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At the Crossroads of Health and Spirituality: An Interview with Joanne Braxton

The following is a guest post by Samira Mehta, Assistant Professor at Albright College and the 2015 David B. Larson Fellow in Health and Spirituality at The John W. Kluge Center. This is the first post of a two-part interview by two of our Larson Fellows.

A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Yale University, Joanne Braxton is Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of the Humanities at the College of William and Mary and David B. Larson Fellow in Spirituality and Health at The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. Her research project at the Library is “Tree of Life: Spirituality and Well-Being in the African American Experience.” With a Ph.D. from Yale in American Studies, her research and writing interests bridge humanities, well-being and the arts. Braxton serves as community faculty in the Department of Family Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) and directed the William and Mary-EVMS Narrative Medicine for Excellence Project. She is the author or editor of several scholarly books as well as essays and blogs. She has been a W.E.B. DuBois Fellow at Harvard University, a Mellon Fellow at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and a senior Fulbright Professor in Germany, France and Spain. Some years after completing her doctorate, Braxton returned to graduate school for advanced studies in theology and spirituality at Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, and the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, where she completed a work called, “Writing the Sacred Self: Spiritual Life-Writing for Helpers and Healers.” “Writing the Sacred Self” is the basis for Braxton’s writing for resiliency workshops and trainings for health-care providers, clergy, social workers, teachers, activists and others who might experience compassion fatigue, secondary-trauma or burnout.

Who was David B. Larson and why is the David B. Larson in Spirituality and Health named after him? What does it mean to be a David B. Larson fellow?

As the Kluge Center website tells us, “the David B. Larson Fellowship is made possible by a generous endowment from the International Center for the Integration of Health and Spirituality (ICIHS), in honor of the Center’s late founder, David B. Larson, M.D., an epidemiologist and psychiatrist, who focused on potentially relevant but understudied factors which might help in prevention, coping, and recovering from illness.” By all accounts Larson was an extraordinary human being, a forerunner and a leader who helped to create a deeper scientific-research based understanding of the ways in which religion, spirituality and health are interconnected. He could see the connection between spirituality and well-being and a variety of social issues like incarceration, addiction, mental health and family life and established courses in religion and spirituality for pre-med and medical students accordingly.

As a teacher of undergraduate pre-medical students and medical students through the William and Mary-EVMS Narrative Medicine for Excellence Project, and as a campus minister and interfaith chaplain, I seek to embody the kind of intellectual rigor and faithfulness embodied by Larson. It is an honor to hold the fellowship that bears his name, so that when I look at a specific problem like over-incarceration or the health impacts of urban removal on vulnerable populations, or the impact of war on veterans bearing invisible wounds, I might ask myself, “What would David do?” What methodologies might he embrace? How might he have attempted to bring together people of science and people of faith for the greater healing of humanity?

You’ve had previous affiliations with the Library of Congress and the Office of Scholarly Programs, is that correct?

Yes, previously I lectured on Paul Laurence Dunbar for the Library of Congress’ internal university, and the recording of that lecture is available through the LOC catalogue. I also served as a member of the scholar’s advisory committee for “American Women: A Library Guide for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States.”

Your current research project is “Tree of Life: Spirituality and Well-Being in the African American Experience.” What can you tell us about this work?

The “Tree of Life” research project I am currently pursuing at the Kluge Center probes the structural and cultural causes of and solutions to Black inequality. For example, my project asks what happens to the physical and spiritual health of African Americans when communities are disrupted and communal ties are broken. From the time of their history in Africa, through forced migration to the New World, through enslavement, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, Urban Renewal, as well as multiple stresses related to systemic racism still present today, persons of African descent have experienced dispersal after dispersal. Dispersal creates impediments to the healing transmission of story from one generation to the next; it fragments spiritual communities and traditions and challenges the individual’s health and wholeness. African American health disparities cannot be fully understood without examining the multi-dimensional stresses that disrupt African American community life, from the bulldozing of neighborhoods under urban renewal to the problems of environmental racism marked by the use of Black neighborhoods as dumping grounds for toxic waste.

The “Tree of Life” project examines the ways in which people of African descent create pathways to achieve resiliency and sustain health through their responses to the legacies and impacts of slavery and structural inequality. Scholars suggest that spirituality emerges as a protective factor for physical and social well-being (Chao 2010; Crowther, et. al. 2004). What can be learned from the legacies and traditions of African American communities as sources of survival and healing for body, mind and spirit? What particular challenges do African American civic and religious leaders face in the pursuit of health for their communities and themselves? How might answers to these questions shape clinical practice and the future training of physicians, ministers, and spiritual activists? I offer three case studies that utilize unique documents at the Library of Congress to help answer these questions.

What collections and resources are you using here at the Library of Congress?

In addition to published books and articles, I am using a vast set of documents and resources that exist nowhere else in the world. These include the papers of Nannie Helen Burroughs. Burroughs was a spiritual and religious leader, an educator, social activist and health care worker. The 200 boxes of her documents and papers in the Manuscripts Division offer a prime source for my first historical case study in this project. My research helps restore the organic frame in which spirituality and health were historically intertwined in Nannie Burroughs’s mission. Burroughs, like the missionary women I studied in “Black Women Writing Autobiography” (Braxton 1989, 15-80), is a model of resiliency and well-being (Chao 2010, 106-120). She founded the National Training School for Women and Girls on a 4-acre farm where she emphasized the “Three B’s—the Bible, the Bath and the Broom,” as well as prayer, as forms of spiritual discipline that would both create resiliency in the young women she served and fit them for greater service. Spirituality and health do not simply intersect in Burroughs’ life and work; they are intertwined.

The second thrust of my project here is a study of “Urban Renewal, Public Policy and ‘Root Shock.’ Between 1949-1973, the U.S. government bulldozed 2,500 neighborhoods in 933 American cities, displacing over a million people. One thousand six hundred of these neighborhoods were African American (Fullilove 2004, 4, 20), among them, my own. I have been collecting, documenting, speaking and writing about the disruption of this community, Lakeland, Maryland, located in the shadow of the nation’s capital (Braxton, 1998, 177-192; LCHP 2009, 7-120). New scholarship suggests that progressive white religious denominations that were authentically engaged with Black communities and initially saw urban renewal as a common good gradually became more ambivalent (Wild 2015). Why? What changed? What new information became available over time? How was Black health impacted? Some of the answers lie in “National Urban League Records, 1900-1988,” and “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records, 1842-1999.” These two collections contain thousands of unique documents on African American health, housing and well-being. Another 30 individual collections in the Manuscript Division contain documents on urban renewal—for example, the papers of Mies van der Rohe, Jackie Robinson, Daniel P. Moynihan, Abraham Ribicoff, League of Women Voters, Edward Brooke, Daniel Boorstin and the Whitney Young papers all have unique related documents. I use these manuscript materials from the Library of Congress both to pose and to answer questions about the impact of urban removal on the spiritual, mental and physical health of Black communities. Lakeland, my community of origin, is the focus of the second case study, as contextualized by these documents.

The third aspect of my project relates to Spirituality, the “Weathering Effect” and the ever elusive search for what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” Persons of African descent, bearing the impact of generations of rupture and dispersal, must strive for community health as well as for individual health—a complex imperative that can be emotionally, psychologically and physically exhausting. Resisting the stressors on Black bodies and lives requires spiritual stamina and on-going efforts to establish the community conditions that foster health. The very creativity that offers healing takes a toll. Arline T. Geronimus and colleagues have introduced the “Weathering Hypothesis,” positing that “African Americans are subject to early health deterioration as a consequence of social inequality” (Geronimus et. al. 2006, 826-33). This research helps us understand that “the collective strategies marginalized communities employ to mitigate, resist or undo the harmful health effects of poverty, racism, or cultural oppression” lead to “weathering” or race-related aging (Rewak, et. al. 2014, 92-99). The effects of weathering are well documented in the Science and Health Collections at the Library of Congress and in the hundreds of books and dissertations and thousands of journal articles that are relevant to this study.

Here I draw again on the Whitney Young Papers in the Urban League collections of the Manuscript Division, but this time more extensively. Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League, was only fifty years old when he died of a heart attack while attending a conference in Nigeria in 1971. Young was a person of faith and a tireless advocate for the health, education and welfare of African American people. He was the author of many strategies and creative coping tactics that benefitted marginalized communities. In the Young papers, one finds hundreds of talks to both Black and white churches—as many as three a week. These speeches shed light on how religious organizations were engaged in the work of building beloved community. In addition, Young’s papers offer insight into his personal spiritual transition from membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church to membership in the predominantly white Unitarian Universalist denomination, for which he was heavily criticized by some members of the Black community. I examine Young’s spirituality in relation to his activism, his life between two spiritual communities—one Black and one white—and the “weathering” effect. Young’s life illuminates the complex inter-relationship between stress and a commitment to what we might today call spiritual activism.

How does your American Studies methodology and the research that you do here in historical and literary sources support your development of health care practices that are useful in clinical and pastoral settings?

I’m confident that my training with great artists, scholars and change-makers and more recently with spiritual and religious leaders has made all the difference in my ability to see and to embrace complex issues and engage appropriate interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methodologies for the production of new and needed knowledge. Ministry has increased my capacity for theological and ethical reflection, which is not something you learn in most traditional professional programs. Advanced trainings in narrative medicine, mindfulness and healing from moral injury have contributed insight of a different kind—what you might call interstitial insight—insight into what happens in the spaces between theoretical or intellectual knowledge and the practical requirements of a compassionate life, as lived. One of my greatest opportunities for personal and spiritual growth came in the summer of 2016 when I accepted a call to work as a clinical chaplain in a Franciscan hospital on the West Coast. My primary assignment was in the mental health unit, and my secondary assignments were in the mother-baby unit and the neonatal unit. On the eight nights when I was on call, I was the only chaplain on duty, sometimes for almost 400 patients as well as the staff—doctors, nurses, security guards—and even for the guy on the street who just walks in the door of the hospital and asks to see a chaplain. Putting in 530 hours over an 11-week period, I was both awed and humbled by the workings of God and the lives that touched briefly with my own. It was a blessing. This lived experience in practical theology and service now becomes a lens through which my intellectual interpretation of data and evidence emerges in a different cast of light.

For much of your career, you were known primarily as a literary scholar. How do the different aspects of your career line up?

I’m glad that you asked that question. My first book was a collection of poetry called “Sometimes I Think of Maryland,” a volume that documented in verse the way the stories told by the elders of my community, Lakeland, a little all-Black town a few miles from here, had sustained generations with narratives of history and memory. As a poet, I became a part of that tradition in the same way that preachers and blues singers do, for as Alice Walker says, “poetry is medicine.” “Sometimes I Think of Maryland” was followed by “Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition” and later “The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar” and “Monuments of the Black Atlantic: History and Memory,” still following the through line of the healing power of story and narrative within the African American experience. Having written so much about autobiography, and especially the spiritual autobiographies of African American missionary women, preachers, artists and activists like Jarena Lee, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou, I developed a method for teaching life writing to students at the University of Michigan, William and Mary and Muenster University in Germany. I had been influenced not only by the writings of Ira Progoff, Parker Palmer and others, but also my own teachers, people like June Jordan, Grace Paley and Joseph Driskill, so that this work eventually took form in “Spiritual Life Writing for Helpers and Healers.” When I came to study narrative medicine and leading patients in writing for health, I already had experience-based uses for the transformational possibilities inherent in story. That began, I think, with listening to the healing stories of the elders in my community when I was a child. The Black community has always had narrative medicine in the form of hymns and spirituals, the blues and the dozens, personal narratives and sermons. Some of this has been written literature; some of it has been oral, depending on transmission from one generation to the next. The community authorizes poets, preachers and singers to play this healing function, but what happens when communities break down or are torn apart? What happens when history and memory are shattered and those generational transmissions do not take place? This is a complex view requiring multiple and well-grounded interdisciplinary understandings and approaches. In many ways, this is new knowledge or at least a fresh understanding—that history, communal memory, narrative and collective well-being are intertwined. I like to think that this line of inquiry is in keeping with that. Hopefully, in time and in collaboration with others, I will collect evidence-based data to explore and affirm such theorization, which is beyond the scope of the “Tree of Life: Spirituality and Well-Being” project. However, I like to think that this line of inquiry is one that Larson would have encouraged.

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