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Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies and assistant pastor of Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass. She recently found a place in her busy schedule to chat with Colby about teaching, ministering and places where the two intersect.
Do you love being a minister?
Yeah, I do. I'm not the only faculty member here at Colby who is a minister. When I came here there were three and now there are two, because one retired. I mean, I've taught in seminaries. It's not an oddity because a lot of the scholars that I work with are also ordained clergy, some more active than others.
I do what most ministers do. We teach. And I teach here, the students. Occasionally, if they're taking my course on African-American culture in the United States, and they're learning about the spirituals, you also have to explain the difference between the Old and New Testament to them. 'Come back and tell me what these Africans and their descendants were trying to tell you with these spirituals, all of which have some Biblical connection.' I say, 'Okay, everybody knows who Sampson is, right?' No. So I have tell them who Sampson is.
Are you amazed by that?
Well, I sort of nudge them. I say, 'what would you have done if they had these questions on the SATs?' See, I come from a culture and background where it is still a very big part of the lifestyle, especially if we're talking about who ends up going to college. Church kids are the ones who know all that. For those of us who are African American, we still know all that. But for other segments of the culture, the majority of the culture, that's not a highly elaborate component of the cultural experience. If I were in the South it would be a different story. Everybody in the classroom would know. Both the black students and white students. But this is the North and it's a more secularized dimension of life.
Do they know more after they finish your course?
Sometimes they know a little bit more. [She laughs.] Nobody knows who Obadiah is. Do you know who Obadiah is?
It's a book in the Bible. It's only one chapter long. But I don't proselytize. When I went to college I usually was trying to get away from people like me. [Colby students] are not my parish.
Speaking of your parish, what was it like growing up in Cambridge?
I have to say that growing up African American in Cambridge had certain privileges. My fifth grade teacher was black. My eighth grade teacher was black. I grew up in a community where there was always representation on the school board ...; I'm not saying it was Nirvana but there was a certain level of community life. I grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood so I grew up with Greek Americans and Italian Americans. My lifestyle also revolved around being in a choir, and on Sunday afternoons there was always a program to go to where we sang. So I was in and out of Methodist churches, I was in and out of Baptist churches. I was in and out of Holiness churches. I was in and out of Pentecostal churches. All of these churches in this multi-denominational world of being, quote, unquote, "colored," because that was the terminology then. So that's not the normal urban upbringing--the intensive immersion in the church and in the community with a high level of surveillance. . . Walking to church on Sunday meant leaving the house, meeting friends on the corner with a mother who could look out the window and see us connect, who could also call on the phone and tell my Aunt Ruthie, whose apartment in the housing project was around the corner and wasn't within eyesight, 'She's on her way.'
Now, my parents moved when I was in high school to a place called Middleborough, Mass. I was the only black woman. There was one other black student but he was a big sports star so he had an entirely different experience than I did. There were other people of color but they were not perceived as being black. And so their experience was not the same as mine, which was racial harassment that continued until the police were called in.
How did that experience shape the person you are today?
It's an experience that makes you very conscious about how the world works.
Do you talk about that in class?
Only if it comes up. The fact that I was harassed at school and the police actually put a stop to it--hey, this can happen.
What do you think of the current initiative for more diversity at Colby?
One of the things that happened this year that I thought was absolutely wonderful was the diversity conference that students themselves organized. Unfortunately they discovered that not all of their fellow students agree with them. We've also seen some mischief making, e.g., the invitation to [author and commentator] Dinesh D'Souza, which I found appalling. It tells us that issues of tolerance and diversity are still contested issues in our society.
I do a lot of thinking sometimes when I'm driving to Cambridge. I'm driving along and I happen to have classical music on and I was doing an exercise in my head just simply identifying all the instruments. And it hit me. I thought of all the trouble my parents went through to expose me to all kinds of music, to make it possible for me to understand every single instrument in the symphony orchestra when it was playing and what its job was. I say to myself, well, isn't human appreciation even more important? Why shouldn't I be able to hear all these voices in our world that come from these cultures? It was like, "Oh!" That's part of what motivates me. I really want to hear and appreciate the multiple stories that make up our society. And I honestly think that if people at least know how to hear one another, that we will be on our way to a better situation.
Diversity Call Renewed: Students, President Bro Adams, faculty and others join in effort to appreciate and accentuate differences.
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President's Page: President Bro Adams on the court and affirmative action.
Alumni Reunion 2001
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