Black Religion, Spirituality and Culture Conference at HDS

Post by: Jarred Batchelor-Hamilton, MDiv student, DivEx Alum, HDS Admissions Graduate Assistant 

Editor’s Note: HDS students have the opportunity to plan conferences and events, among which is the annual Black Religion, Spirituality and Culture Conference (BRSCC). As an attendee of the conference, I can only admire the dedication of the students who planned it. Read on for a first-hand experience from one of these dedicated students, Jarred Batchelor-Hamilton (MDiv ’20). Jarred attended the first annual BRSCC during his participation in the 10th Annual Diversity and Explorations Program (DivEx) held over three days every fall at HDS.DivEx is geared towards undergraduate students like Jarred who have a commitment to social justice and diversity as well as an interest in exploring opportunities in the study of religion. As an active student on campus, Jarred has continued to support DivEx through volunteer work and has participated in the coordination of the BRSCC conference. Applications for the 2019 DivEx program will be available on our website in mid-July, here. I encourage you to explore this program, which is now in its 13th year. If you are accepted to the program, HDS covers the cost of your visit, including domestic travel to Cambridge from within the United States, housing, and meals. During the program, you will have the opportunity to meet current students, faculty, and staff, attend panels about best practices for the application, learn more about financial aid, sit in on classes, and so much more!  

Other conferences that have taken place in the past academic year and are planned mostly by HDS students include the Gross National Happiness ConferenceWays of KnowingSound Education, and the Buddhism and Race Conference. HDS students have also been involved in the planning of Harvard’s LGBTQ Conference 

I was actually a prospective student visiting HDS as part of the Diversity and Explorations Program during the very first Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture Conference in 2016, at the time coordinated by Taylor Stewart, MDiv ‘18, and Karlene Griffiths-Sekou, MDiv ‘17. While I was in the audience 3 years ago witnessing this amazing conference, I knew that if I attended HDS I would want to help out in some way. Each year, the conference is hosted by members of the HDS student organization, Harambee: Students of African Descent. It was through Harambee that I joined in the planning of the 2nd Annual Conference last year as the Communications Chair. My role meant reaching out to all the speakers and potential sponsors. It was so cool to open my email and see messages from well-renowned scholars who I never thought I’d have the chance to meet in real life. Under the direction of Fatema Elbakoury and Karlene Griffiths-Sekou (now HDS Alums), I spearheaded the 3rd Annual Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture Conference this past March.

This year, I acted as Vice Chair, which included brainstorming the conference from start to finish. The theme of this year’s conference was “Blackness at the Margins.” Fatema came up with the idea way back in June of 2018 and I fell in love with it. The mission was to engage in a dialogue concerning the depth and multiplicity within which Blackness exists and bring to light as many voices and representations of Black religions, cultures, and spiritualities as possible. We hoped to sit in conversation with one another across religious and spiritual lines that do not often come together at the intersection of Black identity.  In other words, we wanted to challenge what we think about when we discuss “Black religious identity.” Not everyone who is Black is a Christian, and sometimes we forget that the identity of a Black person who practices Islam, Judaism, or does not affiliate with any religious tradition radically changes their perception and experience within the Black collective. “What does it mean to be Black but not at the center of Black identity?” is a question that does not have an easy answer, or even one answer for that matter, but this conference aimed at interrogating that question. Much of the conference planning involved the logistics of creating panels and determining who will best serve those panels. One panel we hosted was titled “Black Panther, Diaspora, and the Queering of the Black Imaginary” in which the panelists looked at Afro religious traditions that are represented within the movie “Black Panther,” and how they shape the relationship between those on the African continent and those in the diaspora for Black liberation. The panelists included well-respected professors, activists, artists, and PhD students developing their research interests.  

You can read the presentation of my favorite speaker, Dr. Nikki Young, who just published her essay “Wakanda and Black Queer Moral Imaginaries” in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin this past month. As part of the conference, we also held a student panel that focused on Black literature and its intersection with Black religious identity. If you are a graduate student in the field of Black Studies, you should definitely reach out to us about presenting at the next conference.

At the end of the day, I would say my favorite part of the conference was the Evening Dinner in which we all celebrated another successful turnout with the panelists and audience members. The evening dinner also included presenting the Sankofa Award to our very own Professor Cheryl Giles who has been such a tremendous resource for Black students here on Harvard’s campus. It was such an incredible event, and I’m excited to spearhead the 4th annual conference next March (fingers-crossed) with fellow MDiv student, Ashley Lipscomb. If you are attending HDS this fall and want to get involved with the conference, please feel free to reach out to me or catch me in the Rock Café. We would love to have you as a part of such a vital conversation happening here at HDS. 

If you are interested in checking out the panels from the 2019 Black Religion, Spirituality and Culture Conference, the video below is a great start:

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