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WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH SPOTLIGHT: DR. OLIVE HEMMINGS

Written by: IMC Department

Dive in with Dr. Hemmings as she is interviewed on her real and transformative views on being a woman and being Black in an American Society.

 


 

HOW DO YOU SEE BLACK CIVIL RIGHTS IN AMERICA?

I came to America [from Jamaica] when I was mature and ready for my own sense of self. So, when I look at the racial problems in America, I am able to look at it from a sort of objective distance, even though I experienced it and I know it. I believe, too, that even someone who is indigenously African American can come to the point where they can look at it from an objective distance and try not to allow it to personalize itself to the extent that it causes them personal suffering. But, personalize it to the extent where they realize that this is something that I have to join the fight to overcome because it does cause suffering, in general, for an entire class of people. 

 

HAVE YOU BEEN IN SITUATIONS WHERE YOU FELT DISCRIMINATED AGAINST?

Welp, you’re here in America; you have two disadvantages. First, you’re Black, and second, you’re a woman.” – one of the first things Dr. Hemmings heard when she went to Seminary at Andrews University.

I have seen certain actions surrounding me and have had to confront them because I believe if I were male or even a white male, that would not have occurred. I didn’t do it because I was walking around thinking people were about to discriminate against me. I did it because I saw it and am conscious of the way Black females are treated, and because I have developed my own sense of self, I was able to confront it boldly—to say, “No, you will not do this,” and in a very respectful way. [Fortunately,] the way Americans have risen and, for the most part, have not lived as victims but have celebrated their Blackness in the midst of oppression—all of these experiences make me not willing to look aside when I see any kind of discrimination, either against me or against anyone else. 

 

WHY IS THERE SO MUCH RACIAL INJUSTICE NOW?

What has really been circulating in American society is fear. If I take you back to the early 1900s,  there was a movement that is now called the evangelical movement, which began in America. The reason why people arose was out of a sense of fear and anxiety about Black people getting rights and citizenship. You see, America was becoming too progressive, and that’s why this evangelical movement started. It is a movement that gives people power and continues to fan this flame of white anxiety. What’s happening in America today is white anxiety—the anxiety of the progress of America and the fear that perhaps the power and opportunity that they took for granted is slipping away. That’s the problem right now. As a result, you see all this brutality—it’s like a backlash against progress. We see the police brutality and the way George Floyd and others were brutalized; it comes from that fear and that anxiety that they’re losing power. The police are one of the great instruments of white militancy, whether we believe it or not. In fact, what happened in the capital on January 6th is showing and revealing through investigations that we have a lot of these people in the military, the police force, all over. The Black Lives Matter movement comes out and as a result, what we saw at the capital was like a counter-revolution. It’s a struggle; ‘This is a fight for the soul of America.’ 

 

WHAT CAN WE DO TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

I think the first step is that if we want to change the world, we have to change ourselves first. Any person on the receiving end of systemic injustice in America has to deal with who they are and develop their own sense of self. You must control the message about who you are—don’t let somebody else control that message. The one who controls the message holds power over you. If you don’t respect the humanity within yourself, you can’t respect it in others. When you control the message, then you really get to respect who you are. It will give you the courage to decide how to fight—sometimes the fight is by pen, sometimes by protest, and sometimes, perhaps, by turning the other cheek. But you must decide. 

 

THE STATEMENT, “I’M NOT RACIST…”

White people should not make the statement, ‘I am not racist.’ You can’t just say I am not racist because you can be racist and not know you are racist. Not because you want to be racist but because you have been brought up in a system that assumes this racism. So as we say, racism is not about color; it’s about power; they have to realize that. When a white person says ‘I am not racist,’ most of them are being sincere. But many of them are not conscious of the racism that is built in a system that they are a part of and don’t realize that they are a part of.

 

HOW HAS WAU DEALT WITH RACISM?

WAU’s situation is unique, and it’s difficult to address. WAU, which used to be Columbian Union College, was one of those universities that were bold enough to begin to desegregate. So, WAU has a history of desegregation, but the more you desegregate, the more you become less diverse. 

I think, though, that the university [now] continues to hold to diversity—bringing in all of God’s children across the board, whatever your race, religion, sexuality, etc.  It is not a question of whether we embrace diversity; it is a question of how, now, do we put it into action. 

 

WHAT ARE SOME RESOURCES TO GAIN MORE KNOWLEDGE ON THIS TOPIC?

One of the books by Black scholars that I think every college student should be reading are works by W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin. There is Cornel West, who wrote Race Matters, and James Cone, an American theologian who wrote a series of books, two of which I have read which are God of the Oppressed and The Cross and the Lynching Tree. You can also read literary works by Toni Morrison and other intellectual Black people. These people really opened the heart of the African American experience—they let you see it as it is.

 

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ON RACISM?

People will say there was slavery in the Bible; that’s why there was slavery in America. But when we talk about slavery, especially in the Old Testament, it is not the same as we are talking about slavery now. In the ancient world, slavery was one of the spoils of war. But in the case of ancient Israel in the Bible, the slaves that they are talking about were people that had to sell themselves or sell their children into slavery to pay off debt. It’s not about conquest and domination.

When it comes to racism, it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the Bible. Jesus used one interpretive principle. He says, “In everything, do to others as you’ll have them do to you.” It seems so simple but is the most difficult thing to grasp in the whole history of Christianity and religion in general. Through all the issues in the Bible, He repeats that the only thing that is lasting is love. That is what Black Lives Matter, Civil Rights Movement, all of these things, it’s about love. All I’m asking you is to see me as you see yourself and to treat me as you’d like me to treat you. That’s what it’s all about. 

 

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