Have You Heard of Womanist Theology?

Womanist theology emerged in the late twentieth century as a resounding voice giving African American women theologians a new sense of freedom in reclaiming their spaces within the realms of theology, the church and the community. With the publication of Alice Walker’s book, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, and her four part definition of the term “womanist,” African American womanist theologians began constructing new critical analyses by which to challenge the exclusion of their personhoods from Black liberation theology, Christian theology and feminist theology. Furthermore, these theologians sought to illuminate the multiple religious complexities that define the Black woman in the West.

Three works in particular: Katie G. Canon’s, Black Womanist Ethics, Renita Weems’, Just a Sister Away: Understanding the Timeless Connection Between Women of Today and Women in the Bible, and Jacquelyn Grant’s, White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response, are especially noted for their early advancement of Womanist theology. These three theologians set the standards by which Black women could use their own perspectives—their own socio-historical position and faith as constructive points of inquiry.

Canon’s work, which traces the moral agency of the Black woman from slavery to post slavery to literary images in Black women’s fiction novels, develops a womanist ethics using the experiences of African American women as the impetus for a non-androcentric theological model of survival.

Weems’ text builds upon the importance of centralizing Black women’s experiences through her interpretation of nine Biblical stories that connects the realities of Black women’s social location to their religious practices. And finally, Grant’s book sets out to distinguish the different faith thought processes between Black and White women by challenging what she sees as an embedded racism within feminist theology. She asserts that through a universalization of religious thought, white feminists seek to deny Black women their right to form their own theologies independent of other’s constructions.

As the above sources became more frequently available, other womanist theologians began emerging, adding their own critiques to the canon. One in particular, (and a favorite of mine), Delores S. Williams’ groundbreaking work,Sisters in the Wilderness, was published. Using the African figure Hagar from the Bible, Williams connects Black women’s socio-historical oppressions and exploitations to that of the Biblical character and her ability to survive through her encounters with God. Williams’ work draws links between the experiences of the Black woman, the church, community and society as all being complicit in either the African American women’s oppression and/or liberation process. In this same work, she defines clearly the expectations of what constitutes Womanist theology and ongoing significance of Womanist theologians to continue producing the work necessary to inform the greater public of the resources that Black women utilize to construct their theologies.

Womanist theology, as an established field of study, seeks to confront the negative stereotypes and erasure of Black women’s roles in theology, the church, the community and society, by challenging the constructions of their personhoods (or nonexistence) in these respective areas. It critically examines the dialogical relationship between Black women’s social location and faith as dual sources of survival and liberation. By using Black women’s unique experiences as a marginalized group of human beings in the West as the impetus for rereading and reexamining androcentric theological texts and patriarchal paradigms, Womanist theology resoundingly asserts the Black woman’s voice into history.

Alice J. Rollins is an aspiring freelance writer and blogger who holds an M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies from DePaul University. Her areas of interest include African American women’s spirituality, feminist/womanist pedagogy and politics of migration.

She is currently based in Chicago, IL. Email her at: alice@forharriet.com

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