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Dr. Keo Cavalcanti and the Sociologically Examined Life

In 1959, C. Wright Mills called on all of us to develop our sociological imaginations, to develop a critical engagement with the world around us that made sense of the interactions and interplay of biography and history, of the individual with the social world around her or him. This, he argued, was both the task and the promise of sociology as a discipline.

To see the sociological imagination in action, we need look no further than the lived example of Dr. Keo Cavalcanti. His life and scholarship demonstrate the potential of sociological inquiry and analysis to make sense of our own biography in the broader context of the social world. Said another way, Dr. Cavalcanti’s example points out the ways that our personal struggles and experiences can speak to larger public concerns and patterns in social life.

 Raised within an evangelical Protestant community within the heavily Catholic culture of Brazil, Dr. Cavalcanti grew up with an “insider outsider” status and identity. He was Brazilian within Brazil, but had a foot outside of the dominant culture. Coming to the United States, this “double consciousness” (see Du Bois, 1903) continued. As he adjusted to the social context of the United States, Dr. Cavalcanti was intrigued to encounter an evangelical Protestantism that was vastly different from the culture in which he was raised – evangelical Protestantism’s status as a political force of the Right was nonexistent in Brazilian society. He wanted to make sense of this, and the result can be found in his thoughtful book, Gloryland: Christian Suburbia, Christian Nation, published in 2007 by Praeger Books. In this work, Dr. Cavalcanti documents the transformation of Christian conservatism from a largely working class, rural phenomenon into a middle class, suburban faith and political force. It traces Christian conservatism’s path, in other words, from the margins to the mainstream in the United States.

 Dr. Cavalcanti’s academic studies and professional life took him from Vanderbilt University to the University of Richmond. It was here that Dr. Cavalcanti adopted United States citizenship. Upon doing so, he realized that although he was now an “American,” he was also a “Hispanic American” in the American south, a region historically marked by a black/white ethnic divide. His “insider outsider” identity, in other words, continued. Looking to place his own experiences alongside the experiences of other Latina and Latino immigrants to the region, Dr. Cavalcanti, with Dr. Debra Schleef from the University of Mary Washington, wrote Latinos in Dixie: Class and Assimilation in Richmond, Virginia, published by SUNY Press in 2009. In this work, the first large-scale survey of Hispanic immigrants in the state of Virginia, Dr. Cavalcanti and Dr. Schleef contributed a needed voice and analysis to the discussion surrounding a growing and increasingly influential segment of the United States population. Using ethnographic and cross-sectional survey data, they address the intersections of geographic mobility, isolation, and segmented assimilation processes and highlight the ways that these processes emphasize and intensify class differences – well-educated Latina/o professionals dominate the cultural and political landscape while less-well-off immigrants are all too often marginalized and made invisible.

 Joining the JMU community, Dr. Cavalcanti was struck by the impact of another immigrant community in Virginia: German immigrants and their influence on small, rural church communities of the Shenandoah Valley. Many churches in the region are older than the country, and the impact of German immigrant culture in the region remains today. For Dr. Cavalcanti, these communities inspired several questions, among them: How do you create “permanent roots” as an immigrant population? What are the boundaries needed to preserve identity within a host community? How can immigrants create a “second skin” with which to become members of their host cultures while maintaining their native identities and cultures? Looking more closely into these questions lead to the publication of Dr. Cavalcanti’s third book, The United Church of Christ in the Shenandoah Valley: Liberal Church, Traditional Congregations (Lexington Books), in 2010. In this book, Dr. Cavalcanti addresses religious life at the grassroots level, looking at the tensions between a national denomination grounded in progressive politics and policies of inclusion and the “older” identities and customs of a local congregational judicatory whose churches predate the founding of the national denomination. The book highlights the ties that bind and the pressures that divide. As one pastor in another judicatory in the UCC put it:

 By a close examination of one church, it described the reality of so many churches, and made me feel a sense of connection to all those other congregations out there in the UCC, to their pastors and leaders who are doing the same work we are doing, facing the same struggles and delighting in the same rewards. This book captures, for history, a window into my life and the life of so many other churchgoers and church leaders. It unites us as a denomination based on our shared experiences of ordinary church life.

Dr. Cavalcanti’s life as a scholar and engaged social agent highlight both the task and the promise that Mills laid out in his call for the development and cultivation of the sociological imagination. The details of our personal biographies are unique, but they represent the threads that tie us to the interconnected web of social life. In this sense, the best sociology starts at home.