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Womanist Theology,
Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm:
Linda E. Thomas
Linda E. Thomas
A New Paradigm for Womanist Theology, Part 3
by Linda E. Thomas
Lutheran School of Theology
Chicago, Illinois

The overwhelming majority of contemporary womanist religious scholars rely primarily on written texts, such as, fiction, biography, and autobiography. I agree with the usage of these crucial sources and methodological approaches; however, I argue that we examine further our procedural tools of analysis. Not only should womanist scholars include historical texts and literature in our theological constructs and reconstruction of knowledge, but we should also embrace a research process which engages poor black women who are living human documents. This is a very appropriate way to access the direct speech (e.g., the primary textual narrative) of subordinated African American women who are in our midst. That is to say, we must view books written about poor black women as secondary sources and employ anthropological techniques to collect stories and publish ethnographies of women who are still alive. The direct speech of marginalized black women invites a community of readers to participate in the interpretive process. For instance, by providing the unedited testimonies of poor African American women, readers can thereby glean for themselves that which is important for them. Such a hermeneutical undertaking removes the monopolizing interpretive power of the ethnographer.

Moreover, such an approach would utilize what Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau called "a return to the source" (Cabral 1973) which positions culture as an integral component of the history of a people and which also explores the dynamic between culture and its material base (e.g., its class position). The level and mode of production determine dominant cultural forms. Thus, he asserted that: "A people who free themselves from foreign domination will not be free unless they return to the upwards paths of their own culture" (Cabral 1973: 142-43). From this perspective, culture is a historically contested resource struggled over by those working for or against social change to justify their respective standpoints (Thornton 1998: 24). This definition supports the earlier notion of knowledge being distributed and controlled. Therefore, if womanist scholars would collect data out of the context of the poor and working class culture of black women who are living, womanists would act as intentional agents in the control and distribution of knowledge. Such a project would be greatly enhanced by a critical interchange of and solidarity with the narratives of similar women on the African continent as well as others in the third world or "two-thirds world."

A womanist anthropology of survival and liberation is a new paradigm for the twenty-first century. This novel model deploys a self-reflective sensitivity about the historical factors giving rise to oppressed voices, specifically for my purposes, the production of political economy and its impact on marginalized African American women. An interpretive anthropological approach (e.g., the intentional assertion of poor and working class black womenís voices) therefore augments an analytical methodology for the womanist scholar that invokes the African American womanís perspective and clarifies how diverse cultural productions of everyday life influence the decisions and practices which womanists make and implement in their lives.2

For womanist scholars who wish to employ the ethno-historical approach, there are anthropological theories that may be applied to the historical text which conveys knowledge about the womanist subject. The histories of poor and working class black women arise out of specific contextual locations. Interpretive anthropological conceptual frameworks, therefore, guard against ahistorical methods and magnify the particular textures of these womenís social and cultural locations. This process of theoretical application to primary data will enable the womanist religious scholar to assess the subjectís systems of cultural meaning in order to let as much of the subjectís life story in historical context emerge as possible.3

In addition to the interpretive anthropological approach, with its accent on specificity of cultural location, an anthropological concern for political economy is warranted. Within the historical contexts of poor and black women, the womanist religious scholar must interrogate the nature of the power and resource configurations present; that is, who has influence derived from ownership and distribution of wealth. At the same time, we must not be provincial in our analysis, for local economies themselves are contextualized and implicated in global political economies. It is imperative for womanist scholars to "find effective ways to describe how [marginalized African American women] are implicated in broader processes of historical political economy" (Marcus and Fisher 1986:44).4

Ideally the womanist religious scholar is an indigenous anthropologist, that is, one who reflects critically upon her own community of origin and brings a sensitivity to the political, economic, and cultural systems which impact poor and working class black women being studied. And, at the same time, she gives priority to the life story of the subject in a way that underscores the narratives of a long line of subjugated voices from the past to the present.

Conclusion Womanist theology is the positive affirmation of the gifts which God has given black women in the U.S.A. It is, within theological discourse, an emergent voice which advocates a holistic God-talk for all the oppressed. Though centered in the African American womanís reality and story, it also embraces and stands in solidarity with all suppressed subjects. In a word, womanist theology is a theory and practice of inclusivity, accenting gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and the ecology. Because of its inclusive methodology and conceptual framework, womanist theology exemplifies reconstructed knowledge beyond the monovocal concerns of black (male) and (white) feminist theologies.

Such a reconstructed knowledge (e.g., an epistemology of holistic inclusivity, survival and liberation) serves as a heuristic for the broader notion of recreating knowledge and thereby offers some elements for a theoretical conversation. Womanist epistemological insights suggest the importance of commencing with all who have been left out of reflection upon a society, both its past and present.

The current state of womanist theology and its implications for larger reconstructed knowledge conversations are advanced further with an imaginative womanist anthropological paradigm. Here we note the importance of secondary materials about African American women, but underscore the decisive role of fieldwork among poor and working class black women living today. Out of an emphasis on their historical and cultural specificities and the impact of political economy, a creative model emerges where the voices and meaning of the anthropological subjects themselves move to the foreground. And simultaneously the power of the womanist religious scholar, as researcher, does not impede the presentation of data which invites the reader of ethnographic work to enter the interpretive dialogue with the voices of marginalized black women.


  • Andersen, Margaret L., and Patricia Hill Collins, eds. Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing, 1992.
  • Cabral, Amilcar. Return to the Source. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973.
  • hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press, 1988.
  • Marcus, George E., and M. Fischer. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Rosaldo, Renato. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
  • Thornton, R. "Culture." In South African Keywords, ed. E. Boonzaier and E. Sharp. Cape Town: David Philip, 1988, pp. 17-28.
  • Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

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.

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