This post is part of our forum on “Womanist Theology.“
To enter the archive as a historian who studies the histories of marginalized peoples is to encounter a metaphorical wilderness where we hope to find extensive records of the spiritual, social, political, and economic lives of people from generations past. Womanist theology offers hope to historians who are navigating wilderness archives. Womanist theology reveals that even in the wilderness, there is abundant life. In her field-defining 1993 monograph Sisters in the Wilderness, theologian Dolores S. Williams wondered how she might construct a Christian theology, or “God-talk,” from the perspective of Black women. In the American academy, the words “womanism” and “theology” frequently travel as a pair. The persistent use of the term “womanist theology” has incorrectly led scholars to conclude that womanism has little to no value to those who do not study religion or the divine. However, the womanist praxis that is modeled in the writings of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison reveals that womanist theology is an insistent political theology. Womanist theology demands that Black women receive the space and resources to live well. Theology, or God-talk, is not exclusively concerned with doctrine. At its best, theology invites us to imagine new and better worlds. To that end, womanist theologians draw upon history, philosophy, literature, music, dance, Scriptures, and most importantly, the diverse particularity of Black women’s lives to do their work. Engagement with this intentionally multi-disciplinary field benefits historians, especially those who work within archives fractured by the crisis of (un)freedom.
When Dolores Williams began her study of Black women’s “God-talk,” histories of Black women’s lives, such as Shirley Yee’s Black Women Abolitionists, Hazel V. Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s Righteous Discontent, and Carla L. Peterson’s Doers of the Word were yet to be published. Rather than feeling discouraged by the dearth of scholarly publications in the now robust academic field of Black Women’s Studies, Williams pursued her intellectual questions. She discovered an African American biblical appropriation tradition that emphasized the story of a biblical character named Hagar. Dolores Williams found that Hagar’s story was not unlike Black women’s experiences in the Americas.
Hagar’s story appears in the book of Genesis. She was an Egyptian woman who was an enslaved laborer in the household of Abram, one of the Hebrew Bible’s patriarchs, and Abram’s wife, Sarai. In Genesis 12, God called Abram to leave his homeland and go to a place God would show him. God promised Abram to give him and his descendants the land of Canaan. God’s promise to give Abram and his offspring land perturbed Abram because he and Sarai were childless. They wondered how they could become a great nation without children who shared their flesh and blood. Amid this crisis, Sarai turned to the enslaved Hagar. Typically, Hagar’s role was to perform household tasks. However, in Sarai’s impatience to produce offspring, she commanded her husband to sexually assault Hagar. She reasoned that Hagar was an extension of their household and that any children Hagar bore would belong to them.
We will never know how many unwanted sexual encounters Abram forced onto Hagar, but Sarai was not satisfied until Hagar conceived. Hagar provided a surrogate womb when Sarai’s womb failed her. However, when Hagar realized she was with child and rested in the contentment of her freedom from Abram’s unwanted advances, Sarai felt that Hagar mocked her. Sarai resented the forcibly impregnated woman she held as her property. Abram told Sarai that Hagar was her property and to punish her as she saw fit. The same woman who had demanded that Hagar bear her child now punished her for her subservience. In distress, Hagar fled from Abram and Sarai’s household into the wilderness, where an angel met her beside a spring of water. The angel urged her to return to Abram and Sarai, and Hagar obeyed. When, in Genesis 21, Abram and Sarai (now Abraham and Sarah after a divine name change) conceived, and Sarai/Sarah bore a son of her own, Sarai/Sarah wished to differentiate herself from Hagar and her son. Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah expelled the young Egyptian mother and her son from their household. Hagar again went into the wilderness, where God blessed them with a well to abate their thirst and the promise of a better future.
Dolores Williams drew comparisons between Hagar’s story and that of Black women in American history. Like Hagar, Black women in the Americas were removed from their homelands and forced to work in foreign lands. Also, like Hagar, Black women were rendered “property plus,” an idea used by Hortense Spillers to describe the burdensome layers of attenuated meaning placed on Black Women by the American imagination. Their value was found in their ability to benefit their enslavers’ households and businesses and to do reproductive labor. When their enslavers saw no further use for them, they were often cast out with their children and forced to create new lives without financial resources. Despite the challenges, Black women like Hagar unexpectedly discovered springs of water in the wilderness and the promise of a future. Black women’s historians find them in this wilderness and invite them to share their stories.
Hagar’s relationship with Sarai/Sarah mirrors that between enslaved Black women in the Americas and plantation mistresses. Historians such as Catherine Clinton, Thavolia Glymph, and Stephanie Jones-Rogers have illuminated this often brutal dynamic. Williams further asserts that Hagar’s experiences also mirrored those of Black American women in the late-twentieth century. This post-emancipation time, which Black Studies scholars have described as “the wake” and “slavery’s afterlife,” is defined by sexual and economic exploitation, social neglect, police violence, domestic violence, and femicide. Williams believes Hagar’s story can offer hope to contemporary Black women. Williams reimagines the space of the wilderness as a site of survival and quality of life formation. Williams asserted that Christian theology should teach those who follow Jesus to live as Jesus lived, not how to die as Jesus died.
Williams’ interpretation of the “challenge of womanist God-talk” reveals that womanist theology is rooted in the contradiction between the realities of Black women’s history and divine promise. Womanist theology begins with the specificity of Black women’s lived experiences of physical, social, economic, and epistemological violence and ends with the promise of belonging in the space that Alice Walker called the womanist flower garden. Similarly, Black women’s history is rooted in the contradiction between Enlightenment theories and the extensive history of Black social life in the Americas. Black women’s history begins with the lives of a group of people whom Enlightenment thinkers described as people who were outside of history and ends with the reality of sometimes contradictory but always vibrant stories of resilience, hope, possibility, and liveliness.
When we venture further into wilderness archives, womanist theology invites us to conduct our research using what womanist ethicist Emilie Townes has called “the dance of an open mind.” Townes borrowed the idea from Toni Morrison’s 1996 book The Dancing Mind, arguing that the diasporic approach of the womanist dancing mind allows the womanist to understand that “Black life is not our life alone, but a compendium of conscious and unconscious associations with others whose lives are not lived solely in the Black face of United States life.” A womanist dancing mind tends to the complexities of the African diaspora. It is not deterred by stories of death. It finds its hope in the promise that there is life after the end of the world.
Black women’s historians have long deployed Black feminist theory to understand the complexities of Black women’s lives. However womanist theology invites deeper engagement with the idea of the wilderness and a promise of expansive lives after the end of the world. Applying womanist theology to history enhances the fields of Black women’s history and intellectual history. Womanism expands the kinds of stories that historians can tell when we encounter the wilderness archives of (un)freedom, that is, those archives that reflect imbalances of power that amplify the voices of a dominant group at the expense of other groups. These archives place some groups in the seats of power in the metaphorical patriarch’s household that Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah enjoyed while situating other groups in the metaphorical wilderness with Hagar. The inclusive, communal, audacious, and willful methodologies of womanist theology must not continue to be siloed within Religious Studies. Womanism’s commitment to wholeness, diasporic thought, a dancing mind, and spirituality is a commitment that historians must carry into death-dealing archives. Womanism challenges us to be audacious enough to allow our minds to dance in the wilderness as we grapple with the limits of what the archive permits us to know.