April 3, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 14

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    Profile: Dwight Hopkins

    Dwight Hopkins, Associate Professor in the Divinity School, has long been an advocate for integrating the intellectual study of black theology into the curriculums of schools that teach religion. His most recent book is Changing Conversations: Religious Reflection and Cultural Analysis (Routledge, 1996), and he is working on two others, one of which will be the first-ever introduction to the field of black theology. His book Shoes that Fit Our Feet: Sources for a Constructive Black Theology (Orbis Books, 1993) was named an Outstanding Book on Human Rights by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America.

    Hopkins previously taught at Santa Clara University. He received his B.A. in 1976 from Harvard and his M.Div. in 1984, his M.Phil. in 1987 and his Ph.D. in 1988, all from Union Theological Seminary in New York. Hopkins, an ordained American Baptist minister, joined the University faculty in 1996. "John Rockefeller would have been proud of that, since he was a Baptist," Hopkins said. "Frank Reynolds [Professor in the Divinity School] and I are the only ones here!"

    What is black theology? Black theology is how God, or the spirit of freedom, works with the oppressed black community for their full humanity. It began July 31, 1966, when a group of black pastors took out a full-page ad in the New York Times advocating for a theological interpretation of black power. Now those of us in academia who work in black theology are trying to once again include black churches and church leaders under its umbrella. We're asking, how does black theology serve black churches when they are in crisis?

    What are the hot issues in black theology right now? The role of women is an ongoing battle. There is a real fight in churches over whether they should be ordained, whether they can preach from the pulpit or only preach from the floor -- indeed, whether they can preach at all.

    Another issue is how to increase black theology's engagement with the larger community, how to keep it from being ghettoized. I'm working to get black theology accepted as part of the mainstream theological curriculum, so that it's taught not only in predominantly black schools, but in every leading seminary and divinity school across the country. The Divinity School has supported this vision -- it's a struggle elsewhere. But already, it's become a permanent fixture in the American Academy of Religion.

    How did you become interested in this? Initially, I was interested in the social justice and policy issues of marginalized communities. I worked after college in tenant housing in Harlem. Then a colleague gave me an article about black theology -- it was only two pages, but as I read it, a light bulb went on. It was written by James Cone of Union Theological Seminary in New York -- just two blocks away from my Harlem tenements. So I walked up the hill and talked with the dean, and at the end of the conversation, he said, "You're enrolled in our master's program. Go downstairs and tell the secretary." As I left, the seminary bells started ringing. It was a crystallizing moment, as if it were meant to be. And Cone became my adviser.

    Now James Cone is coming to the University for a conference? Yes, we're going to have a black theology conference next spring, 1998, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his landmark book Black Theology and Black Power. The book was the first text in America that linked Christianity to liberation of the poor. It also helped open the door for several generations of African-American scholars to enter the field of religion. Cone, Cornell West [professor of African American studies and philosophy of religion at Harvard] and Rosemary Ruether [professor of applied theology at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary] have already committed to speak. We'll be discussing black theology as public discourse.

    You conducted research in South Africa 15 years ago, and you were there again during the past two quarters. How did this visit compare with the last one? Apartheid is over -- that's the big difference. I was last there in the fall of 1982, and on my first day in Cape Town a white Afrikaner literally tried to run me over with his car. This time, I was invited to Parliament to meet Nelson Mandela.

    How did that come about? One of my former students was elected to the South African Parliament, and he said, "Come visit, I'll show you around!" So I visited during South Africa's constitutional convention. I saw the entire process -- they argued about democracy, women's issues, what the national languages should be. They ended up with 11 national languages. Eleven! Think about that, when the United States is trying to enact English-only laws. I kept thinking, "So this is what it was like to be at the United States' Constitutional Convention in 1787. This is what the founding of our country must have been like." I was a witness to history.

    -- Jennifer Vanasco