This post is part of our forum on “Womanist Theology.“
When Alice Walker wrote the definition of a Womanist, in 1983, she could not have imagined the impact the term would have on the predominately white and male theological academy in the United States and abroad. A Womanist, as Walker explains in her book, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, is a Black feminist or feminist of color who loves herself and her community boldly, courageously, and audaciously. She is a community leader and organizer who values the history and culture of marginalized human beings, and she takes freedom, justice, independence, and self-definition seriously. A Womanist is a deeply spiritual woman. She is a lover of women, men, music, dancing, nature and food. For Walker, Womanism is more inclusive and expansive of Black women across class lines than the mainstream feminist movement led by well-to-do white women. Walker made the term come alive in her fictional characters, Shug Avery and Ms. Sofia, featured in the popular 1982 novel, The Color Purple, and in her short stories and prose writing. Through her diverse writings, Walker provided a group of Black women graduate students studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the 1980s with the language to name and express their unique approach to theology, ethics, biblical interpretation, and preaching. Those women, the ethicist Katie Cannon and theologians Jacqueline Grant and Delores S. Williams collectively created an intellectual movement that articulated—and continues to express— Black women’s history, faith, and activism.
As students at Union Theological Seminary, Katie Cannon, Jacqueline Grant, and Delores S. Williams felt that their life experiences and ways of knowing were invisible in the theological academy and enterprise. Their teachers and mentors, James Hal Cone, the founder of 20th-century Black theology, and Beverly Wildung Harrison, a groundbreaking white feminist Christian ethicist, had both unintentionally overlooked and ignored Black women as subjects in their respective scholarly works. Cannon, Grant, and Williams’ varied life experiences in their home communities, churches, and in their classes at Union taught them that Black men who preached antiracism could also be sexist, while white feminists who were committed to overthrowing patriarchy could also be racist, white supremacists. Taking these matters in to account, Cannon, Grant, and Williams worked together to provide a critical intervention in theological studies by writing essays and dissertations and presenting papers and talks at the American Academy of Religion that adopted Walker’s language of Womanism and the ideas of other Black feminist theorists. Most importantly, these three scholars also used the stories of their grandmothers and mothers, Black church women, slave narratives by Black women, other forms of African American women’s literature, and their own biographies as the primary sources for their scholarship. These sources allowed Cannon, Grant, and Williams to ground their scholarship in the realities and lived experiences of the Black women that they knew, loved, and admired. Their earliest intellectual productions served as the first theological and ethical works to fully give voice to a constituency of human beings who faced multiple forms of oppression based on race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability in spaces where Black women’s voices had previously been disregarded.
By the end of the eighties, Cannon’s Black Womanist Ethics (1988), Grant’s White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Black Women’s Response (1989), and Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (1993) became the first major publications that showcased the theological and ethical thought at the intersection of Blackness and womanhood. These publications, along with the distinguished teaching careers of Cannon, Grant, and Williams, inspired scores of other Black and Brown women (and some men) scholars to expand Womanist scholarship in the theological academy and in Black and Brown communities around the world. Womanists have reframed the way people think about sacred texts, sexuality, human suffering and flourishing, poverty, the environment, teaching practices, and leadership styles.
The Rev. Dr. Eboni Mashall Turman’s 2019 article, “Black Women’s Faith, Black Woman’s Flourishing,” stands out as a significant intellectual history of Womanist thought and scholarship. A leading Womanist ethicist and theologian, Turman’s piece underscores the significance of Katie Cannon, Jacqueline Grant, and Delores S. Williams and their collective influence on their students and other scholars who have advanced Womanism as an academic discourse. Further, Turman explains the field’s influence on Black women’s preaching, protest, and pop culture. The essays in this roundtable, Womanist Theology: A Black Woman’s Intellectual Movement, join Turman’s important work in mapping out the history and influence of Womanism as an intellectual movement inside and outside of the theological academy. It is my personal hope that more historians of African American life, history, and culture would begin to document the lives and careers of Katie Cannon, Jacqueline Grant, and Delores S. Williams. These women and their collective intellectual project help us to better understand African American women’s history and thought, how faith and religious ideas inform activism in educational and denominational institutions, and the unique experience of African American women preachers. Finally, these Womanist founders and succeeding generations of Womanists inspire people who have experienced systemic oppression to believe in their worth and value as human beings, and to know that their thoughts and experiences of the Divine matters.permission.