Womanist Imagination and Liberation from the Politics of Colorblind Positivism

This post is part of our forum on “Womanist Theology.

Black women reading the Bible (Shuttterstock)

In a 2018 podcast debate with journalist Ezra Klein, popular neuroscientist Sam Harris asserted against his interlocutor, “[Y]ou are unwilling to differentiate scientific fact and scientific data and reasonable extrapolations based on data, from past injustices in American history; these are totally separate things.” Harris was arguing for an honest look at Charles Murray’s presentation of supposed IQ differences among racial groups in the United States, while Klein was urging for a more historically-informed interpretation of said data. This interaction occurred a few years before the mainstream uproar over the exploration of Black history and so-called “CRT” in public institutions. But Harris’ accusation, along with similarly narrow pontifications from numerous media figures since, indicates the existence of a colorblind positivism undergirding much of public American discourse. This approach stems from a particular epistemological tradition in Western philosophy, but, more gravely, it is a white supremacist outgrowth that has been used to neutralize race-related conversations, obscuring the struggles of Black Americans for centuries. Of course, this does not stand without refutation, as many have incisively exposed the insufficiency of such an approach by their prophetic lives. The task, then, is to continuously return to these voices, against restrictive conceptions, and, in this endeavor, profound guides to new imaginations show up in womanist perspectives.

In Sisters in the Wilderness, womanist scholar Delores Williams declares, “Hagar has ‘spoken’ to generation after generation of black women because her story has been validated as true by suffering black people.” This statement follows an introductory exploration of the character Hagar in the Hebrew tradition, coming from Genesis 16:1-6. In the narrative, Hagar is an African slave woman, subjected to a patriarchal system in which she has no power against the authority of her mistress, Sarai, much less the patriarch himself, Abram. Her owners desire an heir which Sarai cannot produce. And this puts Hagar in a predicament of forced motherhood and surrogacy, the slave stepping in as the producer of an heir, a wet-nurse, and caretaker for children. Williams details the significance of Hagar’s running away, her naming of God, and her return to her owners’ house. It displays the need for survival and quality of life in the wilderness before any kind of liberation may or may not occur but also a kind of self-liberation, rebellion, and empowerment on the part of Hagar that gives voice to the experience of many faithful Black American women in history.

That connection brings into view the unique urgency of reading any “text”—be it the Hebrew Scriptures or the educational structures of a given city—from the vantage point of the “oppressed of the oppressed,” which in America is fundamentally related to race and gender. The dominant Christian readings of the Genesis passage, especially in white male normative spaces, have resolutely been focused on Abram, a federal head associated with God’s covenant. Even interpretations that do take Hagar’s experience into account do not include her ethnicity and gender as major hermeneutical components, elevating instead the generic grace of God upon the generic weak. Williams’ womanist reading of Hagar exposes the limited understanding of humanity in these kinds of readings. Hagar’s ethnicity marked a crucial point of difference between her and her owners in how she perceived God and liberation. Her gender determined her role and power. To deny these dimensions would be imprecise. Moreover, it would lack a deep moral reasoning for nuanced frameworks in race discussions. The impetus for continuous critical analysis must be a profound moral conviction about the complexity of human beings and the dynamism of human stories, which are undoubtedly diverse, as Williams’ Hagar epitomizes.

Logical positivism developed in Vienna and Berlin in the early to mid-twentieth century and in response to metaphysics, it claimed that truth comes through empirically verifying means, which are the five senses and logical proofs. Cornel West traces this mode of thinking even further back to the scientific revolution, which uplifted observation and evidence as the main arbiters of meaning in modern discourse. Positivist presuppositions undergird the insistences of an objective method of recounting history and of a controlled, neutral arena in which all Americans have equal access to success. Although these insistences are easily falsifiable, what is more significant is how deeply rooted they are in hegemonic structures. There are at least two reasons positivist thinking is tyrannical, let alone false. First, positivist thinking demands particular, physical evidence for experiences which are often emotional, generational, spiritual, and phenomenological. Second, it demands that such experiences, what Amiri Baraka calls the “blues,” should not be qualitative factors in planning for optimal social environments going forward.

In her book, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson argues that the continuation of Western hegemonic modes of thought require the Black female’s reduction to an entity that is not actually extended in space and not able to be accurately represented. In order to maintain the concept of a world as such, there needs to be a foreclosure of marginalized human experiences as complicated and flexible and a maintenance of, on the surface, seemingly verifiable taxonomies and tropes. Therefore, Jackson promotes the acceptance of a liminal “vertigo” that does not allow for a calcified and empirical world as such. This approach creates a space in which Black women do not have to prove their realities on the positivist’s terms and can rather, be free in “non-representability.”

In the same vein, what Christina Sharpe calls “the wake,” the “unresolved unfolding” of slavery’s present, does not emerge in a syllogism. The death of thousands in the Middle Passage, of victims of Jim Crow catastrophes and following, and the survival mechanism of being “awake” in the face and memory of such things, have produced psychic phenomenologies that are not observable to the physical senses. Opponents of nuanced race discussions will often object not to substantial critiques, but to an unspecified divisiveness they allege will occur. But even on its own terms, this positivist-influenced viewpoint refuses to carefully examine, if not the invisible phenomena, at the very least, the physiological manifestations of “the wake” arising in Black communities, and it sinisterly pretends that the wake can be wished away for the intellectual purity of institutions and of children’s learning environments.

Expanding on Foucault and Gramsci, theologian Emilie Townes contemplates the presence of a fantastic hegemonic imagination, the idea that there are structures, assumptions, and images antagonistic to the reality of those on the margins, particularly Black women, and yet are maintained and even promulgated by those in power, who can influence cultural memory. She then suggests a strategy of resistance through countermemory, the capacity to deconstruct dominant narratives by telling the story another way, be it through memoir, song, oral history, family conversations, or collective recounting. Here, there is a chance for a transformative moral imagination for intersectionality. What would it look like for freedom fighters to center intersectional stories through countermemories in the public square, using creative, collective, and sometimes unconventional historiographical methods, not only for the purpose of activism, but to herald and persuade the public of a comprehensive, moral telos of flourishing and love, which is the vision of so many womanists? In other words, how can one refusing the playing field of the colorblind positivist continue to illustrate the whole of people, like Black women, through art, song, and sacred conversations with the “oppressed of the oppressed,” so that the discourse is continuously redirected from debating CRT and the like as talking points to considering them as moral possibilities?

Drawing from Martin Luther King, Jr., theologian Kelly Brown Douglas cherishes the power of a transcendent synergism between God and human beings in the “mending of creation.” She sees King’s Dream as a proleptic anticipation of the new heaven and new earth, in which justice and freedom abound, and believes that the only way to take seriously the brutalities of current evil is to hold firmly to the promise of God’s future. Douglas’ charge is not a propositional teaching, it is a moral impulse coming from the dream of those like her grandmother, “shaped . . . by the history of black prophetic testimony,” and from that of herself, as a Black mother. In other words, every source, from the transcendent to the intersections of the immanent, reveal to the world how eternally imperative these everyday endeavors truly are. In her work If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I, womanist Angela Parker references the song “Make It Home” by Tobe Nwigwe as an invitation for readers to open their hearts to larger exegetical possibilities, beyond the white normative, when reading the Bible. Nwigwe sings, “May your streets be paved with gold / Hope my whole hood make it home / May your streets be paved with gold / Hope my whole hood make it home.” This womanist refrain has the ability to lead the world, beyond tyrannical ideologies, along the arc of intersectional liberation.

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Joshua Ro

Joshua Ro is an STM student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, concentrating on Religion and the Black Experience. He received his M.Div at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He is also an assistant pastor at King's Cross Church, located in Flushing, Queens. He lives with his amazing wife, Amy.