Race, Place, and Belonging – A Conversation with Willie Jennings

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

We live in the aftermath of colonialism, and colonialism, said Willie Jennings in his talk on March 11, has created a fundamental choice inside a terrible question: either you own it or I will own it. Given those options, the only choice is to say “I possess it.”

This choice extends to everything, but most particularly to land and bodies. The primary expression of the ownership of bodies is slavery and the primary expression of ownership of land is private property.

It may seem that the first of these, slavery, is now an irrelevance, but Jennings argued otherwise. The opposite of slavery, self-possession, is expressed through productivity and self-actualization. You become productive by making land productive, exactly what European colonialists claimed indigenous peoples all over the world failed to do. If you cannot make land productive, you have no claim to your own body or to nationhood. Productivity in this view became the measure of morality; to be moral is to produce. Though most of us are not farmers, we apply a similar logic to our bodies and ourselves. Just as we extract resources from the land, so we supposed to extract resources out of our own selves, in order to become fully actualized people. We must prove our worth by become our best selves.

Jennings argues for another way of seeing bodies and land, one that begins with belonging, with being possessed by rather than possessing of. In this way of living, self-actualization requires belonging. All learning – intellectual, spiritual, and moral – begins with belonging, with being part of a community. Jennings used Aretha Franklin as an example. When you hear her voice, you hear a whole community of black American music, stretching beyond and in front of her. You also hear her individual voice. But the individuality of her voice rests on and depends on her community. It is not in competition with it, nor does her belonging diminish her talent.

Community to Jennings does not only include humans, but extends to land, plants, and animals, an idea he drew from his family history and from indigenous authors. Rather than seeing the world as a collection of resources for extraction, we should aim to live in covenant with both humans and our places. Covenant with a place begins with the possibility that the world speaks to you and reaches out to you. The relationship is mutual, which does not preclude use (you can still eat the carrots you grow!), but changes the terms of use. Jennings talked about his memories of his parents gardening. Gardening had an economic aspect: Jennings was the youngest of eleven, in a network of large families, and gardening played an important role in feeding everyone. It also established an informal network of exchange between neighbors, everyone sharing and trading what they grew. Gardening was a form of community, of being taken care of by the land and of taking care of yourself and your neighbors.

Jennings said that he learned from an early age that the land gives you life even when you are surrounded by people who desire your death. This was true for him and his family beyond growing food. Jennings talked about the importance of touching the soil, of sitting and being with the plants in the cool of the evening. Sitting in their backyard was a therapeutic intervention, a way to remember who you were and to whom you belonged. This relationship to land escapes us, said Jennings, and our built environments often thwart it. But being able to be in relationship with the places we live is so important, argued Jennings, that to create built environments that deny these realities is immoral.

Jennings argued that one way to regain a sense of place is to become better storytellers about the places we inhabit. He pointed to the practice of land acknowledgement, in which one acknowledges whose land one is on. Durham, for example, is on Occaneechi land. On its own, this practice is insufficient, but if part of a larger pedagogy, of learning the history of our lands in a way that opens up possession, it can point us towards processes of reciprocity and respect that have not yet taken hold. It might teach us a way to live in continuity with the peoples who lived on these lands before us and continue to live here. It might teach us to notice the land calling out to us and learn ways to respond to that call. 

Join us on March 18, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Joyce Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. To register for this webinar and learn more about the series, click here.

Mari Jørstad provides support for Facing the Anthropocene, a project under the Ethics and Environmental Policy program area. She is originally from Norway and spent a decade in Canada, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art & art history and political science and an MA in religion before coming to Duke to work toward a PhD studying the Hebrew Bible.

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