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Critical Perspectives on Black Education: Spirituality, Religion and Social Justice

reviewed by Darrius A. Stanley & Terah T. Chambers - October 22, 2015

coverTitle: Critical Perspectives on Black Education: Spirituality, Religion and Social Justice
Author(s): Noelle Witherspoon-Arnold, Melanie C. Brooks, Bruce Makoto Arnold (Eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623967473, Pages: 290, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has brought much-needed focus to the issue of violence against the Black community. The senseless deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and innumerable others have inspired many to seek action. Perhaps more than any other incident, however, the shooting that took place in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015 when a white gunman entered historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and killed nine parishioners after attending a weekly bible study has crystallized the severity of the situation. In light of these recent events, particularly the church shooting, the timing could not be more opportune for Witherspoon Arnold, Brooks, and Arnold to take up issues of race, religion, and social justice in their recently released edited book. The editors note that “while the rest of the nation engages in debates concerning issues of religion and religious diversity in education, the saliency of religion and spirituality in the Black community and in the education of its children continues to be largely ignored” (p. ix). The irony in this oversight, of course, is the long-standing and deep-seated role that religion has played historically in the Black community. And, while scholars have addressed that historical connection of the Black community with religion and spirituality, a void is left in the exploration of these themes in more contemporary scholarship.

Addressing this gap is the significant contribution of Critical Perspectives on Black Education: Spirituality, Religion, and Social Justice. After a brief introduction by the editors, the anthology begins with an exploration by Whitney Sherman Newcomb and Irrekka Khan of the ways spirituality influenced the leadership styles of three African American women. The women’s accounts are a thoughtful and revealing account of the merging of care, social justice, and their calling to be moral leaders.

In the second chapter, La Monica Everett-Haynes takes on the issue of spirituality from a student perspective, exploring African American and U.S.-born African college students’ spirituality and religiosity at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). Her account details how students define and practice their spirituality, how the participants differ, as well as how students’ perspectives on spirituality merge with ideals of equity and social justice.

In Chapter Three, Nicholas Hartlep merges his work with the Black Mormon community with existing literature on the model minority stereotype. He points out the contradictions inherent in Black Mormonism as an example of the model minority literature, suggesting that race relations as typified in the Black Mormon community may help elucidate race relations in the U.S. more broadly. Chapter Four is an exploration of adult volunteer Sunday school teachers in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). McCoy calls for increased formal instructional training for Sunday school teachers at the local level and an improved andragogical nationalized curriculum for COGIC educational leaders in order to increase the lessons’ effectiveness for Sunday school attendees.

Chapter Five gives the reader an in-depth examination of Muhammad Speaks, a newspaper housed within the Nation of Islam to raise awareness and express concern about issues for children of color in the educational system. Although the periodical is severely marginalized within mainstream media, Hussein suggests that Muhammad Speaks offered many viable anti-desegregation arguments and ideas to improve the education of Black students.

In Chapter Six, Lisa Niuwenhuizen examines the role of spirituality in the experiences of assistant principals in schools. Niuwenhuizen reveals that although White and Black administrators are oriented quite differently with their own religious beliefs, both groups lean on their spirituality to help them perform their various duties at the school. Chapter Seven provides an opportunity for Cassandra Chaney to explore the religiosity and spirituality of Black professors in PWIs as a unique subset of individuals. In an attempt to address the missing literature, she explores how they negotiate their religious beliefs and how those beliefs inform pedagogy in these unique spaces. Recognizing that Black faculty at PWIs are often faced with marginalization in curriculum and other institutional practices and use their spirituality or religion to cope with these institutional biases is a great first step.

In Chapter Eight, Sanchez, Campano, and Hall explore the impact of the “gospel impulse” as a mechanism used to overcome an onslaught of dehumanizing policies in a school for African American boys. Through the usage of poetry, curricular inquiry, cross-grade awards programs, and partnerships with the local community, this chapter identifies the importance of gospel impulses for uncovering a stolen identity and rehabilitating the legacy of their school.

In Chapter Nine, Marina and Edwards-Joseph identify the unique plight of women in leadership programs that are of African descent. The authors in this chapter identify how this population utilizes their spirituality as a tool for self-awareness and to understand how they are situated within a male-dominated society. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the wisdom of womanist theology and educational research, Chapter Ten synthesizes the basic tenets of womanist theology to develop a research methodology. Witherspoon Arnold identifies radical subjectivity, traditional communalism, redemptive self-love, critical engagement, and spirit-love as the basic tenets that should be used to interpret spiritual narratives in educational research.

In total, this book offers an intense contemporary analysis on the impact of religiosity and spirituality on students, faculty, school leaders, and research methodology. It provides a comprehensive and thorough account of the ways contemporary practitioners and students utilize their religious fervor to navigate oppressive educational institutions and systems. A few of the salient themes within this book are the way spiritual narratives improve social justice leadership models and ways that practitioners as well as students are able to cope with institutional barriers using their spirituality as liberating tools. What is clear in this book is that there is a wide array of coping mechanisms that Black students as well as school practitioners employ in order to endure often-oppressive educational structures. These narratives give powerful insight into the different ways that this community utilizes its spirituality and religiosity to persevere through discrimination, marginalization, and intersectional discrimination. Their practices informed by religion and spirituality help to affirm their calling to the field as well. Another major strength of this book is in how it illuminates an often-overshadowed phenomenon in education, a field that tends to highlight race, gender, and class inequalities.

These strengths notwithstanding, the book could benefit from a comprehensive chapter that historically situates the impact that religion has had on Black education and the larger Black community since Reconstruction. Furthermore, a thematic organization of the narratives could be helpful to the reader and truly make the stories come alive. Nevertheless, this book presents a well-timed discussion that is much needed in contemporary literature. This book is recommended for readers who are interested in contemporary scholarship of the impact of religion on practice and the ways they might increase their understanding of how different groups utilize their spiritual tools to overcome adversity within schools. One thing is clear: in light of these elevated incidents of violence against the Black community, where people are not even safe in their house of worship, there is a deep need for this important work.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 22, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18177, Date Accessed: 8/3/2021 1:21:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Darrius Stanley
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    DARRIUS A. STANLEY is a second-year doctoral student in the K-12 Educational Administration program at Michigan State University. His research interests include social justice leadership, particularly as it pertains to the experiences of Black teachers in secondary institutions. His current work focuses on both historical and contemporary issues of faculty-level racism in American secondary schools.
  • Terah Chambers
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    TERAH T. VENZANT CHAMBERS is an Associate Professor of K–12 Educational Administration at Michigan State University. Her research interests include post-Brown K–12 education policy and urban education leadership. Specifically, she is interested in the ways within-school segregative policies influence African American students’ academic achievement and school engagement, as well as the price of school success for high-achieving students of color (racial opportunity cost). She has published in journals such as the Journal of Negro Education, Educational Studies, Race Ethnicity and Education, Teachers College Record and the Journal of School Leadership.
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