Mapping the spirituality of African American women.
by Willow Curry
For Darlene Randall, faith was never a conscious choice, something to be wrangled with.
Mrs. Randall — or Sister Randall, as I refer to her — isn’t related to me, but she is so much like a wise, kindly aunt that I sometimes forget. Tall and thin, with glasses and short gray Sisterlocks, she appears subdued at first glance, but on making her acquaintance you’ll learn that the sprightly mother of two and grandmother of five has a good sense of humor and a knack for telling a story. When we met for our interview at one of Houston’s infinite array of Tex-Mex restaurants, she recalled to me her early yearning for spiritual communion. Her mother, the rebellious daughter of a renowned Baptist minister, refused to take her family to Sunday worship, but something in young Darlene’s heart was set on being a part of that world of ritual and prayer.
“I would watch these people go in and out of the church building from my front window, when I was ten years old, and I told myself, ‘I’m going to go to church.’”
With her mother’s permission, if not her blessing, young Darlene soon did exactly that, rising on Sunday mornings and walking to the Church of Christ across the street from her house. What pulled her in was the congregational singing — she was only familiar with the Baptist church, which had choirs and instruments instead. What made her stay was the encouragement to truly study the Scriptures and live by them. From her college years until today, she’s been a member of the Fifth Ward Church of Christ in Houston, Texas.
That’s the church where I was raised, baptized, and where I still attend most Sundays when I’m back home in Texas. But in recent years, I’ve often felt like I don’t belong. Besides being staunchly atheist, my Black feminist ideology puts me in stark opposition to the patriarchal gender divisions in not just my own, but many Black churches. Sunday after Sunday, I would come home not uplifted, but irritated. And for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why my fellow church sisters didn’t feel the same way. But so many of these women — Sister Randall among them — had supported all my endeavors, and kept me afloat when my mother died suddenly in my senior year of high school. For all that they meant to me, I wanted to be able to relate to them despite our differences in belief. To do that, I knew, would mean trying to understand what spirituality meant to their lives. What I discovered was a spiritual experience more complex than I had ever realized.
According to polls by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation in 2012 and the Pew Research Center in 2014, Black women are the most religious demographic group in America — a staggering 83% are religiously affiliated. In an era when record numbers of Americans are saying “No thanks” to religion, this statistic stands out starkly, and begs closer examination. What’s the explanation for Black women’s consistently high levels of religious devotion and involvement, even in changing times? What does spirituality mean to Black women that makes it so deeply important to so many of us? The result of my questions was this story, a snapshot of the spiritual experience of three Black women who each operate under different belief systems, and an examination of what underlies those experiences—the undercurrents of resistance, reform, and reclamation that are the hallmarks of Black women’s unique approach to spirituality.
The Black Church Lady: it’s an image as ubiquitous—and stereotypical—as the dark, shining southern Mammy once was. She wears a color coordinated outfit and an outrageously large hat, and is endlessly getting caught up in the Spirit. At the same time, she is a Madonna-like figure of strength and holiness, to which children and strangers alike come for guidance and redemption. She is the rock on which the Black church is built, and the spiritual backbone of her family and community.
Despite its exaggeration, there’s a small measure of truth in this depiction. In her book Righteous Content: Black Women’s Perspectives of Church and Faith, sociologist Daphne C. Wiggins writes, “Whether in their roles as soloists, ushers, nurses, church mothers, Sunday school teachers, missionaries, pastor’s aides, deconesses, stewardesses, or prayer warriors, women are at the core of the Black Church, which could not exist without them.” One might imagine that a space held together by the presence and participation of marginalized women would be a Mecca of progressive, feminist ideology. But, in one of the many paradoxes that make up Black women’s lives, this is not the case. Most historically Black churches are still conservative, patriarchal institutions, in which women and men have distinct destinies to fulfill. While a growing number have become open to female pastoral leadership, there is often an unspoken acknowledgment that even the most knowledgeable of women must defer to the ultimate authority of men.
This dynamic is clearly illustrated at Fifth Ward, one of the largest predominantly Black congregations in Houston. Women are not allowed to preach or teach in any mixed audiences of men and women, following Paul’s dictum in 1 Timothy that women should not usurp the authority of men. Fifth Ward is not a representation of the entirety of the Black Church, as different denominations have conflicting interpretations of Paul’s words regarding women. But it does illustrate the paradoxical nature of Black Christian women’s experience. How is it that so many women remain devoted to churches that are at best ambivalent about the issue of gender equality?
Part of the answer, I found, lies in Black Christians’ adherence to the Bible as the inspired word of God. Data from the 2014 Pew Research Center poll indicates that 51 percent of African-Americans interpret Scripture as “the literal word of God,” compared with only 33 percent of the overall American population. For many Black women, including Randall, sticking to strict definitions of a woman’s role in the church isn’t a matter of principle, but one of faith — even when those definitions conflict with the increased freedoms that women have in larger society.
“When God inspired the Bible to be written, there was a certain role for men, and there was a role for women,” she said. “Most women these days don’t agree with the role he gave us because it’s uncomfortable for us — because We are Women of the 21st Century! We’re just as educated or talented as anyone else. Well, scripturally , Eve’s punishment from God was that her husband would rule over her. Then in the New Testament, it says that a woman is not to have authority over a man.” Despite Sister Randall’s firm belief in the rightness of the Bible’s gender divisions, however, certain passages gave her pause.
“In the New Testament, it even further states that [women] should keep silent in the churches, and I always wondered, you know, how silent is silent? Are we not supposed to talk in Bible class? ‘Let them ask their husbands at home what they wanna know.’ That sounds kinda…” she trailed off, wrinkling her nose. I mentally filled in the blank. Extreme? Harsh? “But that’s what it says!”
I found something especially poignant and symbolic in her struggle with the command of silence. To live as a Black woman is often to be silenced and shunted to the background — how much can we swallow our voices before our sense of self is compromised?
Taking a look at the statistics showing the marginalization of Black women in American society is like taking a punch to the gut. We lead all women in labor force participation, but are more likely than any group in America to work for poverty-level wages. Single Black women possess less than a penny of every dollar of wealth (that’s total assets minus total debts) owned by single White women. One in four Black women is uninsured. And most heartbreakingly, Black women are more likely to be murdered, raped or beaten than any other women in America. Facing such overwhelming struggles, it’s no wonder that so many Black women seek healing and wholeness in their lives. And for many, there’s no better place to find that than in the arms of the church. Of those profiled in Righteous Content, one woman, Rosalind, articulated it well: “…You know that when you come to church, you can come and just pour your heart out to God…[It’s] someplace that you know you can go and feel like ‘I know I have a friend there.’” Church can be such an important safe space for Black women that they are willing to accept and forgive its lack of focus on the issues that pervade their lives, willing to make peace with the silence. But some Black churches are calling this silence into question, tackling the patriarchy problem head on.
As I went through checkpoint after checkpoint at NBC Studios in Washington, D.C. to be escorted to the office of Aisha Karimah, NBC 4’s Director of Community Affairs, it began to dawn on me the woman to whom I was about to speak was important. A veteran television producer and a dedicated advocate of social justice, Karimah has spent her career coordinating a wide variety of outreach programs, and in 2014 was honored for her leadership and public service with a special place in the city’s charter — May 5th was named Aisha Karimah Day.
However, her life as a community leader doesn’t end with her day job. Among her church family, she is known as Reverend Karimah, one of four female clergy members at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. As an associate minister, she does not preach often, but her esteemed position is apparent — when I spoke to Reverend Bill Lamar, Metropolitan AME’s lead pastor, she was the first person he recommended.
Reverend Karimah is a stout, stately woman with a close-cropped, salt-and-pepper natural and a firm handshake. After a bit of conversation about her job, her children, and my career plans, she was eager to share her theological views . Unsurprisingly, they reflected her passion for social advocacy.
“I’m looking at what the Bible tells me that God wants me to do — to love justice, and be merciful. In doing that, I cannot ignore the needs of humanity. We have to do all we can to lift people up.” When it came to the role of women in the church, she didn’t beat around the bush. “The same biases exist in church as in other arenas. Women are always seen as a step below, whatever the situation. But I don’t get hung up on how people view me based on my ethnicity or gender. There’s no ceiling that keeps me down. I’m free to be who I want to be.”
In the African Methodist Episcopal Church, this certainly seems to be the case. While other major historically Black Protestant denominations remain in a quarrel about the ability of women to serve as church leaders (The National Baptist Convention, USA has no official stance, leaving it up to individual churches, while the Church of God in Christ prohibits women from being ordained as pastors or serving as bishops), the African Methodist Episcopal Church has officially allowed women to be ordained as pastors since the mid- twentieth century, and in 2000, Reverend Vashti Murphy McKenzie was elected as the denomination’s first female bishop — the highest office in the Protestant church.
Given the AME church’s activist history, it makes sense that progress would happen here first. Established in 1816 by freed Blacks in Philadelphia who grew tired of being forced to sit in separate galleries of predominantly White Methodist churches, the AME church has been at the forefront of civil rights and social justice advocacy in the Black community since its inception, making it an ideal environment for discussing issues of sexism in Christianity.
So how does all this tally with the Biblical admonitions against female leadership? There are many debates among religious scholars and laymen alike about whether Paul’s censuring of female authority should be taken as doctrine or as products of the society in which he lived, a criticism that indicates a move away from literalist, orthodox interpretations of Christian faith. During our interview, I picked up cues Reverend Karimah belonged to the latter camp. She was comfortable with religious pluralism — “I believe that there’s room for Buddha and Mohammed, but I come to God through Christ” — and did not ascribe a gender to God. Indeed, it seems that a more liberal interpretation of Christian teachings is the only way forward for “piercing the stained glass ceiling,” as trailblazing Bishop McKenzie put it so eloquently.
I can’t help but feel that this is a good thing. In my conversations with Sister Randall and Reverend Karimah, I was struck by their deep, scholarly commitment to understanding the Scriptures. Black women are renowned for their great faith and dedication to the church, but are rarely praised for the insightful interpretations of the Bible that such faith cultivates. As it is, church can be critical in healing the psychological trauma of being Black and woman in America. A Black Church that amplified women’s voices would offer both spiritual nourishment and much needed personal empowerment.
For a growing number of Black women, however, the reward is not worth the wait. They’re searching for spiritual fulfillment beyond Christianity, and finding it in the late 20th century cultural phenomenon known as New Age.
I met Reverend Julianne Moore during my first encounter with the New Age community — an anniversary potluck for my Aunt Madeline’s church, Visions of the Heart Spiritual Life Center. I went to the Maryland-based interfaith church expecting to be surrounded by hippies and bohemians of all descriptions. I was shocked to find a room filled almost exclusively with career-aged Black women who looked no more countercultural than those I might meet at a salon. As soon as my aunt introduced me to Reverend Moore, her presence drew me in. Tall, with a head full of thin brown Sisterlocks and clothed in a stunning white dress, she seemed a modern American version of an ancient Nubian priestess.
Well, Reverend Moore isn’t exactly a priestess — try advocacy lawyer, minister, and author of two books instead — but her profound spirituality was so apparent in my talk with her that the description doesn’t seem very far off. She spoke often of “Spirit” speaking to her and guiding her — at age 30, she recounted, a voice had told her, “ ‘Julianne, you’re going to be a very special person who is going to help a lot of people,’” and in heeding that call, she has had “tremendous spiritual experiences.”
Because current religious polling methodology measures religiosity much more than spirituality, it’s difficult to know just how many Black women fall under the New Age umbrella. But you don’t need statistics to see the shift that’s occurring. Elements of New Age philosophy, characterized by a belief in universal holism and the mixing of a multitude of religious practices, can be found in almost every Black female sphere. The 80s brought a Black women’s literary golden age: works by authors of the time such as Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Sonia Sanchez, and Octavia Butler have nontraditional spiritual themes woven throughout.
By the 1990’s, Oprah Winfrey and her distinctly New Age melding of various religious principles with self-help psychology had reached the peak of cultural relevance, and bestselling inspirational author and Yoruba priestess Iyanla Vanzant — a frequent guest on Oprah’s show and now the host of Iyanla: Fix My Life on Oprah’s television network—encouraged millions of Black women to incorporate elements from traditional African, Native American, and Eastern philosophies into their spiritual practice. Two decades into the new millennium, that momentum is still in place . Grammy award winning artist India.Arie turned heads with her 2013 album Songversation; its hit track “I Am Light”, in which India.Arie sings “I am divinity defined. I am God on the inside,” might well be considered a theme song for New Age philosophy.
No better primer on this movement can be found than Akasha Gloria Hull’s comprehensive book Soul Talk: The New Spirituality of African-American Women. Hull, a member of the groundbreaking Combahee River Collective, was part of this spiritual surge in the early eighties, and she attributes it to “the heightened political and social awareness of the civil rights and feminist movements.” The combined impact of these revolutions left Black women with a level of self-determination that had been unimaginable just a few decades before. It makes sense that when social constraints were radically loosened, religious ones suddenly seemed all too tight. Reverend Moore is a part of that same generation, and while she acknowledged what Christianity has given the Black community, she remained highly critical of the Church. “As millions of Africans were extracted from Africa, they found the suffering of Christ very appealing. It resonated with their collective trauma. But the dark side is that churchgoers transform the message of love within the Scriptures into one of judgment, one that leads women to economic, sexual, and power exploitation.”
Considering that Reverend Moore was raised in the relatively progressive African Methodist Episcopal Church, it’s clear that her dissatisfaction with Christianity runs much deeper than the gender of the people in the pulpit.
She considers herself a New Age practitioner because it allows her to adhere to rituals and conceptions of God that would be considered heretical in any Christian setting, such as her belief in the not merely the legitimacy, but the veracity of all spiritual paths: “When you find Shiva, or Krishna, or Buddha, you are looking at the word of God. Each of those truths addressed a void that existed in that particular part of the world.” However, she still maintains a deep connection with Christ. “I really am a follower and believer in the teachings of Jesus. I see Christ as a being of light, and the Christ consciousness has taken many different forms according to the needs of the people.”
This living in two spiritual realities, the orthodox and the esoteric, is a common feature of Black women’s approach to New Age spirituality, and to Hull, it represents a way of staying grounded in their familial traditions and racial heritage while moving into new ways of thinking. In general, Black female spirituality is often remarkable for its expansiveness. From women like my mother, a devoted Christian who kept a worn, coffee-stained copy of Iyanla Vanzant’s Faith in the Valley at her bedside and affirmed the existence of the feminine Divine, to women like Reverend Moore, who draws deeply from the well of Christian teachings despite her very non-traditional beliefs, there exists a tradition of doing what works in order to reach spiritual fulfillment. And at heart, that seems to be what it’s all about. Beyond the specific religious creeds and rituals that different Black women follow, so many share a faith in the sacred, a trust in an essential, divine power that can change their lives. Akasha Hull writes, “That the spiritual energies of the universe can transform in this way is heartening for women of color, who are often dealt more than one challenging hand.” Faith in this transformative power allows Black women to reject the soul-crushing effects of abuse and oppression, transforming suffering into opportunities for growth.
Amidst America’s shifting religious landscape, Black women’s devotion to the Divine is staying put. What direction that devotion will take, however, is difficult to say. Within the more progressive branches of the Black Church, womanist theology, a critical approach to Christianity that reinterprets Biblical gender dynamics, is steadily gaining traction. And the increasing prevalence of husband-and-wife co-pastors, as well as the dizzying popularity of T. D. Jakes’ women’s empowerment conference series Woman, Thou Art Loosed!, signal that even in the traditional Evangelical demographic, Black women are seeking greater recognition. Whether swift or slow, change seems almost inevitable. But if there’s one thing that I can say with certainty after my time spent with these women, attending their churches, it’s this: Black women’s spirituality can bloom and flourish regardless of the politics of the environment, allowing them to reclaim their identities, combat oppression, and affirm that, in spite of everything, they are whole and loved.And the church women said:
Willow Curry is an essayist and journalist based in her hometown of Houston, Texas. Her work, which deals largely with the intertwined identities of individuals and places, has appeared in print in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women Vol. 2, and From All Corners: A Nonfiction Anthology as well as online for VocaLady Magazine. You can follow her on Instagram @willathewisp.