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“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

These were the words from the song “Strange Fruit” that accompanied images of black men and women being lynched, burnt and tortured, in a presentation on Wednesday by Derek Hicks, visiting scholar at the Center for Africana Studies at Penn.

The event, organized by the Religious Studies Department and the Center for Africana Studies, is part of an ongoing colloquium which features guest speakers who present on a range of issues relating to religion.

Hicks, a professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary, presented on “The Splendor of Degraded Flesh: Black Embodied Experience and Religious Responses.” He elaborated on the idea of the black body — how it has been and continues to be perceived by members of the black community and how religion has come to play a role in this perception.

Dealing significantly with the “embodied experience,” Hicks spoke about understanding “how religions function within communities that are oppressed.” A clear theme that he sees in historical research is the “unmitigated control of black bodies through work, fear and brutal violence.”

Hicks also wove in a narrative about Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved and its movie adaptation, starring Oprah Winfrey, which dealt with the “fleshly” or “good body response” that encourages blacks to identify the splendor already residing in their body—to indulge in a “love affair with degraded flesh.”

Using the example of lynching, Hicks illustrated how “counter-expressions of religion came to a head in some situations.” There were the lynchers who espoused religion by stating phrases like “lynch this black heathen,” and the person being lynched often ended his or her life with references to God.

Hicks said black athletes like Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson have defied the idea of inferior black bodies, creating a paradigm shift in the ways that black bodies are viewed, but he concedes that the world is still dealing with the notion of black bodies as being degraded or somehow inferior.

Anthea Butler, associate professor of Religious Studies and graduate studies chairwoman of the Department of Religious Studies, said she thought Hicks’ talk was “great.” The colloquium, which is based around the theme of “the body” this year, brings together “different kinds of religious traditions.” Next week, the colloquium will feature Peter Manseau, winner of the Jewish Book Award.

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