Called to Witness: A Voice of Black American Women
Women’s studies express within the cultural context the misrepresented realities for women in order to fashion a contemporary unbiased viewpoint. Women’s studies draws upon a variety of disciplines to consider a range of questions and issues about women in areas such as representation in literature and scripture, the roles of women in society, and the presence and treatment of women within the Church. Many women have taken on this journey of faith to change the misrepresented and misused viewpoints of women in the United States. In the poem Our Grandmothers Maya Angelou an honored writer, Poet Laureate, and professor at Wake Forest University writes,
before the abortion clinic,
confounded by the lack of choices.
In the welfare line,
reduced by the pity of handouts.
Ordained in the pulpit, shielded
by the mysteries.
In the operating room,
In the choir loft,
Holding God in her throat.
On lonely street corners,
Hawking her body.
In the loving classroom, loving the
children to understanding (Wade-Gayles 16).
For some individuals this journey of faith has proven to transform not only the person but also more profoundly their community, the whole of humanity, and future generations. If one were to look for an example of an individual life that exemplifies a profound faith journey one might acknowledge Delores Williams. She is an associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary. Williams is a Womanist theologian whose legacy celebrates her life in the way she came to know her identity as an African-American woman, her community, her role in society, and more so her God. It is through her spiritual journey and the support of family and community that Williams heard the voices of God calling her forward as a co-founder of Womanist theology. Called by God to be a witness to the plight of African-American women Dolores Williams is a black woman who exemplifies the importance of ancestry relations, community, and faithfulness as she challenges societal structures and the Christian perspective that supports the theory that suffering is redemptive.
Womanist theology is a model of Liberation theology that focuses on the diverse and complex lives of African-American women in the United States and attempts to interpret what womanist call God-Talk. God-Talk is an interpretation of the past and present historicity of African-American women and their relationship to God. Womanist theologians bring shape to the often quieted, misrepresented, and misunderstood voice of African-American women in the United States.
Sisters of the Wilderness will provide the primary document to examine the dynamics of the formation of her work and an insight into her spiritual life. Further, primary essays may complement to reinforce her dedication in pursuit of claiming the voice of African-American women. However, in order to maintain clarity the label African-American will be used unless when referring to the voice of Delores Williams African-Americans will be labeled as black Americans and or black people. This is to establish a consistency with the authenticity of her writings.
A cultural context may be helpful to understand the trigger that awakened Williams to be steadfast in her journey of faith. Unrest in America brought about the civil rights movement, which has represented a monumental shift in the relationship between African-Americans and whites in so many facets. The civil rights movement augmented social reform both socially and religiously. White supremacist described the voice of the African-American as militant, violent, enraged, and filled with hatred. Concurrently, militant leaders like Malcolm X fostered such beliefs while passive leadership could be seen in people such as Martin Luther King Jr. Biased judgments against African-Americans influenced American society and permeated the Catholic Church. Concurrently, the African-American community examined faith, reason, and historical praxis to develop what contemporary Church recognizes as black theology.
Black Theology is the model of liberation theology that recognizes the black oppression in America in relation to the gospels. Scriptures dictate that the poor are the chosen ones. For black theology, the chosen one’s are the black community, the oppressed. Black theology emphasizes that Jesus Christ’s mission is for the oppressed and poor. However, one ought to think that black theology spoke for all African-Americans. Unfortunately, even in the expression of black theology the voice of the African-American women remained silenced.
African-American women continued to be subjugated by social and political norms throughout the United States. The contemporary experiences of African-American women were undermined and forgotten in many contemporary theological perspectives. The viewpoint of feminist and more so black theologians did not witness nor did they testify to the oppression of African-American women. Out of the opportunity for African-American women to participate in the theological process womanist theology was conceived.
Womanist theology challenges feminist and black theologians out of their comfort zones. As the white women were being discriminated by the white male supremacy, the African-American women were being discriminated by both the white and African-American men and white women within their social structure. Womanist theologians began to shift their perspective to question, Where is God in the life of African-American women who are bound by surrogate roles in order to survive? Where is the voice of African-American women in a patriarchal society?
As a co-founder of womanist theology, Williams’ began to express viewpoints determined to establish an African-American female perspective to Christian theology. She speaks of her onset and awakening of her in an essay titled Sources of Black Female Spirituality: The Ways of “the Old Folks” and Women Writers. She dedicates this essay to the black women in her youth that have been an intricate part of her journey. Motivated by what she calls “spiritual power” these people have been the drive behind her voice, survival of social and political forces, and becoming who she states, “who I am as a black woman” (Wade 187). She refers to the “mediums”, “the old black folks” as the spiritual powers that enabled her to create a supportive quality of life for herself and her children. The “old black folks” lead and guide her with ancestral stories of faith that stress the importance of community and self-fortitude (Wade 187-188).
Williams discovered through ancestral stories the importance of community and self-fortitude and that “that sometimes, as a black woman, I might have to stand utterly alone without support” (Wade 187). Ancestral stories initiated her reverence to God. Ancestral stories awakened her commitment to God and her connection to her heritage. In doing so, she understood that no matter the obstacles endured in an oppressive society she would not have to stand-up or stand-alone. God provided the support and courage to sustain her calling. Further, her spiritual ancestry formulated the religious faith and practices that inspired her to keep hope alive, to walk alone.
Her mother and grandmother kept the hope alive within the family by inspirational prayers. One phrase that spoke to Williams’ heart was “casting up the highway, rolling down the stones, and setting up a standard for the people” (Wade 189). She attributed this phrase to her unwavering to the challenge of personally changing societal structures that oppress black people. She becomes empowered to become involved in the black civil rights and in the women’s movement.
The civil rights and women’s movement intensified her quest to discover the correlation between the roles of slavery and contemporary perspectives about African-American women. Sisters of the Wilderness: The Challenge of the Womanist God-Talk Chapter 3 entitled “Social-role Surrogacy: Naming Black Women’s Oppression” confirms her passionate response to the historical social exploitation of African-American women. Williams stresses that to come to recognize and acknowledge the plight of black women one must primarily understand the historical social role of surrogacy. Slavery removed the option of freedom to choose for black women. Black women were classified as female slaves and therefore they were coerced into surrogate roles. “Sometimes black women were even forced to substitute for the slave owner and his wife in governing roles connected directly with the slave owner’s household” (Williams 61).
Coerced and voluntary surrogacy has played an important role in the suppressive acts confronting African-American women in the antebellum and emancipation periods. Williams emphasized that whether black women’s roles were forced or freely chosen were a direct response to the social pressures by an oppressive society. In other words, a black woman had little to say about her own roles in life. More so, she had little to say about the ownership of her own body and the right to reserve her sacredness of reproduction. Coerced surrogate role many times extended into the bedroom of the slave owner with the permission of the slave owner’s wife (Williams 69-71).
Surrogate roles of slavery are in direct relations to contemporary oppressive ideals facing African-American women. Williams acknowledges that slavery is against the law, however, she understands that this attitude of white supremacy still pervades American ideology. She raises questions whether forced surrogacy can happen in today’s society. Will laws legitimate surrogacy to take advantage of black women’s ovaries and ability to be incubators for white women who are infertile” (Williams 82)? Once again, Williams’ journey of faith leads her to challenge societal viewpoints that still foster an oppressive society in the lives of African-American women.
As a womanist theologian Williams examines Scripture to seek an understanding of how God plays a role in the suffering of African-American women. Sisters of the Wilderness: Chapter 6 entitled Womanist God-Talk and Black Liberation Theology “confirms her passionate response to the Christological question of the surrogate role of Jesus. She asks, “Whether Jesus on the cross represents coerced surrogacy (willed by the father) or voluntary surrogacy (chosen by the Son) or both” (Williams 162). She examines salvific powers of redemption for black women in what she calls the suffering of Jesus on the cross as “Christian images of oppression” (Williams 162).
In order to have a clearer understanding of how Williams came to look at Jesus in a surrogate role it is important to examine the symbolic relationship between black women and the story of Hagar. Hagar was the female slave of Sarah and Abraham found in the book of Genesis. It was through Hagar that Williams identifies the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed in the surrogate role. It is most profound in the forced reproduction and the unemotional attachment to the surrogate role of Hagar by her oppressor, Sarah. Like Hagar, black slave women surrendered their physical beings to the roles dictated in order to survive. The emotional attachment to Hagar was nonexistent, since Sarah exiled her into the desert. In reflection, Hagar was cast to the desert where upon God blessed her with a well to comfort and nourish her.
For African-American women the well is Jesus Christ. Jesus was the comfort and the nourishment that sustains black women in opposition of the social pressures of the oppressor. Williams’ viewpoint was that Jesus was not born into the world to die on the cross and to save humanity through his suffering. This was an act of an oppressive society upon an individual. Similarly, black women will not find their salvation from the oppressive acts of white supremacy. Jesus suffered at the hands of authority because the oppressive society was evil. Similarly, black women suffer at the hands of authority because an oppressive society is evil. Williams’ sees the symbolic message of the cross as the evil of humanity against humanity. Further, she states that the emphasis should not be on surrogacy for the salvation of black women but on “Jesus’ life of resistance and by the survival strategies he used to help people survive the death of identity” (Williams 165).
Further, Williams’ focus is directed at what she calls the ministerial vision, of righting relations between body, mind, and spirit. Jesus’ ministerial vision was a wake up call to humanity to right the wrongs of the injustice by the oppressor to the oppressed. The Christological motivation for Williams is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection represents life and the survival of the evils of the oppressor on the oppressed. In life, Jesus survived the sin of humanity for he disallowed the evil of humanity to corrupt his relationship with God (Williams 164-165).
Therefore, the liberation for the African-American woman looks not to the veneration of the cross. In the words of Williams, “As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement” (Williams 167). Black women’s liberation is in “survival and a positive quality of life for black women and their families are in the presence and care of God” ( Williams 167). Williams’ conclusion places Jesus as a volunteered surrogate in response to the social pressures by an oppressive society. Her understanding of Jesus’ volunteered surrogate role validated her understanding of the suffering that black women have endured in America.
The social pressures in America continue today for African-American women. Liberation from racism and sexism is overwhelming for an individual to bear. Williams’ essay Straight Talk, Plain Talk: Womanist Words about Salvation in a Social Context addresses liberation for black Americans through the support of a community of faith. Williams calls the black community to “reflect upon the adage that an unexamined faith, like an unexamined life, is not worth living. Unexamined faith leads a people to be unconscious instruments of their own oppression and the oppression of others” (Townes 99). Williams understands that an unexamined faith leads to racism, scapegoat, and destruction. To examine one’s faith is to begin to question authority, to articulate suffering, to name, and to discard the destructive images and symbols that create divisions for individuals within a societal structure.
Through the work of Williams, one ought to consider that dishonor transcends all aspects of one’s roles within a society, which for the African-American woman included even the violation of her sacredness, motherhood. Her insight of coerced and volunteered women’s roles transcends ethnicity. As women develop a sense of self that is independent from the patriarchal structure they begin to stand up to the oppressive authority. Further, one ought to consider as Williams discusses that to understand suffering in the world one must first acknowledge that God does not cause such transgressions but humanity itself. Humanity must be prepared to accept the responsibility that their “individuality” was a causal condition to the pain and suffering that seems to permeate the world. The challenge with humanity is the failure to accept the realities of suffering in the world in which they reside.
Furthermore, this shift in responsibility for Williams was experienced through the resurrection of Jesus by his unwavering commitment and reverence to God despite the suffering that he endured. Her insight into the viewpoint that Jesus died on the cross because humanity was evil is without a doubt captivating. The model of the suffering Jesus who came and died for the sins of humanity is not relevant in a society where suffering is still in existence. One must ask, is it through suffering that God calls me or is suffering the effect of an oppressive individual and or an oppressive society?
Dolores Williams calls me to reflect and ask, Does God call an individual to suffer in order to come to know God’s revelation? In reflection of my own life it is not through the unfaithfulness of my first husband that I see the face of God. It is through the faithfulness of my second husband that I see the face of God. It is not through my co-dependency that I hear the voice of God speaking to me. It is through my letting go and letting God, that I hear the voice of God. It is not through my ten years of repeated pain and suffering of miscarriages and infertility that I felt the grace of God. It was in the birth and blessed life of my son and gift of my two daughters that I experience the grace of God. It was not through the death of my father that God heals me. It is through the sharing of his life that God heals me.
ED Wade-Gayles, Gloria. My Soul is a Witness: African American Women’s Spirituality. Beacon Press: Boston, 1995.
Townes, Emilie M., ed. Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, 1997.
Williams, Delores S. Sisters in the Wilderness the Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, 1993.