Showing Your Teeth in Church: The Liberating Possibility of Black Love and Black Imagination
Religious Institute’s Seminary Spotlight with Thelathia “Nikki” Young, Ph.D.
What’s your theology of sexuality in 10 words or fewer?
Our sexuality is an expression of the divinity within us.
Growing up, what did you learn about sexuality in religious spaces? And how, if at all, has that influenced your approach as a scholar and teacher?
I grew up in a Black Pentecostal church. My mom, uncles, and aunts grew up in Baptist churches, but, as time went on, they were more inclined toward a Pentecostal or Apostolic church context. In both of these contexts, the body was policed so heavily first that policing sexuality was secondary. There was purposeful policing of what you wore, how you adorned yourself, and how you positioned your body. I have a distinct memory of my mom and I in church, a church that was pastored by my auntie who was the matriarch of the family. This was a very small church, in a really small building, and most of the members were part of our family. Something funny happened in service, and — my family likes to laugh a lot — I remember being ready to bust out laughing. I was giggling, and my mom (who was also laughing) turned around and said, “Unh-uh. Stop showing your teeth in church!” I remember thinking that was such an odd thing to say. Why wouldn’t we laugh? There was all kinds of shouting and bodily expressions. Why would some of them be considered appropriate but not others?
Part of what I learned in church was not only that you should only do a particular set of things after you’ve reached a particular status (i.e. sex within a “successful” marriage), but I also learned that those things weren’t only a marker of you being a good person but also a marker of you having a good relationship with God. Theologically, relational capacity was wrapped up in sexuality. “Proper” relationship was all about denigrating sexuality.
I’m a deep believer in the idea that we produce the things we require. My scholarship is an answer to a series of questions that I had. Or, rather, it is a claim about a liberation that I think was fundamentally denied to me and my people, my family, and my community. My scholarship — especially my work around queering Black relationships and the ways that Black love and Black imagination is productive of liberating possibilities — is a reflection of my desire to pull people out of the confines of the sexual discourse and racial discourse that has been defining them. And, even moreso, to remind them that those discourses were underwritten not only by scripts about sexuality and race but also in the context of capitalism. My work invites us to reflect on relating to one another in better ways than we thought possible. This also affects how I relate in the world, trying to transgress boundaries and push back against policing when I can.
What do you wish every undergraduate student knew about religion and sexuality?
I wish that they could really grasp the simultaneity of religion/religious discourse: that it has been simultaneously stifling, policing, and oppressive; and it has been and has the capacity to be liberating, imaginative, and expansive. The really amazing, fun, critical part of being a religion student who’s interested in conversations about and discourse related to sexuality is that you can find all of the mechanisms that lead religious discourse to be confining, stifling, and oppressive or liberative. It’s the work of the student to live into that simultaneity and to apply real critical analysis to the mechanisms and technologies that create poles and barriers for expression. A really faithful approach to one’s beliefs is a deep interrogation, and I want undergrads to be willing to suspend belief for a moment so that they can really think about what their investments are as a person and how those investments have manifested into a set of beliefs. Being able to step out of that spiral is an important way to interrogate religion.
How have your students challenged or surprised you in conversations about religion and sexuality?
I’m teaching a course called “Queering Christian Thought.” What’s interesting is that students’ ability to see and understand the connection between Christian discourses and politics, social mores, and habits is really strong. I have enjoyed watching them disentangle the language around sexuality — political and social language around sexuality — from what seems natural to something connected to religious roots and to religion and politics. In particular, since it’s a Queering Christian Thought class, I don’t do a lot of apologetics. Instead, we think about how sex, sexuality, and gender get infused into conversations about God, and every week their minds are blown on very simple ideas around gender and about how hierarchies in terms of sexuality are also about theological anthropology. We just finished reading a section in M. Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom. They loved it! For some of them, the reaction was: “Theological anthropology? That’s a thing?” They were struck by the notion that creating a concept of the human body by removing the divine from the body is detrimental. Some of them remarked that it was no wonder Black women are being mistreated the way that they are.
As you know, our newsletter is called “Sexuality: From the Seminary to the Sanctuary.” Much of your formation as a scholar happened while you journeying through theological institutions, and you have gone on to share your teaching gifts primarily in undergraduate classrooms. Tell us more about how you came to make that vocational decision.
When I came out of undergrad, I realized that I needed a year to really think about what I wanted to do next. By the end of that year, I knew that the kinds of questions I was asking were theological questions. During that gap year, I was an activist in Atlanta, Georgia, being as Black and queer as I could be. When I rolled up into seminary, I already had “Let’s turn this mug upside down!” as my posture. I got there, and I was simultaneously interested in writing that type of work but also taking in basic theological education that I didn’t get as a practitioner of religion all my life. I was excited. Studying different scholarly areas of religion helped me to distinguish the kinds of theological conversations I wanted to be having, and, as it turns out, I wasn’t so much interested in theology, but I was absolutely interested in ethics. I wanted to know for sure, on the ground what this meant. If we say x about God and y about people, what produces the z of how we relate? I found my theological education to be one of the most edifying experiences I’ve had, and it was absolutely wonderful.
When you’ve gone to graduate school in the early-mid 2000s and written a dissertation on Black queerness, seminaries aren’t exactly jumping to hire you. By the time I finished my PhD, I also wasn’t jumping to be in a seminary. I wondered if we (seminary and I) had two disparate investments. So, instead, I thought about being in a religion department. My work is intersectional, so I could probably do Black stuff, gender stuff, sexuality stuff and have all of those worlds together. As it turns out, I have built my teaching career in a Department of Gender Studies, and I have built my scholarly career writing religious discourse. Now things are a little different, and there is some openness to people doing queer work in seminaries. But people doing a combination of queer work and work on Blackness is even less. If they’re calling someone to do work on Black stuff, for the most part, they’re thinking about Blackness in a monolithic way — specifically straight, specifically church-oriented, specifically womanist. Me doing Black queer ethics (which I think everybody should access) wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing some people would be looking for.
How do you help undergraduate students make connections between what they are learning in your courses and their practical lives?
I require, for every single class I teach, co-curricular event responses. Students have to go out to events on campus, in the local area, or different cities they can access. I invite them to offer summaries of the events and provide critical reflection based on material in our courses. The idea is that they can be doing classwork outside of class, that they can be doing the work of thinking and processing outside of class using concepts and material that we’ve studied. It gets them to understand that learning about gender, race, sex, sexuality, Black feminism, and queerness are things that happen on the ground as much as they happen in our classroom experiences. On campus, I show up at events. I go and we talk about it. They are seeing us (Benae and I) participate. They see us engage in the world and with them.
Lastly, three quick-fire questions:
Book, activity, or article you love to teach when addressing religion and sexuality
Audre Lorde’s The Uses of the Erotic; This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua and The Combahee River Collective Black Feminist Statement
Favorite self-care practice
Journaling in the morning. It’s the first thing I do. I also meditate and recite a mantra to start my day.
What you’re currently reading
Dr. Monique Moultrie’s Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality
Thelathia “Nikki” Young is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Religion at Bucknell University. She received her Ph.D. from Emory University, M.Div. and Th.M. from Candler School of Theology, and B.A. from UNC-Asheville. Her research focuses on the intersection of ethics, family, race, gender, and sexuality, and she is specifically interested in the impact of queerness on moral reasoning. Nikki is the convener of the LGBT and Queer Studies Group within the Society for Christian Ethics, co-chair of the Queer Studies in Religion Group in the American Academy of Religion, and chair of the LGBTIQ Persons in the Profession Task Force in AAR. Her first monograph, Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination, was published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan. Nikki recently finished a collaborative book with Eric Barreto and Jake Myers called In Tongues of Mortals and Angels: A De-Constructive Theology of God-Talk in Acts and Paul, which will be published in the Spring by Fortress Press. She is also currently working on a new solo book project, Home Free: A Transnational Ethics of Black Queer Liberation. She enjoys life with her partner Benae Beamon and revels in the cuddles of their pets Coco, Java, and Sasha.
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