Editor’s note: The following question-and-answer interview with
University of Delaware Professor Monica A. Coleman was part of a series
of conversations in the UD Research Magazine. The theme was UD
Disruptors. As a research university on the leading edge, UD has a
multitude of creative thinkers and doers.
Society often remains silent about mental illness and sexual and
domestic violence despite the millions affected — half of all Americans
will be diagnosed with a mental disorder alone at some point, according
to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In her work as an
award-winning scholar, author and minister, University of Delaware
Africana Studies Prof. Monica A. Coleman shares both her expertise and
her own struggles, offering a powerful new vision for healing through
Q: What do you study, and what led you into this field?
Coleman: I study the ways that religious beliefs address
suffering and injustice. When preparing for a career in Christian
ministry, I discovered the academic study of theology and fell in love
with the different ways people have thought about God over time — even
within one religion. I found this diversity very liberating and wanted
to share it with others. As a womanist theologian, I write and speak
about what happens when one places black women’s spirituality at the
center of our discussions about faith. As a philosophical theologian, I
study people’s religious beliefs within the framework of what we think
about how the world works. I do this to offer an alternate vision for
hope and healing.
Q: Can you recount the tipping point — the idea that produced your ‘aha!’ moment?
Coleman: When I was in college, I took an elective in Harlem
Renaissance literature in the African American studies department. I
loved the class and changed my major to African American studies (what
UD calls Africana studies). I had long been interested in black
religions, African American literature and black history, but I didn’t
know I could major in something I studied for fun.
As a second tipping point, when I was 18, other students from my
college and I went to South Africa to help prepare voters for the first
free democratic elections in that country — the elections that voted
Nelson Mandela as president. That experience concretized my sense of the
global African diaspora and ignited my passion for connecting academic
knowledge with grassroots activism.
Q: Were there many naysayers and how did you navigate that?
Coleman: Yes. My parents didn’t understand what I was doing.
They thought “studying black people” wouldn’t get me “a real job.”
Likewise, I wasn’t raised to be a religious leader. That wasn’t an
option given to girls at the time and place where I grew up. So there
was a lot of ageism, sexism and misunderstanding around my career
choices. I kept telling them I would teach. When I received support from
the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship),
the Ford Foundation (Ford Diversity Fellowship) and the Woodrow Wilson
National Fellowship Foundation, that helped me — and so many other
people of color — to grow in my career and for my parents to see that it
was a viable career option.
Q: Has anyone in particular inspired you to think differently?
Coleman: I had a lot of excellent role models and mentors. I’m
afraid to name one for fear of missing some: Henry Louis Gates Jr.,
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Renita Weems, Marjorie Suchocki, Angela Y.
Davis, J. Lorand Matory, Delores S. Williams. They all showed me a way
to think critically as a scholar, how to genuinely care about my
students’ intellectual and personal growth, and how to take our academic
knowledge and share it with a wider public — through writing,
preaching, public speaking, visual media. This was what I wanted to do
and they showed me that it could be done and personally validated this
approach to being an academic.
Q: What is your favorite problem at the moment?
Coleman: I’m thinking about loss. Human finitude is a
long-time philosophical problem, and I’m thinking about strategies for
how we navigate myriads of small and significant losses in our daily
lives, and the kinds of rituals and creative ways we can claim life in
the midst of them. I’ve worked it out philosophically, and now I want to
add a lived religion dimension to the way I write about it.
Q: Why do you want to keep doing this work?
Coleman: I really love what I do. I feel a vocational calling
to this work. I like thinking about the big questions of faith and
offering various ways to think about it, and sharing that with a wider
public. I believe rituals are not only endemic to human societies, but
critical for our creative engagement with the world. When people tell me
— even through DMs on Instagram — that something I’ve said or written
makes a difference for them, then I have a lot of energy to keep going.
Q. Does your disruptive side prove challenging at home?
Coleman: It’s the only way my family knows me.
More on Monica A. Coleman
Professor of Africana studies at the University of Delaware and an
ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Monica A.
Coleman focuses on the role of faith in addressing critical social and
philosophical issues. She believes spiritual activism leads to social
activism and shares principles for growth and liberation to help change
the world to be a more just place. She is a Harvard graduate and holds a
master of divinity degree from Vanderbilt and master’s and doctoral
degrees from Claremont Graduate University. Her books are required
reading at leading theological schools across the U.S.
Article by Tracey Bryant; photo by Kathy F. Atkinson
Published Dec. 9, 2019