Category Archives: general

Inspired Possibility: Opening the Gift of the Queer Soul

Part of the 2013 Queer Theology Synchroblog | Thanks, @anarchistrev, for the invite.

Logo for Queer Creation Synchroblog 2013

The earth was without form and void
and darkness was on the face of the deep.
And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. – Genesis 1:2

Imagine with me the void before “Let there be light”—the empty space before the components of creation started to self-assemble. In the formlessness of the earth, there’s nothing to see, and nothing to see by: no light or substance but water, Spirit, and movement. The water ripples while the Spirit hovers overhead, and all else is still. This second verse of Genesis shows us a planet-sized zero, and in the midst of this zero, God is. Before land, life, or any recognizable form has emerged, the Spirit of God moves. All that exists begins in this formless place, and with God present, anything is possible.

Inspired Possibility

Perhaps because so many verses come after Genesis 1:2 and only one comes before it, we often struggle to understand what “anything is possible” actually means. We enter this life and find pre-mapped worlds of experience, interpretation, and meaning already here. If anything in the scriptures is foreign to us, it’s the formless void described in this text. We don’t know what to do with formlessness; it’s a shifting thing to us, and so we struggle to tame it by assigning it a name: queer.

The Hebrew word translated “spirit” in Genesis 1:2, ruach, is a word that can also mean “wind,” or “breath.” When ruach appears in the Bible, it almost always signals God’s presence. God breathes, and divine breath brings life. In John 3, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.” We can see what wind and Spirit produce, but we can’t trace their source or project their next motion. We don’t know what the blowing wind or moving Spirit might become, but we can experience their presence with us in this moment. An experience of presence: that was the experience and gift of the beginning, when the infinite possibility of God appeared without form and void.

“And so is everyone that is born of the Spirit,” says John (John 3:8). We are formed in God’s image, and unfolded by the Spirit of God. The Spirit that once moved over the waters now moves through us, and like the once-formless earth, we are fluid in the hands of God. As the void held space for God’s designs, so we express all the variation God can imagine. As the Spirit moves through us, we receive in our bodies new possibilities for the world.

Breathing through Uncertainty

But just as the primeval void came with darkness, new potentials come with uncertainty. Formless spaces are both liberating and paralyzing: it’s when we gain the freedom to create absolutely anything that we can be tempted to mimic the commonplace, the average, the usual. Because of our bias toward the already created, it’s easy to fear the darkness that covers the deep and makes the familiar strange.

Yet that darkness also teaches us: the possible doesn’t have to use precedent as its foundation. “Tradition” is not reified in the darkness or in the void of potential. We can choose to cite the already-done, to incorporate it into new life-yielding patterns and rites, but tradition stands with and never over us. Convention stands in the same relationship to the void and the pre-manifest space of potential as any other configuration of reality. The so-called normative, dominant, and customary are not the heart of all things; there is only one Heart, and we are Its very good creation.

The moving Spirit of Genesis 1:2 is the Breath of God that connects the creature to the Creator, and this connection cannot be broken by any made thing (Romans 8). We’re entangled with God, moved by the ever-present limitlessness of Spirit-Wisdom, pulsing with Her potential for innovation and life. Connected to our Creator by our in-breath (inspiration) and out-breath (expression), we’re inherently part of something more deeply coherent than atomized identity, institutional affiliation, or conditional belonging. As God inspires matter, as energy moves through what is, earth’s formless void becomes a teeming planet. We can breathe deeply and in trust, being inspired through the Spirit, and opening to what could just as easily be and not only what is. 1

Generating as well as Restoring

So queer creation may begin with reshaping, recasting, and recreating what’s already here. In To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, R. Jonathan Sacks writes that we all have a role in reshaping this world: “We are here to make a difference,” he says, “to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help, where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.” Yes, this is part of our work; it’s a restorative, “repairing the breach” role, and as long as we’re queer in a world that resists and oppresses the different, we’ll have that role to play.

But queerness is more than merely restoring what is: we can also sense and draw out from the void possibilities that rigid and exclusive structures didn’t allow to emerge in the first place. Our generative work requires that we add to the world fresh wisdom and new structures, not merely revisions, hacks, or disruptions. Just as our Creator drew us out of nothing, we too have the capacity to create powerful newness through our lives, in our relationships, religious and spiritual communities, and social organizations.

When I shared Genesis 1:2 with a group of LGBTI and queer Seventh-day Adventists three years ago, I didn’t yet have the words for what I sensed in the text or in the slow development of my life: our very existence as queer people invites us onto a different pathway for imagination, vision, and creation than those opened to us by a hyper-structured hetero- and cis-sexist society. Not only do we see this reality differently because of who we are and how we experience life, but it’s also our spiritual responsibility to share our vision from the ground on which we stand instead of rejecting our ground and privileging others’. When we fail to express out of who we are, whether because of fear, repression, or disbelief in our own value, our band of creative potential is wholly lost to the manifest world.

To express this capacity in a coherent way, we’ll have to develop and practice a new gaze.

Creating with a Different Gaze

Earlier this year, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison spoke to the Cornell University community about her literary legacy and her play Desdemona. She explained to the audience why the character Iago didn’t survive her editorial cut as she re-envisioned Othello through Desdemona’s eyes, what it means to excise “the white gaze” from one’s work, and how doing so opened up creative space for her. Listen to what she said (38:58-47:12).

[This is what] has been happening more and more and more in my books, actually all of them, and that is to take away what I call ‘the white gaze.’ Whose eye, whose language is controlling this? Well, in Othello, it’s Iago…

[In the traditional African-American novel] the oppressor is the white man, or the white idea, or the captain, or the plantation; that’s who they were confronting. [Ralph] Ellison, [James] Baldwin, Richard Wright—you understood they were responding to, defending themselves, or aggressively attacking that idea of the white oppressor.

And I thought: I can’t do that. What is the world like if [the oppressor’s] not there? The freedom, the open world that appears… it’s stunning. And I notice most African-American women writers did the same thing. Toni Cade Bambara, not always Alice Walker but many times, Maya Angelou, those writers, and the poets…

There was this free space opened up by refusing to respond every minute to the gaze, somebody else’s gaze. So that flavored a great deal what I was writing. But you’ll understand about Iago now, why I had to get rid of him.—Toni Morrison

Refusing to respond every minute to the gaze, someone else’s gaze. Refusing to root our creative acts in the limitations others project onto us or the frameworks of meaning and value they map onto the world. Refusing to allow our Iagos to dominate our attention or conversation. Using our creative energy not to battle or defend, but to build up and out instead from the beautiful we see in ourselves. Having shifted our gaze, we center ourselves and our visions for this world on what we see from our perspective and the connectedness we experience with our Source and the Source of all creation. If, according to community catechisms and statements of belief, we’re not enough as we are, creating anew must become enough for us.

What’s the world like if the oppressor’s not there? What will we see when our gaze is authentic, when we’re grounded and clear? What will we make with our talk-of-God and love-of-others? How will we change? What will we teach?

May we inquire of ourselves, and answer in our creating.

Let there be light… and may it be queer.

1. I owe this formulation to the man I call My Friend’s Dad: an incredibly wise grandfather and sense-maker who sees beyond the manifest and inspires me to do the same.

Beyond the Literal: John Spong on The Gospel of John

This review was originally posted on The Hillhurst Review.

Spong, John Shelby. (2013) The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: Harper One. pp. 316

John Shelby Spong is something of a legend within the contemporary Christian thought leadership. Through a 24-book writing career and two-and-a-half decades as bishop to New Jersey Episcopalians, Spong is known for trenchant comments in interviews, dismantling the claims of evangelical orthodoxy, and furious pushback from those who deem him a heretic and a threat to the Christian flock.

A Gentle Testimony

Given Spong’s reputation for boundary-pushing and dangerous thinking, I was a bit surprised to see this gentle testimony in the preface:

Jesus walked beyond the boundaries of his religion into a new vision of God. I think that this is what I also have done and that is what I want to celebrate. God is ultimate. Christianity is not. The only way I know how to walk into the ultimacy of God, however, is to walk through Christianity. I claim not that the Christian path is the exclusive path, but that it is the only path I know and thus the only path on which I can walk. (x)

This sentiment, not wolf-like at all, represents the book’s deep, non-creedal commitment to Christianity as “the way of Jesus” that inspires life. It’s also a foundational component of the book that might resonate with readers who want to hear more from non-literalist Christian writers, teachers, and lay members. The Fourth Gospel is designed for that audience; it’s a thoroughly Christian literary reading of John, and emerged from a five-year study of the gospel text, translations, and all major commentaries on John’s gospel published since the 1800s.

The Fourth Gospel is based on two premises:

  • John’s gospel is a Jewish book, written by a Jewish author, drawing on Hebrew scriptures, symbology, and mysticism; it is not a Hellenistic hybrid indebted to or dependent on Greek or Gnostic philosophy; and
  • The gospel’s writers and redactors created or amplified characters that were literary but not literal and who are shown playing distinct roles in the developing story of Jesus; these roles also represent the life and concerns of the nascent Christian community that told and retold Jesus’ story over time.

I can imagine with Spong that John’s gospel was not intended to promote written scriptures over the living Spirit; to reinforce a hierarchical authority chain that flows down from God through political leaders, religious teachers, husbands, and fathers alone; or to reinforce our traditional preoccupations with law, sin, or transactional salvation: “I have come that you might have life, life in all its fullness” is what the gospel represents as Jesus’ concern and the concern of the community of believers. Each story and major character described helps Spong to illustrate how abundant life helps people of faith to transcend literalism, fear, and the isolation of limiting group identities.


The book has five parts that track the gospel’s 21 chapters and make it easy to read the gospel in one hand and Spong in the other:

  1. an introduction to the gospel, its authorship, historical context, and relationship to Jewish wisdom literature (John 1);
  2. a chapter-per-story section on the miracles or “signs” described in John 2-11, from the Cana wedding to Lazarus’ resurrection;
  3. a review of Jesus’ final teachings, goodbyes, and prayer for his disciples (John 12-17);
  4. reflections on key figures in Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion (John 18-19); and
  5. a study of the mystical significance of resurrection and the inspiration buried in John 20’s four resurrection narratives.


Throughout these sections, Spong acts as a teacher as well as a storyteller, mixing commentary on characters and scenes with summaries of important stages in Christian history. For example, in Part 1, he describes how the early church developed from a movement hosted by Jewish synagogues into a marginal sect operating outside synagogues or in conflict with them; eventually that movement became a discrete non-Jewish community though it retained many ethnically Jewish members. Spong argues that John’s gospel reflects these stages as it uses stories about Jesus and his contemporaries to represent community issues during the 1st Century CE.

In Parts 1 and 2, he reviews the evolution of the major Christian creeds and now-traditional Christology, and also presents an evolutionary model of religions that have emerged since the hunter-gatherer era (animism, fertility/goddess, “tribal” or national, and universal). “Universal” religion is represented as religion’s most recent evolutionary phase, a needed response to fundamentalist idolatry and anti-religious atheism. Spong sees that universality in John’s gospel and describes it as well as our resistance to it in a powerful passage in Part 2.

Inspired by the official who seeks healing from Jesus on his son’s behalf (John 4), Spong notes that faith inspires courage, compassion to meet needs, and connection with others across group, ethnic, national, and other limiting boundaries. He writes:

How difficult it has been for religious people to embrace an unbounded God. We have through our history sought to define God as a particular being, albeit one possessing supernatural power. With God defined as a being, we then had to locate God in a place. Ultimately that place was thought to be somewhere above the sky in a three-tiered universe. Then we had to build for this God earthly dwelling places that we called ‘houses of worship.’

Next, we began to assert that God’s very words were captured in the words of our sacred scriptures. Then we convinced ourselves that God’s very nature could be defined in our creeds, doctrines, and dogmas…

When these ‘sacred idols’ began to be destroyed by the expansion of human knowledge, we acted as if God had died. The God who lived above the sky was rendered homeless when we began to embrace the infinity of space; yet we continued to address God as ‘our Father, who art in heaven.’ Next, the scriptures, which we once thought of as God’s literal words, began to be understood as tribal tales and as human interpretations… Then the creeds, the doctrines and dogmas—which, we asserted, had captured God’s revelation—began to be understood as political and cultural compromises… That was when theism, the human word one adopted to refer to God as a being, began to die and we either had to become a-theists or search for another God definition. (113-114)

That other definition, approached through mysticism, forces readers to seek meanings beyond immediately accessible surface detail. It also challenges readers to tie biblical stories first to the community that passed the stories down instead of leaping from the text to the 21st Century. I found many but not all of Spong’s proposed meanings inspiring and valuable. I also found that Spong’s application of mysticism (i.e. “Not everyone can bear this vision…”) sometimes conflicts with his claim that Jesus’ “new life” collapses old barriers and opens to the whole world. The implication is that even though abundant life contrasts with exclusivist tribalism, it too becomes exclusive because not everyone who is offered it will choose it.

Given this conflict between universalism and mysticism, it wasn’t until Part 4 that I understood why Spong insists that John’s gospel must be viewed as Jewish. He argues credibly that “the Word” is a native Hebrew concept and that mysticism is also authentic to the text. And yet he describes the gospel community’s conflicts with “the Jews” and their challenge to the Jewish tradition in ways that make me wonder how Jewish readers might respond to his calling “the Jews” who reject Jesus “lost,” or him seeing Judas the betrayer as a symbol of those Jews “who cannot embrace the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (224)

Spong explicitly dissociates from Christianity’s traditional anti-Semitism and suggests that Judas himself may be a literary construct. But he never clarifies how mystical supercessionism that uses the Judas-Jew symbol meaningfully differs from traditional theology about the Church replacing Israel or Judaism. Nor does he reckon with what it means to represent the mystical Jesus path as the latest and best stage in human spiritual evolution. As much as he sees arrogance in literalism and fundamentalism, Spong fails to see that same arrogant potential in mysticism and a universalism that only a few can enter into.

Food for the Church in Exile

When I’ve heard peers mention Spong in our conversations, it’s been as a religious teacher who speaks for them or addresses the questions they have, who encourages them to take a respectful and thoughtful look at the religious beliefs they hold, who doesn’t encourage suspicion of science or scholarship, and who still finds deep faith meaningful in our time.

Spong refers to the “Church Alumni Association” in this book, but I do not think this book is written with the Association’s members in mind. It’s much more likely to draw readers who would like to return to the stories of the scriptures and the insight they contain, and for whom a narrative approach is a viable path back. It may also benefit those exploring the boundaries and limits of exclusive religious identity and fellowship: if a person feels called beyond the borders of their denomination, what and who else might they meet outside those borders?

Overall, The Fourth Gospel is a tremendously rewarding read. I’ve not marked up and argued with a book this much in at least 3 years, and I leave it with several big questions, not all of them raised in this review. [1] But I also feel inspired to return to the scriptures, reread them again, and “entertain vastly new possibilities” for what the bible’s writers wanted to communicate to other disciples of Jesus in their day and the generations to follow them.

[1] For example: If Spong is right and all of the major characters around Jesus can be read as non-literal symbols, why can’t Jesus himself be read as a non-literal symbol? Is “the spirit that empowers us to be the body of Christ doing the work of Christ in every generation” merely a metaphor for peer group motivation, or does it represent something more trans-human or … literal? (cf. p. 305)

Today I bought Janna Malamud Smith’s Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (2003) and will be sharing content and reflections on it going forward. The following quotes come from pages 27-41; in that section, Malamud Smith builds on Alan Westin’s 1967 definition of privacy as four-faced and composed of solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy. I’ve bolded these categories in the sections below.

“When you set out to destroy someone psychologically, destroying his privacy turns out to be one effective and common tactic. When Primo Levi talks about solitude in [Auschwitz] being more precious and rare than bread, he helps us understand its place in life. One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person’s ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable.”

“Summed up briefly, a statement of ‘how not to dehumanize people’ might read: Don’t terrorize or humiliate. Don’t starve, freeze, exhaust. Don’t demean or impose degrading submission. Don’t force separation from loved ones. Don’t make demands in an incomprehensible language. Don’t refuse to listen closely. Don’t destroy privacy. Terrorists of all sorts destroy privacy both by corrupting it into secrecy and by using hostile surveillance to undo its useful sanctuary.”

Solitude is the most complete state of privacy. A person seeking solitude separates from others so that she cannot be seen or heard, and so that she is not easily intruded upon. In solitude, as opposed to the other states of privacy [anonymity, reserve, and intimacy[, she is most free to relax her body…”

“We seek solitude because our psyches are permeable membranes. When we come in contact with others, we tend to absorb feelings, thoughts, moods, and opinions. A child says you’re unfair for making her start her book report today. Are you? A client asks to change his appointment from Tuesday to Monday. Can you? A spouse gives you a look that suggests it’s your turn to fold the laundry. Is it? A friend describes events that have made her sad. Is that why you now feel sad? We separate from others to sort through all we have taken in, to replay pieces of exchanges, to evaluate them, to rework them—and ultimately for the peace in which to listen attentively until we can hear our own notes amidst the jangle.”

“The essence of solitude, and all privacy, is a sense of choice and control. You control who watches or learns about you. You choose to leave and return… Unchosen solitude quickly becomes painful isolation… But solitude in moderation, held in check by its being a sought and limited departure from the company of others, allows freedom.”

“People need privacy from others so that they can rest from the strain of being what others desire—responsive, civil, engaged, conventional…To think and create, people often need solitude because its privacy allows not only mental continuity, quiet, and relief from being noticed, but latitude to experiment with half-formed ideas and ridiculous solutions. Still, that image neglects the full cycle. Solitude is half a heartbeat. Artists seek solitude so that they can create what they then must take before the public. Without an eventual audience, no matter how small, solitude can become, in Emerson’s words, ‘the safeguard of mediocrity.'”

“A second state of privacy is anonymity. To be anonymous is to be unidentified, unnamed, unnoticed:  a walker in a city, a member of a crowd. With the absence of recognition can come a liberating privacy. People often seek anonymity when the conventions of their surroundings, when the burden of being known, threatens to obliterate vital dimensions of their being… Anonymity allows people to express thoughts or feelings they might suppress in a relationship where they feel ashamed, vulnerable, or frightened… When not worried about being identified, people will say what they are otherwise ashamed to say…”

Reserve, the third state of privacy is forbearance, tact, restraint. In a state of reserve, unlike solitude, we are together with people, and unlike anonymity, we are usually known to them. We may be intimate. Our state is private simply because we do not choose to reveal the full extent of what we feel, observe, think, or experience. We set aside our immediate perceptions, sometimes our frankest opinions—preserving them (and often us) for the future. reserve is a house with glass walls, but no one mentions it.”

[Examples of reserve include retiring to one’s sleeping space or using headphones, newspapers, or books to block out other passengers on public transportation. Forms vary culturally and over time.]

“Too much reserve leaves people isolated, misunderstood, and guessing. Do you like me or hate me? Are you angry or sad? Am I helping or hurting? People get edgy when they cannot figure out where they stand. Yet almost all exchanges require some holding back of what is thought or felt because our most private thoughts are too idiosyncratic, vacillating, boring, unsocialized, and bald to be more than occasionally tolerable to other people. The capacity for reserve is as important to sustaining intimacy as disclosure is. It offers a basic form of emotional safety.”

Intimacy is a private state because in it people relax their public front either physically or emotionally or, occasionally, both. They tell personal stories, exchange looks, or touch privately. They may ignore each other without offending. They may have sex. They may speak frankly using words they would not use in front of others, expressing ideas and feelings—positive or negative—that are unacceptable in public… the heart of intimacy, its essence, is that in it one comes as close as one is capable of, or as close as one feels permitted, to revealing oneself to another person. One attempts to express frankly to another one’s inner experiences, desires, feelings, and perceptions—though the expression is inevitably limited and incomplete.”

Like a recent article on the empirical psychological impacts of political surveillance, this 4-fold analysis of privacy focuses on the individual and his or her voluntary or involuntary engagement with others. I look forward to seeing Malamud Smith explain whether or how she sees privacy and private relationships influencing collective knowledge-making or the work of the state.

Faith and Freedom II: Beyond Force

Big Idea: Force and anarchy aren’t the only two cookies our communities can bake. Given all the theories of freedom that religious institutions have produced over the centuries, they should be skilled at cultivating and honoring free choice, not the least skilled of all and not merely average.

At the end of my last post on this topic, I wrote:

I was once taught that the end-game of this human experiment was that right-being and right-doing would be intuitive and internally driven. If that’s more than a pipe dream, shouldn’t religious institutions be the most skilled at honoring and nurturing free conscience and persuasion and teaching all of us to do the same? Shouldn’t they be leading freedom, not limiting it?

The balance of faith and free conscience in religious communities and educational institutions is a recurring debate. Perhaps the biggest mental block isn’t that our definitions of academic freedom vary or that various groups hold mutually exclusive visions of how much denominations should influence schools. Maybe the biggest mental block is that we have unchallenged assumptions about human nature and capacity, and we rarely expose these assumptions to daylight.

Hugo van der Goes's Fall of Man and the Lamentation (1470-1475)

Hugo van der Goes, “The Fall of Man and the Lamentation” (1470-1475) | Google Art Project

Seventh-day Adventist policy about the church’s influence on its colleges and universities through accreditors and conference-level constituents seems to be based on these premises:

We don’t seem to allow for presenting good with sound reasons and without emotional or authority manipulation, though even this allowance assumes that the good we propose has a solid basis to start with.

A system based on the three assumptions listed above has no reason to wait for amazing grace to draw untrustworthy people into a higher moral order, or to leave compliance to the chance and vagary of the Spirit that blows as it will.

So, from universities to international organizations, the religious institutions I’ve observed rarely rely on cooperative rhetoric or community design principles to inspire people to good. [1] Both are used, but neither is indispensable to these institutions’ work or use of authority. Students, staff, or members cannot look in every direction and see trust-based relationships that enliven them. Specific rules emerging from that low-trust context help to keep the system functional, but not flourishing. And alternative modes break through on a small scale from time to time.

I don’t see alternatives to force-and-sanction at work consistently in mainstream society. I see more on the edges, and organizations like the Fetzer Institute, Ode, and Bread for the Journey support and signal-boost examples in their areas. By contrast, the mainstream offers increasing monitoring and multi-system limitation and control, and whether by active lobbying or tepid objections, religion is complicit. We teach that we are “the light of the world” and promote a gospel of grace and mutual submission rather than empire and power-over, yet operate our institutions using “the master’s tools.” So if grace and mutual submission do resonate for students and members now, it has to be in spite of us and not because of us.

A minister recently argued that there are so many things “the world” can do better than “the Church,” so many things from institutional management to community outreach, but modeling the value of grace is the only thing the Church can do better. I don’t know whether that’s true. But if it is true that “the Church” (i.e. us) is supposed to be the planet’s functioning illustration of Christ at work, then my consternation is only heightened. If we are that illustration, then all of our movable parts need restructuring to support our Christ-ing. We can’t get results we don’t build for. And if youth don’t learn alternatives to force and authority-sanctioning from their time in our religious educations, where should we send them to learn? If organized religion drops a ball it claims was made for its hands, who will pick it up?

Three columns and a round tin of M&M and chocolate chip cookies.

Credit: Jennifer Jacobson

I believe in and fully support a healthy, diverse civil society, and I contend that religious organizations are part of civil society but not its master. We have much to contribute to civil society’s common-wealth and will first have to release the urge to dominate it and its people. I think much anti-religious rhetoric is rooted in our peers looking for proof that we-the-religious have released the urge to dominate. Perhaps they’re not yet seeing much.

The burden’s on us to prove our intentions in word, act, and relationship: we all have a lot of cookies to make and eat together.

[1] My current congregation is an exception to this pattern, and that is why I became a member.

Interview: Carl Hunt, Neuropsychopharmologist

In science, we are a conservative group, in the academy and at an Ivy League institution we’re also conservative. So I worried considerably about [the professional costs of High Price]. But then I thought about my knowledge, what I know, what I’ve learned, and I thought it would be irresponsible if I didn’t share some of this stuff with people who are coming up after me. I didn’t want young Black boys, girls, to think that they have to be perfect in order to get to where I’m at, because by no means am I perfect, nor was I perfect… I hope that the story helps people to understand that you don’t have to be perfect and you can still make a contribution to this country. —Carl Hunt

This quote comes from a July 2013 interview with Dr. Carl Hunt, Columbia University’s first tenured Black science professor and author of the memoir-investigation of the US’ War on Drugs and addiction’s impact on society, High Price and first author of the textbook Drugs, Society, & Human Behavior, published by McGraw-Hill and now in its 15th edition. As a researcher, Hunt studies methamphetamine and argues that the media and public policy have exaggerated the impact of meth in the same way that they reinforced “hysteria” about crack cocaine in the 1980s.

But more than commenting on the current drug narratives, Hunt and Smiley also describe the networks of support that helped Hunt to move away from drug sales and use in his teens and gave him access to college, higher education, and the research postr-doc programming that helped him become a professor in his field.

He cites support at 3 levels of bio-reality:

  • family: 5 sisters and his grandmother;
  • community: neighborhood mentors and peers; and
  • profession: a school rule requiring him to maintain a passing GPA in order to keep playing sport, out-of-school programming for “disadvantaged” students, international opportunities via the US Air Force, and PhD-level professionals who inspired him to think of himself as doctoral material and encouraged him to apply.

At about the 17 minute mark, Hunt and Smiley address respectability politics and the additional pressure minorities can face to damp down their personal style and the ways they express their individuality: respectability politics requires professional minorities to erase, minimize, and tone themselves down to fit in with classist and racist assumptions about “what a professional should look like.”

The transcript is available on the PBS webpage. Length: 27 minutes.

Photo of Carl Hunt on Tavis Smiley PBS set

Neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart on PBS (7/12/2013)

The NPR show On Point hosted Hunt for a longer interview with Tom Ashbrook in June this year (47 mins). The extended interview and some of Hunt’s other recent media appearances highlight how access to funding and political credibility influence researchers and their willingness to report on the empirical evidence their research produces:

Do you have to use drugs to be a good scientist?
No, absolutely not. You have to be open-minded and you have to be critical, and you have to let go of your predispositions about what you’ve been told that doesn’t have foundations in evidence.

Has your funding ever been threatened because you don’t buy into “the hysteria game”?
I had two huge grants, multimillion dollar grants. They run out, and I can’t get funded anymore. I wrote a really good grant recently — I’ll keep trying. I’ve been doing this book now, but one of the critiques of my last proposal was “what are you trying to do, show that drugs are good?” And it had nothing to do with that, but I think yeah, I think that people are suspicious of me.

Is that stymieing your science right now?
Oh yeah, absolutely. You don’t have money, you can’t do science. But that’s part of the price that I pay. (Carl Hunt Confronts Drug War)


At the 2013 Essence Magazine Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon this February, Gabrielle Union received the Fierce and Fearless Award. Her acceptance speech is remarkable. (It starts at about 1:03 of 11:32.)

Gabrielle Union at the 2013 Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon | via OWN

Gabrielle Union at the 2013 Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon | via OWN

“We live in a town that rewards pretending and I have been pretending to be fierce and fearless for a very long time. I was a victim masquerading as a survivor. I stayed when I should have run. I was quiet when I should have spoken up, and I turned a blind eye to injustice instead of having the courage to stand up for what’s right…

“Being fearless is simply doing the work. It’s doing the work that it takes to recognize you no longer want to function in dysfunction and misery and that you would actually like to be happy and not just say you’re happy.” —Gabrielle Union


This AFI clip of Dustin Huffman discussing his process with the character Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie has made the rounds today. He began with the question, “How would you be different if you’d been born a woman?” and asked his make-up team to help make him “beautiful.”

“I said [to my wife] ‘I have to make this picture.’ And she said ‘Why?’ I said ‘Because I think I’m an interesting woman when I look at myself onscreen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill, physically, the demands that we’re brought up to think that women have to have in order for us to ask them out… There’s too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I’ve have been brainwashed.’ [Tootsie] was never a comedy for me.” —Dustin Hoffman

Hoffman’s comments about wanting to “pass” as a woman and avoid double-takes when walking down the street made me uncomfortable, but I’m glad he had the insights he did. What if we lived in a world where our social categories didn’t make anyone vulnerable to street harassment, and where “beauty” wasn’t so restrictive that it made “interesting” people invisible?