Dr. Aliou C. Niang is an associate professor of the New Testament at Union Theological Seminary.
What brought you to Union?
I was teaching at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN and we invited Dr. James Cone to come and speak. I had read his work of course, but did not have a chance to actually talk to him. That was the very first time we had a conversation. I asked him, “Where do you teach?” because I really didn’t know; I was not part of the committee that organized the lectures. I just went. He said “Union” and then he explained what he was doing here and about ideas that he actually helped me think very much about Union were, first, this is a place where the practice of diversity can be a promise that can actually happen.
Let me say it differently, it is a place that promises diversity. Now of course we can debate what does that mean? By diversity we mean, in my understanding of it, the place where the presence of other people is valued and they work as well as the kind of solidarity of a community that values diversity practices. For me that was great. That’s not the only thing that he said, it is also a place where you will be able to teach and speak and write on the cutting-edge issues. In fact, you might want to birth those cutting-edge issues and help students to navigate what it means to speak or practice justice. We’re constantly nurturing and constructing what Justice means. And that’s very difficult. Justice is something that is cared for, it is not fixed, it is always changing. And it’s not enough to be a diverse community, we have to have an international take on issues, not restricted to the context of New York or America: The ability to think globally, not just locally. This was my understanding from Dr. Cone about what Union promises. And I ended up at Union. And that promise is indeed here. Now, a promise means that this is still unfolding. I am responsible to be part of that construction.
What advice do you have for students here at Union or prospective students?
That’s a tough one. Again, this is not just advice for students but also advice for me. My advice is to carefully learn what it means to actually cultivate justice. Because every time that I think about justice, I am thinking about it in the context of that diverse community. Justice for one group might not be justice for another, so the question then becomes how do we cultivate this understanding of justice in community.
My advice for students, then, is to be part of that ongoing construction of diversity and justice: to respect our individual limitations and to respect others, and what they can bring. The other one is, my advice not to look at justice as something static. I am overemphasizing it cause the notion of “Justice” for many people is, “This is what Justice is.” Well, yes for you, but what about for me? It necessitates respect for one another but also the courage and power to say, “I don’t know.” And begin the process of discovering, what does it mean for me to say, “This is the just thing to do?” what does it mean for me to say, “I am engaged in the life of a community that is learning to practice community?” What does it look like? Student, faculty, no one is exempt from this. We all need to learn to be humans in community and value the dignity of each other. Otherwise the diversity is not there, and justice will be harmed.
What is something that you still want to learn about?
It is not found at Union; it is something that I brought with me as a West African. Our first president, his name is Léopold Sédar Senghor, he was actually one of the three founders of the movement called negritude. It is a movement that is actually conversant with the Harlem Renaissance. But it’s not well known in the West except in English departments, not theology. And he was a person who valued dialogue because he thought it doesn’t matter where we come from we can bring something to the table in such a way that to ensure that we are working toward correcting some of the abuses in our social or public discourse or the practice of what it means to live as human being.
I want to learn how to build on his legacy, a legacy that is heavily critiqued. Critiqued because of his willingness to welcome other people’s ideas. We are talking about a movement, negritude, that was actually trying to undo colonization, a movement trying to champion the decolonization of African countries. So that is how important his work is. But he was heavily criticized, because of his willingness to not focus on the evil, the mistakes or abuses of the colonizers. He is saying the abuses already happened, now the question is, how do we work, knowing that there were abuses, people died, and some are alienated from their own context. The question becomes how to move forward with that.
He talks about the “dialogue of cultures” (I don’t think that translates well) but it’s the idea that each culture has something to bring, as long as we are willing to listen to one another. Now, what does that mean for Union? I want to learn how to do that here. I want to learn to encourage people to not look at the diverse students and faculty here at Union, and mistake it for diversity. So, we can learn to actually do something that is concretely an expression of what it means to be a diverse community. And I think that I can be helped by the ideas of Senghor’s dialogue of cultures, because we all are shaped cultures and subcultures, the question is, how then do we bring that into the conversation with other people who are also shaped by their cultural perspectives. So that is what I want to learn to do at Union. I want to learn from students, faculty and staff. This is a community effort.