The Black and Womanist theology has been a new form of thinking with the center of the Black struggle as its root, and allows for inclusivity of all Black lives. I have spent months trying to understand the layers of our struggles and why they are allowed. This paper will be focused on me trying to understand our existential crisis of struggle and how we try to negate these trials. To exist as a black person in the United States, focusing our attention on the their social, political and economic opportunities, is to live in a perpetual existential reality of anxiety.
The struggle to separate oneself from a white god is a foundational root in most Black and Womanist theological principles. The confines of white Christianity has left Black Americans vulnerable to oppression and dehumanization. This is not to conflate their reality to endless turmoil, but white hegemony creates a struggle to create a society devoid of Black suffering. Using Kendrick Lamar’s award-winning album, To Pimp A Butterfly, as well as revered novels, Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”, and the works of N.
Shange and more, hopefully I will be able to inform and persuade readers in favor of my thesis. These cultural references have offered insight into the anxieties of Black existance, which I will transition into in order to unravel the literary texts regarding the doctrines of (1) Christology, (2) Sin as racism, sexism, classism, and hetero-aggression, and finally (1) Salvation as survival and liberation.
Before diving into the literature, defining key terms and principles are a crucial first step.
There are four main categories of Black Existentialism that we focused on in this term of Black and Womanist theology: absurdity, being and non-being, existence preceding essence, and anxiety. The latter will be the center of my thesis. Our theological understanding of this anxiety is frequently defined as an occurance of concupiscence; concupiscence, in our text, is defined as the strong desire for something outside of God. I will be looking at God in a few different contexts– looking at whether or not God is racist/oppressive, at what trials come with the belief in white Christianity and white God’s, and at God’s Son and His human struggles and those teachings. This aforementioned anxiety can be seen as anguish towards a seemingly inevitable Black struggle and is translated into a need for relationships, history, and intimacy outside the holds of pre-womanist thought.
Furthermore, returning to the Christology aspect of my thesis and also looking back at our differing definitions of God in this paper, I look to Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited to account for Black existential realities of fear and anxiety. The disinherited are the poor and the dispossessed who Jesus has taken personal responsibility for; however, the title of disinherited adds anguish to ones life. There are few things more anxiety-inducing than living in a world where you are constantly reminded that you do not matter. Knowing that there are no measures in place to ensure your safety or happiness. Thurman adds that it is this reason that we use fear as a safety device to protect ourselves from deterioration. Analysis reveals that this anxiety arises from our isolation from society and our helplessness in the face of the constant onslaught of violence to which the underprivileged are exposed to.
Black theologian, William Jones, in his writing on Is God a White Racist, reflects on the writings of Cone and Washington to answer for Black oppression at the hands of God. Cone was clear that God has not deemed Black people the chosen ones for redemptive suffering, but for freedom and liberation. They aren’t suffering because they are the chosen ones, rather, they are the chosen ones because they suffer. They are elected as the chosen because they are oppressed against their granted free-will and God has made it His mission to make our liberation a reality. Cone and Washington differ in their theological understand of our sufferings and why, but the bottom line is similar to my previous sentiments. Washington’s theodicy is summarized as followed: “If Blacks are the suffering servant /chosen people than God is not a white racist. Blacks are in fact the suffering servant/chosen people. Therefore God is not a white racist.” Cone’s theodicy follows: “If Blacks are the oppressed, then God is not a white racist. Blacks are obviously oppressed. Therefore God is not a white racist”. Our liberation will be found, but it will come at a cost.
The philosophy of human condition has spent centuries trying to debunk and unravel these anxieties. They teach that we take refuge in religion and in a god to look for help when help cannot come from within. Conversely, an existential philosopher noted that Christianity frequently speaks to how we must suffer but still remain faithful. This was common rhetoric that was spread to practicing Black Christian slaves through the oppressive means of white slave owners and it was, in some respects, carried into our modern understanding of the worth of our pain and connection to the Lord. Unfortunately, again, pre-womanist theology there was a misconstrued message that Black people need to suffer in order to receive God’s love.
What am I? Who am I? If one is led to continuously feel that they do not belong in a way that is allotted to their privileged, white counterparts, one is bound to develop a number of insecurities. My thesis statement on anxiety highlighted one of the ways we release tension and that is with the use of intimate relationships outside of God. Shange’s For Colored Girl deals with a variety of these anxieties and means of tension-release that Black women face. The Lady in Orange struggles deeply with insecurities and tries to alleviate her pain through sex and intimacy. She says, “…my dependency on other human beings for love. I survive on intimacy. And tomorrow that’s all I’ve got going. It’s all I’ve got. Being alive and being a woman. Being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet.” All of the woman in For Colored Girls tried their best to grapple with the endless barrage of anxiety.
Black philosophy and theology overlap in a variety of different arenas. One being that they both teach about the pessimisms and struggles of living while Black. Human condition is generally thought of as to be unhappy. Life is just too hard for us and full of too much pain. We have an innate instinct to seek pleasure but our world simply does not offer us those joys. Thus, the ontological misalignment between Black people and the world– we want happiness but the world can’t deliver. Philosophical thought teaches about palliative measures which are in essence distractions from all of the mess. We look for things to deflect and make light of or misery, to diminish it, and for something to make us insensitive to it: art, love, and intoxication. Love was a palliative measure for the Lady in Orange and was used to ease her anxieties towards the world. The way the Black Panther movement used their agency to execute what pessimists would call palliative measures to obtain their liberation.
Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power asks a crucial question regarding the Black human condition: How should I respond to a world which defines me as a nonperson? Here we find another ontological paradox. Cone notes that “if one believes that this world is the fullest extent of reality, he will either despair or rebel.” The Black Power movement chose to rebel. Black power means you won’t rest until your oppressors see and recognize us as humans. The Black Power movement saw white racism as a disease. They noticed the strong confines that white theological and philosophical thought hold us to. The movement held strong the belief that we as Black people have to counter our existential anxiety with revolution. We have to oppose anxiety with every ounce of humanity we have. This, however, can aid in worsening our anxiety. It is a stressor as a Black American to have to rewrite the ills of white racism while sustaining confidence in oneself. There will always be doubt and despair surrounding our unending lack of clarity of white intentions and white promises for change. Circling back to this being a palliative measure to quite our anxiety, our efforts to control our destiny outside of a white god don’t actually do so, they just temporarily silence the pain. Satisfaction is not granted, but protection against suffering is secured.
Connecting this to my major and focus on social awareness and involvement, I turn to Allan Boesak’s Farewell to Innocence, where he discusses Black power and Black consciousness. Sociology takes a firsthand look at the empirical data that has come forth clearly concluded that Black Americans do face innumerable challenges and anxieties in this world. The aim of my degree is to use this information to create an equitable society for Black people. He begins with emphasizing that Black theology/power/consciousness are more than just terms, they are new philosophies of thought centered around the Black mind becoming aware and okay with their Blackness. Black consciousness is crucial for the forward advancement of Black people in our society. Black power is a criticism of the fundamental structure and patterns in our racist and hetero-aggressive society.
I want to take a step back and analyze our areas of focus regarding Black anxiety: political, social, and economic. Firstly, political, while referencing two of our resources, I wish to look at how politics have trapped us in institutions and social contracts that we didn’t sign up for. African American women stories has been closely associated with the politics of motherhood: being submissive, unemployed, and trapped. Sisters in the Wilderness touches on the African American social, political, and family needs of Black woman and mother’s shaping her life after slavery. In the course of her long history in America, the black woman has found herself ‘trapped in a mesh of cultural redefinitions and Black male/female crises that have seriously affected her well-being.’ The literature continues on the Hagar narrative and how it represents a tradition of African American resistance. Survival and search for quality of life is the description of agency in black womanist theodicy that Williams explores in Sisters in the Wilderness.
Kendrick Lamar speaks to other Black anxieties surrounding politics and entrapment. His song “Institutionalized” has a hook that talks about the politics of the hood and how they present challenges when trying to escape: “I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it. Institutionalized, I keep running back for a visit.” White politics and religion are fully centered around enslavement of Black bodies and minds and Kendrick writes about this weight. Song analysts share that the song speaks to the survival tactics that lead people in an inescapable spiral of antics. Though anyone is available to leave the ghetto, like Kendrick was privileged enough to do, politics of those raised in the ghetto make the odds of escaping against you.
Black and Womanist theological literature does a great job of adding our social landscapes to the conversation regarding our Black existential crises. In James Cones’ A Black Theology of Liberation, it’s noted that “there can be no Black theology which does not take seriously the Black experience of a life of humiliation and suffering”. The purpose of Black theology is to make sense of our sufferings and to lead us towards liberation. The Black experience regards existence in a white and racist society. This creates an anxiety around our social mobility and worth in this world.
The book continues to let us in on understanding the social life in the African American Community where we must take seriously the history of Black woman’s motherhood roles, which were institutionalized in the slave narrative as Mammy. Many women were left as pawns, physically and emotionally, and were given agency only to be the structural foundation of families. The social consensus of the place of women in theology and society is shown through Sophia from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Sophia was hassled by an all white group outside with her kids. She was known as a motherly figure who spoke her mind, and white society loves vocal Black women, but only to an extent. She tried to use her agency in a high pressure, anxiety-riddled situation and this anxiety came from the confines of white hypocrisy. We love archetypal Mammy/mommy stereotypes, as long as they don’t use too much of the freedom they’re allotted.
The fragility of the consensus of Black women/people and their place in our theological realm was mirrored in the outside text on my major. Anthony Reddie in Black Theology and Transatlantic Dialogue speaks about the reformation period of Black thought post the influx of Black people into Britain between 1948 and 1965. This signaled a needed shift in thought and Black people forced a society that included their narratives. There shift was a drastic one and definitely a learning lesson for Black theologians and sociologist. The Black British Christian stream of consciousness rarely aligns itself with white conservatism, especially in areas of social policy and politics.
The last center of Black anxiety, economics, can be summed up in the troubles of Joanne and her money. The rules and regulations of white hegemony maintain that Black woman are to be subservient to men, especially when it comes to money. Women are to remain home and without jobs, as to allow for men to feel at the top of the hierarchy. Joanne in For Colored Girls is at a stand still with this debate because she makes more money than her husband and her husband had taken money from her without permission. Her husband argued up and down about how he feels emasculated and that he should be the breadwinner in the house. This is a stressor for woman like Jo. How is she to maintain her agency and fight the holds of whiteness? In an excerpt within an excerpt found in Alice Walker’s In Search of our Mother’s Garden:
“I love the way Janie Crawford/ left her husbands
the one who wanted her to change/ into a mule
and the other who tried to interest her/ in being a queen.
A woman, unless she submits,/ is neither a mule
nor a queen
though like a mule she may suffer
and like a queen pace the floor.”
I love this passage and how it highlights the salvation and liberation aspect of theology. There are struggles that exists because of our Black anxieties but there is always grace to find at the end of such tremendous turmoil.
The dialectical theology of sin and salvation is an interesting one and can be viewed, again, in the relationship between Jo and her husband, as well as in The Color Purple with Shug Avery and Celie. As previously mentioned, in this writing I’ve viewed sin as racism, oppression, and heteronormativity and salvation as freedom, liberation, and use of agency. The Jo relationship highlights these dynamics well, especially after the discovery of her husband’s infidelity and homosexuality. I view her husband’s infidelity as the sin in this situation. The strongholds of heteronormativity allow for women to fall victim to emotional, and in the case of her positive HIV status, physically vulnerability. But in the other end of this sin, Jo’s husband was able to find freedom and salvation because he is now living his as his honest and true self. This paradox is on a continuous loop in Black Womanist problems: while sin and hardship is an inevitable Black experience, conversely, the Lord promises redemption and salvation.
Celie’s experience with queerness is per religious definition definitely an act of concupiscence. But despite her acts being, in essence, ones that veer from godliness, the stories are packed with anecdotes regarding sin and salvation. The sin is simply put, unfortunately, her queerness. Lightsey in Our Lives Matter notes that “the absence of black lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer voices representing their unique perspective is not good for the academy of our churches especially Black churches.” She continues, adding that all Black Christians may fall victim to the straightforward belief that homosexuality is sinful, for they have not digested themselves to the influence of white biblical scholarship, white Evangelical perspectives, and the White prosperity gospel. Therefore, regarding Black and Womanist theologies, there is no judgement, considering the multitude of sins we willingly commit; however, the significance of Celie and Shug’s sexual relationship is rooted in salvation because Celie learns how to be proud of her body and how to use it to enjoy sex. These are the first times in Celie’s life where she has found something to quiet the anxiety that plagued her existence.
Kendrick Lamar’s Alright is a wonderful conclusion to the understanding of sin and salvation being tangled with Black existential anxiety. He raps about the daily, unending social, political, and economic struggles that plague Black American bodies but continues to say that we have always made it out and we will continue to do so:
“When you know, we been hurt, been down before,
When my pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, where do we go?
And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure,
I’m at the preacher’s door”
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright”
His song is clearly a summary of this dialectical category and of our existential focus. Because of white oppressors, we are left to feel hopeless, hurt and anxious. We look to a world to alleviate our pains, but as pessimism goes, this world has no solace to offer Black people. We turn to preachers and to Christ for answers, and they remind us that we are the chosen people because of our suffering and the Lord is focused on solely our liberation. But, alas, we will find our salvation amidst all of the chaos of sin and racism.