BLACK LIBERATION THEOLOGY IN OXFORD
BLACK LIBERATION THEOLOGY IN OXFORD
Dr Anthony Reddie discusses his life as a theologian
Published: 21 October, 2020
Author: Lanisha Butterfield
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Dr Anthony G. Reddie is a self-described activist scholar, who has written more than 70 essays and articles and 19 books that firmly position Black liberation theology at the forefront of the practical theology discussion.
He joined Oxford University in January of this year, just before the world imploded in a big Covid-19 shaped bubble. A man of humble, Bradford, West Yorkshire, roots, his journey into academia started with being racially profiled, and as a result, woefully underestimated at school, when he was denied the opportunity to sit O Level exams, and placed in a lower tier category - despite being top of his class in both History and English subjects.
Forty plus years later he is a living testament to the transformative power of life experience, academic opportunity and passion for your subject. His work most recently includes Theologizing Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique (Routledge, 2019), and he is a world-leading authority on Black liberation theology. In addition to his Oxford seniority, he holds positions as Extraordinary Professor of Theological Ethics and a Research Fellow at the University of South Africa. He is a Fellow of Wesley House, in Cambridge, has a BA in History and a Ph.D. in Education (with theology) both degrees conferred by the University of Birmingham and is also a trustee of the ‘British and Irish Association for Practical Theology’.
Dr Reddie shares what it is was like finding his footing in a new role during a global pandemic, how a serendipitous trip to an afro-centric book shop changed the course of his life and taught him that being less than spectacular at an early age does not define you.
What was it like starting a Directorship position during a pandemic?
One word, bizarre. I live in Birmingham, so, from when I started in January, I was juggling commuting with staying with a local friend and in college. I was just getting used to things and working out a pattern, when suddenly it was like, ‘Ok, no more Oxford.’
Next week I will return to Oxford to begin undergraduate teaching, and it will be my first train journey in 7 months.
How did you come to specialise in theology?
I stumbled into it completely by accident.
It would be accurate to say that I was not a stellar student when I did my undergraduate degree at Birmingham University. Profoundly lazy, would be another good description. I was an 18-year old boy, off the leash for the first time from chores and deeply religious parents. I could go out and I could flirt with women, and I ended up spending more time in the bar than the library. I was nothing to write home about academically, so it is honestly a miracle that I am sitting where I am now, and have achieved all that I have.
I in no way encourage my students to slack off, but I think it is important that they know that being less than spectacular at an early age does not define you. I am living proof.
How did you go from being ‘profoundly lazy’ to a leader in your field?
The big difference was life experience and existential shock.
When I left university in the late 80s I got involved in community activism and youth work in marginalised Black communities in Birmingham. I got to see first-hand how systemic racism was affecting Black people in this country, and I think I matured significantly as a result.
One day I was on my lunchbreak, and it was pouring with rain, so I took shelter inside a book shop – probably the only Black-owned book shop in the whole of Birmingham. I had passed by so many times without going in, but today was different. I looked around and found a book ‘The Black Theology of Liberation’ by James. H Cone. I picked it up, read one page, which turned to two, and two became a chapter. I was so engrossed that the shop owner - who was a miserable Black man called Marcel – now sadly long gone, said; ‘hey, boi…either buy the book, or put it down.’ So I bought it. And that book literally changed my life, to the point that I thought wow, this is what I want to do. And I signed up to do my Master’s degree at Birmingham University, and then to get my PhD.
What was university like for you the second time around?
I went from bluffing my way through, to being uber-conscientious and reading – devouring, everything I could. I completed my PhD part-time over 4.5 years.
At 18, I was quite immature, but when I did my PhD I was in my early thirties, and I was an entirely different creature. My studies were not just abstract, I could see a direct correlation between what I was studying and my own life and it made me want to try that much harder.
Growing-up in Bradford, was Oxford or Oxbridge, something you and your class mates thought about?
I went to a large comprehensive school in Bradford, which was more like a zoo than a school. The student-body was more than 2,000 students – of whom I would say, 1,951 did not want to be there. There was only a small group of bookish nerds like me. That plus coming from a very working class background meant that Oxbridge was just a complete no no. Even my going to Birmingham University - also a Russell Group University, was a big deal.
As an activist scholar focused on Black Liberation, has racism been a factor in your own life?
Looking back, racism was so normalised in my childhood that even though I knew it was wrong, it didn’t traumatise me.
Bradford is an industrial, cotton weaving, ethnically-divided city. My father worked in a factory and we lived on the working class side of town. Nothing about it felt strange, it was just our life.
The most visceral moment of racism was at school. I was the best student in my school at History and English, and I was put in for the lower tier secondary examinations where the maximum grade was a C, rather than the higher ones. Which I know I could have aced.
I’m showing my age here, but, before GCSEs were introduced, secondary school examinations were split into two tiers, O-levels – which are the GCSE equivalent, and CSE levels, which were basically given to people so they could leave with something.
I ended up getting the highest mark that had ever been achieved in my History CSE level (96%) and my school were so excited, I was going to be in the local paper: ‘Black school boy achieves record CSE grade’. And I almost did the interview, until my history teacher, Mr Richard Wilkinson – and the only person who was an advocate for me at school – pulled me aside and told me not to. All of my teachers were white, but he was the only person in the whole school who was explicitly progressive and radical. He had fought for me to sit the higher exams, but everyone else had voted against him.
He said: ‘I’m not telling you what to do, but if I were you I would not do that interview. We both know that you should have done O Levels, not CSE levels. This is not an educational triumph, this is an indictment of our racism. There are other people in this school – white people - who you are better than, who will get B and A grades because they had the chance to, and you didn’t.’
To this day we are still friends, but I can’t bring myself to call him Richard, he will always be Mr Wilkinson to me.
How did your family react at the time?
My parents were first generation migrants from Jamaica, and their view was firstly that education was expensive and a huge privilege, and secondly, that teachers were selfless human beings. They could not conceive of a world where teachers did not have the best interests of their students at heart. So they thought, if they have put Anthony in a bottom set, it must have been for a reason.
I knew it was wrong though. Because I knew that all of the white kids that I was better than were doing O Levels, and yet I had come top of History and English – my two favourite subjects, but I was doing a lower award.
To this day I think I am one of the only people in British history, who did a CSE in History and then went on to do a degree and in the subject.
Did racism affect your university experience?
In the three years that I was at Birmingham University (1984-87), I was the only Black person on my course and there were so few Black people on campus that when you saw each other, you would not just nod, but shake hands and want to be friends. We really were a rare and endangered species.
My BA was in Medieval and Modern History, and the thing that struck me most at University wasn’t so much explicit racism, but more how Eurocentric the course material was.
One example I often use in my teaching is, Saint Augustine - one of the big early church intellectuals from North Africa. He was a Black African man and a genius of Christian intellectual thought.
We studied him for the whole term and it was never mentioned once that he was an African man, it was as if he had just fallen out of the sky. We looked at his work and ideas, but never his background or where he came from, because for some reason this was irrelevant. The next term, we studied Martin Luther and the early reformers, and conversely, we looked at everything about them. The lecturer even said, ‘you cannot understand their writing unless you understand the social era from which they come.’
At the time I did not have the intellectual capacity to confront what I was feeling, but I wondered to myself, why in the previous term the subject’s social background and experiences were irrelevant, but now suddenly they were essential?
It was only when I was doing my PhD and we touched on where ideas from African come into our intellectual cannon, that it dawned on me that Augustine was a Black man – who knew?! Because they never told us on the undergraduate course. Even now so many images depict him as a white man.
Years later, when I began to teach in Birmingham, I put that question to my students; why was his racial identity irrelevant, why was there this erasure of Augustine?
There was never any argument that he was a genius. But it was more, he can’t be Black and be a genius, he must be a genius in spite of being Black.
Martin Luther on the other hand, was German, and the viewpoint was that Germany was a natural incubator for brilliance, and intellectual thought, but Africa – not so much in their eyes, so they ignored it.
How do you work to challenge these notions and decolonise the curriculum in your own work?
I try to settle these conversations in the classroom and allow students to tell me what they think. I am very clear that although I am an activist scholar, I am not here to indoctrinate them. I am just there to help these very clever young people think.
Knowledge and power are always intimately linked, so what we profess as true has more to do with the person who is saying it, than it does the intrinsic quality of the idea itself and why it is, or is not, significant. I often give people alternative things to read, against set texts, and ask them to come back and tell me how they rate each text, just in terms of the ideas. Who do they think validates knowledge? What makes something more significant than others?
I was about 15, when at school we had to read Jane Austen’s Emma – I’ll be honest I was not a fan, controversial opinion, I know. And for my birthday, my Aunt gave me a copy of Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe – the first great African novel. I remember I started to read it, and just got a bit bored.
I took it into school - probably to impress a girl - and my teacher noticed and stopped the class to show them. ‘Anthony has bought this book. It’s not on the syllabus – [which is a whole other thing of course], but it is about Black people and it is a really important book for him to read. I haven’t read it myself, but it is so important.’
At that moment I just thought, why is Chinua Achebe an important book for me, but everybody has to read Jane Austin? These are the conversations I like to have with my students.
Is it difficult to be an activist scholar somewhere like Oxford University?
I am 55 years old, so I am too old for imposter syndrome. I know I’m good – not to sound conceited, but I go into the classroom confident in what I have done before.
As a Black person people always make pre-judgements about you – particularly when coming into white spaces. So I try not to do that to others. I had no assumptions about Oxford.
In fairness I have been warmly welcomed by the college and the University. I have no criticisms at all about either – firmly on the contrary.
Being an activist scholar at Oxford has actually proved to be a lot easier than I imagined. Because the students are so clever, and naturally competitive, the teaching is hugely enjoyable.
Does teaching theology have any unique challenges compared to other fields?
Teaching theology at Oxford is actually a lot easier than teaching in theological education. For a number of years I taught in a Baptist seminary, where people train for ministry etc. The particular place where I taught will remain nameless because it was such a negative experience for me.
Intellectual study was a requirement in order to become a minister, so my students were there because they had to be – not because they wanted to be. A lot of them were intimidated by academic study and were hugely resistant to having their ideas challenged – particularly by a Black person, or being taught anything by a Black person.
What is your approach to building a connection with a student?
My teaching style is quite comedic. I have learnt that if you say hard things with a smile on your face, or preface it with an anecdote – for example, rather than me standing there preaching ‘let me tell you how bad white people are’, I give examples of experiences – from history and my own, and then people are more likely to come with you on the journey than to be an adversary.
They don’t need to believe every word I say, or think I’m a genius – even though clearly I think I am [obviously that’s a joke]. They naturally have academic confidence and so are willing to be challenged – even if they aren’t interested in the subject. It makes them easier to teach, and more likely to engage – which is all I want.
From Covid-19 to the Black Lives Matter movement, it has been a tumultuous year for a lot of reasons, how has it been for you?
It is a tragedy undoubtedly that George Floyd was murdered in the way he was. It is also clearly a tragedy that we even need a group called Black Lives Matter. If you are a human being your life should matter regardless – it should be blindingly obvious.
All that said, on a personal note, this has been a huge moment for myself as a Black liberation theologian. I have had more conversations, recognition and visibility of my work in the last six months, than I have the last 20 years. Which has been weird, even the way it has amplified my presence in Oxford.
I am a Black liberation theologian with no historical links to Oxford. Oxford is very good at recycling Oxford. So my getting here is kind of a miracle.
When I was appointed, I am told it was a unanimous appointment. But, I think the significance of the appointment has grown since George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. The significance of having a Black liberation theologian, who has spent 20+ years writing about white supremacy and racism has dawned on people.
You are Extraordinary Professor of Theological Ethics and a Research Fellow at the University of South Africa, and you worked there for many years, how does that experience compare to being here?
Although on the surface it was like chalk and cheese, in their different ways, both are doing brilliant work.
South Africa has its own elite institutions, but even during Apartheid, the University of South Africa has encouraged diversity, inclusivity and has always been very open access.
The students are every bit as committed and highly motivated as the students here, they just have different life experiences. For example, I worked with one student, who was a single mother of six children, whose husband had died from AIDS. She was a part-time farmer, hovering above the starvation line while doing a very part-time degree. But she was determined. It took her 12 years to complete, but she did it.
Having come full-circle from experiencing educational inequality yourself, to shaping students experiences as a Professor, how important is access to you?
Access is so important, and I have to give the University its dues, in the short time I have been here, what has struck me most is how much effort is put into access.
Some of my friends are sceptical, but I always correct them. Having spoken to a number of Black and ethnic minority staff and access staff I know a tremendous effort is made to encourage people from non-traditional backgrounds.
Graduate level study is a lot more diverse than you would imagine too. At Regent’s College particularly we are very intentional about trying to support students from non-traditional backgrounds.
One of my first students here was a Black young woman from a state school in Birmingham. Ambitious, hardworking, and worked her socks off to get here. Not the image of Oxford I had in my head, yet she is a student here and she loves it.
Could more be done to encourage access to Oxford?
A lot of it is perception. People assume that they should not apply in lots of places, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I bang the drum constantly that if you are thinking about applying somewhere, just do it. Don’t just assume it is not for you.
Oxford has this huge, iconic brand. There is this huge disparity between what people perceive it to be and what it is. Even the city is much more diverse than I imagined.
What do you like most about working at Oxford University?
I love old buildings, and there is something about when the sun is out in Oxford. Pre-Covid, I was so looking forward to being in Oxford during the summer (Trinity) term. I defy anyone to walk through Oxford and not be seduced by the architectural beauty.
I am a practical theologian, and an academic, so I naturally do pretentious stuff. Being serious, I love to go on long, graphic walks, taking in the space and who inhabits it.
A few weeks into my role, I had some free time and went for a walk over Magdalen Bridge and up to the top of the Cowley Road. I loved it. It was still Oxford, but a different Oxford. And I just wondered, what is the relationship between this Oxford and the place where I work? How do people from here end up studying where I am? I’ve taken the bus to Blackbird Leys too, and again, it’s a different type of Oxford, it reminded me of some of the outer city parts of Bradford.
Before I got this role, I came to visit with my then girlfriend and she said: ‘Oxford is not for the likes of us’. She just did not feel comfortable. The longer I stay here I will want to reflect on these questions; how bodies inhabit space, and how buildings have a way of being attractive and also discouraging.
Who inspires you?
At a very micro-level, my mum. My first hero.
If she had been born at a different time she could have been anything she wanted to be. She was just a seriously clever, natural genius. Her party piece was mentally adding up her shopping as she went around the grocery store. When we would get to the checkout, if she was within 30-40p of the total, she would buy herself something to celebrate. She could never understand why I couldn’t do long multiplication like her.
She was the first to tell me I was bright. She might not have known enough about the CSE system to challenge it, but she knew enough to give me and my siblings the confidence to do anything we wanted to.
The tragedy of our family was that my uncle, born in 1924, managed to get a scholarship to go to the University of the West Indies, when he was 18. He was there was for a term and then for various reasons the scholarship evaporated and he had to leave university. It broke his heart and he gave up trying at anything. My mum’s promise was that she would do everything she could to ensure that we had the opportunities that they didn’t.
And who inspires you in your work?
My other hero is James H. Cone. He essentially invented the academic scholarly version of Black liberation theology, and wrote ‘Black Theology and Black power’ in 1969, and then followed it up with ‘Black Theology of Liberation.’
Those two books changed my life and are still the two seminal works to read to study Black Theology. Ok, some would say you have to read Anthony Reddie’s work too - but I would never put myself in the same category as him.
One of the highlights of my life is not only that I got to meet him several times before he died in 2018 aged 78, but that before he died he choose me as one of 10 people worldwide, he wanted to endorse his memoir, which was published posthumously. When I received the letter from his publisher I just burst into tears. An amazing full circle moment for me.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Really the truth is every month should be Black History Month, but you know something, if that isn’t the case, at least for a month – if nothing else – it puts the focus on the importance of our presence and our contribution to this country and the world, both as individuals and as communities. It makes people aware of the contributions, stories and valuable insights that we have made to culture. Specifically when talking about Great Britain, I think what makes Britain great, is us.
Dr Anthony G. Reddie can also be found here at Regent's Park College: rpc.ox.ac.uk/people/prof-anthony-reddie/
The author and founder of the Black Liberation Theology movement, James H. Cone, was nominated for The Oxford BHM 100 and appears at position 55 - search in your browser for the full feature which is hosted on Medium.com