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Dianne M. Stewart selected as Emory College Chronos Fellow

Dianne M. Stewart, a scholar of African-heritage religious cultures in the Caribbean and the Americas, has been awarded the Chronos Faculty Fellowship in Emory College of Arts and Sciences for 2021.

The parallel religious and cultural traditions that flow back and forth between Africa and the diaspora have been on Dianne M. Stewart’s radar for at least 15 years.

Stewart, a scholar of African-heritage religious cultures in the Caribbean and the Americas, specifically wants to untangle the complex ties between the Central African Kingdom of Kongo — now part of Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo — and the mostly Protestant diaspora in the coastal U.S. and the Anglophone Caribbean.

As the second recipient of the Chronos Faculty Fellowship in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Stewart will have a leave of absence for the coming academic year to unearth those stories for a book project, tentatively titled “Local and Transnational Legacies of African Christianity in West-Central Africa and the Black Atlantic World.”

“This is a dream come true,” says Stewart, who gathered missionary reports, slave trade records, plantation records, letters between plantation owners and even rare Portuguese books to capture the intricacies of overlapping spiritual traditions. 

“I’m going to buy the paint to turn my home office wall into a whiteboard, so I can map it all out,” says Stewart, who was recently promoted to full professor of religion and African American studies (effective Sept. 1, 2021) in Emory College. 

The Chronos Fellowship launched last year in Emory College to support such ambitious scholarship by tenured faculty in the humanities and social sciences. It aims to support work in the post-tenure period, when time for immersive research, deep thinking and writing can be difficult to secure.

Funded by a grant from the Abraham J. & Phyllis Katz Foundation, the program includes a year of leave and $10,000 in research/travel funds, to allow for a fully immersive research experience and opportunities to develop new scholarship.

Emory sociologist Bin Xu is the inaugural recipient of the fellowship, awarded in 2020. So far, he has spent the year focused on his scholarship to document the collective memory of the 17 million Chinese youth forced to migrate to the country’s villages and frontiers in the 1960s and 1970s. His second book, “Chairman Mao’s Children: Generation and the Politics of Memory in China,” due in October from Cambridge University Press, will highlight this work.

“I am very grateful for the Katz Foundation’s generous support, which gives me much extra time to think deeply and read widely about some of these issues,” he says. “This fellowship, as its name ‘Chronos’ implies, provides me with the most important resource a scholar can have — time — to achieve my goals.”

Xu also begins work soon on “The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society,” an introductory cultural sociology book he plans to complete this year that will be published by Polity Press in 2022.

“The Katz Foundation loves this fellowship. The recipients are among the most creative and intellectually curious members of Emory’s faculty. The topics they are exploring are not only their personal passions, but important and relevant issues of our time,” says David Woolf, executive director of the Katz Foundation. “We look forward to hearing the successful stories that Xu, Stewart and others have to tell about their fellowship experience.”

Pursuing new knowledge of religious traditions

Stewart expects to use most of her fellowship time as Xu did: reading, thinking and writing. She began gathering the materials for the project during a 17-month stint in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a Fulbright Scholar in 2006. She continued her research for years, most recently as a senior fellow with the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry in 2017. 

In that time, Stewart continued to teach and conduct research on other projects. Last year, she published “Black Women, Black Love,” a critically honored examination of America’s forced disruption of Black families for centuries.

Her latest book, “Obeah, Orisa and Religious Identity in Trinidad: Between and Beyond Colonial Imaginations, Volume II: Orisa,” is due early next year. A joint venture with Tracey Hucks of Colgate University, who wrote “Volume I: Obeah,” it provides a historical, comparative account of African religions in Trinidad. 

Stewart’s focus next year as a Chronos Fellow will be to expand beyond Trinidad’s faith practices to another understudied aspect of African descendants’ lives in the diaspora, specifically the Christian expressions of the Gullah, Jamaican Revival Zionists and Trinidadian Spiritual Baptist that depart from orthodox Protestant Christianity.

“I see correspondences among these traditions and those of the Catholic Kongo,” Stewart says. “I want to tell the story of these parallel traditions, that are interwoven to multiple flows of African people and the diaspora. I’m very excited to dig in.”

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