Womanist Theology and A Black Woman’s Intellectual Movement

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

A woman swimming in cold water. (Michele Ursi/Shutterstock)

My grandmother stood neither silent nor conspicuous in her daily refutations of prescribed “good” Black girl behavior. She thrived in the in-between. Born Hattie Mae Murray, the third youngest of ten in rural South Carolina, she refused to call white people “ma’am” or “sir” growing up despite Southern convention. She talked back to white teachers in her segregated school and was often disciplined for failing to be the most “respectful” student. And, at the age of seventeen, just hours after graduating high school, she was on a midnight train to New Jersey for her shot at the American Dream.

The impulse to flee sites of suffering was no stranger to Murray women. When Grandma Hattie’s father beat her mother, Henrietta, so badly she nearly died, great-grandma Henrietta fled to Florida for refuge, leaving Grandma Hattie and her siblings to be raised by their paternal grandmother, Dora. Known affectionately as “Gamama,” Dora kept a shotgun at her front door to protect her family from the KKK. Her house overflowed with love, and she made sure her children knew the importance of faith, family, and hard work. After school, Grandma Hattie helped Gamama pick cotton and clean white families’ homes to provide. When I asked Grandma why she headed 300 miles north to New Jersey on graduation night, she replied “I was tired of picking cotton.”

Grandma clawed herself into a new world and demanded it make room for her, embodying the womanist ethic of using “everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem-solving” to survive, as Layli Phillips described it. Today, the granddaughter of a woman educated in segregated schools serves as the youngest woman ever elected to New Jersey’s largest Board of Education. Despite having a childhood that appears intimately shaped by race, Grandma is often subtle or subdued in her reflections on racism. “I never really worried about that stuff,” she’d say. “We always had everything we needed.” Why does my grandmother refuse to discuss race? Is she numb to its sting, or subconsciously in denial of its symptoms? When viewed from a womanist lens, Grandma’s “I don’t need white people to see me to be who I am” politics reads less as an act of submission and more as an act of resistance. Using un-naming as redress, Grandma reminds me of a story about Alice Walker’s mother in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. When her mother is still able to feed her children despite being wrongly denied government food and called the n-word by a white woman local official, Walker asserts it is not the “white woman’s vindictiveness,” but her mother’s resilience that’s most profound, because “their lives were not about that pitiful example of Southern womanhood, but about themselves.” My grandmother’s un-naming is a form of womanist recognition politics that similarly de-centers racism and renegotiates its centrality. Womanist redress involves survival and liberation. The tension between the two magnifies the beauty and complexity of womanist modes of being revealed by everyday Black women like my grandmother, a tension I seek to explore through interrogating the dual politics of naming and un-naming, of survival and liberation, amid the current misappropriation of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the public square. Central to this misappropriation is the politics of naming. Whereas right-wing opponents to CRT and inclusive education use un-naming to evade accountability, womanist un-naming offers a subversive, critical gaze that is life-giving for the most marginalized.

In “Black Female Spectatorship,” bell hooks contends with Black women’s survival strategies when robbed of complex media representation. Inundated with harmful imagery like mammy and jezebel, Black female spectators often assume an oppositional gaze. One woman in hooks’ study confessed, “I could always get pleasure from movies as long as I did not look too deep,” since encounters with the screen often “hurt.” hooks continued, “that some of us chose to stop looking was a gesture of resistance . . . to reject negation.” Like my grandmother, these women re-negotiated whiteness’ centrality through un-naming, a form of recognition politics not denying racism’s existence, but actively filtering its messages. In her reluctance to speak for hours at the kitchen table about her experiences with racism, my Grandma assumes an oppositional gaze. Her reticence is neither delusion nor denial, but an act of resistance. 

Refusal to stay in sites of oppression is another form of oppositional gaze. The womanist honors the resistance activity of the teacher fleeing the classroom today and the seventeen-year-old Black girl fleeing a life of picking cotton in 1962. While such strategies cannot guarantee present or future liberation, they offer resources for immediate survival. In Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Delores Williams suggests that like Hagar, Black women must navigate the often death-dealing wilderness of racism, patriarchy, and countless other social sins. Both experience divine encounters in and beyond the wilderness that fail to fully eliminate oppression but provide resources “necessary for survival.” Teachers, librarians, students, parents, and millions of everyday people battling the misappropriation of CRT are in the wilderness. The twenty-year veteran teacher leaving education to protect their mental health embodies womanist survival strategies. Their “turning away,” as hooks suggested, is “one way to protest, to reject negation.” The everyday riot of the teacher teaching from diverse texts and “woke” lesson plans despite efforts like the “Stop WOKE Act” is womanist redress embodied. Womanism reminds us that pluralistic modes of survival in the face of death-dealing circumstances are instructive and salvific regardless of form.

A womanist redress to the misappropriation of CRT in the public square consents to what neoconservatives vehemently avoid: naming the import of race. In Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1988 “Race and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law,” Crenshaw outlines the far-right and the far left’s failure to explicitly name and address the import of race in critical legal theory. Whereas the far left de-centers race via delegitimization theory, the far-right does so by emphasizing the product of “equality” rather than the rigorous processes it requires, a process that involves naming the import of race. Contrary to neo-conservative rhetoric and policies, Black people still endure various forms of oppression despite landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s. The process of obtaining racial equality, then, involves grappling with the right’s race consciousness and over-reliance on individualism. Anti-discrimination laws—seeking to offer redress in this context—thus face the constant threat of retrenchment. CRT is misappropriated and mishandled as an extension of such retrenchment.

A womanist redress to the misappropriation of CRT in the public square must fully address the issue and its complexity, submitting to what neo-conservatives vehemently avoid: naming the import of race. In Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, Emilie Townes posits that stereotypes like the Black Matriarch and Welfare Queen were developed by fantastic hegemonic imagination “to justify a social order that is structurally evil,” one steeped in Enlightenment-era religious and socio-cultural virtues of individualism and meritocracy suggesting any government dependency as unvirtuous and “evil.” Successfully depicted as evil, Black women’s criminalization and demonization are justified. Women like my grandmother—who worked full-time, but still needed government assistance to help provide for her two children—would be considered “lazy” or “undeserving” of resources according to a public opinion thwarted by hegemonic imagination. Undoing such structural evil requires an inter-structured analysis involving racial, gender, and class solidarity to enable not mere navigation through, but the transformation of evil’s “troubling waters.”

Womanism contends that for the surviving person, both naming and un-naming structural evil are political acts. Walker, hooks, Williams, Crenshaw, and Townes reveal the rafts Black women build to survive troubling waters, rafts often made from scraps that somehow, some way, always carry them to shore. May their redress offer affirmation and validation for those navigating the troubling waters of today.

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A’Dorian Murray-Thomas

A’Dorian Murray-Thomas is the Founder & CEO of SHE Wins Inc., a leadership and mentoring organization for girls affected by gun violence. Born and raised in the city of Newark, New Jersey, A’Dorian made history when at 23 years old, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Newark Board of Education, representing the largest school district in the state of New Jersey, a role to which she was recently re-elected. Passionate about the intersections between education, youth development, and theology, A’Dorian is a candidate for a Master of Divinity concentrating in Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Comments on “Womanist Theology and A Black Woman’s Intellectual Movement

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    There is no doubt that our black people have endured untold sufferings and many have died and continue to die from injustice.

    However, many us thrived and continue to excel in all conditions throughout human history. Can we find balance in narrating both the successes and sufferings rather than sandwiching the successes with sufferings?

    Secondly, the separation and division of black families is something we need to be mindful: strong black women, implied weak black men; successful black men, implied gullible black women who bring black men down; etc. No other race described itself or all others to portray it this way.

    The black people’s story should not always start and end with hardships.

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    Thank you, A’Dorian. This distinction between “naming” and “unnaming” is profound. Your unpacking from the womanist perspective is helpful in threading through a major issue with so much of today’s “race discussion.” So often, people talk “around” the humanity and authority of Black women, instead of the only sensible option of “starting” with the humanity and authority of Black women. Hope you are doing well!!

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    So proud of you A’Dorian. Keep up the fantastic work!

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