Former Debater Makes the Case for AAS
Marcus Jerkins 06C is no stranger to obstacles and challenging times, having been born to parents who struggled to raise him. But at the age of nine, the path of his life changed drastically when he was sent to live with his grandmother. It was there, in southwest Atlanta—Adamsville—that she introduced him to the black church and helped him discover a love for God.
Intrigued by the history of the black church, Jerkins became interested in the founding documents of the Christian faith. His interest centered on how those documents were used to propagate the gospel and how the black church could use them to fight against systemic racism.
Not unlike Martin Luther King Jr. defining civil rights based on the needs of the church, Jerkins takes the same approach in utilizing the New Testament to fight racism. This is what led him to pursue a PhD in religion at Baylor University.
Jerkins learned of Emory as a sophomore at Benjamin E. Mays High School, where the Barkley Forum Center for Debate Education/Urban Debate League would encourage students to participate in the National Forensic League. Jerkins initially was interested in participating in quiz bowl, but when he went to the information sessions for the Urban Debate League, he decided to sign up for the debate team. Being on the debate team stoked his passion for argument and it is where he learned about policy and law.
He first set foot on Emory’s campus to attend debate camp. After more exposure, he decided that this was the place he wanted to attend college. In order to be accepted as a student, Jerkins knew that he would need to improve his grades, and he credits his participation on the debate team as part of reason he was able to do so.
When Jerkins initially entered Emory College, he was not sure what he wanted to study but was interested in both prelaw and political science. However, after his second year at Emory, he began to transition away from the debate team and started becoming more interested in religion and African American Studies.
After taking Introduction to African American Studies, taught then by Mark Sanders, his interest
continued to grow. Although Jerkins claims his writing skills were poor and he did not do well in the class, Sanders took a special interest in him and, as Jerkins states, “helped me cultivate my talent.” Sanders pulled him aside and, according to Jerkins, stated, “I see potential in you, let’s get your writing skills up.”
To have a black professor believe in him and encourage his desire for knowledge led Jerkins to take more AAS classes. He found all of the professors in the department “to be a good cadre of advocates to help me fight and fight for myself.” He also credits Sanders for encouraging him to apply for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program at Emory, to which he was accepted.
In addition to taking AAS courses, Jerkins continued to pursue his interest in religion. One course shy of double majoring in AAS/religion, he completed his thesis with Dianne Stewart. In researching his thesis, Jerkins was exposed to Benjamin E. Mays’s book, The Negro’s God. From it, he began to construct his idea that scripture can provide rich resources to unseat racism.
When reflecting on how AAS contributed to his scholarly formation, Jerkins states that not only did AAS teach him discipline, it also taught him how to approach form and content. “AAS is inherently interdisciplinary—different fields of study (history, religion, literature)—that come together and form the discipline,” he says. He is now bringing all those ways of doing study (indepth interpretation, reviewing hard data, reading, and researching) to bear upon the study of the New Testament.
As it relates to content, Jerkins sees AAS as a discipline that studies a culture of people who have been underserved, mistreated, and maladjusted and then focuses on how they can be helped. The same approach should govern studying the New Testament. Jerkins has found that people who tend to study it do not see lack of privilege, a fact that concerns him, given that the writers of the New Testament were commoners and not people of privilege. AAS, in his view, has helped him have an eye toward empathy, oppression, and privilege and how best to relate and connect with people who come from differing backgrounds. AAS teaches its students to see the power and beauty of the common people and to note
that their aesthetic is just as valuable as the elite.
Although Jerkins graduated more than a decade ago, he is still remembered fondly by his former professor, Dianne Stewart. In 2016, she invited Jerkins to attend the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Annual Commencement Banquet and give the keynote address. In her opening line to introduce Jerkins, she stated, “One of the great things about life is that situations do not have to remain the same. One’s past does not always dictate one’s future. Such is the case for Marcus Jerkins.”
He would agree. Jerkins has overcome many obstacles, both personally and academically, but as he looks toward the next few years of his life, he is determined. He plans to remain heavily involved in church as a pastor/scholar and hopes to be teaching and writing. He believes that church can be a change agent to promote the values that help us remove bias in society.
If Jerkins could give a word of advice to incoming or current students at Emory, he would encourage them not to overlook the discipline. He notes, “Our own history and perspective are marginal in this society, and AAS takes what is marginal and puts it at the center.” He notes that African American history is central to America and the world and that the interdisciplinary nature of AAS will help students engage in other disciplines.