What we learned: The Visiting Black Intellectual Series

Speakers from around Indianapolis discuss balancing race and religion. Photo courtesy of Butler Arts and Events Center. 

ERIKA KOVACH | STAFF REPORTER | ekovach@butler.edu 

The Visiting Black Intellectual Series wrapped up with its final event of the series on March 26, titled “Black and Womanist as expressed through Mermaids and Priestesses”, which presented an open lecture on the ins and outs of African deities, goddesses and mermaids. 

The series, titled “Black Diaspora: Faith and Expressions,” was born out of a collaboration between two organizations this school year — the Center for Faith and Vocation, and the Hub for Black Affairs and Community Engagement. According to the Religion Seminar Series page, the collaboration of these groups hoped to show “how Black people throughout the African Diaspora understand, practice, and express their faith/spirituality in meaningful and culturally collective ways” throughout various seminars. During each of the seminars, speakers were able to discuss and expand on their work — through research, books and film — and how it has informed their intersectional experiences. 

Beginning in September, the series held four different seminars on navigating being Black and Buddhist, Black and Muslim, Black and Jewish and Black and womanist. Each seminar featured multiple Black speakers who are active in the Indianapolis area as professors, artists and writers. 

While the series has been ongoing at Butler for at least six years, Alexis Newell, project specialist for the Hub, said that formulating this year’s events began with the theme of Black religious and spiritual expression. This inspired Newell to search for leaders in Indianapolis who could explore these topics. 

“We’re really trying to get away from just the standard Christianity, and are thinking more broadly about what [the shift to broader expressions] means,” Newell said. “We were really intentional in choosing Buddhism, womanism and … Judaism. [These religions] are not necessarily niche, but just trying to expand on ‘What is that expression and how are people approaching it?’” 

While the series expanded its horizons this year, it also featured many familiar faces who have worked with the Hub in the past. Newell said film director Ira Mallory has previously worked with the Hub on various events, including as a speaker during the Black and Jewish seminar. Additionally, Charlene Fletcher, an assistant professor of history at Butler, presented and helped facilitate conversation during the Black and womanist talk. 

The most recent event began with an emotional address from Dr. Terri Jett, who helped begin work on this series when it was first brought to campus. The lecture acted as one of Jett’s last at the university as she will be pursuing a new role as associate vice president and senior diversity officer at Saint Mary’s College of California

The conversation was later handed off to Dr. Jalondra A. Davis, who currently works as an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of California, Riverside. Her current research surrounds mermaids, through fiction writing as well as content creation for The Merwomanist Podcast

“Black people have always had goddesses, and the mermaid has been one of her forms,” Davis said during her lecture. 

Throughout her presentation, Davis touched on the dichotomy of growing up religious, while also feeling that as a Black woman, there were always things — such as the way she dressed — that stood in the way of “the sacred.” 

Davis provided an in-depth history of Black mermaids and deities throughout time, from La Melusina to Undine to the present-day “Little Mermaid”, while discussing their significance as goddesses in African cultures. While she discussed what she called the “Black Mermaid Renaissance” in the present, she also touched upon the conflict of traditional Christianity with worshiping other beings. 

Her presentation was followed by a Q&A opportunity with the audience, providing more in-depth knowledge and insight. 

Newell said that these more intimate opportunities excite her about the seminars, especially as she performs more logistical roles during the events. 

“[The receptions] are [just as] interesting, when we get to talk to the scholars about how they arrive[d] where they’re at,” Newell said. “[As well as] their religious connection, what inspired them on their path … how they build up their scholarship and why this faith or spirituality is really important to them.” 

Isabella Faidley, a first-year critical communication and media studies major, works in the Hub as a student apprentice and was able to follow along with much of the planning for this year’s series and attend many of the events herself. 

“My favorite event of the VBI series was probably the Black and Buddhist seminar because it was put on shortly after I started my first semester of college, and I was somewhat unsure about going to school at a predominantly white university,” Faidley said. “After experiencing the atmosphere and conversations going on within this intellectual space that Butler endorsed, some part of me knew instantly that I had made the right choice in school.” 

Through the expansion of topics and new collaboration with the Center for Faith and Vocation this year, Newell said that she believes event turnout has improved from past years as the audience has grown to touch more communities on campus. 

“[The event’s] intention is about making sure that you don’t hold on to thinking one thing,” Newell said. “[It’s important to] keep an open mind about different races, and different cultures, and not just a monolith. So I’m hoping that it did.” 


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