Valerie Smith
Professor Valerie Smith (left), who directs the Program in African-American Studies, encourages students in her freshman seminar on "Religion and Resistance in Narratives of Slavery" to think "in more complicated and subtle ways" about the topic.

photo: Denise Applewhite

'Religion and Resistance' seminar expands boundaries of thought

by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
"I want to play some music for you," Valerie Smith told the 14 students in her freshman seminar, "Religion and Resistance in Narratives of Slavery."

"Can we dance?" one student asked.

"If you are so moved," Smith replied with a smile, prompting laughter from the students.

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As a homework assignment, Smith had asked the students to write a short piece addressing what literacy had meant in the lives of American slaves.

"You all assumed literacy meant the ability to read and write," Smith told the students, who were assembled around a table in a seminar room in Blair Arch. "Might it mean something else?"

Smith walked over to the CD player in the corner and pressed the "play" button. A 1961 choral arrangement of "Steal Away to Jesus" filled the room. "Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus ...," the chorus sang. The class listened closely, and then discussed with Smith how spirituals functioned as both a source of emotional comfort in the slaves' lives and as a means of resistance.

Read the full story in the Weekly Bulletin.