Mary always knew her son’s life would end this way.
She always had ominous nightmares about her son that would all begin differently. Sometimes her son would be a different age—fourteen, nineteen, thirty, thirty-three. Sometimes he would have a beard, and sometimes he would be clean shaven. Sometimes he would have dreadlocks or braids, and sometimes his hair would be like everyone else’s on his block—a well-manicured Afro.
In some dreams, Mary’s son would be a doctor or a lawyer. In others, he would be a student, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a teacher. In some dreams, he would be a precocious child, sprinting around the neighborhood challenging other children, and even adults, to a game of twenty questions, trivia, or truth or dare.
In her nightmares, the seasons would be different, the days would change, or even the time of day would fluctuate. For instance, one time she dreamed that it was a crisp autumn afternoon, and her son was on his way to church. Another time, she dreamed that it was in the middle of summer and her son had no school. But no matter how her nightmares about her son began, no matter where they started off, they always ended in the same way.
They ended with him dying at the hands of the government. He was another young black man in an endless list of young black men who had died before their time. Malcolm. Martin. Trayvon. Tamir. Medgar. And Mary’s son.
Mary had these nightmares about her son for years, to the point that they became something she learned to live with, like a speech impediment, or migraines, or a limp. And yet, as she sat beside her son’s body, she was not prepared for what she saw.
Did the world see what Mary had seen? Did they see her son cut down in the streets by police because he said the wrong things, did the wrong things, represented the wrong things? Because he refused to be “respectable.” Did the world see what happened?
Mary asked herself these questions, because there was a time the world did not see her as she was, but rather as it wanted to see her—a poor, single, pregnant, angry black woman. But her son’s death and legacy would force the world to rethink how they saw her.
If this story sounds familiar, it should, but not because it’s the plot of a movie on Lifetime or BET. (And Tyler Perry, I’m watching you. You can’t have this one.) It’s actually the story of Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary, retold from a womanist theological hermeneutic and perspective.
What is a womanist theological hermeneutic? Simply, it is a method of interpreting Christian Scriptures, polity, and traditions in a manner that fully liberates and empowers black women. Womanist interpretation seeks to use the Scriptures to explore and empower the construction of black womanhood, the experiences of black women as it relates to the world, and the black community and church.
Womanist theology has existed since black women have existed. But writer Alice Walker is widely credited with coining the term womanist in the 1980s. However, womanism finds its roots in the antebellum, antilynching, and suffragist movements.
In 1851, an itinerate preacher and activist named Sojourner Truth observed the societal differences between the treatment of black women and white women. She observed how white women were given deference and placed upon a pedestal in our society, while black women were treated as work horses and mules. Inspired by these differences, Truth gave a presentation at a northern women’s rights convention that was part prose, part poetry, and part speech. While there is no transcript of the final speech, those who were present attempted to reconstruct it. Truth exclaimed,
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?
The piece, appropriately called, “Ain’t I Woman,” captured the struggle many black women had as they attempted to square their desire for women’s rights with their desire for black liberation.
What’s more, Sojourner Truth’s piece made the case for why black women needed their own movement and theology that was separate and distinct from the feminist movement, which was largely concerned with the rights of white women. The piece also laid the foundation for the work of bell hooks, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Katie Cannon, and dozens of other black women. And their work connects women of the Bible to the concerns and struggles of black women.
For instance, from a womanist theological perspective, we see a black Mary and her struggles as a young black woman with an uncertain future, who has lost her son because the police of first-century Roman Empire killed her son.
So, you may be wondering, how did a black man come to see the world and the Scriptures from a womanist theological perspective? I see the world through a womanist lens out of necessity, and so I cannot really remember a time in which I thought another way. My father died when I was young, leaving my mother, three sisters, aunts, and women cousins to raise me. They are the strongest, most complex, tender, and brilliant people I know.
But I noticed some things about their journey in this world that were unique. First, they were treated differently in our society than other people entirely. Medical professionals expected them to tolerate pain differently than others. Corporations viewed skin color or hair as something that needed to be tamed or hidden or managed in the workplace. In the world and in our society, their voices were muted, words stolen, bodies viewed as angry and hostile. For instance, the #MeToo movement was created by a black woman, but it didn’t become popular until a white woman began using the same hashtag ten years later.
I also noticed that those very unique problems and issues my mother and female relatives faced—issues common to all black women—were not being addressed by the feminist movement or by feminist theology. What’s more, I noticed that theologians—mostly white—handled and treated the Scriptures in a way that left out the many contributions of black women.
Writers and thinkers like Toni Morrision, bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Lani Guinier were instrumental in shaping my theology and any of their writings would be a good place to start learning about womanist thought generally.
I have always wanted to be in solidarity with women like my relatives, to be on the side of those black women who have been oppressed and find their God-given fullness and beauty in the Scriptures. Womanist theology gives black women the opportunity to see themselves in the scriptures and allows the world to see the complexity and richness of black womanhood.
Photo by Autumn Goodman on Unsplash