Vincent L. Wimbush

Vincent L. Wimbush

Vincent L. Wimbush, Ph.D. (ΦΒΚ, Morehouse College) is an internationally recognized scholar of religion and a former Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar. The founding director of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures, he has authored or edited over a dozen books, and is the past president of the Society of Biblical Literature.


As Dr. Wimbush describes it, his research focuses on "the critical transdisciplinary study of 'scriptures' as a sharp analytical wedge for research and theorizing in the politics and social-psychologics of language, social (de-) formation, conscientization, and orientation to the world, using the experiences of African Americans (and the African diaspora more broadly) to think with."

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

As far back as I can recall books were my special (re)treats; they helped expand and enliven my imagination. Like most kids, I dreamed of a number of pursuits—adventurer, lawyer, doctor, and the like. That books and reading, and the general play and wrestling with the worlds and problems they opened up, were always so enjoyable and arresting for me was a sure sign that I would likely enter the professoriate. Thinking about religion—what it was and how and why it was such a force in the world around me—has persisted from my earliest memories. Along with relatives and friends, I mistook this curiosity and interest early on for commitment to ministry. The commitment was really to being a professor of a different type, the type who raises questions and excavates complexities…     

What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?  

Most important was the admonition for me to live into the kind of life—the utterly strange, not always understood life I gave hints that I wanted to live, the intellectual’s life. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, the grandmother/griot figure, Baby Suggs, lives in the memory of the young daughter character Denver and tells her that in spite of the fact of hard cruel challenges on the outside, life was to be lived: “Know it and go on out the yard. Go on.”  In this vein, in so many other words, I heard—and still hear time and time again--from the Baby Suggs’s of my world: “Go on into the unfriendly world, and live as freely and as fully as you can. Even though we do not know what you are really up to, in connection with all that ‘book stuff,’ go on.” This sort of admonition and challenge gave me resolve to pursue what at first I had in my early years only a vague hunch about, the strange but rewarding life of the intellectual (secondarily, the professional academic). In spite of some instances of failure, I continue to try to live into the haunting admonition.  

Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and an arts & sciences education are important in today’s society?   

If we want to construct and maintain a free and open and just society, we absolutely must prioritize the cultivation and training of persons to be free-thinking and free-acting humans as citizens. Insofar as PBK has always been and continues to be one of the best-recognized symbols of and strongest advocates for this type of training of the free-thinking human, it is a necessary and important force as an organization. 

We should not underestimate the importance of the organization that is ΦΒΚ. By cultivating free thinkers, ΦΒΚ actually provides a kind of circle that represents assurance that the life of the mind is honored and regarded as important social value.  

My own ΦΒΚ story is a case in point about how the high regard for critical training may inspire friendship, support, and projection of hope for social good. I would likely have missed being inducted into ΦΒΚ had my advisor not intervened when I was initially overlooked. (Apparently my record was somehow misplaced or misinterpreted on account of my spending my junior year at another institution.) The advisor explained to me in clear and persuasive terms what ΦΒΚ represented, including the modeling of and commitment to certain standards and values. He intervened in the Dean’s office. My full record was evaluated by the Dean’s Office and by the local chapter. The matter was quickly settled; I was inducted into the local chapter. 

The critical lesson here in this case was less the prestige factor of ΦΒΚ; it was the prospect, my teacher made clear, of being part of a circle, no matter how loosely structured or far flung, within which or in connection with, some special interests and values and ideas and arguments could be shared and promoted. It was also the idea that the teacher-advisor recognized in me something, some qualities, already appropriate for ΦΒΚ that made me think more deeply about what the organization means--or ought to mean.

What is your favorite part about your job?   

The professoriate, among professional pursuits, affords freedom to think, to pursue any idea, problem that I find compelling, disturbing, inspiring.  That is what I appreciate, even treasure, about the life work--or better, the orientation and commitment--I have chosen. There is in the intellectual life, the life of the sort we associate with Socrates, freedom, self-possession of mind and heart, not to be confused with, and not bound by, academic appointment or titles or grants or guild membership, and the like. I am mindful of how little freedom of this sort is experienced by human beings in our time and society.

After thirty years of (mostly graduate-level) teaching, I took matters a step further: I resigned my tenured post in order to devote myself to founding and laying tracks for an independent scholarly research organization. This seemed the next logical, even if risky, outside the comfort zone, step for me to take, a step consonant with the admonition I heard from ancestors to “go on….” The relative degree of reward, comfort, and freedom in the professoriate was not enough for me; there were still the constraints of disciplines and fields and institutions limiting the freedom I seek to try to model in programmatic terms the kind of disciplinary and political transgressive practices and work I had for many years called for. The oddly- and poignantly-named Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS) was my answer. ISS aims to model and facilitate critical transdisciplinary or transgressive thinking about and excavation of human-making/meaning-making in the modern world, using “scriptures” not flatly in terms of texts to be exegeted, but as analytical wedges or sites of the politics of language, the dynamics of discourse and power. Traditional academic programs and departments have not been and even now are not inclined toward this critical studies orientation.   

You previously participated in the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholars program.  What was most rewarding about that experience?    

The whole experience was fascinating because it was designed to facilitate interactions with students and faculty on the different campuses. I heard questions and issues raised that were sometimes surprising. The student questions were the hardest to deal with, not least because sometimes they were very basic, simple. They demanded clarity—as much as was possible. And because I was wrestling with phenomena and dynamics—in my case, “scriptures”—that I wanted to reveal as being more layered and complicated than we are generally comfortable with, I found myself having to dial back to try to help others see why I was making things more complicated. This was hard but important—and helpful for my ongoing thinking and writing and programmatic work. (This points again to the compelling reason for ISS—to engage these issues beyond the typical arrangements, assumptions, and orientations of the academy.) 

I must add here that beyond all the fascinating questions thrown at me, the interesting persons met, and campuses visited, nothing thrilled me as much as the invitation from and experience of being hosted in 2015 by theΦΒΚ chapter (Delta of Georgia, Morehouse College) into which I was inducted forty years earlier. That was for me a most thrilling and meaningful personal and professional experience, as though the completion of a circle.  

What are you reading right now? Anything you'd recommend?   

I am usually found reading (in different ways) several items at once. Among the items I find particularly fascinating these days is Racial Blackness and the Discontinuity of Western Modernity (University of Illinois, 2014), a collection of unfinished essays written by the late Lindon Barrett, brilliant and creative literary and cultural theorist. The essays are rather provocative arguments about the making and unmaking of the modern capitalist West in complex relationship to the construction of “racial blackness.”