By: Gregory Ellison
September 03, 2013
Fran Davis-Harris sat down with FTE Alumnus Dr. Gregory Ellison to talk about his new book, Cut Dead but Still Alive: Caring for African American Men. Dr. Ellison shared intimate accounts of how he came to understand his call and purpose as a preacher, educator and scholar activist. He also spoke passionately about what prompted him to write his book and begin the subsequent grassroots community empowerment initiative entitled Fearless Dialogues. Read on to get a glimpse of the great work Dr. Ellison is doing.
Southwest Atlanta, GA - “The home of Outkast, Goodie Mob and Martin Luther King, The Holy Trilogy.”
Playing basketball with son - “My son has a killer jump shot at 6 years old.”
Loves fashion and to shop at second hand stores – “You can’t find me without a hat.”
Creative Writing Space
Bathroom – “I grew up in a house where we always had family staying with us. Our house was loud and busy. Throughout high school, I would go in the bathroom, turn on the fan, close the toilet seat and sit down to do my homework. It was the quiet place in a very busy house. I still do that. I go and put the toilet seat down and do a lot of writing and thinking there.”
1. What is your call story—the story about how you were called to be a pastor, scholar and activist?
I consider my call to be more of a process and not a singular event. There are a few moments that were very pivotal. First, when I was eight or nine-years-old my older cousin would bring her college friends to me to talk about their relationships. It was odd to me that they would bear their whole lives to someone in elementary school, but I would listen to them and tell them what I thought. Apparently it was worth it because they kept coming back.
Also, when I was a student at Emory, a young lady attempted to kill herself. This was someone whom I spoke with in the midst of her attempt in which the first time she put her pills down and in the second attempt six shots were misfired. This was definitely a pivotal moment in my call.
I haven’t shared this next moment before. I am from a very large family. My Mom is number seven out of 11 children. My Grandfather was the patriarch of our clan. When I was a junior or senior in college we were in the backyard holding hands and he looked at me and said, “Greg is going to do the prayer.” It was a symbolic passing of the mantle—that was very weighty for me.
Lastly, there is also power in naming. My full name is Gregory Clark Ellison, II. Gregory means the observant one and I’ve dedicated the last fifteen years to seeing people differently. Clark means clergyman or scholar and Ellison means looks up to God. Pulled together this reflects the observant clergyman that looks up to God. This doesn’t seem circumstantial. I think there was a purpose for me to be at this particular place and time. My name is a constant reminder.
2. You recently released a new book entitled Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African American Men. What is the thought behind the title of the book?
The title Cut Dead But Still Alive is about young Black men that are unfortunately perceived as threats. They are beat down and told that this is all you can be, but I tell their story of triumph over adversity and what it means to work and be seen in a different fashion.
I went to Princeton and studied Pastoral Theology, which some call Pastoral Psychology. We read a lot of Freud, Jung and even William James. William James states in The Principals of Psychology, that we are social beings and we have an innate need to be in community with other people. He said he would rather be subject to that kind of torture than to go unnoticed.
In following, through the lives of the five individuals that I cover in the book, I realized that many of them feel invisible and cut dead. They are living but cut dead at the same time; like walking phantoms, desperately seeking to be seen and heard. I know what it feels like to be in a classroom and to have your hand up in the air and people ignore you, or to have someone change the conversation as if you never uttered a word. I know what it means to get on an elevator and have someone clutch their purse. Those are demeaning and dehumanizing feelings that over time take a toll on one’s self and how you see your future.
Fearless Dialogues, the tour accompanying the book, seeks to see the gifts and the value in people as a whole instead of statistics and stereotypes. We also try to attune their ears. As you hear someone is an equal as opposed to someone lesser than you, you can begin to hear their story authentically. Those elements create dialogues that lead to change. My Auntie said, “Greg, I may not be able to change the world, but I can change the three feet around me.”
3. What is the common thread between the five young men in Cut Dead but Still Alive?
At one point in their lives they all visualized a hopeful future even in spite of some tremendous challenges. They all come from different socio-economic backgrounds and family structures. There is a Princeton student, a couple drug dealers, and a young Black man that spoke fluent Japanese.
At some point in their existence they all felt their visibility and voice denied by people within and outside of their own race. These were people that only afforded them an opportunity to fit in a very confining box. A few of these young men withered under pressure and a few tried to break the box. However, in all of the situations they had a breaking point where a decision had to be made. “Do I continue to struggle or do I end it all?”
A couple of these young men tried to end it all. One jumped off a bridge and one cut his neck open, and they both lived to tell about it. The Princeton student tried to destroy the administration building. He wanted to get a Ph.D. but through that action he could’ve potentially ended it all. One of the drug dealers wanted to pursue his GED but all he could see was his life of crime. So, he said, “if that is all you are going to see me as, that is all I am going to be” until there were some people that wanted to invest in him. In some instances there was a community around all of these young men that could see them and work along side them to change—not looking down on them, but working with them. I’m not writing to please academics; my prayer is that it’s beneficial to students. I want young men to read pieces of this book and say, “That is my story. Somebody sees me.”
4. What do you want young African-American males who are discerning the next steps toward their purpose to get out of your book?
When I started this research at Princeton—and this may be shocking—I felt invisible. In 2008, I was the first African-American to ever graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Doctorate in Pastoral Theology. I dealt with all kinds of prejudice and I was at a point where I thought “I can’t take this anymore.”
I hope what these young men see is that there are greater possibilities beyond what people say you are or cannot be. My prayer is that this is a book of transcendence and that they can see themselves above and beyond, over and against stereotypes and historic myths of what Black men have been and always will be.
It’s important to surround yourself with people that can support you in a positive way. Once you begin to be seen and heard, you need to do the same to someone else. When someone looks up to you and holds your words as true, then you are being seen and heard.
5. What do you feel is the role of the leaders in the church and the academy?
Fearless Dialogues is a community grassroots initiative that sits thought leaders around tables and enhances their visions. We enter into very authentic conversations around specific goals, so we don’t have to go outside to find the tools to create change among us. On July 20, 300 people showed up at Emory University to engage in fearless dialogue. These were all different kinds of people; we had professors, doctors, drug dealers, single mothers, non-profit leaders and foundations that fund non-profits. We sat around tables and talked about hard issues. How often do these kind of spaces occur? They don’t.
I’m not going to beat up on academics, churches or institutions that aren’t doing stuff, because there are people that are committed. There should be more leaders who are involved in these kinds of conversations, committed to sustainable change in our communities and working to do so.
6. Who has played a major role in your life along your journey to live out your call?
My Grandma prayed for me. She would wake up humming and singing with cheese grits on the stove. My Grandmother had an eighth grade education and my Grandfather had a fourth grade education. During the 1930s and ‘40s they were sharecroppers from Mississippi and with the fourth grade education he had, he made the decision that none of his kids would ever have to pick cotton and would go to college. They never picked cotton and they all went to college.
I remember shortly before my Grandma passed, after my Grandfather had already passed, she was sitting on a chair on the front porch crying. I remember asking her what was going on. She said, “God has done so much for us.” She didn’t talk or sing at all (we are a singing family), but she said, “It made me proud.”
I realized I am the manifestation of her prayers. My Grandfather said, “we sit under shaded trees that we didn’t plant.” In seminary, I realized that I have to plant and dig those trees for my great-grandchildren that I will never meet. I wear a pin that reminds me every day. It may sound cliché if you don’t know me, but I’m not doing this for money or esteem in the Academy—forget about tenure—I’m about building community. I’m just praying that I make my Grandma proud.
7. Do you have any words of wisdom for those coming behind you as a leader in the church, academy and in society?
I’d like to quote the great philosopher Thomas Calloway, a.k.a. Cee-lo Green. In my favorite song of his, called Die Trying, the last line of the song says, “I don’t have to lie to you to make it sound fly to you, I’m going to keep my feet on the ground and bring the sky to you.”
My challenge to folks trailing behind me is to keep their feet on the ground and to bring all the resources and gifts, and knowledge they are gaining in their institutions to others in an authentic and accessible way. I encourage them to write books to change people—even if it’s only a few people; to take ownership of their papers that they write and to not just write for the sake of writing but to write for the sake of change; and to go beyond writing to live out the words that you put on paper.
I tell my students if you don’t believe in the words that you turn in on paper, don’t bring it to me. Don’t do something unless it’s righteous. Don’t just write a paper; write something that informs the community.