Being black, feminist and Christian: an ongoing struggle

by Mariam Williams

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In early 2013, feminist theologian Gina Messina-Dysert, dean and assistant professor in the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Ursuline College and co-founder of the blog Feminism and Religion, contacted me about an anthology she would be co-editing titled Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay. She asked me to contribute an essay that would answer a recurring and, in feminist circles, often contentious question: Why do you practice a religion you know is patriarchal?

As I set pen to paper to compose the first draft, deadline looming, I was stumped. I knew my background as a Christian, a black woman, and a feminist who looks at feminism intersectionally, but I had trouble articulating why I remained in a faith whose history (and sometimes whose present practices) upheld white supremacy and a gender hierarchy that benefited men. I thought about calling Dr. Messina-Dysert and asking her to find another contributor, but I stopped myself, found my answer -- which you'll have to read the book, available in about one year, to see -- and completed the project.

Some might attribute to divine providence the fact that I submitted the second draft of the essay shortly before leaving for a study abroad trip to Trinidad and Tobago, where I would conduct independent research on the role of women in the Orisha religion. Analyzing why I continue to live my life as a Christian in spite of my disagreements with the religion had led me to think about women who make the opposite choice, and I stumbled onto one such woman while doing research in Trinidad.

Eintou Pearl Springer, a cultural activist and Orisha leader who was initiated into the religion after her leadership in Trinidad's Black Power Movement, concluded it was impossible to be both Christian and African. Putting aside fear of hell, she abandoned the Roman Catholic faith she was raised in and converted to a tradition she felt would help her obtain freedom for African-descended people everywhere.

This inconsistency between black identity and Christianity's role in the oppression of black people is something I think all black Christians who take the time to seriously think about their religion and why they are devoted to it must confront. For those of us in academia's cynical/agnostic/atheist environment, or in programs like mine that are built on Black Nationalist foundations, the pressure to justify our faith is more intense.

It's on my mind as of late because of the trip, because classes are back in session, and because of some local responses to uprisings in Ferguson, Mo. During the same newscast in which I watched the president and general manager of the television station, who happens to be a white man, tell a city official who happens to be a black woman to shut up, I watched the pastor of a black megachurch say that Michael Brown's shooting by police was an "isolated incident." In the segment that aired that night, which is slightly different from the one available online, the pastor (not the reporter) said we should be more concerned about "black on black crime."

It was like watching, in bell hooks' words, the "imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy" at work. As I said on my own blog, the general manager appeared intimidated by a black woman's truth, and he displayed a level of fear, disrespect, and lack of empathy that are emblematic of everything that is wrong with the world.

Well, not everything. He left out capitalism, a cause the pastor took up by advertising his own college as a means of "upward mobility." Forget Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Jonathan Ferrell, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and nameless others who don't make the news. Forget the predatory lending that targeted and eroded black wealth before and during the Great Recession. Let's not talk about the history or persisting conditions that make crime in general and intraracial violence -- the most common kind of violence among everyone -- possible. Let's all just go to college and move up.

Hearing this pastor, I thought, "No wonder Ms. Springer thought Christianity was useless for black liberation." For if we believe what a white man says about God, it's not much of a stretch to believe what he says about us. Here was a black pastor of a black megachurch -- a person and institution with an enormous amount of influence and power -- echoing something I could hear from Bill O'Reilly. In several Facebook posts about the pastor's comments, I read challenges to his critical thinking skills and his theology, so I know he doesn't speak for all black Christians. On the other hand, I know he's not alone, and I think it's worth asking: If this is what pastors of predominantly black churches are saying, where are black people to turn for the spiritual empowerment they may need to fight for complete liberation from racism's institutionalized grasp?

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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