Womanist theology is an emergent voice of African American Christian women in the United States. Employing Alice Walker's definition of womanism in her text In Search of Our Mother's Garden, black women in America are calling into question their suppressed role in the African American church, the community, the family and the larger society. But womanist religious reflection is more than mere deconstruction. It is, more importantly, the empowering assertion of the black woman's voice, regardless. To examine that voice, this essay divides into three parts. First, I look at the overall state of womanist theology. The development of womanist theology denotes a novel reconstruction of knowledge, drawing on the abundant resources of African American women since their arrival to the "New World", as well as a creative critique of deleterious forces seeking to keep black women in "their place." Next, I sort through a womanist reconstruction of knowledge. In an intentional manner, I unpack the contours of the knowledge formation claims which undergird womanist theology. And last, based on womanist theology as an instance of new knowledge and based on a conceptual investigation of some epistemological presuppositions, I advance a new anthropology of religion paradigm for the continued development of womanist theology.
Womanist Theology in the USA
Womanist theology is critical reflection upon black women's place in the world that God has created and takes seriously black women's experience as human beings who are made in the image of God. The categories of life which black women deal with daily (that is, race, womanhood, and political economy) are intricately woven into the religious space that African American women occupy. Therefore the harmful and empowering dimensions of the institutional church, culture, and society impact the social construction of black womanhood. Womanist theology affirms and critiques the positive and negative attributes of the church, the African American community and the larger society.
Womanist theology's goals are to interrogate the social construction of black womanhood in relation to the African American community. The normative discourse among African American women creates the space for an energetic claiming of the life stories of African American women and their contribution to the history of the United States and the African diaspora. An additional way of achieving this goal is to engage in a critical conversation with black (male) theology so that a full theology for the African American community can emerge from that dialogue. Likewise the pursuance of the black family's sanctity ranks high on the womanist's theological agenda. Similarly the goal of womanist theology is to unearth the ethnographic sources within the African American community in order to reconstruct knowledge and overcome subordination. And finally womanist theology seeks to decolonize the African mind and to affirm our African heritage.
Womanist theology engages the macro-structural and micro-structural issues that affect black women's lives and therefore, since it is a theology of complete inclusivity, the lives of all black people. The freedom of black women entails the liberation of all peoples, since womanist theology concerns notions of gender, race, class, heterosexism, and ecology. Furthermore, it takes seriously the historical and current contributions of our African forebearers and women in the African diaspora today. It advances a bold leadership style that creates fresh discursive and practical paradigms and "talks back" (hooks 1988) to structures, white feminists, and black male liberation theologians. Moreover, womanist theology asserts what black women's unique experiences mean in relation to God and creation and survival to the world. Thus the tasks of womanist theology are to claim history, to declare authority for ourselves, our men and children, to learn from the experience of our forebearers, to admit shortcomings and errors, and to improve our quality of life.
Womanist theology assumes a liberatory perspective so that African American women can live emboldened lives within the African American community and within the larger society. Such a new societal relationship includes adequate food, shelter, clothing, and minds which are free from worries so that there can be space for creative modalities.
Womanist theology draws on sources that range from traditional church doctrines, African American fictional and poetical literature, 19th century black women leaders, poor and working class black women in holiness churches, and African American women under slavery. In addition, other vital sources include the personal narratives of black women suffering domestic violence and psychological trauma, the empowering dimensions of conjuring and syncretic black religiosity, and womanist ethnographic approaches to excavate the life stories of poor women of African descent in the church.
Womanist theology, moreover, grasps the crucial connection between African American women and the plight, survival and struggle of women of color throughout the world. Womanist theology intentionally pursues and engages the cultural contexts of women who are part of the African diaspora, for instance. To enhance the dialogical networking among women of color all over the globe, the methodology of anthropology, a key discipline within the social sciences, aids womanist theology in this engagement. Anthropological methodology encourages womanist religious scholars to embrace the cultural, symbolic, and ritual diversity dispersed throughout the religious lives of women of color on this earth.
hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press, 1988.
To be continued...watch BlackandChristian.com for Part 2 of this article on Womanist Theology in the USA and future articles on a Womanist Perspective on Reconstructing Knowledge and a New Paradigm for Womanist Theology.
Linda E. Thomas is an associate professor of Theology and Anthropology at The Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Illinois and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. Rev. Dr. Thomas is the author of Under the Canopy: Ritual Process and Spiritual Resilience in South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are used by permission.