Womanist theology takes seriously the importance of understanding the "languages" of black women. There are a variety of discourses deployed by African American women based on their social location within the black community. Some black women are economically disadvantaged and suppressed by macro-structures in society. Other African American women are workers whose voices are ignored by the production needs of the capitalist world order. Some other voices are dramatically presented in the faith speech of black women preachers. And still other articulations are penned in the annals of the academy. Womanist theology showcases the overlooked styles and contributions of all black women whether they are poor, and perhaps illiterate, or economically advantaged and "Ph.D.ed." Womanists bring forth the legacy of our grandmamas and great grandmamas and carry their notions in the embodiment of life that we create daily. This language of black women is understood by black women; it accentuates intra-group talk. It is a language of compassion, and yet it is no nonsense. The words and actions of this language oppose sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and abuse to any of God's creation. It is a language that respects the natural environment in the fullness of creation.
The method of womanist theology validates the past lives of enslaved African women by remembering, affirming, and glorifying their contributions. After excavating analytically and reflecting critically on the life stories of our foremothers, the methodology entails a construction and creation of a novel paradigm. We who are womanists concoct something new that makes sense for how we are living in a complex gender, racial, and class social configurations. We learn from the rituals and techniques which our foremothers originated to survive in hostile environments and from how they launched new perspectives, reconstructing knowledge of a liberative approach for black women's lives. This self-constituting dynamic is a polyvalent, multi-vocal weaving of the folk culture of African American women.
In addition to unearthing the sources of the pas in order to discover pieces to create a narrative for the present and the future, womanist methodology comprises active engagement with marginalized African American women alive today. Ethnographic methodology necessitates our entering the communities of these women, constituting focus groups and utilizing their life experiences as the primary sources for the development of questions which establish a knowledge base from everyday people. These questions are then refined by the womanist scholar as she reflects on the initial conversations with her focus groups. Further refining takes place when the womanist scholar conducts a pilot study where she ascertains whether the questions asked fit the context of the poor black women and where she also learns the nuances needed for the sensibilities of the culture in which she is operating. Employing the context and knowledge base derived from the focus and pilot groups, she launches a larger and more comprehensive ethnographic research study by living among the people, thereby encountering their symbolic cosmology. In this living and learning process, these women evolve into the womanist scholar's teachers. The task thus becomes the production with integrity of the story of these poor people's lives and the reflection of their polyvalent voices. They have created space for the scholar in their communities and now she creates space for their stories in their own words reflected in her publications. The womanist ethnographer entrusts to the reader these narratives for interpretation, assuming that many truths will emerge, transformation will occur, and readers will learn from those not usually given voice. Furthermore the African American female scholar risks becoming emotionally connected to these people's lives as she reenters the community on a regular basis, and understands that she has familial obligations to the people about whom she writes. Thus womanist theology is a longitudinal theology.
Names associated with the emergence of womanist theology in the U.S.A. are Katie Cannon, Emilie Townes, Jacqueline Grant, Delores Williams, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Kelly Brown Douglas, Renita Weems, Shawn Copeland, Clarice Martin, Francis Wood, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Jamie Phelps, Marcia Riggs and Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. We are university, seminary and divinity school professors. We are ordained and lay women in all the Christian denominations. Some of us are full time pastors; some are both pastor and professor. We are preachers and prayer warriors. We are mothers, partners, lovers, wives, sisters, daughters, aunts, nieces and we comprise two thirds of the black church in America. We are the black church. The church would be bankrupt without us and the church would shut down without us. We are from working class as well as middle class backgrounds. We are charcoal black to high yellow women. We claim our created beauty. And we know that what our minds forget our bodies remember. The body is central to our being. The history of the African American ordeal of pain and pleasure is inscribed in our bodies.
Womanist theology associates with and disassociates itself from black (male) theology and (white) feminist theology. The point of departure for black theology is white racism. Since white supremacy is a structure that denies humanity to African American people, black liberation theology examines the gospel in relationship to the situation of black people in a society that discriminates on the basis of skin color. Within black theology, the Exodus story is a hermeneutical device used to draw a parallel between the oppressed Israelites and the oppressed African American community. Consequently, the liberation of the Israelites represents symbolically God's freeing of black people. First generation black (male) theologians did not understand the full dimension of liberation for the special oppression of black women; this was its shortcoming. To foster the visibility of African American women in black God-talk, womanist theology has emerged.
Unlike black theology with its emphasis on race, feminist theology addresses the oppression of women, though primarily white women. The project of feminist theology did not deal with the categories of race and economics in the development of its theological discourse. As important as the work of feminist theology has been, its shortcoming is its lack of attention to the everyday realities of African American and other women of color. It is therefore not a universal women's theology and does not speak to the issue of all women. In a related fashion, too often white feminist theology creates a paradigm over against men; it is an oppositional theological discourse between females and males. In contrast, womanist theology recognizes patriarchal systems as problematic for the entire black community--women, men and children. Moreover certain feminist theological trends disregard the institutional church as a patriarchal space anathema to women, thus advising women to abandon the ecclesiastical mainstream. For African American women however, the black church has been the central historical institution which has helped their families survive. Womanist theology, at the same time, would critique the black church, particularly black male pastors' inappropriate relations with black female members.
Womanist theology concurs with black theology and feminist theology on the necessity of engaging race and gender in theological conversation. But womanist theology demands a God talk and God walk which is holistic.
To be continued...watch BlackandChristian.com for Part 3, 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.