“We can’t afford for one to die. There aren’t that many.”
I remember thinking this when the Columbia shuttle disintegrated in 2003. Michael P. Anderson was the only black of the seven astronauts killed that day. For the second time in history a shuttle explosion claimed the life of a black astronaut. Almost twenty years earlier I watched as the Challenger ripped into shreds leaving no survivors. Among the lost was Ronald McNair, another black astronaut. There are over three hundred astronauts in training. Not even thirty are black.
This racial inequity in certain pools returned to me as I learned of a colleague’s recent death. His was the third in a related field this year. (Ironically I hear deaths happen in three’s.) As a black scholar in white-laden academy, I was sad to hear of this transition. It hurt that yet again we were mourning the loss of a peer. He and both women were in the prime of their lives. They were not in the sunset of their careers. The light yet beamed bright on their professional path. The compunction even through Facebook posts was palpable. Young children had lost a father. An aunt, a sister, a daughter had succumbed to breast cancer and other illnesses. Family gatherings would no longer be the same.
I dare not compare familial trauma with professional anguish. Relatives know in full what we only know in part. Still I could not help but ponder, can our community of black scholars afford to lose another? The Society of Biblical Literature, the professional organization for persons who study the Bible, reports over 7,000 members of which 87.9 percent are of European descent, and 5.3 percent are of African descent. Members of Asian descent account for 5.1 percent, Latina/o descent 3.6 percent, and Native American, Alaska Native, or First Nation descent is 1.7 percent. I would dare surmise that in kin professional organizations i.e. the American Academy of Religion, the Academy of Homiletics, the numbers are similar if only slightly higher.
Whereas our fold is increasing, we are still comparatively small. Thus, black scholars must work faster, research harder, and produce more to make academic, ecclesial and communal inroads. With Ph.D. in hand we run out of doctoral programs with an urgency—“ain’t got time to die.” Our people need our voice. Yes, the footsteps of tenure (or not) are on our trail, but the call to “set the captives free” and “repair the breach, restore the streets” also looms large. Thus, when death snatches one of us, the absence is calliopean.
This is not a heartless attempt to qualify mourning. We love and experience loss across all racial and ethnic lines. What resonates with me is what I deem the quantity-effect within my own academic circles: Because there are so few of us, we try to make a concerted effort to know all of us. Well, we should. Whether we have studied or can comprehend respective fields, that another black woman, another black man has crossed the burning sands is cause for celebration. Moreover, when one of us crosses over to other side—to teach, to publish, to collaborate no more—there is communal loss and numbness.
To earn my New Testament scholarly keep, I cannot help but reference passages in Gospel of Luke. The parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep and prodigal son are metaphors reflecting the Creator’s immense pursuit of us. These are also narratives regarding loss. The widow had other coins. The shepherd had remaining sheep. The older son was at home. Yet, the absence of just one something, someone created a cavity in the heart of those affected. Perchance the widow, shepherd, and father experienced the loss of an element of themselves. It was loss in that each involuntarily relinquished a segment of their being. What was gone precipitated a personal breech, an internal chasm. Their loss was temporary. Death is immutable.
There are black scholars coming down the pipeline as there are those of us who remain “to do the work our soul requires.” Nonetheless, there is a scholarly communal breech. Members of our academic family, a part of ourselves is gone. We will make room for others to sit, but no one can ever fill another’s space. Colleagues were taken from us without our permission and, for many, without our having had the chance to say good-bye. It is loss. From the outset there were just a few of us —too few to lose even one.
To commemorate persons who left this world in the twinkling of an eye, let’s pledge to:
1. Collaborate—within and across disciplines. Yes, co-editing a volume can be like watching paint dry. So how about attending someone’s book signing, promoting each other’s work on social media, or inviting someone to speak or serve as guest lecturer at your institution. I mean doing this for someone not in our familiar, clique-ish research circles.
2. Mentor—in whatever way your body, time and spirit allow. You define what and decide how.
3. Comfort- Let the family of the departed know you are thinking of them. The weeks following a funeral or memorial service can be the most difficult time---all of the cards, calls, and visits have ceased. This would be good time to connect with those whose mourning never ends.
4. Communicate—send the email, call, visit, or write someone who has “been on your mind for some reason.” The academy prides itself on individualism and sinister competition. #Resist this socializing silo.
5. Engage in self-love—Death, hardship, bilious rhetoric, and political shenanigans can send us into an emotional abyss. Take a walk, re-read that horrible first article or first sermon, binge on some non-intellectually-stimulating television or just daydream. Relax. Relate. Release.
Yes, we are too few to lose. We are not too few to forge new relationships or nurture old ones. We are not too few to do what we can with what we have. We are few enough to fight on!