- Written by Alicia Ivory
Dr. Katherine Bassard, a leading scholar in African-American literature, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and an ordained minister, will present the Naseeb Shaheen Memorial Lecture at the University of Memphis.
Bassard, chair of the VCU Department of English, will discuss her latest book, "Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible."
The lecture will be held at the University Center Theater at the University of Memphis on Oct. 18. A reception starts at 6 p.m., with the lecture at 6:30 p.m. A booksigning will follow the event, which is free and open to the public. Parking is available next door at the Zach Curlin Parking Garage.
In her book, Bassard uncovers black women writers' intimate relationship with the Bible. She analyzes poetry, novels, speeches, sermons and prayers by a collection of writers from Frances E.W. Harper and Harriet Jacobs, to Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. Through her research, she asserts that black women writers form a collective effort to respond to the use of the Bible for purposes of social domination.
Bassard answers the imperative question, "Why did black women writers have such an enduring relationship with the Bible?" Historically, she notes, the Bible was used as evidence of the "curse" of black female identity. African-American women writers transformed the "curses" of the dominant society into "blessings," elegantly deciphering the messages of the Bible.
According to Bassard, the most significant "curse" on African-American female identity, the law of partus sequitur ventrem (which mandated that the child must follow the condition of the mother), denied African-American women's humanity and restricted their sexuality by passing on their chattel status to their offspring.
"The declaration of the Shulamite woman of the Song of Songs – 'I am black but comely' – marks the beginning of black women's reclamation of their subjectivity within the framework of desire and agency," writes Bassard.
Valerie Smith, director at the Center for African American Studies and Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton University, said of Bassard's book, "An astute literary critic, Biblical scholar and feminist theorist, Bassard here interweaves diverse methodologies to produce a landmark and field-defining work of scholarship."
Bassard has published numerous essays on African American literature and on Christianity and literary theory. She also published "Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing (1999)."
The event is sponsored by the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities and the Department of English, with additional co-sponsorship from the Program in African and African-American Studies and the Center for Research on Women.
The Naseeb Shaheen lecture series was formed in honor of the late Dr. Shaheen's 40 years of service to the University of Memphis. Dr. Shaheen joined University of Memphis' English Department in 1969. He published four books on British literature, three books on the history of Ramallah, and over 40 articles.
The Marcus Orr Center, directed by Dr. Aram Goudsouzian, is dedicated to bringing together students, graduates, faculty, and the broader Memphis community for "events that promote richer, deeper conversations about the issues that matter to us all."