by Stephanie Y. Mitchem

I remember writing one of my first essays in womanist ethics a few years ago, and I remember the pain that I experienced in doing so. Writing is already painful, but writing from my own black woman’s perspectives adds a stratum to that distress that is shared with many others. This essay is about the unpopular topic of the pain of people of color and I will discuss some of the reasons for this unpopularity in closing. But I begin by stating that I am not attempting to relate horror story after horror story, though some will surface as examples. Instead, I am analyzing pain and exploring various meanings, mostly related to African American women. As a womanist theologian, my work often focuses on black women—more on the idea of womanist later—but there are links among other people of color that cannot be denied. The goal is not to wallow in the pain, but to move into the value systems that surface for black women, that become the basis by which we move past the pain. So the place to begin is with one of those pain stories. I draw upon one from another cultural perspective, a story that was a gift to me in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

A Native American man came to seek recovery from his alcohol addiction. He finally knew that his negative lifestyle was destroying him and had to be changed. He had lost himself. He knew from listening to other Indians’ stories of recovery, and it resonated as true within his being, that possibly the only way for him to become whole was to reconnect with his People’s original spirituality. He traveled to his old grandmother, hoping to learn of the ancient ways. He explained that he had come for the old languages, the stories and songs and prayers. And he waited for her to speak.

Silence for awhile. The grandmother would open her mouth, but there was no sound. Silence for awhile. With a painful expression, she would try again. And again. Finally the man took her hands. “Tell me why you are in pain,” he said. The grandmother told her own story, of having been a child of a conquered People. She was part of one of the later conquered nations so she experienced being taken from their lands to the reservations. The reservation process included not just herding the People onto designated lands, but educating the little “savages.” Children were taken from their families and put in schools to civilize them. The boys’ hair was cut, a sign of shame for them. The girls were taught to be “ladies.” Only American clothing, including shoes, could be worn. Only English was to be spoken. Whenever the students made the error of speaking in the People’s words, in that school, their shoes were nailed to the floor. The punished student was to stand there, nailed for the day. Singled out, no one was to speak to the student under punishment. They were children, cut off from families, dependent on hostile strangers; they would not dare to pull their feet free from the shoes. The grandmother’s shoes had been nailed to the floor, more than once, at around the age of four, she remembered. She could no longer speak the words of the People. Even the stories in her mind caused pain.

In the grandmother’s story, there are multiple layers of analysis to be considered: the inhumanity of forcibly stripping and then replacing a people’s culture; the grandson’s need to find wholeness in his own life through his history; the feeling of “something missing” when one’s culture stands outside the consideration of the dominating group. Each of these is important, but I want to focus here on the grandmother’s inability to speak.

Patricia Williams, an African American law professor, used a phrase that names this type of pain as “spirit murder.” Spirit murder is compounded by the social structures that accept inhumanities and deny any culpability or consequences. There are histories hidden by these denials, histories that continue to shape succeeding generations. Certainly, the grandmother’s pain continued on in her grandson’s life. My own pain in the simple writing of an essay came from more than writer’s block. The idea of spirit murder resounds with all those anti- affirmative action, just-get-over-it pundits who refuse to recognize that socially inflicted pain needs redress. Williams states:

I think that we need to elevate spirit murder to the conceptual—if not the punitive—level of a capital moral offense. We need to see it for the cultural cancer it is, for the spiritual genocide it is wreaking on blacks, in whites, and to the abandoned and abused of all races and ages. We need to eradicate its numbing pathology before it wipes out what precious little humanity we have left.1

I recognize a relationship, a kinship, with the grandmother’s pain, where writing had become just another form of nailing. During master’s level studies, I had begun to research African American religious thought—on my own as it was not part of the approved curriculum. I included some of that unauthorized material for one assignment and the professor for whose class I was writing, harshly critiqued both the paper and me personally. The work was not scholarly and was of poor quality. Wasn’t it unoriginal, just a compilation of several other papers I had written for other classes? Perhaps the writing was not even mine? In my view, the paper represented the most honest, creative work I had ever done. I had begun to make some connection within the thought and lives of African Americans and spirituality. I had begun, in other words, to step outside the status quo. Such stepping was not allowed; I was vulnerable. The instructor’s critique, as part of a cultural binding I could not recognize at that time, immobilized me, nailed me to the floor.

Pain was a real response when I began writing, years later. It took some time to understand what I had experienced. I had continued my studies of African American religious life and began to focus on black women’s experiences and the relationships of faith. I later learned of womanist ethics and theology, which gave me methods of organizing my thoughts. Womanist thought needs some explanation here.

Womanist ethics and theology grew among black women religious scholars in the early 1980s. Alice Walker is a writer and activist who coined the term “womanist” in her book, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.2 The word womanist and Walker’s definition fueled the imaginations of many black women religion scholars. The idea was fed by several streams: the exclusion of black women’s perspectives in black liberation theology; the exclusion of black women’s experiences in white feminist liberation theology; the various rejections that black women experienced in too many black churches; and the growth of black feminist perspectives in other disciplines. Great insight from black women scholars came together to challenge other forms of liberation and dominant theologies, particularly the idea that race and class and gender, at least, must be taken into consideration in constructions of theologies that seek justice. To do otherwise was to become part of the denial patterns that lead to spirit murder.

As I discovered womanist thought, I encountered teachers who encouraged me to speak in my own voice. When I began writing in earnest, these teachers challenged me to write only from the honesty of my own experiences. Reaching back for the level of creativity that two seminaries had worked hard to immobilize brought on a level of anxiety and fear that surprised me. I thought, as the illusion of “freedom” invited, that I had achieved a level of immunity from brainwashing. But putting words on paper, aiming to speak the stories of black women, brought on pain. And I remembered the story of the man and his grandmother.

My experience is not unique. The professional world is one of the places that finds multiple ways to nail the feet of people of color, and women in particular, to canonical Western-culture floors. The experiences of immobilization happen in a variety of ways. It is not just direct encounters of racism in the professional or public area, but also pain experienced in families that immobilizes. One woman wrote of her hope to communicate with an elderly aunt, both of them caught in isolated experiences of silence, their loyalty and family love questioned if they spoke.

I knew she dare not question or demand to know more. She was loyal, and if questioned directly with any show of emotion, would clam up. Still the questions rankle. What happened to this woman and her child? What happened to the other Cherokees? The first time my aunt spoke to me of these things, she was ninety-one years old.3

Another woman wrote a variant on this theme of silencing from an African American perspective.

Although it was never spoken aloud, we were all aware that our fathers may be brown-skinned or darker, but our mothers were most often coco-colored or lighter—in order to give birth to the genteel, genetic dream of, if not passing, passing more easily in the white world. . . . Colorism and its incestuous partner, classism, has not only shaped who I am but propels me to constantly struggle with how I view the world in which I live.4

The immobilization of black women is an all-American tradition. Some people, particularly in today’s climate, prefer to never hear black women’s pain stories. How distasteful! How sad they are, still stuck in the past! Yet if there is ever to be an end to spirit murder, these stories need to be heard. Moreover, black women like other oppressed people have developed systems of values that help them to stand against such erasure. I will discuss an historical example followed by the story of one of my students in order to highlight some relationships between past and present while looking toward possible futures.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was the most celebrated African American woman orator, novelist, and poet. She had been a significant speaker for abolition of slavery during the nineteenth century and for women’s suffrage during the early part of the twentieth. But the contributions of her work for justice and her role in shaping African American thought were erased as judgments of triviality were passed by others. Known for his own works for African American justice, W. E. B. Du Bois delivered a eulogy at Harper’s funeral in 1911; his words did not inspire justice for Harper. “She was not a great writer, but she wrote much worth reading. She was, above all, sincere.”5 The separation of Harper from voice, separation from a recognized place in the canon of African American literature of the nineteenth century, began in such a fashion. It was an effective process, for by 1938, J. Saunders Redding wrote:

Ms. Watkins wrote a great many sentimental ballads in obvious imitation of the ballads which appeared with monotonous regularity in Godey’s Lady’s Book and other popular monthlies. . . .Her prose is frankly  propagandic. . .Iola Leroy. . .is a poor thing as a novel, or even a piece of prose, too obviously forced and overwritten. . . .The judgments she [Harper] utters on life and character are conventional and trite. 6

Today, I teach at a university and, in spite of all those who wish people of color would just be happy, my students often reflect on their experiences of pain. Since the university is in Detroit (83 percent black) and the school has a significant population of African Americans (35 percent), such reflections from black outlooks are not unusual. One of my students is Mariama Tall, a black woman poet who performs her work in what some call a “neo-soul” style, related to hip hop. Mariama has written eloquently of pain in this poem:

I’ve lost myself.
I wish death.
I check my insurance 
and forget my repentance.
I’m sorry but I’m reduced  
to an animal 
caught in a bear trap.
The pain had made me forget 
my blessings,  
my manners,  
my composure.
Did I say that 
I wished death?
I could live 
and be maimed 
but don’t wish  
to live in pain.7

The erasure of Harper’s work and Tall’s scream share some commonalities of black women’s experiences. Harper, historically, had not whined her life away and was still verbally attacked years after her death. Tall’s contemporary impassioned poem sets a line of demarcation that when pain comes, it will be rejected and it will not succeed in creating a victim of oppressive tragedy. In other words, these moments of pain can become openings for the search for justice.

Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins stated: “Justice constitutes an article of faith expressed through deep feelings that move people to action. For many Black feminist thinkers, justice transcends Western notions of equality grounded in sameness and uniformity.”8 There are values that can assist black women in the development and use of personal agency that transforms or bypasses tragedy. Womanist ethicist Patricia Anne Johnson places this transformative power in the context of “a womanist theology of suffering” which rejects any idea of passive suffering as a Christian virtue leading to redemption.


A theology of suffering from a womanist perspective sets out several tasks for its practitioners: to re-evaluate the “virtues” of patience, long- suffering forbearance, and love faith and hope in light of Black women’s experiences. Such re-evaluation engages a hermeneutic of suspicion and a hermeneutic of resistance, rooted in a critical realism that rejects both naïve realism and naïve idealism as adequate foundations for a theology of suffering.9

Expanding on Johnson’s idea of re-evaluated virtues, black women, like the biblical Hagar, learn the virtue of giving birth in the face of impossible odds of survival. Whether through children (our own or others) or a career choice, there is recognition of pain to be dealt with and no promises of a quick fix. Black women must reach a certain level of maturity, a centering of self, for the endurance to see the caustic as possibility instead of defeat. There is no romanticizing the loneliness of this experience, no rugged individual out to conquer the world. Instead, there can be deep awareness of the importance of dreams and reaching for fulfillment. Black women are not born strong, but must become so through our lives.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an example of a black woman who dared to live a dream and create herself on the way. Harper made a career for herself in the late nineteenth century as an orator, writer, and activist. For a black woman in that time, there would seem to have been definite boundaries which she should not, could not, have crossed. Her success did not mean that she was unaware of where the boundaries had been laid or that the next black woman who came along would have an easier road. Her life does indicate that a sense of purpose beyond the boundaries, and a sense of being called and gifted, can be for self and the community. There is a spiritual and intuitive dimension to this journey beyond the boundaries: there are seldom roadmaps, few mentors, and some encouragement along the way. Many black women who have achieved success today often respond to questions of how they did it with “I prayed.”

Certainly courage is a value. Courage is necessary to continue in the web of oppressions which are faced on a daily basis. Such audacity can become so internalized as to be taken for granted as the way things are done. “Do what you have to do” are words of advice given from one black woman to another in the processes of development. This courage is seldom confused with rashness. Another folk-saying cautions, “Don’t write a check your behind can’t cash.”

In this same vein, directness, “speaking my mind,” or “speaking up” is valued by black women. Words become important tools and weapons. Words can protect self and family and community. Language is expected to be “for real.” “Walk the way you talk” or “Don’t talk out of both sides of your neck” are communal expressions that demand an integrity and honesty of people, women and men, in the processes of becoming whole. This kind of honesty is seen in the poetry by Mariama Tall. I know that the pain she mentions involves her life: how she grows, raises her children, relates to her husband, and family. She also has a deep concern for the black community. I mention all this because she, like many other young black women, has the potential to become another generation of Frances Ellen Harper. But dominant society has learned not to wait for the eulogy to begin the processes of erasing the importance of young lives. Too many black neighborhoods today are battlegrounds littered with the debris of the alcohol and drugs and guns that members of those communities do not produce or control. Nailing feet to the floor has gotten very sophisticated.

Many people in American society seek to silence the sounds of pain. For black women, this may take the form of oversimplifying, compressing their stories into a redefined community that can be blamed for its own victimization. Adolph Reed Jr., noted cultural critic and political scientist, demonstrated one such process of reduction: “The underclass notion may receive the greatest ideological boost from pure sexism. For drug-crazed, lawless black and Hispanic men, the companion image is the so-called ‘cycle of poverty,’ which focuses on women’s living and reproductive practices as the transmission belt that drives the cycle.”10 Sociologist Howard Winant viewed the history of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s as dominated by political moderates; radicals continued to call for social justice, leaning toward nationalist and socialist programs that had no chance in American contexts. Winant argues that real reform of systems never took place.

Thus at the millennium’s turn, even after undergoing limited racial reforms, the country still labored under the formidable legacy of the white supremacy that had been crucial to its foundation. Neglect and repression remained the preferred means to contain (and maintain) the country’s ghettos and barrios. In a greed-driven frenzy the post- industrial elite rushed to export and cheapen labor, to undermine public services and education, and to subdue the consequences of these tendencies—rebellion, disorder, and crime—via the police and prison apparatuses. In this atmosphere the U.S. elite allowed inequalities of all sorts (not just racial ones) to fester, all the while reassuring itself that the bad old days of white supremacy had now been surmounted.11
The fact is that ending oppressions and ending pain have not been accomplished. We have only gone so far. To dismiss the need for ending pain as mere identity politics is no more than a continuation of spirit murder in order to comfort the comfortable. But these are very strange times, where feet are nailed to the floor under the banner of citizenship. Voices of pain are silenced, whether they are black women and men, people in prisons, the families of 9/11 victims, or anti-war protesters. Their feet are nailed to the floor for the sake of maintaining the status quo—which had originally nailed their feet to the floor. Yet a commitment to democracy demands that no voices are silenced, that all are heard. And, particularly important for a country like the United States that claims to embrace Christianity, a commitment to justice means that after the voices are heard, communal actions to address the complaints of the injured or to assist their own development, will begin.

In analysis of these times and working for justice, womanist ethics and theology aim to counter the immobilizations of many people. In other words, womanist theology becomes a lived experience when ethics is the starting place rather than a derivative. The Western tendency is to fall into abstractions and to begin analysis from theory, while denying that the “West” does hold a cultural bias—toward the white, the male, the middle class, and the heterosexual. All else should fit these frameworks, and well, if you don’t look quite right, you can at least act right.

Womanist ethics and theology counters this trend and analyzes categories, names pain, and takes the next steps into resistance and response. This is part of the creation of what Patricia Hill Collins termed “our own standards for evaluating African American womanhood.”12 The importance of such analysis in theological construction is that it becomes the basis for viewing God with black women’s eyes, defining the holiness of our daily lives, and recognizing our moral responsibilities in light of faith.

African American women are not exclusive in these un-nailings. Other liberation theologies certainly seek to find the way to define holiness in their own ways, coming from places of pain. For instance, Chung Hyun Kyung is a Korean feminist theologian. She articulates Asian women’s theology as “marked by poverty and oppression. Colonialism, neo-colonialism, militarism and dictatorship are everyday reality for most Asian women.”13 Ada María Isasi-Díaz, a mujerista theologian, works from a Hispanic women’s view and stressed the importance of those perspectives.

As we gather and present the voices of grassroot Hispanic Women, mujerista theologians have come to understand more clearly that the conceptual frameworks and epistemological presuppositions of the world of theology cannot hold the meaning of our daily lives and our concerns, knowledge, and understandings of the divine without distorting them. The old wineskins cannot hold new wine.14

In the introduction to a volume of African women’s theology, Musa Wenkosi Dube writes about the power to speak and be heard. Without power, she contends, the powerless—“black people, women, children, many indigenous populations, people in the lower classes, homosexuals, and the ‘Two-Thirds World’ populations”—are easily manipulated by the powerful. Healing is desired and actively sought. “It is therefore fitting that African women theologians’ quest for liberation should wrestle with ‘transforming power’ in God’s household.”15

There are others—women and men—who aim for liberation and un-nailing: when the grandmother was nailed to the floor, her pain was indeed passed to other generations. Each of these theological constructions must begin with ethical analysis that dissects and deconstructs the inhibiting nails and, yes, the nail-ors and all their kin.

A bond is born in these processes of coming loose, limping, walking, and then leaping. But first, the pain of putting pen to paper.


1. Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: The Diary of a Law Professor, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 78.  
2. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), xi–xii.  
3. Rita Williams, “The Custom of the Times,” in Skin Deep: Women Writing on Color, Culture, and Identity edited by E. Featherstone (Freedom, DA: The Crossing Press, 1994), 150.  
4. Tracy Clarke, “On Your Mark . . . Get Set . . .Go!” in Skin Deep, 96–97.  
5. Cited by Frances Smith Foster in the Introduction to F. E. W. Harper, Iola Leroy, (N.Y.: Oxford Press, 1988), xxxv.  
6. J. Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988), 41, 43.  
7. Mariama Tall, “Pain.” Published with the author’s permission.  
8. Patricia Hill Collins, Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 248.  
9. Patricia Anne Johnson, “Womanist Theology as Counter-Narrative” in Gender, Ethnicity and Religion: Views from the Other Side edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,  
2002), 209.
10. Adolph Reed Jr., Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (N.Y.: The New Press, 2000), 98.  
11. Howard Winant, The World is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy since World War II (N.Y.: Basic Books,  
2001), 302.
12. Patricia Hill Collins, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” in (En)gendering Knowledge: Feminists in Academe (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991), 44.  
13. Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women’s Theology (Maryknoll,  
N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1990), 23.
14. Ada María Isasi-Díaz, En la Lucha/ In the Struggle: Elaborating a mujerista Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 65.
15. Musa Wenkosi Dube, Introduction: “Little Girl, Get Up!” in Talitha cum! Theologies of African Women edited by Nyambura J. Njoroge and Musa W. Dube (South Africa: Cluster Publications,  
2001), 8–9.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2003, Vol. 53,  No 1.