5 Questions with Kimberly P. Johnson

February 4, 2021

Dr. Kimberly P. Johnson is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and affiliate faculty member of Women’s Studies at Tennessee State University. Johnson’s research is in the areas of political, religious, and African American Rhetoric; rhetorical criticism, cultural criticism and womanism. Johnson is the author of The Womanist Preacher: Proclaiming Womanist Rhetoric from the Pulpit, which analyzes five womanist sermons with attention to how the sermons adapt womanist thought within the church. Johnson has a forthcoming edited volume, Preaching During a Pandemic: The Rhetoric of the Black Preaching Tradition, with Peter Lang Publishing (co-edited with Andre E. Johnson and Wallis Baxter III) that examines the rhetoric of the black preaching tradition in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic and massive displays of social unrests. Johnson teaches in the areas of Public Speaking, Fundamentals of Communication, African American Rhetoric, Communication Research Methods, Senior Project, Persuasion, and Introduction to Women’s Studies. Johnson was recently elected to serve on the NCA Nominating Committee for 2021-2022; the Nominating Committee prepares a slate for the election of NCA’s Second Vice President and the at-large members of the Legislative Assembly and Leadership Development Committee. Johnson is also currently a member of NCA’s Legislative Assembly. In addition to writing about womanist preaching, Johnson is a licensed and ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and serves as an Associate Minister at New Covenant Christian Church in Nashville, TN.

1. One of your areas of research is womanism. What is womanism and how does it differ from feminism? 

Womanism is centered in the African American female experience and it represents women in regard to race, class, gender, and sexuality. While the term womanist was coined by Alice Walker in 1979, Walker developed a four-part definition that can be found in her 1983 publication, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. According to Walker, a womanist is (1) a black feminist or feminist of color who is responsible, in charge, and serious; (2) committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people; (3) one who loves herself regardless; and (4) “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” The first tenet tells us who can be a womanist. The second tenet helps us understand that the communal fight for liberation extends beyond race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexuality to bring about a holistic survival. The third tenet reveals the necessity to love ourselves and to be authentically who we are. The last tenet exposes the reality that African American women and other women of color experience some deeper issues/forms of oppression that are unique to our own color/race.

I like to think of womanism in terms of Stacey Floyd-Thomas’ four-phrased tenets: Radical Subjectivity, Traditional Communalism, Redemptive Self-Love, and Critical Engagement. Radical subjectivity refers to the radicality of speaking truth to power and requires that we re-image a victim into a person who is victorious over her circumstances. Traditional communalism is a calling back to traditional beliefs and values, which entails a rhetorical Jeremiad. Redemptive self-love necessitates the need to unashamedly love self and seeks to remove the socially perceived shame away from a woman and her actions by re-imaging the villain into a heroine. Critical engagement performs a cultural critique of society’s oppressive forces and offers a perspectival corrective that moves people toward a collective action that can fix the problem.

Womanism is different from feminism by the mere fact that it is centered in the lived experiences of African American women, instead of focusing on middle-class white women. When we think about second-wave feminism, we must recognize that two historical movements were taking place at that same time in the 1960s—the civil right movement and the women’s movement. If black women sided with the civil right movement, they were only represented in terms of race and class. Yet, if they sided with the women’s movement, which was geared toward white middle-class women, they were represented only in terms of gender. There was no movement to fully represent the African American woman until Alice Walker created womanism.
2. Your book addresses womanist sermons. How do these sermons reflect the tenets of womanism?

The Womanist Preacher examines sermons by five womanist preachers: Elaine M. Flake, Gina M. Stewart, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Melva L. Sampson, and Claudette A. Copeland. Both Elaine Flake and Gina Stewart are discussed in Chapter Two, Radical Subjectivity, because their sermons, which focus on the same scripture, show how the biblical character, Leah, is able to come to a defining moment and make revolutionary changes regarding her situation. In these two sermons, we see how the preachers are able to move people to a type of self-transformation—physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally—by re-imaging Leah from being a victim of circumstance to being victorious over her situation. We witness the maturation of Leah on her own journey toward self-love and self-worth when she takes radical steps to affirm herself and stops trying to find her value in others.

Cheryl Kirk-Duggan’s sermon is analyzed in Chapter Three, Traditional Communalism, because her sermon uses the woman with the crippling spirit to address the skewed traditions and circumstances that tend to cripple many women in ministry; Kirk-Duggan calls us back to our freedom in Jesus Christ. This Jeremiad calls us back to our original beliefs and values, which is the essence of traditional communalism.

Melva Sampson’s sermon is found in Chapter Four, Redemptive Self-Love, because she uses Queen Vashti to show us what it really means to love ourselves regardless. We learn that regardless does not come without a price—it cost the queen her crown. Sampson re-envisions the audience’s perception of Queen Vashti from being a villain because she would not submit to the King’s request to being a heroine—one who has revolutionary love for herself.

Claudette Copeland’s sermon is examined in Chapter Five, Critical Engagement, because she uses the woman who has no breast along with her own encounter with breast cancer to confront the myth that breast cancer affects only the person who has it. She helps us realize that it affects everyone. We learn that we are all tied together in the fight against cancer. Copeland also provides a plan of action to support those fighting cancer.

3. Both your research and teaching address African American rhetoric. Have you incorporated or do you plan to incorporate issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement into your teaching?

Looking at all of the displays of social unrest in 2020 alone, it would be remiss of me not to address the Black Lives Matter movement in my African American Rhetoric class. This course is taught as a seminar that surveys the speeches, and in some cases sermons, delivered by Black men and women. We start in 1807, with a Jarena Lee piece and work our way to today. At the end of the semester, we will read about Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. We will discuss Kimberly Jones’ monopoly analogy along with Rev. Al Sharpton’s eulogy for George Floyd. Then, we will examine the visual rhetoric from last year’s #BLM protests. My hope this semester is that students will be able to identify the reoccurring themes in the fight against racial injustice, police brutality, economic injustice, government corruption, voter suppression, and institutional racism. 

4. You were recently elected to serve on the NCA Nominating Committee. What are your goals for NCA leadership?

I believe that NCA is in a unique position right now that calls for more cultural diversity within the leadership as well as the association’s award recipients. I ran as an At-Large Member of the Nominating Committee because I want to become actively involved in the progression that NCA makes in the years ahead. I want to be part of the change. My goal is to suggest and vet the candidates that I would want to eventually see become President of NCA. The three critical areas that I will want candidates to address are issues of diversity, inclusion, and community engagement.

5. What advice do you have for others interested in serving in an NCA leadership position? 

My number one recommendation is to make sure that you have the time to dedicate to a leadership position; some roles require a one-year commitment and others might require as much as a five-year commitment. My second piece of advice is to begin by participating in the various caucuses and divisions to learn how they function. My last tip is to have conversations with individuals who have held leadership positions to get their perspective about the organization along with the pros and cons of being in leadership.