The Tale of Three Tenured Black Male Seventh-day Adventist Professors

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Published:
May 23, 2019

Sydney Freeman, André Denham, and Ty Douglas all went to Oakwood University. They all have PhDs. They all teach at non-Adventist universities. They are all Black. But there are important differences in their backgrounds and their education — and even in their outlook on Adventist education today. In a co-written academic article they explored the similarities and differences in their educational experiences, sharing a rich story that offers lessons for students and educators. In this joint interview, the three professors explain why their research is so relevant.

Question: The three of you recently published an article in the journal Religions called The Three Hebrew Boys Revisited: Exploring Border Crossing 'Brotha'-Ship in the Journeys of Three Tenured Black Male Seventh-day Adventist Professors.” Why do you feel that telling the stories of your three educational journeys is important?

Dr. Douglas: Storytelling is a vital part of many teaching, learning, cultural, and biblical traditions. Notably, storytelling was Jesus’ preferred pedagogical approach, when we consider the role of parables, for example. Similarly, sharing our stories allows us to share exemplars and blueprints that can help others navigate their educational and life journeys. There are many deficit-based narratives about Black males. Our stories challenge these narratives and offer tangible exposure and access to more hopeful educational possibilities and realities. 

Dr. Denham: I think it was important that we told our stories as a means of presenting a counter-narrative to the commonly held misconceptions and stereotypes about Black people, especially Black males. In addition, we wanted to empower and give agency to those who might want to take the same path that we all took to get to where we are. While we all took different paths to arrive at this point in our careers, one thing I think we can all agree on is that we did not have (access to) many, if any, examples of Black Seventh-day Adventist scholars at state flagship institutions to draw from. It would have been great to see these examples and know that “hey, I can do that too!”

Dr. Freeman, you have called this a “ground-breaking, one-of-a-kind” article. Why is that?

Dr. Freeman: We conducted a deep survey of the literature regarding those who have described their personal and professional experiences and perspectives with Adventist education. We found that much — if not all — of the writing in this area has been by those who are in some way employed by the church. I feel that we each were able to share our “groundbreaking” candid perspectives with authenticity and transparency because we do not have employment ties to the Adventist church.

We also used rigorous academic research methodologies to validate our work, along with publishing the article in a double-blind peer-reviewed journal. It is also “one-of-a-kind” in that you are able to read about the perspectives of Black Adventist men who are researchers in the field of education, of which there are few.  

Let's go back to the article title. What does it mean and how was it chosen?

Dr. Douglas: The title emerged out of three key elements: my previous work and use of the theoretical framework of border crossing as a way to understand the journeys and trajectories of black males; our positionalities as three tenured Black Adventist professors; and the intersections of our experiences in higher education with the three Hebrew boys of the biblical narrative who found themselves learning and leading in secular educational and political spaces. We desire to have a similar impact in our generation!

Would you all say that your experiences in Adventist educational institutions have been positive?

Dr. Freeman: I think I may have experienced the broadest range of experiences as I had both some positive and negative experiences during my pre-kindergarten to college years within Adventist institutions. I have experienced life-impacting racism and I have also experienced affirmation and support.

Dr. Denham: I not only went to Oakwood — I also went to La Sierra University and I taught at Oakwood Adventist Academy for some time. So, I have first-person experience as a student and educator. I would say that my experience in Adventist educational institutions has been positive overall, but there have been moments of frustration. Unfortunately, some of the systemic issues that impact public education find their way into Adventist schools.

Dr. Douglas: Yes. No institution is perfect but my overall experiences have been positive. I am grateful for my non-Adventist K-12 school and community college experiences. They broadened my scope and networks. My Oakwood and teaching experiences in a Seventh-day Adventist school were important as well. Ironically, I think my broad exposure has made me more willing to engage with Adventist education as an adult. I’ve found that some folks who spent large portions of their educational journeys in Adventist education are less willing to participate in the system professionally, sometimes because of frustration or what they may describe as an over-exposure to Adventism growing up (e.g. school, church, Pathfinders, social settings).

So you all had varied school experiences before college (some Adventist schools, some not), but all three of you attended Oakwood. Do you believe you experienced Oakwood differently depending on whether or not you had attended Adventist schools previously?

Dr. Freeman: I attended Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania, an Adventist high school that is one of four college preparatory Historically Black Boarding Academies. It is one of the major — if not the top — feeder schools for Oakwood. At Pine Forge I was able to engage in various leadership roles in singing and drama ministries. These experiences allowed me to freely and uninhibitedly share and hone my gifts. I was what we called a four-year senior, meaning that I attended the academy for all four years of my high school training. So, by the time I got to Oakwood I did not have many bouts of homesickness and I was comfortable with taking care of myself (washing my own clothes, etc.). Given that every year we had a large contingency of students enroll, we even had a table or section of the cafeteria where our Pine Forge Academy graduates ate — although of course other people could sit with us. With that background in coming from an Adventist boarding academy, I arrived at Oakwood with a set of friends and people I knew already. I felt like Oakwood was just Pine Forge Academy at a larger level. I think that if I had not had that background, I may have initially experienced Oakwood differently. As an adult I am now much more sensitive to and supportive of those who have not been in the church all of their lives and not shared similar experiences.

Dr. Denham: For sure we experienced Oakwood differently. While Dr. Douglas and I attended Oakwood at the same time, Dr. Freeman did not. Additionally, Dr. Douglas transferred into Oakwood, so even though we were at Oakwood together we entered it differently, resulting in a different experience. I believe there are some experiences at Oakwood that are universal — so much so that people refer to it as the Oakwood experience. But as individuals, the lens from which we viewed and experienced Oakwood is unique and is colored by our backgrounds, expectations, culture, chosen major, the co-curricular activities we participated in, our friend group, and more.

Dr. Douglas: I believe we experienced it differently. For me, transferring to Oakwood as a junior — having completed an associate’s degree at Bermuda College — had an impact on my experience in at least three specific ways. I believe I was more mature and confident in my academic ability at the tertiary level because of the affirmation and preparation I received in my transition through community college to Oakwood. Socially, as a transfer student, I was not a part of a particular freshman class experience, many of my friends at Oakwood were a year or two older than me, and my course completion timeline was slightly different from others in my major, which meant I finished my degree requirements in December rather than May. As such, I do not feel a strong connection with a particular “class year” as an alumnus, much like I was not deeply immersed in a “class year” as a student. Notably, I saved a lot of money by completing prerequisites via community college and graduated from Oakwood without any debt. Because I did not attend Adventist schools from K-12, I think I brought a broad worldview to Oakwood and found the explicit spiritual emphasis refreshing, rather than “overkill” or another space where some students may feel inundated with spiritual emphasis.

Did your Oakwood experience inspire and assist you all to become college professors yourselves?

Dr. Freeman: I would not say it inspired me to become a professor per se. However, after shadowing the president of the college — at that time Dr. Delbert Baker — I knew I wanted to become a president of a higher education institution one day.

Dr. Denham: I would say that it did not inspire me at all. I actually remember the moment when I decided that being a college professor was what I wanted to do and that moment took place more than five years after leaving Oakwood. What it did do was prepare me to be a college professor once I made the choice to pursue this as a career. I feel that things happen for a reason and I would not be here without the experiences I had at Oakwood inside and outside the classroom.

Dr. Douglas: Not explicitly. There was no one at Oakwood who explicitly encouraged me to become a college professor; that said, I believe there is something powerful about being in the presence of Black Adventist faculty members as instructors. So tacitly, there was likely some influence.

You all now work as tenured professors in non-Adventist universities. Did you consider working for Adventist institutions? Did your degree from Oakwood make it more or less difficult to advance in academia?

Dr. Freeman: I did consider working at Adventist institutions and have been recruited several times by our institutions. However, the right circumstances have not lined up for those opportunities to happen. I think at some point the church will need to address the issue of providing competitive salaries for their employees. It has been my observation that the church is able to recruit faculty early in their careers when young faculty need to gain their first professional experiences, and late, when those who are close to retirement feel called to give back. It is more challenging to attract and retain faculty in the ages between middle 30s to early 50s, which some may consider the prime of a faculty member’s career and the time in which professionals focus on increasing their long-term salary trajectories. I would not say that my degree from Oakwood either made it more or less difficult to advance in academia. I think a degree from Oakwood prepares you to serve anywhere. However, given that securing employment opportunities right out of undergrad continues to be increasingly competitive, Adventist institutions such as Oakwood need to continue to invest in enhancing their career centers to give students a head start and an edge in the job market.  

Dr. Denham: I did consider working at an Adventist institution after completing my doctoral studies and I actually applied to a position at one and didn’t even get a call back! Looking back at how things played out, I feel I am where I am supposed to be at this point in time. If the opportunity presented itself in the future, I would definitely consider it.  

Dr. Douglas: I did not consider working for Adventist universities after completing my PhD. My socialization from faculty mentors during my doctoral program was more geared toward where I ended up. In truth, I think there is a need for a stronger presence of professors from Adventist universities at national/international conferences, and this requires greater funding support for their travel and professional development than they may typically receive; it may also require a shift in culture where engagement and publications in non-Adventist settings are supported. After completing undergrad (aside from Oakwood professors who wrote letters of recommendation for me), there was not much of a pipeline or explicit investment/mentorship available to guide me to masters and doctoral opportunities. I stumbled into the option of a career as a professor, with the support of mentors back in Bermuda. So to answer whether Oakwood made it more or less difficult to advance in academia, I would say that earning my degree was a key stepping stone but there are improvements that need to be made as far as connecting and exposing our graduates to their options if we want others to advance in academia. At this point in my career, I remain open to options to serve Adventist institutions, whether I formally work for the church or not. I’ve found that sometimes it is easier to make a difference in institutions from the outside as an invited guest rather than a taken-for-granted insider.

Would you now recommend that parents send their children to Adventist schools? Would you have different advice for Black families than for white families?

Dr. Denham: My advice is the same regardless of race: Do what is best for your child. That might be to send your child to an Adventist institution, public school, or homeschool them, etc. Children are unique in their needs and at the present time I am not sure that all Adventist institutions are set up to meet the needs of all students. Ideally, Seventh-day Adventist education should be able to meet the mental, physical, and spiritual needs of its students but that is not the reality that we live in. This is not to say that Adventist education is inferior but that it is not the solution for every situation.

Dr. Douglas: I would recommend that parents become students of their children so that — under the guidance of the Holy Spirit — they can determine what is the best environment for their child. I have concerns about some of our Adventist schools, particularly as a father of black sons. I have found that non-Adventist/non-Christian white folks are sometimes more willing to acknowledge and address issues of racism and oppression than white Adventists/Christians. So yes, I do have different advice for Black families, depending on the context and options available in a particular city. I want my sons to be in spaces that affirm who they are in Christ, and that includes sensitivity to the breadth and beauty of their racialized and cultural identities. There are few white Adventist spaces that I have encountered that are willing and equipped to consider what that looks like. Many in our institutions are more inclined to say, “they don’t see color” while marginalizing children of color. For me to confidently recommend a school — Adventist or otherwise — I need to know that the school is a healthy, culturally relevant space. I think we can do great damage to children when we send them to schools that claim to represent Christ, yet the child has hellish experiences in the space. It can ruin them educationally and spiritually. So to all families of all backgrounds, we must challenge our schools and educators to be better and refuse to lean on platitudes of being “the head and not the tail” if the product is not so.

What advice would you have for Adventist educators in ensuring that Adventist schools remain relevant in today's world, and preparing students who may go on to work in academia?

Dr. Denham: I would advise Adventist educators to continue to keep the lines of communication open with the people they studied under and with when they received their terminal degree. This will help you to understand the trends and issues relevant to your field and help you to better advise your students that might be interested in pursuing work in academia.

I would also recommend that they become consistent readers of the work being done in higher education. You have to read The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed on a regular basis so that you stay abreast of what’s going.

Dr. Douglas: Adventist educators need to know that we are not deficient or somehow inferior to other educators or schools. That said, we are not superior to non-Christian or non-Adventist educators or schools just because we pray before or during class if our preparation and commitment to the noble profession of education and His children are poor; we can’t spiritualize inadequacy away. We must ask tough questions of whether we are truly called to this work. I have met and worked with amazing Adventist educators who are a gift to the classroom. I have also met complaining, negative, and bitter Adventist teachers who are a disservice to the profession and to the cause of Christ. And we cannot lead students where we ourselves have not gone without intentional effort. This means we must have the requisite experiences to know how to direct our students or we must know how and who to connect them with so that they can gain access to the best that they can be in academia or whatever field they are interested in.  

If you could go back and change anything about your education — where you studied, what you studied, etc. — what would you change?

Dr. Freeman: As it relates to my Adventist elementary and primary school experience. I wish that my teachers invested more time in helping me love science and math. Although, I earned a PhD at the age of 26 and accomplished some significant academic and professional accomplishments, I still have a lingering limitation: weak math and science skills. Even though I love what I am doing and would not change it for the world, I think not having strong math and science skills limited my professional options, such as becoming an engineer or a medical doctor. As it relates to my college experience, I wish I had known what the field of sociology was. I took some classes that focused on African and African American History. But I think that studying sociology would have been more insightful and applicable to the research I engage in today. As it relates to what I would change about curriculum in our Adventist colleges and universities, I would revamp the general education curriculum and ensure that the content of the courses was more applied. Particularly, I would have liked to have been exposed to basic life skills like managing a family budget, marriage and family, and financial decision-making about investments, making a will, life insurance, etc.  

Dr. Denham: The one thing I would change would be specifically related to my general education experience at Oakwood. Many of the Black colleagues I have befriended at the University of Alabama attended an HBCU for at least their undergraduate degree and one thing they all have in common that I am envious of is that they had a totally different experience in terms of learning about Black history. We did not have a required course in African American history at Oakwood when I attended, (I hear they do now), while my colleagues had several courses where they learned about Frederick Douglass, Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. DuBois, ancient African civilizations, critical race theory, and more. While we had to take 12 hours (I believe) in courses from the religion department we had no courses that covered history as Black people, and I think that is something that an HBCU should provide and require of its students. Yes, Oakwood is a Seventh-day Adventist institution, but it is an Adventist institution designed by and for Black people. The core curriculum should reflect that.

Dr. Douglas: I wish I knew about the graduate school options that existed after I finished at Oakwood. I chose to do a masters at a local university in the same city, and while it was likely helpful socially and spiritually to remain connected to the Adventist community in Huntsville, I sometimes wonder what options I would have had if I had gone to another institution for my masters. I may have gotten my masters in communications/sports journalism rather than another degree in English. I had scholarship money, but I did not know what my options were, so I went with what I could see. When I look at the CVs and resumes of folks who served on the Obama administration, I notice that they attended certain institutions…they engaged in particular summer internships, etc. And most of them do not have as many degrees as some of us but they are far more connected to the opportunities and people who lead this world. I’m a little disappointed that the first Black president of the United States came and went, but none of us (to my knowledge) from my undergraduate circle were positioned to participate at a high level.

I think I did the best I could with what I had access to. For example, I wrote for the major newspaper back at home as a sports journalist during my Christmas break, but I didn’t know or think about how I could have interned at ESPN, nor did I know about Northwestern University or Mizzou’s school of journalism. That said, I believe my steps have been ordered and the best is yet to come. For me, the journey of a Hebrew Scholar has meant that I have had a doctoral program acceptance letter for UNC Chapel Hill mistakenly sent to Malaysia (instead of to me in Bermuda). In the interim, I received and accepted UNC Greensboro’s offer. Clearly, God wanted me to do my doctorate at UNC Greensboro. There were people there I needed to meet and lessons I needed to learn that have salvific implications for others and me. Ultimately, He wanted me to know I could have gone to bigger or more prestigious higher education institutions, but he wanted to take me on a non-traditional journey so that no man-made institution will be able to take the credit for what He has done and what He continues to do in my life and career.

 

Photos (from left to right): Sydney Freeman, André Denham, and Ty Douglas. Courtesy of the interviewees.

Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

 

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