Invisibility (& Hypervisibility) Blues
On Barely Persevering While Christian, Black, & Female
I met Christ in the same black Baptist church my great grandparents joined in the late 1800’s. My great grandfather (born of two generations of plantation rape by slave owners) and my great grandmother (a Meherrin woman whose family was presumably enslaved) moved to Norfolk to escape the rural realities of Reconstruction.
I can still hear the sweet whispers of my late grandmother’s hymns telling me Yahweh was always on their side. That Jesus was at the center of their universe painted by oppression and limited reprieve from emancipation. And a spirit of resistance to the lies of white supremacy guided their interpretation of the scriptures. As was the case for our church in the days of old and the days to come.
Growing up in Bank Street Memorial Baptist Church included some of the fondest memories I have. So much so, the coordinates tattooed on my wrist give you the longitude and latitude of the sanctuary. Occasional gossip and some nepotism aside, I had a stable experience “growing up in church.” From the soundness of our theology to the diverse leadership in gender and generation. I felt known and understood the importance of the local church on many levels. And rather, being scarred by the church (as most people I know experience at least once) would come later in life at a point too late to even think about retreating or escaping.
That feeling of safety within the bride of Christ seemed to dissipate once I became introduced to mainstream Evangelicalism and Reformed Theology in undergrad. I was far away from home and unable to attend Bank Street. And in the context of a PWI, I saw an opportunity to reach beyond the comfort zone of my black church roots. I never worshiped with (self-proclaimed) “mission-centered” Evangelicals before. And I was especially curious to see how they lived out theology. Campus ministries filled with smiling white faces of seemed to be the most eager to offer me an opportunity to do so.
But I found the women-only bible studies, conferences, and new academic terms reeked a sentiment that my Afrocentric upbringing meant I was not an orthodox Christian to begin with. That even though black women are probably the most religious group of people in America, I needed to reject matriarchy within the black church the scriptures (allegedly) denounced. Or the minsters who told me the political liberalism of black women was our downfall in life, love, and reconciliation to God. And of course having to smile and nod through the never-ending news feeds of Christian marriages without black women.
But more than anything, it hurt to observe the dismissal of black women’s documented contributions to the American church. Be it biblical scholarship, community building, gospel music, or blind submission to Christ from enslavement to the taking down of confederate flags. I suppose being unsung heroes, preachers, emotional wet nurses, jezebels, working women, single moms, and freedom fighters made us the antithesis of our white sisters and thus enemies of regularly scheduled programming.
Imagine the cognitive dissonance associated with both theological revelation and panic. That I had so much to catch up on “biblically” to fit in, let alone be right with God on politics, love, and gender. It was not easy to sit through these experiences, but I saw no option to completely walk away. The Christology was good. The culture and biblical interpretation were questionable. And I attempted to change me first. A works-based approach to such seems counter-intuitive. But that was the reality for me: a black woman — invisible (erased) yet hypervisible (naked) in the American church.
I cannot help but revisit a conversation between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. They brilliantly described the black woman in the context of the American Dream. And much like their analogies, the resilience, resistance, and richness of black womanhood is not a dream of the American church. But rather its worst nightmare. Too often we are met with the mandate to change, shrink, or be silenced. If we as Christians are called out from the broader culture, why is it so easy for us to willful dismiss a uniquely marginalized group of Christians as if it is orthodox?
I could write about this for days, months, and my entire career. These grievances are brought up often in the context of my perseverance in Christ and suffocation in Evangelicalism. So to keep things as brief as possible, I have listed several critical questions I continue to wrestle with. I offer you the opportunity to do the same.
Are LGBT and reproductive rights top political priorities of Evangelicals because they fear an America in which whites are not in the majority and WASP’s are rendered powerless? Do they believe oppressed minorities will create a world in which their children do not enjoy the same blind privileges they do?
Why do we fail to acknowledge the medical and economic apartheid against black female bodies in the political discussion of abortion? Historically, abortion has never been a “choice” for black women in this country. Will we continue to be the butt of cruel political jokes and reductions?
Why do conservative Evangelicals try to use eugenics as condescending one-up’s in abortion debates when most of them do not believe in the necessity of reparations for the very black women they try to “enlighten?” Eugenics was a government-sanction tool to reinforce white supremacy, meaning all whites in positions of political power or benefaction (conservative or liberal) are responsible.
Why do Evangelicals label black women’s organizing efforts against white supremacy in politics, academia, and Corporate America as “culture wars?” Why are racism and misogynoir not considered culture wars and terrorism instituted by whites?
Why do Evangelicals label the current “sexual revolution” as an anti-white, multicultural movement aiming to discredit the supremacy of scripture, when in reality they are just outraged that fewer white women are getting married, having children, and want to take part in patriarchal family units? Why is this my personal problem or debt to the church as a black woman?
On Relationships & Marriage
If marriage is such a valuable ministry, why are there so many single black women in the church? With all the Evangelical outrage against “women” choosing to marry later or not at all, no one seems to see our struggle to be seen as viable partners to fellow Christians.
Why are so many Evangelical-identifying black men married to non-black women? Who is mentoring them to overlook the significance of them not choosing black women within the American church?
Who will love black women if black men continue to reject us for fairer-skinned women perceived to be more submissive or beautiful? Even if this is not the case for all, why are whites in multicultural contexts not eager to dismantle things like colorism and internalized racism among the black men they promulgate into white spaces for leadership? Is this not an Imago Dei issue of significance?
Why are so many visible black male leaders, employed to voice the significance of racial reconciliation, married to non-black women? This movement, much like black American religiosity, abolition, and the Civil Rights Movement exists on the backs of black women.
How does the American church reconcile black women being the most hypersexualized yet least desired group of people for romantic partnership? Will they ever aim to reeducate people within?
On Biblical Womanhood
Why is biblical womanhood centered on white female aesthetics, passivity, and normativity? Why does the church follow suit of the culture by policing the legitimacy of black womanhood in leadership whilst exploiting her service?
Will white suburban moms continue to be the visible and validated voices of women in the church? Or will the radical activism, academic achievement, and outspoken rejection of oppression of black women ever be included in the narrative?
Do Evangelicals resent black female Christians because of their power status and influence in the (assumed more theologically liberal) black church? Is this why they are largely erased from or expected to take part in teaching opportunities for no compensation, particularly in reformed and Evangelical contexts?
Black women did not have to be submitted housewives to take up arms and free slaves, make biblical history, or influence the mainstream culture of the church. Why do we have to subject ourselves to patriarchal erasure to be qualified for a godly marriage?
Will the church continue to ignore the fact “biblical womanhood” as we know it in America is an economic and social construct undocumented in scripture? Complementarian marriage, suburban motherhood, and deferring to men for full provision in system of patriarchy comes at a literal cost most black women will never afford.
“I know you are hurting. But please, just wait on God.”
When you tell black women to “wait on God.” To continue to mammy and mule for the cultural and community advancement of the church without reciprocity. Or to just focus on themselves in their wait to be seen and loved. You are not being biblical, but rather deflecting. You are telling them to continue to subject themselves to a system and culture that hates them without hope for reprieve. You fail to acknowledge what they are up against.
Mistreatment and unrepentant abuse in your churches. Expectations to defend and take care of black men who seem only care about their own freedom and leadership potential. The weight of willfully ignorant questions and uncompensated emotional labor with fellow parishioners. Reduction of their history in comparison to patriotism. Appropriation and cash cropping of their culture. Outsiders purchasing their neighborhoods. The church community’s failing to come to their public defense. Erasure in the strides for women’s rights. More than anything, you fail to offer a solution because you assume what everyone else is subconsciously thinking:
If black women are hurting, they are simply reaping what they sewed. And because they have been sewing and reaping for everyone else, they don’t need our help.
The PTSD I have experienced from racial and sexual violence outside the church mirrors the PTSD I have developed with every conference, tweet, Facebook post, podcast, tear of fragility from white women who cannot bear my burdens, white man who fails to decenter himself in the multi-ethnic church movement, Chandler or Piper sermon, selective protest, and selective praise. I love Jesus, but if I sober up from the coffee chat highs I will admit I am not welcome here. As I am.
What does it thus say about us as a body that we reject critical living stones who carry much of the weight of an institution we make central to our identities? We will be judged as a church by how we treat and govern our own. Meaning how you treat black women in the American church is more important than hosting overpriced summits, redundant church plants, and questionably effective mission trips to the developing world.
I now understand Dylan Chenfeld’s atheist-inspired (yet ironically biblical) slogan more and more:
Does God embody manlike identity, gender, and color the way we do? No. But God did come to earth in flesh. Humbly as the least of these. Showing us that respectability was not the formula for something great to come out of Nazareth. The antithesis of the Jewish supremacist and political leader the children of Israel were expecting the Messiah to be.
One who rejected a man-made patriarchal society to see, save, and reveal himself to women. Always referring to parables that attacked the pride of invisibility, hypervisibility, and oppression. Washing the feet of others. Rejected by those he loved. He was everything we cannot seem to comprehend about resilience. And He authored and modeled a much better way to view, love, labor for the overworked and underpaid black women among us. One that could help us sing the blues away.
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