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WGST Graduate Student Spotlight: NaShieka Knight

We sat down with NaShieka Knight, who studies Biblical Interpretation (Hebrew Bible) at Brite Divinity School, and is receiving her graduate certificate in Women & Gender Studies. NaShieka is co-teaching one section of Introduction to Women & Gender Studies for the fall 2019 semester.

What did you do before coming to TCU?

I was (and am) a program specialist at a higher education association where I support student affairs professionals at MD granting medical schools with student affairs content expertise in admissions, diversity, and student wellness. I was (and am) also an ordained minister at a non-denominational church in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

Why did you choose your field of study? WGST?

I was invited a few years ago to participate on a panel discussion about Hagar/Hajar and Sarah with two other women scholars, one was Jewish and the other was Muslim. As I prepared my remarks, I was careful to consult a broad spectrum of commentaries but hinged the bulk of my observations on Phyllis Tribble and Letty Russell’s Sarah, Hagar, and their Children and Renita Weems’ Just a Sister Away. At the conclusion of the event, a young Muslim woman approached me and thanked me for bringing diverse voices to the table. She explained that her religious studies heretofore were shaped by the exegetical work of white men (with whom she could not identify), and that she was inspired by hearing interpretive work derived from another cultural context. I was grateful not only to be able to give these other scholars a seat at the table but also to give the stories of these women an “other” reading.

“Other ways of reading” is a phrase coined by Musimbi Kanyoro, Kenyan human rights activist, Hebrew Bible scholar, and past coordinator of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. Kanyoro contends that other ways of reading “brings new voices into the conversation about theology and biblical interpretation. It brings to the table stories of women told in a different way. It affirms unity in diversity and challenges readers to create space at the table for a new community of bible readers and bible users.”[1] The type of interpretive work that affirms unity in diversity and challenges readers to read the Bible the same way that it was compiled, in multi-layered communities from multiple vantage points, is what I aim to create through my scholarship and teaching. This type of exegetical work matters because bible readers like the young woman I encountered after the panel discussion that evening are listening to hear the bible read both in its own historical languages and contexts and in their own languages and contexts. As an ordained clergywoman, this is the type of reading I try to practice with my congregation and that I will teach in my classroom.

Although there is a distinction between the practice of religion and the academic study of religion, I am clear that my experience as an African American Christian is always with me and sits down beside me, reading over my shoulder, every time I handle biblical texts. My involvement in the practice of religion is what led me to the academic study of religion. As a student of religion, my experience with exegesis was similar to that of the young woman I encountered after the panel discussion. It was shaped by scholars that did not share my cultural context and was void of answers to the questions raised within my context.

As a ritual practitioner, I had questions about the role of women in the religion of ancient Israel as recounted by the text I read so often. Were women active participants in Israel’s religious life? Did they practice religious rituals? Did they hold any positions of leadership? This interest in biblical women coupled with my interest in women as biblical exegetes culminated in my master’s thesis at Towson University entitled, She Made me Give Birth: Designating Midwives as Religious Specialists in Ancient Israel, An Exegetical Study.

While conducting research for my thesis, I noticed that there was an increased concentration on women’s religion in biblical scholarship that seemed to be influenced by two main factors. First, more women were added to the pool of skilled biblical scholars. Second, feminist scholarship challenged traditional interpretive methodologies in an effort to subvert approaches perceived as sexist and exclusionary and to compensate for the lack of data about biblical women on which studies could focus. This is why I decided to pursue the PhD in Biblical Interpretation at Brite Divinity School.

However, my commitment to understanding, empowering, and supporting women extends beyond academic discourse to the everyday lives of women and girls across the globe. It is this commitment that inspired me to enroll in the certificate in Women and Gender Studies. In 2007, I founded a mentoring group for teen girls in Maryland, where I still serve as Director. Since 2016, I have served on the Prince George’s County Human Trafficking Task Force (MD), educating my local community about risk factors that make girls vulnerable to trafficking and advocating on behalf of trafficking survivors. (In 2018, I received a service award from the Chair of the County’s Human Relations Commission for this work.) In 2017, I was awarded the Empowerment in Pink Award by the local chapter of a national women’s organization for my work in the community on behalf of women and girls. Additionally, I have served on the steering committee of a consultation of African-descended women in religion and theology that convenes internationally to advocate on behalf of women and girls in diaspora communities. I believe that these experiences can greatly enrich the learning environment. I don’t believe that learning ever occurs in a vacuum. Learners are always impacted by the contexts that shaped them and the communities and issues that surround them.

What are you most proud of?

In one of my first courses as a doctoral student, I identified a topic for an exegesis assignment and spent several weeks pouring over publications in search of support. I was completely deflated when I discovered that my hypothesis had already been argued and settled by another scholar. However, while translating the passage in preparation for conducting research on the topic, I felt a nudge in a different direction. I saw something in the passage that I hadn’t encountered in any other scholars’ interpretations, but I dismissed my hunch thinking that it couldn’t be valid if it no one else had said it. My hunch was informed by an experience I had several years earlier while traveling in Senegal, but surely someone would have already proposed it if it was worth proposing. After listening to several sermons one Sunday morning, I built up enough courage to state my claims and blaze a new trail in interpreting that particular text. Not only did I get a great grade on the assignment, but I found the courage to trust my own voice and I ended up presenting a version of that paper at the 2018 Consultation of African and African Diasporan Women in Religion and Theology in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Finding balance. As a full-time student with a full-time job, I struggle to balance competing priorities and find time for self-care.

Do you have plans for after graduation?  What are they?

Graduation is quite a ways away, but I would love to secure a position at a college or university as Dean of Students, while allowing me to hold a faculty appointment in Bible and Women’s Studies, to continue to serve my community, and to serve on the pastoral staff of a local congregation. In my wildest dreams, I’d also like to serve one term as a US Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, with education and religion as my platforms.

[1] “Introduction,” Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro. Other Ways of Reading: African Women and the Bible. Musa Dube, ed. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001, viii.