Office Hours with… Nicole Turner

Turner, a scholar of Black religious and political history, talks about her research on the Emancipation period, her work in digital humanities, and more.
Nicole Turner

Nicole Turner

Title Assistant professor of religious studies, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Research interest African-American religious and political life in 19th-century America with a focus on the constructions of race and gender
Prior institution Virginia Commonwealth University
Started at Yale January 2020

Nicole Turner, who studies Black religious and political history, also has an interest in how the digital humanities can illuminate that history. The e-book version of her 2020 publication “Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Postemancipation Virginia” included a digital mapping feature which demonstrated how networks established through churches and conventions became the foundation for Black people’s engagement in electoral projects.

We caught up with her for the latest edition of Office Hours, a Q&A series that introduces newcomers to the Yale faculty to the broader university community.

Your research focuses on the intersection of Black religion and politics, particularly during the Emancipation period. What ignited your interest in that topic while you were a student?

I was particularly interested in how Freed and Free Black people negotiated forming political alliances with former Confederates in the Readjuster Movement — a political movement that enacted Virginia’s Reconstruction. This event provided an opening to explore a conundrum about racial dynamics after Emancipation and to interrogate a truism in politics that the best way to mobilize Black voters was through the church. 

With your book “Soul Liberty” you wanted to offer a more nuanced perspective on the role of Black churches and Black ministry in furthering Black freedom and equality after emancipation. What are some of the historical assumptions you tried to counter?

The main historical assumption I wanted to explore was the notion that Black churches have always been politically engaged in electoral politics. This view makes Black churches out to be historically stagnant rather than dynamic institutions. In contrast, I aimed to provide a narrative of how Black churches became sites of political organizing.

Do women in Black religious life deserve more credit than they are given?

Black women are generally understood to be the backbone of Black religious life, while Black men are often the figureheads. Through my research, I wanted to show how this dynamic emerged. It turns out that the intersections between religion and politics in sites like theological schools and the Freedman’s Bureau played a role in elevating male ministerial leadership over female leaders and members. This view furthers my aim of showing how Black churches evolve, and in this case, that the gender dynamics we often observe today were not historically determined.

The “Soul Liberty” e-book features a digital mapping project. What is that project? How can the digital humanities help to further illuminate and enlarge our understanding of Black history?

The digital mapping project in the e-book is in the form of a set of interactive maps. The reader can toggle on and off layers of the map that reveal different relationships between political organizing and black church networks. These maps support an important argument in the book — that Black church networks were the foundation for political claims-making in the late 19th century.

Digital humanities projects often involve recovering sources that have been overlooked and making them more widely available. These two impulses, when directed at Black and other people who have been historically marginalized, can improve our understanding of these people and society as a whole.

Do you think your historical research has resonance for the Black Lives Matter movement and the current moment in U.S. history?

Absolutely! The historical through-line of the Black freedom struggle runs through the moment of Reconstruction to the present. In fact, the recognition of the full humanity of Black people was at the heart of the politics of black religion during the Reconstruction and Post-Emancipation eras. The unresolved legacies of Reconstruction resound today and animate the BLM movement.

You earned a couple of teaching awards while you were a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. What joys does teaching bring you?

Thanks so much for this wonderful question! I see myself as teaching people, not a subject. So, I especially enjoy creating spaces of critical encounter with historical texts through seminar discussions. The ways we make knowledge and forge community practices of thinking together inspires me a great deal.


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