This summer, Union Theological Seminary hosted the Association for Public Religion and Intellectual Life (APRIL) in its annual Summer Colloquium presented in partnership with Auburn Seminary. Each year, the colloquium brings about a dozen participants to “work on vital contemporary questions about religious life and social justice” in a collaborative discussion environment. This summer’s theme was “Oppressions and Repair” — and one participant, Dr. Johonna McCants-Turner, was particularly keen to conduct research at the Burke Library as part of her project. I had the pleasure of working with Dr. McCants-Turner in navigating the papers of Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon and Dr. Emilie Townes, housed in the Burke Library among the Archives of Women in Theological Scholarship, guiding her through setting up her research appointments and handling archival papers. Dr. McCants-Turner was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the experience for our Blog, which we documented in the interview below. -CB
Tell us a bit about yourself. What are your interests, your current projects?
I serve as an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo where my teaching and research interests include trauma healing, restorative and transformative justice, and contemporary social movements. My work traces and amplifies the theoretical, strategic, and visionary contributions of Black women and Black youth within these areas.
I will tell you a little about the project that brought me to the Burke. I am conducting research and writing for a book manuscript in progress called In the Wake of Wounding: Black Womanist Ethics and Reparative Justice. With this project, I am using methods from womanist and Black feminist social ethics to explore the transformative justice movement, Black women’s practices of restorative justice, and womanist theology, and place them into conversation with one another.
How did the APRIL/Auburn Summer Colloquium go? What did you set out to explore, what were some of the program’s highlights?
The APRI/AUBURN seminar was extraordinary! One of the highlights was simply being apart of an incredible 30+ year tradition of gathering spiritual leaders from different faith traditions who are pursuing scholarly, artistic and activist projects for social change. We spend time working on our own projects and also talk with one another about what we are working on and receive feedback. Given that we were based at Auburn Seminary, just a block away from UTS, I decided to spend most of my time going through the papers of Katie Cannon and Emilie Townes, which are part of the AWTS Special Collections at the Burke.
How did you come to be interested in seeing the Cannon and Townes papers at the Burke?
My academic training is in cultural studies, not theology or Christian social ethics. I first began learning about womanist ethics through studying the work of Katie Cannon. When I saw that her papers and the papers of Emilie Townes were archived at the Burke, I became excited about the possibility of learning from more than their published works, but also their unpublished lectures, teaching notes, and curricula. I also found it fascinating that both of their papers were present side-by-side, so to speak — Cannon, who was a student at Union and is now departed, and Townes, who was on Union’s faculty, and is still very much alive and at work.
How was your experience doing research at the Burke? Anything stand out as particularly interesting, helpful, or unexpected about the process?
Honestly, I found all of the library staff with whom I interacted incredibly helpful. For example, Caro, you met with me before I arrived to talk with me about the collections and give me some tips on doing this kind of archival research, which I had not done before.
What is/are 1-3 documents or items you found in the collections that particularly stand out, what did you learn from them?
One of the first pieces I encountered in the Cannon papers was a letter addressed to “Aunt Kate.” Reading that letter, a beautiful sense came over me – I was not only reading through the files of a phenomenal scholar-activist, theologian and spiritual leader who was also “the first Black woman” in so many categories — but also leafing through the personal papers of this incredible elder who was also a loving aunt, daughter, sibling, and neighbor. Although the letter was not related to my research foci, it imbued the rest of my work with a greater sense of reverence and sacredness. Moreover, it emphasized for me all the more what a privilege it was to have such access.