Roll/Role Call: Invocation, Remembrance, Lamentation, and #SayHerName

This piece was originally published on January 15, 2021 on the Feminist Studies in Religion Blog as a part of a virtual roundtable series entitled, “Racism and the Feminist Study in Religion.”

By Jennifer T. Kaalund.

We are born and have our being in a place of memory…We know ourselves through the art and act of remembering. Memories offer us a world where we are sustained by rituals of regard and recollection.

bell hooks

For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Romans 10:13

I take attendance in my classes. Weekly as I enter this information into our reporting system, I reflect on the presence or absence of my students. A roll call is a tracking mechanism, but it alone cannot disclose intentions or attention. In many ways, it is more than simply names on a paper. Recently, I was taken aback when I stumbled across a video of actress and activist Ruby Dee reading the names of young black men who were victims of police violence in 1969. The litany of names she read was a different, yet familiar kind of “role” call, that of young black men whose absence speaks volumes. History is a good and capable teacher, if only we would learn the lesson.

Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, George Floyd — like the names that Ruby Dee read over 50 years ago, these names remind us of absence. Their names are synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement, a response to state sanctioned violence against Black people, has often been critiqued for its lack of attention to women. As a result of this exclusion, in 2014 Kimberlé Crenshaw, co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, created the #SayHerName campaign. This campaign intends to include women in the national conversation about race and policing. This campaign has brought national attention to the cases of Michelle Cusseaux, Atatiana Jefferson, Kayla Moore, and most recently Breonna Taylor.

Each of these cases, however, remind us that Black women are often rendered collateral damage, the unintended target, and unfortunate bystanders of state sanctioned violence. Their deaths are often erased and/or explained away. We are never the damsels in distress, instead we are told that she died because she “kept the wrong company” or “was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The circumstances of senseless deaths cannot excuse or dismiss the violence inflicted upon these women. Black women live lives filled with the angst and fear that is simply part of the Black American experience. We also know all too well the deafening silence of those who call themselves allies. This disappointment is a rejection that often kills us in invisible ways.

So this summer when I was saw “#SayHerName” trending, I was deeply troubled. The interconnectedness of religion, gender identity, and race is too much to unpack in this small space, but I have questions. I wonder what the result of saying her name could be? Whose name is spoken and whose name is not? Is this a command? Is it an act of remembrance, for as long as her name is spoken, she lives on? Is it an act of contrition — what could we have done differently to prevent this from happening? Is it a lamentation? Is there a relationship between saying her name and calling on the name of the Lord?

Power in the/a Name

Speaking the name of ancestors is a self-sustaining act of remembrance, as the epigraph indicates. Indeed, calling on/out the name of the deceased or the ancestors is a part of many religious traditions. These traditions teach us a great deal about invocation and evocation. In my faith tradition, calling on the name of the Lord is more than an invocation. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10). When we call on the name of the Lord, we not only anticipate a divine presence, we expect protection, deliverance, and salvation. There is power in words. When we speak, we enliven or give life to the potentiality of action; we create. Setting an intention and speaking affirmations are practices that similarly suggest that words direct and influence actions. Power can be found specifically by calling upon the name of the Lord. In the book of Acts, the disciples find that “…signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:30). Healing and miracles result from evoking his name. Jesus’ very name has power; he is the enfleshed and living word. “So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and in earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10). And yet, what is unique about the name of Jesus? Was it Jesus’ death that imbues his name with power? Or his resurrection? Does #SayHerName also require a blood sacrifice? Must black women die political deaths in order for our names to be spoken, for us to be remembered?

Perhaps we should be hesitant to call the names of those in death whose lives we do not value while they are living. If, indeed, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), then returning to the epigraph, bell hooks reminds us that our bodily absence, our memory, can shape and inform the identity of others. How do the senseless deaths of Black women shape your identity? Death creates moments of reckoning. And in these days of reckoning, may we find repentance and reconciliation. In order to do so, we must honestly face the racism that is so deeply embedded in our society, and also its accompanying sin of misogyny that renders black women disposable, seemingly recognized only in our death. And when we say their names, may we not only be haunted by the premature extinguishing of potential, but also may their memories compel us into action. So-called allies should not only speak, they must do something. How will you respond to the call to show up from Black women? And when the final roll is called to give an account for what we have done, what role will we have played to create a more just world?

Jennifer T. Kaalund is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. She received her Ph.D. from The Theological School at Drew University in New Testament and Early Christianity. Her book, “Reading Hebrews and 1 Peter with the African American Great Migration: Diaspora, Place, and Identity” (Bloomsbury T&T Clark Press, 2018) explores the constructed and contested identities in Hebrews and 1 Peter through the lens of the “New Negro,” a similarly vulnerable identity formed during the Great Migration in the United States in the early twentieth century. Her research interests include: Christian Scriptures, contextual Biblical hermeneutics, and African American history and culture.

This piece is written by Jennifer T. Kaalund was originally published on the Feminist Studies in Religion Blog as a part of a virtual roundtable series entitled, “Racism and the Feminist Study in Religion.” To read more content at the intersections of feminism and religion, visit Feminist Studies in Religion. If you write about similar topics, consider submitting a piece for publication on the FSR blog.

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