Stitching in the Spirit with Rev. Dr. Renita Weems

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Episode Summary

In this first fabulous episode of 2022, Lisa joins Rev. Dr. Renita Weems for a vibrant and textured conversation exploring and celebrating the common threads of Black women’s experience, weaving seamlessly the complexities of identity and passion through literature, religion, and spirituality, while honoring self-expression and creativity, especially through the domestic arts. Rev. Dr. Weems reflects on her colorful life experiences from a brief and unhappy career in Economics, to Black feminist collectives, discovering writing, attending seminary, and her remarkable life beyond. Rev. Dr. Weems’ relays her evolving relationship with sewing- how, for example, sewing her own clothing brought the theory of body positivity, into her embodied experience. And, while speaking very personally, Rev. Dr. Weems shares a direct message to listeners encouraging self-regard without judgment or stigma, protecting and honoring “the work that the soul must have,” tending to one’s own self- fashioning and on-going formation.

Episode Notes

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Lisa Woolfork 0:11

Hello Stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together.

Hello everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I am your host, Lisa Woolfork, and I am delighted to welcome Reverend Dr. Renita J. Weems. Reverend Dr. Weems is a fantastic human, a scholar, a theologians - theologian? Theologian. See, she is doing something I can't even pronounce, y'all. A theologian, a quiltmaker, as well as a leader in creating a quilt guild in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the first woman to get a PhD in Hebrew Bible, or Old Hebrew. She is an author of many books. And one of the things I love about her work is her commitment to Black women, faith and healing. That's what I've received from her work. And one of her books is called Just a Sister Away. And in that book, she says that sometimes our healing is just a sister away. The idea of recognizing in another sister a story that one might find within oneself, and the hope for mercy in that encounter. She is a co-pastor of the Ray of Hope Church in Nashville, Tennessee. And again, listen, I'm going to put a link to her Wikipedia entry in the show notes. How about that? That's what I'll do. And then y'all can find out more about the wonderful things that she does like that on your own. I will mention this. This is fantastic. There is a book called Black Stars. And it is an anthology or reference book of over 200 influential, timeless Black spiritual religious leaders who have made vital contributions to American life in the American church, and the spiritual and physical liberation of Black people. It includes figures such as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, it includes figures like Sojourner Truth, Adam Clayton Powell, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. It also includes the person you are looking at right now, on this video interview. Not me. Reverend Dr. Renita J. Weems. She is in that book, y'all, because she is that pastor. Okay. She is that person. And I am so grateful and so happy to have you here. Welcome.

Rev. Weems 3:24

Thank you so much. I am delighted to be here. I have been a fan of your podcast and of your Instagram page for quite some time. So I am honored and I was stunned by the invitation.

Lisa Woolfork 3:37

Well, I am so glad to have you here. This is fantastic. Now, one of the things I was interested in, maybe we could talk a bit about how you're quilting and sewing, and your leadership as well as your own creative practice. As a writer, as a thinker, as a scholar, as a pastor, as a woman of faith: all of these things seem to come together so seamlessly in your life. One of the quotes that you have in the foreword of your book on Just a Sister Away is you talk about the common thread of women's experience, and that that can become a link between women of today and women of the past, in particular in the Bible. Can you talk a little bit about how you might see, in some sense, how sewing might show up as that type of connection?

Rev. Weems 4:30

This is a beautiful, a wonderful question. Because it you know, it gives me an opportunity to kind of probably wax about something that I care about so much. But what the platform allows me to talk about sewing and women's writings and the Bible and women's leadership and women in the church. And I think that certainly I welcome joining you this this afternoon, because it allows me to do that. And it is precisely the image that you use, which is thread, or the seam. Those two images, if you will, someone who is visual, I think you picked right up on it, I don't know that it has been seamless, but it certainly has been a thread throughout much of my life. But I think also Black women's lives as well, this whole notion of sewing, this whole notion of crafts, this whole notion of using one's hands, this whole notion of being creative. What you're feeling on the inside, expressing it with your with your hands, I think, is very important. I love stories in the Bible because I am a church woman or whatever the language is now. So images of Mary and Martha are cooking, having an argument because Jesus is there. Martha comes and complained to Jesus and said, Tell my sisters to come in here and kitchen with me, because there's a lot of work here. And we saw that notion of that. So there are a lot of stories about women cooking. There's a lot of stories about women preparing and hosting people. There are not enough stories about women in the Bible, but there are beautiful stories. I listened. When I was younger - and I'm older than you - when I was younger, remember, I came up during a period when we were anti the domestic arts, if you will. We were rebelling as the women's rights movement, if you will, to all things domestic, correct? I mean, you just did not admit that you cooked, or that you sewed, or that you did anything domestic. I mean, that was also a burgeoning of the crafts movement during that particular period, so there were both these things. But in terms of those who were thinking women, can I use that? Those of us who were intellectuals, those of us pursuing PhDs, those of us who wanted careers. We thought we had to distance ourselves from all things, the domestic parts, or women's crafts. The private lives of women in terms of the things we did in our home. And yet, of course, I grew up - I am from the boomer generation. I don't think I took sewing in high school, but I grew up with women in my family who sewed by all means, and so therefore I had to learn to sew. My first big project was my high school prom dress. This is the early 70s, this was not necessarily unusual to sew your dress. And so that image of women sewing was a part of my life. And I went to an Ivy women's - when I graduated from college, I had a boyfriend that had a Singer featherweight. I don't know how he stole his Mama's Singer but I think he was going to pawn it for some weed or something.

Lisa Woolfork 8:13

He was a real catch.

Rev. Weems 8:14

A real catch. I'm telling you I didn't marry him, I did date him for a couple of minutes. But part about breaking up, I ended up with a Singer featherweight. I don't know to this day how. Thanks to God, that Singer featherweight I used to sew my first outfit for my first job on Wall Street. When I finished college, I was an economics major. And my first job was a public accountant in Boston, and then down to Merrill Lynch as a stockbroker. And I sold all my little Singer Butterick pattern dresses from that Singer on that singer of the Wayback Machine. So I took all of that. Of course, I never told anybody that I was sewing, you know, working on Wall Street. I didn't tell anybody that I was sewing. And after a while once I started moving and doing some other kinds of things, I put down sewing. But I came back with, about two years ago, I came back first through quilting. And then one day about 11 or 12 years ago saying, Why am I spending all this money on clothes? So quilting reintroduced me to, reminded me that I did know how to sew, so I started back sewing. So I love quilting, I loved quilting. But really quilting brought me back to draping my body. Feeling good about my body. Getting in touch with my body. Touching my body. It was a long time before I was sewing here these last - when I didn't really want to measure my waist. I didn't want to see my hips. I hate it when you all made sewers take - now get your body measurements out like, Oh, I don't want to.

I want to have a good time, stop it, I don't want to be sad.

It was when I finally broke that and just said, get the tape measure because everything you're making is not fitting you. But there's a whole body moment. It was a moment of reacquainting yourself with your body. You wanted to sew because your body was changing. But you didn't really want to look at your body, you really didn't want to touch it in that way. So it was all of those kinds of things. And I think a lot of my own scholarship has been about women owning their bodies, loving their bodies, loving themselves. And the truth of the matter is, it was still theoretical until I got the tape measure out.

Lisa Woolfork 11:15

Wow. Now that's a word.

Rev. Weems 11:18

Yeah, that's a word. Yeah.

Lisa Woolfork 11:20

"It was still theoretical until I got that tape measure out." Wow. That is facts. That is so powerful because it feels so real, and I have absolutely been there. And one of my friends says she recommends using the centimeter side of the tape, because we aren't on the metric system. We don't know what centimeters mean. So, you know, it's really the same, it's just information. All you need is information. And, you know, we've been so, I think, ingrained to attach meaning to inch-wide measurements. And like instantly judge your body based on this inch or that inch, but at least for me, because I don't think in centimeters, I can just say: Oh, okay, that's 118. Okay, good. All right, that's fine. Okay. And it doesn't give me the same, you know, like, anxiety. At the same time, it's also a practice, right? You've got to practice every day, you have to practice choosing to love yourself in the same ways that we like to think - that I like to think that God loves us, which is without judgment. Which is just like, this is your body. It's wonderful. It's part of who you are. And without it, you wouldn't be you. So let's just take stock of this so we can make sure your pants fit well, you know? Doesn't matter.

Rev. Weems 12:48

That's all you've got to do.

Lisa Woolfork 12:49

That's all you've got to do. Make your pants fit well for you.

Rev. Weems 12:53

Absolutely. Yes. Thank you. That was a great point.

Lisa Woolfork 12:56

For this week, we're going to talk about Word of the Year. And that is something that I started doing - I know people have done it for quite some time - but I didn't start doing it, I think really seriously, maybe until last year. So let's take a few minutes and talk about Word of the Year. I've decided to go with a word that would also be a good reminder, something that can help me help center myself, help me just remember, helpe me to...I don't know, I'm not sure exactly. It's hard to put a finger on it exactly. But my word is abundance. Abundance, abundance, abundance. Abundance works well for me, because it covers or because it's such an abundant word. It covers a variety of concepts and practices in my life. So abundance is linked to Christianity in the New Testament especially, so that's something that's important to me. It relates to the very useful and important critique of capitalism, because capitalism relies on scarcity. And if there is abundance, and if you believe that there is abundance, then there is no scarcity. And also, abundance is helpful for me as a reminder of my possibility, the things that I - I am limitless. To quote Beyonce in Homecoming, that I am limitless. That all of these things are available in abundance: goodness, joy, love, all of these things. There's plenty, there's absolutely plenty. Also, I really do believe and hope to practice as an ideal community over competition. Competition is a scarcity mindset, that it's only one person who can do the one thing. If you're not number one, then you're in second place or whatever. And that's meant to be bad. That's not true. That doesn't operate when there is abundance. And if with an abundance mindset and an abundance philosophy, that's the reason why abundance is my word for 2022. Because I definitely get in positions sometimes where I feel overwhelmed, I feel like I just can't do this or it's just too much, etc, etc. And to kind of pull back, to step back, and to look around and say, you know, I have what I need. I have abundance, there is abundance, I don't have to hurry and rush to get this thing before it, like, vanishes. All of that, the rush, the hurry, is something that is not necessary when there is abundance. And so that's just a concept that I'm really excited to practice, and remind myself of, and hopefully, I can I can hold on to it when things kind of, you know, get rough. I also think about the show Pose, which I really love, the show Pose. And Electra's house is the house of abundance. And I don't want to give any spoilers or anything of the sort. But Electra has been a character throughout the series who has had an abundance mindset, and abundance practices and belief systems. When she had nothing at all she had herself and that was the key to the abundance. And I think that's true for all of us. So that's why abundance is my Word of the Year.

So it becomes important for us to be able to measure ourselves without judgment, without stigma, because in some ways sewing, at least for me, is a deeply intimate practice. I find it a - I won't say it's therapy, because in my opinion therapy is therapy. Some people say "sewing is my therapy." Nah girl, have you ever had an actual therapist that talks back to you and helps you, you know, identify your problematic behaviors? You know, cause that is really helpful. It's very liberating. And so sewing is not my therapy, therapy is my therapy, but it is therapeutic. And something I was interested in learning more about from you is: you talk about in your book, you look at the Song of Solomon as a way to help women connect to their passions. And so I definitely have a strong passion for sewing. Can you talk a little bit more about, like, how women's passion, or like, did sewing ever become a passion? Before it was like no, I don't, you know, to do this. But now you are doing it more, and you are measuring your body, and you are making gorgeous garments for yourself. You went from the quilt life to the garment life rather seamlessly, with a pun. Were you able to tap into different types of vision, of passion, as part of that in that creative process?

Rev. Weems 18:08

Yeah, I mean, good question. You certainly have read my texts, and you certainly are aware of my books. Yeah, I think I look at the story of the Song of Solomon. And particularly, that I am looking at this Black-skinned woman there in Song of Solomon. I am Black and beautiful. And I look at her to talk to women about what it means to be passionate, and what it means to be a woman of passion. And passion has to do with more than our sex life, our sex urges, our very genuine and real sexual needs. And so I'm talking about passion as that thing that consumes us, that we feel called to do, that transports us. I think both Alice Walker and Katie Cannon, and my field of religion says, doing the work that your soul must have. That's your passion, doing the work that your soul must have. One of the things I say, particularly in that text that you're talking about, is save some passion for yourself. Don't give it all away to everybody else. Don't expend all of your passion either on sex and romance. Let me let me step back and say romance. And that we are raised as women to understand passion and only to be around romance and sex, but passion is your life energy. And you must save some for yourself and save some for other kinds of pursuits. So yes, early in my life. In my career, my passion was my work. I was a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School at the university undergraduate school for about 17 or 18 years, passionate about that. As an aside, I recently purchased Endnote, the software, to catalog all my books and do all my citations. Now, Lisa, I consider myself to be digital quasi-savvy, I'm obviously not a native, you know, I stay on top of things. All right. But I've got this little young sister PhD who's like my little mentee in some ways, but she digitally brings me along. So I found myself just consumed writing these chapters for these books I have agreed to contribute to, when I'm talking to her about something she just says, Are you using Endnote? And I'm like, Endnote, what's Endnote? And she said, Really? You mean you've been writing all these years and you don't know Endnote? How have you been doing your citings? I hate when I do the biography! I hate footnotes. Because APA, MLA, Turabian. I just said, a document is my point. It was just this last couple of months, as I'm inputting all of everything that I realized how many books I had written, how many articles I had written, how much I had produced, I didn't know how much I had produced; sometimes you don't know how much you have, you don't even know how many things you have sewn. You don't know how passionate you have been. You don't know your own passion, you don't even know your own knowledge production, you don't know your own, you know, your garment prediction, if you will. You don't know your own creativity, you just out there, knocking it out. So for many, many years after that, then going down to Spelman and teaching for two years with the Cosby visiting professor, and then some other kinds of things. I was passionate about writing, the academic writing that you kind of have to do; I was passionate about the travel and speaking, I was always teaching somewhere. So I’d get off the road from speaking, get back into class the next morning, and then be back on the road. So they're speaking, it was an academic conference, or a church conference: all of that passion. Because that takes a considerable amount of passion to do it over a long period of time, you see, and still enjoy. And then one day, I realized I had almost given all the passion to academic work or to my church work, and I was missing that was privately mine. In a room of my own. Where it may see the light of day, it might not see the light of day, but it’s my time. That's right. And I did need to bring some of the same passion to that work. And I think people who said, “You quilt? You sew?” because they only have seen one side. People don't know how to bring the artist and the academic; the scholar and the artist; the preacher and quilter; the professor and the soloist. They are surprised because in our world, those are diametrically opposed women. They are diametrically different.

Lisa Woolfork 23:27

That's right. One of the things that I find with that description, it just reminds me about, who are categories built for? Categories are built to put people and things in places, right? They're built to have structure or order. They're not particularly about liberation. Right? Right. They're not particularly about, like, if you are a pastor, and you are a theologian, and you are a sewist, you are not meant to be all of these things. It's like, pick one. Right? But what, you know, Kimberle Crenshaw and other folks who have done with critical race theory is that they've taught us that intersectionality meets, especially Black women in particular are the reason this concept exists, right? That Kimberle Crenshaw made it to describe a Black woman who in this getting free versus, like, whatever the law case was in 1983, whatever she - this was designed to expose the ways that Black women in particular represent a defiance and a transcendence of category. Right? Its categories are women and blacks. These are categories that have been created that leave out Black women. All the time, right? And so when you talk about this diametric opposition between the creative and the scholarly, now, the new phenomenon seems to be, you know, well before interdisciplinarity, it seems to be more like bringing the arts back into all forms of knowledge production, and not just the humanities. So it seems like Black women, we have already been doing the balance, right? Already been doing and trying to pursue work that is meaningful to us, while also breaking down categories that want to keep so many realms separate.

Rev. Weems 25:31

What does the book say, “But some of us are brave.”

Lisa Woolfork 25:34

Some of us are brave, that’s right.

Rev. Weems 25:38

Some of us are brave, or all the men are Black.

Lisa Woolfork 25:42

All the women are white, all the Blacks are men.

Rev. Weems 25:46

Yeah, all the Blacks are men, right, right. But some of us are indeed the notion that we fall within those two categories, and yet at the same time, fall within our own category. But there are those overlapping realities by all means, and that we punch all boxes, we challenge all boxes in an attempt to try to, you know, hem us in. But I think I may say this, this is, I think important to this podcast is to say: it is a caution to even us as sisters, as Black women, as women, that we are not to replicate doing that to one another as well. So it's not always they do it to us, men do it to us. But come on, to listen to this podcast, the ways in which we ourselves say, Oh, Lisa is a professor and sewist? We fall into those traps ourselves. And we have to be mindful of that.

Lisa Woolfork 26:46

That is so true. You are absolutely right, we fall into those traps. And I know that, you know, Baldwin, and so many other people have kind of talked about this - you as well - about the way that we internalize things that we think we might be supposed to do. But we internalize a lot of things that don't serve us well. And that part of our work is trying to figure out how can we live full, total, whole lives? That's my plan. That's my goal. And I fall short of that a lot. But you know what, that's my falling short of my own expectations. Not anybody else.

Rev. Weems 27:21

Yeah, what was the line in Sula? She says, you know, “I did things my own way.” And Nel says to Sula, “Were you lonely? I bet you're lonely.” She said, “But it's my lonely. It's my lonely. It wasn't lonely that was handed to me by somebody else.” So I love that kind of, I may be lonely, but it’s my lonely. Ain’t nobody hand me no lonely. I accept my own lonely. I live my life in a way, I made my own self lonely but no man made me lonely.

Lisa Woolfork 27:55

Exactly right. And Sula tells Nel after Nel’s husband leaves, she says, “Look at you. You got a secondhand lonely.”

Rev. Weems 28:03

A secondhand lonely.

Lisa Woolfork 28:07

How about that.

Rev. Weems 28:08

I may have to tweet that after this. There's a secondhand lonely. It's beautiful. I mean on that note, that beautiful quote by Toni Morrison about Sula, if I may, is that you and I both love so much. I mean, you just know Toni Morrison nails it every time. Every time. But she has this line, let me quote it: “Her strangeness, her naivete, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. But like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” Oh my God. If that’s not it.

Lisa Woolfork 29:31

Oh my God. That's it. An artist with no art form: dangerous.

Rev. Weems 29:37

But she puts a finger on: had she that sewing, quilting, cooking, gardening, that are disciplines. That even art itself is creating calls for a certain amount of discipline. She said had she something to discipline that passion, discipline that tremendous energy of hers, discipline that whimsical, idle side of her; something to bring her back in. Something to run all that energy back in. You have children. I have a daughter, but those who even don't, have seen children. You're always trying to help them harness that energy and say, maybe if I could just get all of that energy and let me get you in football. Let me get you a basketball. Let me get you in ballet, photography, let me get you playing guitar, you know, to harness - you need discipline. I don't want to kill it. I want you to discipline that energy and create something so that it does not become this distant thing. That is what sewing quilts, what cooking, what gardening, what playing the piano - they are as much as you're writing for tenure promotion. It is a discipline.

Lisa Woolfork 31:15

Yes, yes. And the idea of the unbridledness of passion, like what happens? I mean, because you're going to have this creative spirit, you're going to have it, right? Why not use it? I really love what you said about saving some passion for yourself. That sometimes it seems as though we are - particularly if one wants to follow certain Bible models and more patriarchal modes - it's all about like women's role is service. Service. And not service to ourselves, service to somebody else, right? About self-denial, self-abnegation, etc. And that does not have to be that way, that there are lots of models for following one's passion as a way to fortify oneself. You know, like that example, they say, you know, on the airplane, be sure to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping other passengers, right. At least for me, the creating of sewing, of quilting, of the needle arts, that is how I put on my own oxygen mask. That is how I restore my energy. That is how I, you know, start to feel lighter when things are heavy, right. And so to cultivate that practice just seems so helpful, so healthy. And one of the things I appreciate about your work is that you invite this consideration all the time, that this becomes a part of one's spiritual practice, one's self-beholding or self-regard. And that's what I think is one of the beautiful contributions of the legacy of your work, is Black women –

Rev. Weems 33:01

And let me just say, you are a literary critic, a Black feminist literary critic, a professor of literature. I am a failed literary critic, failed Black woman professor of literature. So I just went into religion because I could do it. I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to write novels. I wanted literature. Many, many years ago, people still meet me now and say, I remember you used to write for Essence magazine! And I say, “Yeah, I did in the 80s, the 70s and 80s.” I wanted to be a literary figure. I wanted to write like Toni Morrison, let me just say, let me just own that. Okay, this is before Beloved. So this is Sula and The Bluest Eye. Okay, Alice Walker. This is up to Meridian. This is not The Color Purple yet. [unintelligable crosstalk] Okay. And with Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones. Okay, I'm talking about era writing, right. My undergraduate degree was economics. I was in college, particularly where I went to school, when there was an infusion of women, white women, Black women, into the business world. My year of graduating college was the year we were all going into, we were getting MBAs and law degrees, and my degree was in economics. So I saw myself on Wall Street. Went to New York, worked in Merrill Lynch, got my license. The first day, my job at Merrill Lynch after I got my license, I went to the women's bathroom. And I wrote on a sheet of paper: “I hate my job.” And that's when I started writing. That was the day I started writing. I had never entertained writing. I had not been a literature major, and mostly I took one course with Hortense Spillers. But I was econ the whole way. I was economics. But it's the hating of job with Merrill Lynch that sent me into the women's bathroom to cry and say, I hate this, I don't want to do this. I don't know how I found about this women's bookstore up in 92nd and Amsterdam named Womanbooks, I made my way up there, somebody told me about it. And I found my muse. This is back when feminist bookstores were proliferating. That's a whole nother academic article on that. Womanbooks on 92nd and Amsterdam in that bookstore, little tiny bookstore, probably no larger than my sewing room right here. And it had a couch, and it had all the Black women’s literature and novels, it had white women, “I hadn’t read Virginia Woolf, I hadn’t read Willa Cather, I hadn’t read Flannery O’Connor, I hadn’t read Paule Marshall. And my feeling was to work at Merrill Lynch, downtown at the NFL building, yes. I would then take the train up to 92nd and Amsterdam and spend the evening at Womanbooks, acquainting myself with Black women's literature and women's literature, period. And I fell in love with writing. That is how I really started wanting to be a writer. And then I met a girlfriend who, you know, was an editor. I tell people, this is back before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on the board, please remember the board we used to have, the little index cards. “If you are interested in Black women's reading, Black women's literature, please call: telephone number.” And that was a, you know, what was that board that they always had?

Lisa Woolfork 36:59

A bulletin board?

Rev. Weems 37:01

Bulletin boards. And so if you go to the bookstore, you're going to have a bulletin board. And there was a sister who was an editor at Essence, but that's not how she introduced it. She was just looking for other Black women in Black literature. she [unintelligable]. And I called her and she said, Well, you can meet on Sundays? And we can just start reading books together? And I was like, yes, because I needed it too, okay. Yeah. And from that work at Essence she learned about this group called Sisterhood, because she was already on the in with knowing what Black women were doing in New York. Yes, that's right. We were both young undergraduates, had just finished our undergraduate degree. And she said, “Listen, I understand that Alice Walker, and Ntozake Shange, and June Jordan has taught this group called Sisterhood. And Black women in literature throughout New York meet on Sundays once a month here in the city, and they meet at Alice's house or at June's house. And I'm, you know, I'm working at Essence, you know, I'm a junior, I'm nobody on the totem pole, but they tell me about it.” She said, “You want to go?” I was like, Yeah! Yeah! Let’s go.

Lisa Woolfork 38:18

I get to go to a reading group at Alice Walker or June Jordan's house? Yes please.

Rev. Weems 38:23

Yes. Yes. Even back then that was a Yes, please. And when you got there, you are meeting all the luminaries. You are meeting Marie Brown, who was at Random House at the time. You're meeting - I don't think I ever saw Toni Morrison on that particular day. Vertamae Grosvenor, you’re talking about Paule Marshall. Girl! There were all those and June. And so the rest of us, the kind of, you know, the non-published, unpublished, never-will-be-published, whatever - we just sat over in the corner and said, Would you like some food? Ntozake came a couple of times. I mean, people were in and out all the time. But it really was a collective. I know that's the word you all use now, collective. Of Black women who were movers and shakers, who were intellectuals, because it wasn't just literary scholars. But it was really the Black talent, the intelligentsia of sisters in the New York area in the late 70s, who wanted to get together and say Listen. Let's get together and let's talk. And so that's how I joined that for about a couple of years. And so I really wanted to do writing. When that didn't pan out, I did do some things in Essence,. And I ultimately left Merrill Lynch, of course, because I thought, I'm going to write the great American novel. I wanted to do a 19th century abolitionist novel, using characters like Lydia Maria Child and William Lloyd Garrison. Girl, I can go - listen, you don't have time.

Lisa Woolfork 40:14

I think that idea’s still in there.

Rev. Weems 40:20

So I tell people when I tell the story is: then my landlord wanted his rent.

Lisa Woolfork 40:30

Yeah. Okay. You can't work on landlord time.

Rev. Weems 40:37

I quit Merrill Lynch. My check, my monthly check, it ran out; my unemployment check ran out. And then I heard God. People say, Were you called? I say, Let's just say I was broke. They say, Did God call you to ministry? Let's just say I couldn’t pay my rent. And I will end with this. I was always in the church, I was always still going, my best was the women in religion. So I will be at church on Sundays, and I will run up to New York into the city to listen to John Henrik Clarke, Flo Kennedy, you know, Toni Morrison, and now run back to revival, my little beanie on my head. And then on Tuesdays listen to some radical lesbian poetry, and then I would go back to church and teach Bible study. I had always these two lives: church, and my radical passion for social justice and feminist sensibilities. And I didn't know - there was no way back then to bring them together. So I didn't tell the church world I was hanging out with radical feminists, lesbian activists. And I shouldn't tell them, but I was going to revival on Monday nights. And I heard, because I’d always been really - I'd heard that Princeton was looking for Black students. Princeton Seminary. And I figured, how hard? I use this phrase all the time. How hard could religion be? So I figured, I do this church thing. I do Bible study. And I still want to write this novel. But if I go to Princeton Seminary, I'll be in a dorm, I get three square meals, I won't have to worry about rent, and I can write my novel and take the religious courses on the side.

Lisa Woolfork 42:36

Because how hard can it be? Really? I mean.

Rev. Weems 42:40

How hard can religion be? And that's how I became in ministry, that's how I became a professor of Bible. Because I got over there and said, I'm gonna work on my novel, get me a little suite, you have a dorm room, make some meals in the rectory, but I'm going to work on my novel and go take the Bible and religion and that little stuff.

Lisa Woolfork 43:01

On the side.

Rev. Weems 43:03

On the side. And then I got bit by religion. And I found ways to bring my literary side and my religious scholarship together. Lisa, I know I’m telling you a lot here. But that's how it happened.

Lisa Woolfork 43:20

I am honored to hear it and grateful to hear because what I'm hearing is this beautiful self-fashioning, right? That you are modeling what you are writing about in your books, right? You were able to follow a variety of passions, a passion for freedom and social justice, a passion for Black women's literature and culture, a passion for the breaking down of all sorts of categories by race, sex, gender, sexuality - all of that was something you're committed to. And also, you're committed to the church. You're committed to Sunday services, you're committed to Sunday church, Sunday school, you're committed to revival you were committed to Bible study, you were committed to all of those things. And you're passionate about all of it. And so when you look back at what you have done, what I'm able to summarize, just, you know, obviously not even summarized - I can allude to this line from this book, and this line from this book, and when you put them together it's almost exactly as it should have been. Right. So your rent, your landlord wanted rent. And, um, that was part of the call, as well. You know, your landlord called and said, You owe me money. And then you got the bigger call from the Lord.

Rev. Weems 44:38

You are doing well. You are literary, girl. You have read novels. You are doing well telling the story. Go riding

Lisa Woolfork 44:46

Listen, listen, I'm just summarizing what you just said. Because you just said - I mean, I didn't know everything you just said. I'm a good summarizer. You have really given us a model, and also showing what it means to forge your own path truly, right. Because you were able to write your way into a life of purpose. And not just the writing, of course, it's not just the legacy of your written and scholarly contributions. It's also the preaching. It's also the, you know, going around and doing the things that you do, and meeting with people, and just being a possibility model for the ways that we can free ourselves. The way that we can find ways to sustain ourselves, which becomes so necessary for Black women living in a country and amongst the dominant culture that doesn't really give a shit, as it were, about how we thrive or not. That's something I thought is just so beautiful about your work. And now I'm also having a horrible realization that I just said a cuss word in front of a pastor, so that's something that I'll be thinking about.

Rev. Weems 46:03

I will be a pope right now and absolve my daughter. You have been absolved ,my daughter. You cannot kiss my ring, but you just know that you are absolved, my daughter. That is not the worst thing that God has ever heard, nor, as a preacher, have I ever heard or said myself. But I may kind of squeeze this in whether we have the time to - I just want to say how much I admire you, and admire your work. When you interviewed Rita Dove the other month, whenever it was, I just loved the synergy between the two of you. But then you mentioned - the young people say that you dropped some knowledge there for a minute that just caught my attention. If my 28-year-old daughter heard me she would be rolling her eyes out, going “There goes my mama trying to be relevant.” But anyway, you studied with Nellie McKay! That you studied with Nellie McKay, who was a foremost personality and founder in the Black feminist movement of that era. And you mentioned that, I think I was sewing, I popped my neck up and said, Is that right? And also because your class - she probably is not your classmate, I don't know if you have Shanna Benjamin.

Lisa Woolfork 47:20

Oh, yeah. We were in the same cohort. Yes, she's young. She's a few years after me. She came back maybe three years after me. But we went together. Yes.

Rev. Weems 47:30

I have counted this book Half in Shadow so much. I post, I tweet, and I keep on it, so now some of my woman friends are beginning to post: Oh, my God, you got to read this. Because it's by Nellie, because it's interesting. But it is the story of a student writing about her professor, and all the complications of that. But what I love is those of us who are professors know, one day maybe one of our students may be doing the same, but also telling the story of the early decades of Black women's literature. And the story of Brittney Cooper’s question: what it means to be a Black, female intellectual. What it means to be a professor; what it means to be produced from knowledge. And I mean, Shana does this, but she does more than that. But for someone who is at my point in my career, looking back reading this, all of those questions are already in my own life. And I brought all of that to the reading of Half in Shadow about Nellie McKay. And it brings up a lot of memories of that period and those writers and those people who have read, but also to know that - and now I'm talking to one of her students. One of her students who, who obviously was - I mean, I've read Shana Benjamin's book. So when you said, “Oh, yeah, you know, my professor was telling me”...I dropped my Singer machine and said, Oh my God, this is just got to be God. It’s just got to be God.

Lisa Woolfork 49:26

I think it is. It is. It's just a real blessing because she was a wonderful mentor and guide and deeply committed to the discipline, as well as to helping us become as skilled, as practiced, as poised, as confident, and competent. Like, she was really excellent on the page about helping people - at least it was my writing - helping me to just think harder, to think more carefully. And that is a really generous gift when someone is so patient with your work, and that's something that she did for me. And the idea of working with someone who created a whole discipline, right, who built, you know - it reminds me of that famous poem. I think this is an Alice Walker poem where she talks about how looking back at Black women, and that we, like, built movements out of the pots and pans of our kitchens, or we built and financed whatever, from the dirt on our hands in our gardens. And we would sell this produce all the way through before pre-capitalism. It was just about community building. And that was something that I absolutely felt as her student, absolutely.

Rev. Weems 50:48

But didn't you know, she was starting a movement. She knows who started a discipline.

Lisa Woolfork 50:53

I think she did. Because I remember when talking with her, she helped to create what Black Studies became. But she was also interested in - and I guess Shana would know a bit more of the details - she really loved the American Studies Association Conference. She did a lot of work with MLA, because that was the discipline where literary studies was, of course, and a lot of leadership. A lot, a lot. At the same time, I think ASA still is more fun and more interesting. And I don't like MLA, I find it dry and scary and so much scarcity. You know what I mean? It's just horrible. But ASA, American Studies Association, is so much more fun. And I don't know, I think AAR, the American religious, y’all’s conference? That conference looks like it's fun as well. It looks like everybody has more fun than MLA.

Rev. Weems 51:48

I always hear that about MLA. I have always heard that.

Lisa Woolfork 51:51

It's true. Don't go. It's not. It's really not. Oh, it's so unfortunate. Maybe I shouldn't say that about my own professional organization, but ew. I’m for ASA. And I think it was because of the fluidity and flexibility. And MLA is really a lot of very staid, sometimes very European-driven, still very, you know - they're very, very slow on the social justice uptake. Like it's a big, big, huge thing that can be hard to move, I imagine. But that's okay. Anyone who's listening to this, don't invite me to be on any committees because I don't want to change it from within.

Rev. Weems 52:32

Absolutely, absolutely.

Lisa Woolfork 52:36

Let me ask you this question. I'm going to be releasing this episode at the start of 2022, and this is going to be a way to welcome us back. I'm going to be taking a hiatus from the podcast for December, and so some of the first episodes of the new year will happen in January. And so I wonder if you could share a little bit of advice about recommendations that you might have to just help us get started off on this new year in a good right foot. Like, anything that you like to do for a reset, or how you deal with transitions. You always do well with them because you do great in general,

Rev. Weems 53:16

My [unclear], she was gonna post all around my place. The beginning of year one: Well-behaved women do not change history. So I will certainly, but I have to always remember that they're well-behaved women, so I have never behaved. So I don't doubt that in 2022, I could not be any less belligerent, vocal, headstrong, hell-raising, fire-breathing in ‘22 as I have been elsewhere. I've made my peace with that, I am not well-behaved. I am not conventional. It took me a while but it’s just so radical. And oh my God, I used to fear that word. Secondly, if you want to fly, you have to jump off the cliff and learn how to fly on the way down. You build your wings on the way down. First, you have to just go ahead and jump. You don't jump and say, I didn't learn how to fly before I jumped. No; you learn to fly when you have jumped. So I think you want to talk about transitions, want to talk about a brand new year: I think coming out of this COVID pandemic that we have come out of, the playing field has been leveled. I think in some ways, you can be whoever you want. You can start from scratch now. You can start with just patches of fabric now. Build who you want to be and create what you want to be. It is a frightening time, and it is an exciting time. I think that 100 years from now, when our granddaughters, great-granddaughters look back at this period, I hope we say to them: we were certainly frightened coming out of this COVID. We were frightened within it. But we came out of it also. This is also exciting, because now, you know, we will never work the same way that we used to work. Our notion of time is different than it's ever been. Our sense of what we can accomplish has changed over the last 20 months. We have discovered that we were stronger than we thought we were. We also discovered unity. We we have now longed for one another in ways that we had not longed for. Being without girlfriends, laughing and talking, touching one another, going out for drinks or for a meal, spending time with family. I think so many rituals. And I'm talking as a minister, as a pastor, as someone who doesn't know what the future of the church is, the Black church, will people ever come back the way they used to be. And I don't know, we are suffering in some real ways in that area. But at the same time it's exciting. It's exciting because it behold all things brand-new to some degree. And I know that I just said behold, and I've got to see this, Lisa, as a new thing - I got to see and I am grateful to have lived at this moment in time to look at younger women and just….Girl Come on. You can do this. You have so much more available to you then than I did, and saying this to my daughter is frightening. What's going to happen with Wade vs. Roe. Now you want me to - that's a whole nother conversation. Because I'm concerned about Black women, and their sexual and reproductive health and freedoms. But at the same time. I will close with this. I read a writer who said that every generation has its - and he's talking to a European setting - every generation has its own Berlin Wall. Every generation has its Edmund Pettus Bridge. Every generation has its Montgomery Bus. And maybe for my daughter's generation, this is what happens to Roe versus Wade. Maybe every generation has its Ferguson. But listen, I can't lay down on the ground with y'all no more, I'm too old. Because y'all got to pick me up. I can't be out there smelling smoke all day. I'm past that age. I can give you my intellectual capital now. But I can't be out there on the road with you. But this is their generation to figure out. You got your evil; I got my evil. We had our evil. Now you have your Edmund Pettus Bridge, your Berlin Wall, we pass the baton on to you. But it is exciting. And one day you will look back on it and say, Look at what God did. Look at what my generation did. Look what our music did. Look what our art did. Look what our creation did. And all I can say is the same passion, after you have raised hell, then I bet that your Black Lives Matter protest brought the white man down, and then all of that - save some passion for yourself. And go to garden. Go to your sewing machine. Make your mama's biscuits, go do somebody’s hair. Go do something that feeds your soul. Go put on Nina Simone, and Ella Baker, and you know, Minnie Riperton, and feed your soul. Because there's always going to be more evil tomorrow, and more of a battle day after tomorrow, and you need to nourish yourself so that you might be strong to fight.

Lisa Woolfork 59:20

I love it. And on that note, we are so thankful to the Reverend Dr. Renita J. Weems. And this, I hope, will not be our only conversation. I would love to have you back. We will absolutely have to make that happen. But where can folks find you if they want to learn more about you? I'll be sure to put all your links in the chat.

Rev. Weems 59:42

On Twitter, @somethingwithin. My Instagram’s the same, @somethingwithin. My website, no middle initial. This is renitaweems.com. I believe so you will have everything else. I'm reachable. I'm accessible, if you will, on the social media platform bubble, if you will. So it is a continuation of my own work in my own life. I love raising hell and I love chatting about raising hell. So let's do it.

Lisa Woolfork 1:00:14

Let’s do it. Thank you so much. This has been wonderful.

Rev. Weems 1:00:18

Thank you.

Lisa Woolfork 1:00:22

You've been listening to the Stitch Please podcast, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. We appreciate you supporting us by listening to the podcast. If you'd like to reach out to us with questions, you can contact us at Blackwomenstitch@gmail.com. If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, and you can find Black Women Stitch there in the Patreon directory. And for as little as $2 a month, you can help support the project with things like editing transcripts, and other things to strengthen the podcast. And finally, if financial support is not something you can do right now, you can really help the podcast by rating it and reviewing it anywhere you listen to podcasts that allows you to review them. So I know that not all podcast directories or services allow for reviews. But for those who do, for those that have like a star rating or just ask for a few comments, if you could share those comments and say nice things about us at this Stitch Please podcast, that is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much. Come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together.

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

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