‘Womanist’ theologians examine faith from black female prism

By on March 3, 2009

New York
Womanist theologians – female African American theologians who view the Christian faith from the prism of the experience of black women – are celebrating two decades of work of a movement that has gained increasing prominence in U.S. religious and academic circles.

Where once only a handful of black women scholars called themselves “Womanist,” their numbers in U.S. universities, seminaries and divinity schools are now said to be increasing. A second and even third generation of younger scholars, ranging in age from their 20s to 40s is now joining those in their 50s and 60s.

“If you’re serious about black women’s survival, you have no other choice but to be a Womanist sympathiser,” said Rev. Lorena Parrish, a doctoral candidate at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. “I see no other place to be if you’re serious about the well-being of black folk.

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“Ms. Parrish spoke at a recent symposium of Womanist scholars at Union in which the women examined the movement’s past and previewed its future.

“Womanist” is a phrase originally credited to U.S. author Alice Walker, who said that “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” The term was embraced by black women who felt connections with both white feminists and black males yet also felt that white feminists did not sufficiently analyze the dynamics of racial discrimination, while black males did not adequately scrutinize sexual discrimination.

“Womanist theology attempts to help black women see, affirm, and have confidence in the importance of their experience and faith for determining the character of the Christian religion in the African American community,” Delores Williams, a former professor at Union, said in her 1995 book, “Sisters in the Wilderness,” seen by Womanist theologians as a defining text.

One academic criticism of Womanist theology has come from Alistair Kee, a professor emeritus of the University of Edinburgh school of divinity. In his 2006 book “The Rise and Demise of Black Theology,” Kee said Womanist theology “largely cuts itself off from the sources of Christian theology.” Womanist theologians have established “proprietary rights” over a self-contained tradition. “No one else has the right to present it, or evaluate it,” he wrote. “Any criticisms … can be dismissed with righteous anger, especially if they come from a white, male, European.

“However, Emilie Townes, a former president of the American Academy of Religion who teaches at Yale Divinity School, told Ecumenical News International: “For me, the primary success of Womanist thought is that it has given many black women who have not felt they have a voice or were speaking but being ignored, a place to share their perspectives and insights as they call the church to live into true model of God’s beloved community.”

At Union’s Feb. 25 forum, Womanist theologians and others pointed to increased activism on the part of Womanist scholars, who are also turning their attention to increased interfaith dialogue with female Islamic scholars.”Womanists have made spaces for transformation,” said Rev. Joy Bostic, who teaches religious studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

They were praised by a prominent male ally: the African American philosopher and social critic Cornel West, a Princeton University professor. “Womanists have lifted the voices of a ‘blues’ people in the academy,” Mr. West said. “The academy is empowered by their work.

“Mr. West compared Womanist theologian’s prophetic insights to the dissonance in jazz. “It’s part blues, part defiance, but also grounded in unbelievable joy … of what it means to be a human being in a black female body.”

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