The American Academy of Religion is delighted to announce the winner of the 2023 Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion, Dr. Yolanda Pierce. Moving from Howard University Divinity School, where she has served as Dean and Professor of Religion and Literature, she recently accepted the deanship at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Dr. Pierce is a renowned womanist scholar whose work at the intersections of faith, race, and gender in American religion impact both the academy and broader society.
The Marty Award, presented annually since 1996, recognizes individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the public understanding of religion. Their efforts are varied, bringing scholarly insights to broader readerships, connecting the worlds of activism and the academy, supporting multiple ways of learning about religion beyond the written word, embracing diverse media to raise the standards of conversation about religion, and more.
Dr. Pierce pursues all of these goals with wisdom and grace, with innovative and multidimensional efforts to engage diverse publics and the media. She pushes us all to answer the question, “How do your research and scholarship matter?”
In 2016, Dr. Pierce became the Founding Director of the Center for African American Religious Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). She is the creator and curator of “Touching the Sacred,” an exhibit on material religion and the Black Church. She also served as the Founding Director of the Center for Black Church Studies and Associate Professor of Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Her published books, including Hell Without Fires: Slavery, Christianity, and the Antebellum Spiritual Narrative (University of Florida Press, 2005) and In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit (Broadleaf Books, 2021) lift up voices outside the academy and illuminate how much we have to learn from them.
Commenting on the latter volume, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss wrote, “Dr. Pierce becomes this generation’s spiritual griot; her powerful storytelling challenges, inspires, and demands we hold the brokenness and the blessedness of the space we call the Black church in both hands.”
Beyond her numerous publications in academic journals and edited volumes, Dr. Pierce has written for multiple popular outlets, including Time Magazine, Theology Today, and Christianity & Literature. Currently, Dr. Pierce is a columnist for The Christian Century.
Exhibiting a valuable set of public communication skills, she has contributed her compelling perspective in a range of public forums. When invited to provide analysis for news stories on MSNBC and other television/radio outlets, she manages to condense complex thoughts about religion and race into thirty-second soundbites. As the “religion specialist” for an eight-episode crime drama, she ensured that the religious undertones of the material were treated thoughtfully. In documentary films, she has provided expert commentary on subjects as diverse as the Black Church, religion and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and theological consideration of LGBTQ+ concerns.
Dr. Pierce has also been successfully navigating the shoals of the Twitter-verse (@YNPierce) for over a decade. A verified user with a significant following, she utilizes the platform to engage in conversations both serious and joyful about American religion.
Such efforts are not always valued in the academy and public exposure poses risks. Still, Dr. Pierce has reached countless individuals with her insight and deep learning, serving as a model for other scholars.
The first woman to be appointed dean in Howard University Divinity School’s 150-year history, Dr. Pierce stands courageously as a breaker of glass ceilings and compassionately as a mentor to multiple students and leaders, on campus and beyond. The provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Vanderbilt, C. Cybelle Raver, describes Dr. Pierce as “the ideal candidate to continue Emilie Townes’ pathbreaking work in what we boldly call Schola Prophetarum, School of the Prophets—preparing our students to be 21st-century ministers, teachers and community leaders in a challenging world.” Pierce is also a community activist who has also been the recipient of numerous honors and awards for her academic work, including fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Pew Foundation.
Grateful for these substantial and ongoing contributions, the Committee for the Public Understanding of Religion unanimously voted to name Dr. Pierce as this year’s Marty Award winner. The committee noted the very special blend of critical analysis, faithful concern, and passion for justice in her life and work. To see Dr. Pierce in conversation, be sure to attend “Dangerous Conversations: The Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion” at the 2023 Annual Meeting in San Antonio.