To celebrate the first day of the 16 Days of Activism Campaign, which coincides with International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we spotlight activist Ericka Dunbar. You can learn more about Ericka’s work here.
I am Ericka Dunbar, a Ph.D. student at Drew University, completing my studies in the area of Bible & Cultures. My focus is the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. My dissertation is entitled: “Trafficking Hadassah: An Africana Reading of Collective Trauma, Memory and Identity in the Book of Esther.”
My research connects to activism in several ways. Foremost, in my research, I utilize intersectionality and polyvocality as frameworks that enable me to expand traditional interpretations of biblical texts. The application of these frameworks illuminates the ways that Africana girls and women often experience intersectional oppression at the hands of patriarchs and colonial entities. For example, both Hagar in the book of Genesis and the virgin girls from Ethiopia and other African locales in the book of Esther, are taken from their native lands and sexually exploited by patriarchs and colonial subjects.
When reading the narratives intertextually, systematic oppression of Africana females due to intersectional identities becomes evident. Africana girls and women are sexually exploited at the intersections of ethnicity, gender, class, and in relation to interlocking systems of power and domination by patriarchs and colonial subjects. In these texts, ideologies of Africana inferiority are promoted and social hierarchies are created, frequently relegating Africana females low on the hierarchy (as concubines and slaves). Both the ideologies and hierarchy function to justify the abuse and oppression of Africana females. Consequently, Africana girls and women become sex slaves to patriarchs and kings that extract their bodies from their natal homes and transport them to other locales for the patriarch/king’s sexual pleasure.
In addition, the application of these frameworks provides an opportunity to integrate the voices and experiences of Africana girls and women regularly ignored or minimized by interpreters, namely the nameless virgin girls in the book of Esther. This type of activism resonates with the type of activism reflected in the #SayHerName movement.
#SayHerName raises awareness of the countless Black girls and women that are victimized by police and anti-Black racialized violence. It centers the stories of those whose experiences of police and racialized violence are muted in both historical and media representations. My work parallels this movement in that I give voice to the often overlooked and ignored experiences and traumatization of Africana girls and women in the ancient biblical contexts. However, not only do I focus on Africana girls and women in ancient contexts but I also illustrate how the girls’ and women’s experiences in the biblical narratives resonate with the experiences of Africana girls and women trafficked and rendered sex slaves during the transatlantic slave trade and even into the present.
While, the #SayHerName movement focuses on Africana girls and women that are killed by police in the US, I focus on sexualized violence perpetrated against Africana girls and women. I also emphasize that Africana girls and women were recognized as property of colonies in ancient contexts and during the slave trade. Therefore, they received no legal protection from rape and sexual enslavement. I point out these facts as a means of highlighting that current police brutality against Africana females is a legacy of patriarchy and colonial domination. In addition, the failure of law enforcement and legal systems adequately to protect Africana victims from sexual exploitation or to punish offenders is in large part a horrendous legacy of racist stereotyping and colonialism.
Perhaps some contemporary examples of the sexual exploitation of Africana females will illuminate the types of injustice that advocates such as myself are speaking out about. Three women, Cyntoia Brown, Chrystal Kizer, and Alexis Martin who were trafficked and sexually exploited in the USA as minors, either have been or are being prosecuted for defending themselves against their traffickers. The forfeiture of protection by police and legal systems is another form of violent brutality. Moreover, the lack of protection from an abuser and the criminalization of victims exacerbate their suffering. Girls and women should not be criminalized for protecting themselves or escaping abusive exploitation. Therefore, I not only emphasize intersectional oppression and elucidate damaging ideologies but I also critique systemic oppression and the failure of legal entities to uphold justice and protect vulnerable persons.
Secondly, I teach with an emphasis on trauma and social justice. It is essential for me to prepare students for the world and ministry by shaping lives that are committed to not only critical thinking but to justice as well. When I help students to recognize inequalities and trauma in the ancient world of the text and in our very own contexts, we create conscientious communities that are responsive to discriminations and disparities. As co-learners, we help each other recognize the mechanisms of power and how power can be used to transform systems and conditions to ensure justice and equity for all members of society.
One way that we promote equity and justice is by creating a space that affirms the humanity and dignity of all. We allow diverse knowledge, experiences, and interpretations to enhance the learning space and we respond to critical issues that impact humans globally. I find that in addition to contextualized learning, interdisciplinarity is a great asset for social analysis, promoting critical thinking, and interpreting information to discern solutions. Moreover, we discuss and respond to these issues both inside and outside of the classroom. Practices that demonstrate an orientation to social justice include a trip to the Civil Rights Museum, activism through social media engagement, involvement in protests/rallies/marches/voter registration drives, implementing and organizing church programming to address social issues, and/or involvement in organizations that create/impact legislation. There are a wide range of practices that our learning community engage in as a means of embodying our scholar-activist identities. We supplement book-knowledge with experiential knowledge to produce changes in the communities in which we serve.
Alongside teaching at Spelman College and the Interdenominational Theological Center, I serve as a representative on the Joint Action for Advocacy for Justice and Peace Convening Table, National Council of Churches (USA), and on the faculty team for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor’s Dale Andrews Freedom Seminary hosted by the Children’s Defense Fund. The seminary course is an immersion experience for seminarians who desire to engage and cultivate prophetic voices with communities that contend against systemic injustices that directly impact children and youth. Scholars, community and church leaders, and activists gather at this week-long Institute to describe and model non-violent direct organization and collective action for justice though public theology, communal, and congregational praxis. This past summer, I took two of my former Spelman students to the institute and transported two others from Candler School of Theology at Emory. I’ve taught students at Spelman that participated in other CDF programming as well. I have become a mentor beyond the classroom to many of these students and to other students that I’ve met through the Forum for Theological Exploration. These relationships are meaningful to me because of our relatedness as Africana women and our shared focus on child advocacy and on challenging sexualized violence against Africana women in ecclesiastical structures and society.
In late October, a Clark Atlanta University (Atlanta, USA) student by the name of Alexis Crawford was sexually assaulted by her roommate’s boyfriend and then allegedly murdered by her roommate and the roommate’s boyfriend. This atrocious event shook the Clark Atlanta community as well as the members of the other schools of the Atlanta University consortium, (two of which I serve as an adjunct professor) and the wider community surrounding these institutions. Specifically, the students in my Intro to Old Testament class at Spelman were traumatized by this killing because of the sheer callousness of Alexis’s abuse, their proximity to Alexis’s apartment and school, the failure of legal entities to protect Alexis, and because many have expressed experiencing similar instances of unsolicited sexual advances in their lifetimes. This killing illuminated for us that our scholarship is not divorced from the world around us. Rather, our scholarship is informed and impacted by the communities and societies that surround us. This semester, it has become increasingly clear that there is an exchange between the theories we engage in the classroom and our lived experiences beyond the classroom. In the last couple of class sessions since Alexis went missing and was found murdered, my students have been reflecting upon experiences of trauma and assessing how the educational processes we’ve engaged in this semester continue to aid in our ability to identify and challenge social injustices in practical ways.
Besides writing, teaching, and mentoring, I also travel and present papers on sexual trafficking and collective trauma at international conferences. Two of my papers/presentations are being turned into an article and book chapter and published in the next couple of months. Last summer, I presented a paper entitled, “For Such a Time as This #UsToo: Representations of Sexual Trafficking, Collective Trauma and Horror in the Book of Esther,” delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference at the University of Sheffield (Sheffield, England). This paper has been turned into an article and is being published in a special edition of the journal Bible and Critical Theory. This past summer, I presented a keynote paper entitled “Sisters of the Soil: Surviving Collective, Cultural Traumatization: Intertextualities Between Hagar, the Ethiopian Virgin Girls in the Book of Esther and Mother Africa,” at the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians 5thPan-African Conference (Celebrating the 30thAnniversary of the Circle) at the University of Botswana (Gaborone, Botswana). An excerpt of this paper was translated into German and published in FAMA (Switzerland). The longer keynote paper will be published as a chapter in a book entitled Mother Earth, Postcolonial and Liberation Theologies by Lexington Publishers.
Activism is important to me because it galvanizes persons to participate in collective action to ensure every member of society is treated fairly and equitably. Activism and advocacy are means to inspire and create change. Students are capable of effecting social change thus it is important to reflect on and engage in advocacy and activism within and outside of the classroom. During the 16 Days of Activism I will continue to educate persons about the mechanisms of sex trafficking and its psychological, emotional, and physical impacts on Africana girls and women. I intend to tell the stories of girls and women whose lives have been impacted by sexualized violence as a means of increasing awareness of gender-based violence and to prevent and end sexualized violence against girls and women. I also hope that any efforts to decriminalize the sexual exploitation and trafficking of person will be thwarted.