George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Essay explores male authority in religous, social movements

Fri, 05/23/2014

LAWRENCE — As the violent militant Islamic group Boko Haram recently kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, it sparked intentional outrage, particularly over the girls being sold into slavery.

The group's name translates into "Western education is a sin," which is rooted in group leaders' interpretation of the Koranic texts on the duties of men and that women are to be subservient. A University of Kansas researcher who studies social movements of the 20th century, including in relation to religion and gender roles, said the subordination of women has been a struggle throughout history in various religious and social groups.

"If you look at what's going on from Nigeria to Afghanistan, the way male religious authority grab at power is by controlling women, I'm interested in the question of what is the thinking behind this kind patriarchal thought," said Randal Maurice Jelks, professor of American studies and African and African American studies. "The way men think, even the most liberal of men, think like men. They interpret texts in certain ways to hold power as men, the challenge is to get all men to think in broader ways about matters of religion, politics and families."

Jelks explored this topic in a recent essay about two influential figures of the American civil rights movement, Morehouse College President Benjamin Elijah Mays — a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. — and novelist Richard Wright. The journal Women, Gender, and Families of Color this spring published his essay "Masculinity, Religion, and Modernism: A Consideration of Benjamin Elijah Mays and Richard Wright."

He said both men, who grew up in Jim Crow South, through their efforts in various ways helped substantially affect black liberation in 1960s America, but he takes a deeper look at their own backgrounds, including each ones relationship with their maternal figures that help to rear them.

Jelks said the fact that Mays and Wright view the maternal women in their lives in similar ways is interesting because there are several juxtapositions between the two. They both responded differently to theism and Christianity. Wright became an atheist after growing up in household of a Seventh Day Adventist grandmother. On the other hand, Mays became an ordained Baptist minister.  

Mays sentimentalized his mother, while Wright tended to vilify his grandmother, who reared him. But Jelks said regarding their own modernist views, both men are connected having grown up in the racially segregated South and fighting for civic freedoms and civil rights.

"Here are two people who are at minimum liberal to radical in the American perspective, and even if they are having patriarchal ideas about how the family should operate, about how ideas of men and women's relationship, then in a more traditional society, this would be even more so," he said. "I'm trying to explore one person who claims to be atheistic and one who claims to be theistic, but those ideas still run in them. So it's not whether those ideas run in them. It is to what extent."

Jelks said Jim Crow laws also profoundly affected women as much as men, but the writings of both Mays and Wright placed "black maleness" at the center of the struggle to overthrow the oppressive laws.

"They are trying to figure a way out of that system, but there are other questions that have to be answered. What is the meaning of any emancipatory project?" Jelks said. "I try to give them credit for trying to think through on one level and on the other level they are kind of caught in a trap or they catch women in a trap."

Jelks has written an award-winning book "Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography." His research comparing Mays and Wright developed out of his participation as an instructor in a summer institute at KU sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities for high school teachers on Richard Wright called the “Wright Connection” in conjunction with KU’s History of Black Writing Project.

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

RT @kulibraries : Check out this news feature & then check out his book with us: #KULibraries #KUWorks…
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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