion, philosophy of religion, and social justice. He’s currently working on a book on Black Lives Matter and religion.
I sat down with Jessica and Biko at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they led a seminar called “Choosing Creation: The Art of Blackness and the Blackness of Art.” They talked to me about how Black theology, and especially what is known as Womanist theology, has always reached beyond traditional liturgical materials to music, art, dance, and literature to create and express the distinctive experience of black Christianity. Black people are producing—have always produced—creative works of theology that must be seriously considered within the mainstream of Christian tradition if we are to dismantle white supremacy.
Many times when I’ve talked to other (mostly white, mostly North American) artists of faith, we’ve expressed how we are drawn to certain liturgical forms of worship because they involve the body. But the body is usually drawn into prescribed forms—standing, sitting, kneeling, bowing, moving the hands in the sign of the cross, moving fingers along beads. I was struck by Jessica’s and Biko’s description of worship in their historically black churches as a completely different experience of embodiment. Black churches have often been the only place it’s safe to live fully and freely in a black body—to celebrate the black body as an instrument through which God moves.
I spoke to Jessica and Biko just days before the death of writer Toni Morrison. The title of this episode comes from one of Biko’s favorite quotes from her novel Beloved:
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. ”
We talked about art that explores what it means “to flesh”—to worship, to work, to live in a black body.
Friendship Is More Than Coffee and Proximity
The theme for the 2019 Glen Workshop was “As Iron Sharpens Iron: The Promise & Peril of Friendship.” The talks the resident artists and scholars gave throughout the week focused on friendship and rivalry among artists. Biko spoke about the relationship between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and the history of white patronage of black art. Jessica’s lecture focused on historic images of black people with the white families who enslaved them and later art photography of black women in relationship with each other. You can listen to their talks on the Image website, and we explore both those topics in the final segment of the interview.
Biko and Jessica also spoke frankly with me about their hesitancy to discuss friendship at all in a predominantly white space.
- The Glen Workshop 2019: “As Iron Sharpens Iron: The Promise & Peril of Friendship.”
- The recording of their talk from the Glen Workshop, “Choosing Creation: The Art of Blackness and the Blackness of Art.”
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
Rev. Dr. Katie G. Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics
Katie Cannon’s obituary in The New York Times
Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Frye Brown
Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes
- A 1985 article from the New York Times about the Basquiat-Warhol collaboration.
- Sleek Magazine on the Warhol-Basquiat “Bromance”
- On Warhol’s “Piss Paintings”