Womanist religious thought affirms and empowers Black women as survivors while naming the intersecting oppressions of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism and patriarchy that silence Black women.

Alice Walker coined the term "Womanist" in her book, "In Search for Our Mothers Gardens," published in 1983. According to Walker, a Womanist is a capable, courageous, responsible Black feminist who is interested in knowledge beyond what is normally expected of Black women. Womanists appreciate the full range of emotions, sexuality and sexual expression, and the universality and diversity of Black people. Womanists love the arts, nature, food, spirituality, self and other people. A Womanist, while centered on Black women, is committed to the "survival and wholeness" of all Black people. Ultimately, Womanist religious thought is committed to the liberation of all black people.

When I refused to comply with my former pastor's request to use inclusive language during my clergy training, she introduced me to Womanist religious thought. She countered my resistance with Delores Williams' "Sisters in the Wilderness." The book changed my life - Williams moved Black women from the margins to the center of society and, in doing so, my voice and my experience became relevant.

Williams re-introduced me to Hagar, the slave woman in the book of Genesis, who was used by Abraham and Sarah as a surrogate for his first son, Ishmael. After Sarah conceived their son, Isaac, Hagar was exiled into the wilderness. They had no further use for her. Williams paralleled Hagar's experience to the African-American woman's experience of slavery, sexual exploitation, exile, survival and encounters with God.

I am a single mother and Hagar's experience of relational and cultural pain and rejection mirrors my own in a society that dehumanizes, abhors and casts aside Black single mothers. There is a stereotypical belief that our children are responsible for the problems in the Black community.

Hagar's experience as a focal point for Womanist religious thought healed and liberated me from internalized shame. It helped me see that my life and my daughter's life matter to God. I have grown into my Womanist identity by immersing myself in other works by Womanist religious thinkers and by embodying the ideals of Womanism. I am forever grateful to Walker. In spite of harmful societal narratives, she empowered me to love myself, regardless.

The interlocking oppressions of racism, sexism, heterosexism and patriarchy are still powerful and complicated forces silencing Black people. They hide behind the illusion of a post-racial and just society where we all have equal access to the resources we need to thrive. Yet, the disproportionate representation of Black people in all indicators of economic, social, physical, and emotional well-being reminds us that freedom is elusive.

The numbers of incarcerated black men, women raising children alone, communities who fear the police and each other, young black girls forced into the contemporary slavery of sex trafficking, and the educational and economic disparities that persist in Minnesota and throughout the country call for religious leaders to embody the beacon of Womanist religious thought. It is a practical framework, and a way of life truly interested in the survival and wholeness of all Black people.

Reverend Trina A. Armstrong is an assistant professor of pastoral care and pastoral theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. www.unitedseminary.edu

Trina A. Armstrong recommends these books for further reading about Womanist Religious Thought:
In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker
Sisters in the Wilderness by Delores Williams
If It Wasn't for the Women: Black Women's Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community by Cheryl Townsend Gilkes
Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society by Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas
Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation by Emilie Maureen Townes

What's On Your Bookshelf?

Send us 450 words about your booklife, plus your list of five related books by women authors. editor@womenspress.com