Throughout my life as a churchgoing person, I've spent a lot of time in faith circles exclusively made up of women, and in each circle except for one (which was on a college campus rather than in an individual church), stories of brokenness have abounded.
The women present have shared narratives of surviving abuse, abandonment, incest, rape, or traumatic relationships. They tell their own stories or those of their mothers, sisters, nieces, daughters, or friends. Always, there are tears, empathetic hand-holding, and prayers. Often, the women conclude their experience with joy in God's deliverance. Sometimes, there is no conclusion, but rather expressions of unresolved psychic trauma repeatedly interfering with the life they want to live. Rarely are authority figures like Child Protective Services or law enforcement mentioned. Always, even when the woman's issues return to the prayer circle week after week, there is the sense that God will take care of her -- not necessarily avenge the wrong done to her, but heal her from its pain and everything she may have done in failed attempts to heal herself.
My brain brought these scenes back to the forefront of my memory last week after watching "How to Get Away with Murder." Foregoing my plans to go to bed early, I tuned in to watch Cicely Tyson's guest appearance on the show. Her performance as Mama Keating, mother of lead character Annalise Keating, was worth the lost sleep. I'm still questioning whether her mother wit and country wisdom were too stereotypical, too expected for an old black woman from the South, but they were thought-provoking nonetheless, and though I chose to keep my eyes on Ms. Tyson rather than go back and forth between the show and Twitter, I don't doubt that at least some black women following the show saw their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, or some iteration of the maternal African-American experience in the character.
I saw it in the tender scene near the end in which Annalise sits on the floor between her mother's knees so her mother can comb her hair. It's a scene my mother and I have performed since I was a child (though these days, if she does my hair, I sit in a chair and she stands), and the intimacy provides a gateway for a tale I've heard in many a women's faith circle. Mama Keating knew her daughter had been sexually abused; that's why she set their house on fire with the assailant asleep on the couch. In the safe space of blackness and womanhood, Mama Keating was able to admit that, contrary to the acceptance of men's abuse and degradation of women she had espoused earlier, she could assist the good Lord in executing justice.
I have never heard any woman confess to arson or murder, but I have heard many women admit that adults failed to protect them from a predator or that they know about a man's abuse of someone they love. In the safe space of blackness, womanhood, and faith, black women express their trauma, anger, fear, and dependence on and sometimes disappointment with one another.
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Yes, I saw black women I know in that episode, and seeing them further endeared them to me. But it also reminded me of how these circles of faith sometimes frustrate me. I have often wondered if prayers and a church-based circle of support are enough for women, and especially black women, who seek to heal from trauma.
The relationships between black communities and law enforcement and between black communities and mental health professionals are complicated, but so are vigilantism and patience to wait for God's vengeance. I want to see less prayer that God will remove the perpetrator and more earthly systems working to protect and rescue black girls from sexual assault. I want to see fewer grown women hurting for the rest of their lives as they wait for God to heal them and more women visiting an affordable, culturally competent mental health care professional. And perhaps that will happen by making more safe spaces for blackness, womanhood, and faith -- in real life and on television.
[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 RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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