Anne C. Bailey doesn’t dwell on regrets about her undergraduate years at Harvard. She majored in English and French and did well; she made lots of friends. She was even featured on the cover of ESSENCE magazine as a sophomore. “I had an excellent experience on the first go-round,” she said.
But the Christian faith that she had grown up with in Jamaica and then in New York City, was not a large part of those years. It was a crisis of confidence over a decade later, during work on her PhD dissertation on the early American slave trade, that opened up her faith walk in a new and more vibrant direction.
The project had been more challenging than expected and had taken over her life. In order to finish the project she had to turn it over to God. “That changed my worldview and my understanding of my direction and where God wanted me to be,” she said.
Second Time at Harvard
Returning to Harvard in 2000 as a W.E.B. DuBois Fellow and a visiting lecturer, Anne connected with InterVarsity’s Graduate Faculty Ministry. She felt enriched by the fellowship with other Christians on campus and got involved in several outreach events.
“I was very impressed with how vibrant and how committed they were at Harvard, of all places,” she said. “It was another way for me to look at an institution that I loved, and still love.”
In the next few years, as a faculty member at Spelman College in Atlanta, she deepened her contact with InterVarsity and continued to grow in her faith. She’s thankful for InterVarsity’s campus ministry, so that other students don’t have to make the same mistake she made as an undergraduate. “Students should know that they don’t have to leave their faith walk at home when they come to college,” she said.
Now she’s an associate professor of history at State University of New York-Binghamton but currently on leave, working on two book projects. One of the books, tentatively titled The Myth of Goodness, is due to be published by InterVarsity Press. She’s also preparing to give one of the plenary addresses at InterVarsity’s Following Christ 2008 conference coming up in Chicago in December.
“One of the things that I love about God is that He doesn’t fit into formulas,” Anne said, talking about meeting God in the crisis of writing her dissertation. “His call on my life at that time was actually to go deeper, which was a surprise, because I thought maybe I’d made a bit of an idol of this thing and he might want to move me away from it for awhile. But He made a very clear revelation to me that I was to go deeper.”
Finding Hope in History
Anne’s professional field is African American History, African History and African Diaspora Studies. And her motivation is racial reconciliation. “Coming to the Lord helped me to look at racial reconciliation issues in a different light, and in a deeper light,” she said. “And frankly with much more hope.”
The hope that she feels is not only because of the transformation that God has brought to her own life, but also the transformation she is discovering in the lives of the early American slaves she studies. It’s a part of her research that she might have easily missed had not God changed her own heart.
“A number of the slaves were deeply committed Christians,” she said. “So you have many ex-slaves talking about their masters, worrying about their nominal Christianity and wishing that they had a heart for a relationship with Jesus. They would pray for themselves, and they would also pray for their masters.”
The other book she is writing, entitled The Weeping Time: Anatomy of a Slave Auction (forthcoming Harper Collins/ William Murrow, 2010) is about the biggest slave auction in U.S. history. It is a depressing story, but she has found redeeming hope in the way that slave families survived cruel separation.
“Even though these families were sold apart, a number of them re-found one another,” she said. “As soon as they got their freedom in 1865, they literally headed out on foot. Their first priority was looking for family: looking for mothers, looking for fathers, looking for children, looking for wives, looking for husbands. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Anne has become more sensitive to God’s work in the lives of men and women in times past. She believes that has made her a better historian. “God can and does reveal things to anyone he chooses,” she said. “I am thankful though to see some of these things more clearly than I’ve seen them in the past. I see the work of God in the historical record, how he works through history. I do see his hand.”
To hear or download Anne’s talk at InterVarsity’s Following Christ 2008 conference in Chicago, click here.