WOMANIST THEOLOGY, EPISTEMOLOGY, AND A NEW ANTHROPOLOGICAL
by Linda E. Thomas
Womanist theologians can bring the experience and knowledge of the marginalized to
the center by standing aside to let the community speak for itself.
LINDA E. THOMAS is Assistant Professor of Theology and Anthropology at
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
Womanist theology is an emergent voice of African American Christian women in the
United States. Employing Alice Walker's definition of womanism in her text In Search
of Our Mothers' Garden, black women in America are calling into question their
suppressed role in the African American church, the community, the family, and the larger
society. But womanist religious reflection is more than mere deconstruction. It is, more
importantly, the empowering assertion of the black woman's voice. To examine that voice,
this essay divides into three parts. First, I look at the overall state of womanist
theology. Its development denotes a novel reconstruction of knowledge, drawing on the
abundant resources of African American women since their arrival to the "New
World," as well as a creative critique of deleterious forces seeking to keep black
women in "their place." Next, I sort through a womanist reconstruction of
knowledge. In an intentional manner, I unpack the contours of the knowledge-formation
claims which undergird womanist theology. And last, based on womanist theology as an
instance of new knowledge and based on a conceptual investigation of some epistemological
presuppositions, I advance a new anthropology of religion paradigm for the continued
development of womanist theology.
Womanist Theology in the USA
Womanist theology is critical reflection upon black women's place in the world that God
has created and takes seriously black women's experience as human beings who are made in
the image of God. The categories of life which black women deal with daily (that is, race,
womanhood, and political economy) are intricately woven into the religious space that
African American women occupy. Therefore the harmful and empowering dimensions of the
institutional church, culture, and society impact the social construction of black
womanhood. Womanist theology affirms and critiques the positive and negative attributes of
the church, the African American community, and the larger society.
Womanist theology's goals are to interrogate the social construction of black womanhood
in relation to the African American community. The normative discourse among African
American women creates the space for an energetic claiming of the life stories of African
American women and their contribution to the history of the United States and the African
diaspora. An additional way of achieving this goal is to engage in a critical conversation
with black (male) theology so that a full theology for the African American community can
emerge from that dialogue. Likewise the pursuance of the black family's sanctity ranks
high on the womanist's theological agenda. Another the goal of womanist theology is to
unearth the ethnographic sources within the African American community in order to
reconstruct knowledge and overcome subordination. And, finally, womanist theology seeks to
decolonize the African mind and to affirm our African heritage.
Womanist theology engages the macro-structural and the micro-structural issues that
affect black women's lives and, since it is a theology of complete inclusivity, the lives
of all black people. The freedom of black women entails the liberation of all peoples,
since womanist theology concerns notions of gender, race, class, heterosexism, and
ecology. Furthermore, it takes seriously the historical and current contributions of our
African forebears and women in the African diaspora today. It advances a bold leadership
style that creates fresh discursive and practical paradigms and "talks back"
(hooks 1988) to structures, white feminists, and black male liberation theologians.
Moreover, womanist theology asserts what black women's unique experiences mean in relation
to God and creation and survival in the world. Thus the tasks of womanist theology are to
claim history, to declare authority for ourselves, our men, and our children, to learn
from the experience of our forebears, to admit shortcomings and errors, and to improve our
quality of life.
Womanist theology assumes a liberatory perspective so that African American women can
live emboldened lives within the African American community and within the larger society.
Such a new social relationship includes adequate food, shelter, clothing -- and minds
which are free from worries so that there can be space for creative modalities.
Womanist theology draws on sources that range from traditional church doctrines,
African American fiction and poetry, nineteenth-century black women leaders, poor and
working class black women in holiness churches, and African American women under slavery.
In addition, other vital sources include the personal narratives of black women suffering
domestic violence and psychological trauma, the empowering dimensions of conjuring and
syncretic black religiosity, and womanist ethnographic approaches to excavating the life
stories of poor women of African descent in the church.
Womanist theology, moreover, grasps the crucial connection between African American
women and the plight, survival, and struggle of women of color throughout the world.
Womanist theology intentionally pursues and engages the cultural contexts of women who are
part of the African diaspora, for instance. To enhance the dialogical networking among
women of color all over the globe, the methodology of anthropology, a key discipline
within the social sciences, aids womanist theology in this engagement. Anthropological
methodology encourages womanist religious scholars to embrace the cultural, symbolic, and
ritual diversity dispersed throughout the religious lives of women of color on
Womanist theology takes seriously the importance of understanding the
"languages" of black women. There are a variety of discourses deployed by
African American women based on their social location within the black community. Some
black women are economically disadvantaged and suppressed by macro-structures in society.
Other African American women are workers whose voices are ignored by the production needs
of the capitalist world order. Some other voices are dramatically presented in the faith
speech of black women preachers. And still other articulations are penned in the annals of
the academy. Womanist theology showcases the overlooked styles and contributions of all
black women whether they are poor, and perhaps illiterate, or economically advantaged and
"Ph.D.'ed." Womanists bring forth the legacy of our grandmamas and great
grandmamas and carry their notions in the embodiment of life that we create daily. This
language of black women is understood by black women; it accentuates intra-group talk. It
is a language of compassion, and yet it is no-nonsense. The words and actions of this
language oppose sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and abuse to any of God's
creation. It is a language that respects the natural environment in the fullness of
The method of womanist theology validates the past lives of enslaved African women by
remembering, affirming, and glorifying their contributions. After excavating analytically
and reflecting critically on the life stories of our foremothers, the methodology entails
a construction and creation of a novel paradigm. We who are womanists concoct something
new that makes sense for how we are living in complex gender, racial, and class social
configurations. We use our foremothers' rituals and survival tools to live in hostile
environments. Moreover, we gather data from a reservoir of bold ideas and actions from
past centuries to reconstruct knowledge for an enhanced and liberating quality of life for
black women today. The weaving of the past into present knowledge construction produces a
polyvalent self-constituting folk-culture of African American women. In other words, the
past, present, and future fuse to create a dynamic multi-vocal tapestry of black women's
In addition to unearthing the sources of the past in order to discover fragments to
create a narrative for the present and the future, womanist methodology comprises active
engagement with marginalized African American women alive today. Ethnographic methodology
necessitates our entering the communities of these women, constituting focus groups and
utilizing their life experiences as the primary sources for the development of questions
which establish a knowledge base from everyday people. These questions are then refined by
the womanist scholar as she reflects on the initial conversations with her focus groups.
Further refining takes place when the womanist scholar conducts a pilot study in which she
ascertains whether the questions asked fit the context of poor black women and where she
also learns the nuances needed for the sensibilities of the culture in which she is
operating. Employing the context and knowledge base derived from the focus and pilot
groups, she launches a larger and more comprehensive ethnographic research study by living
among the people, thereby encountering their symbolic cosmology. In this living and
learning process, these women evolve into the womanist scholar's teachers. The task thus
becomes the production with integrity of the story of these poor people's lives and the
reflection of their polyvalent voices. They have created space for the scholar in their
communities, and now she creates space for their stories in their own words reflected in
her publications. The womanist ethnographer entrusts to the reader these narratives for
interpretation, assuming that many truths will emerge, transformation will occur, and
readers will learn from those not usually given voice. Furthermore, the African American
female scholar risks becoming emotionally connected to these people's lives as she
reenters the community on a regular basis, and understands that she has familial
obligations to the people about whom she writes. Thus womanist theology is a longitudinal
Names associated with the emergence of womanist theology in the U.S.A. are Katie
Cannon, Emilie Townes, Jacqueline Grant, Delores Williams, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Kelly
Brown Douglas, Renita Weems, Shawn Copeland, Clarice Martin, Francis Wood, Karen
Baker-Fletcher, Jamie Phelps, Marcia Riggs, and Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. We are university,
seminary, and divinity school professors. We are ordained and lay women in all the
Christian denominations. Some of us are full-time pastors; some are both pastor and
professor. We are preachers and prayer warriors. We are mothers, partners, lovers, wives,
sisters, daughters, aunts, nieces -- and we comprise two-thirds of the black church in
America. We are the black church. The church would be bankrupt without us and the church
would shut down without us. We are from working-class as well as middle-class backgrounds.
We are charcoal black to high yellow women. We love our bodies; we touch our bodies; we
like to be touched; we claim our created beauty. And we know that what our minds forget
our bodies remember. The body is central to our being. The history of the African American
ordeal of pain and pleasure is inscribed in our bodies.
Womanist theology associates with and disassociates itself from black (male) theology
and (white) feminist theology. The point of departure for black theology is white racism.
Since white supremacy is a structure that denies humanity to African American people,
black liberation theology examines the gospel in relationship to the situation of black
people in a society that discriminates on the basis of skin color. Within black theology,
the exodus story is a hermeneutical device used to draw a parallel between the oppressed
Israelites and the oppressed African American community. Consequently, the liberation of
the Israelites represents symbolically God's freeing of black people. First generation
black (male) theologians did not understand the full dimension of liberation for the
special oppression of black women; this was its shortcoming. To foster the visibility of
African American women in black God-talk, womanist theology has emerged.
Unlike black theology with its emphasis on race, feminist theology addresses the
oppression of women, though primarily white women. The project of feminist theology did
not deal with the categories of race and economics in the development of its theological
discourse. As important as the work of feminist theology has been, its shortcoming is its
lack of attention to the everyday realities of African American and other women of color.
It is therefore not a universal women's theology and does not speak to the issue of all
women. In a related fashion, too often white feminist theology creates a paradigm over
against men; it is an oppositional theological discourse between females and males. In
contrast, womanist theology recognizes patriarchal systems as problematic for the entire
black community -- women, men, and children. Moreover certain feminist theological trends
regard the institutional church as a patriarchal space anathema to women, thus advising
women to abandon the ecclesiastical mainstream. For African American women however, the
black church has been the central historical institution which has helped their families
survive. Womanist theology, at the same time, would critique the black church,
particularly black male pastors' inappropriate relations with black female members.
Womanist theology concurs with black theology and feminist theology on the necessity of
engaging race and gender in theological conversation. But womanist theology demands a God
talk and God walk which is holistic, seeking to address the survival and liberation issues
of women, men, children, workers, gays and lesbians, as these relate to local and global
economies and the environment.
A Womanist Perspective on Reconstructing Knowledge
Womanist theology is in the midst of reconstructing knowledge, not only for the broad
"mainstream" parameters of knowing but even for black male and feminist
theologies. Thus, as womanist scholars of religion advance a new epistemology of holistic
survival and liberation, a more intentional understanding of reconstructed knowledge
processes is warranted.
Admittedly, reconstructing knowledge is like tearing down a formidable edifice that has
been built over an extensive number of years. The structure was designed by architects who
had a clear vision of what the end product would be like and used only the most advanced
technical devices for its erection. The architects guaranteed that the materials used
would be permanent and indestructible. The building is, of course, our minds and the
architects are those who historically have represented patriarchal, white European
cultures. A womanist, in her reconstruction of knowledge, must not only be a diligent
craft person, she must develop an approach that utilizes the kind of technology that can
dismantle the seeming indestructibility of the original building materials.
Human beings acquire knowledge through culture, most often obtaining it through the
culture into which we are born. We procure knowledge in the same manner that our lungs
receive oxygen. It is a conscious and unconscious process that systematically and
deliberately pervades our minds and senses. Amassing knowledge is the process of becoming
persons who "know." Who know what? It is knowing the things that are essential
for living. For white patriarchal culture in the North American context, it is knowing how
to dominate. In an adverse manner, for most people of color in the United States, it is
knowing how to survive in white culture.
The people with whom we interact and the environment in which we mature, especially
during our formative years, determine the kind of knowledge we acquire. Hence, to get a
sense of the attitudes and assumptions that were and are the bricks of the building which
houses our knowledge, we have to revisit whom and what has impacted our lives from the
earliest days. I call this foundational period our encounter with our "culture of
origin." Therefore the culture of origin of excluded voices becomes an important
aspect of reconstructing knowledge.
As Andersen and Collins suggest, the primary question that must be asked in considering
the reconstruction of knowledge is: "Who has been excluded from what is known and how
might we see the world differently if we acknowledge and value the experiences and
thoughts of those who have been excluded?" (1992:1). The knowledge we acquire from
formal institutions derives from the ideas, philosophies, and histories of the privileged;
more specifically, it is information about people who wrote down their histories and their
ideas. Chroniclers of the human historical record did not consider people with oral
traditions to be essential for cultivating the Western mind set. Even when non-western
people had written texts, such as the Aztecs, they were ignored. Thus, the knowledge that
we have gained is knowledge by and about the privileged. How do we know this is the case?
Let us turn once again to Andersen and Collins, who ask:
How else can we explain the idea that democracy and egalitarianism were defined as
central cultural beliefs in the nineteenth century while millions of African-Americans
were enslaved? Why have social science studies been generalized to the whole population
while being based only on samples of men? The exclusion of women, African-Americans,
Latinos, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, and other groups from formal scholarship has
resulted in distortions and incomplete information not only about the experiences of
excluded groups but also about the experience of more privileged groups. (1992:1)
Our knowledge base has been exclusionary and now the building that houses our knowledge
is being meticulously dismantled, a dynamic which will eventually fashion a more
diversified and inclusive edifice, even if it takes several generations. For instance,
there are scholars of all persuasions and backgrounds who are committed to adding
diversity to the way that knowledge is constructed. Thus, scholars adhering to a
transformation and reconstruction of knowledge paradigm are discovering and accenting
those marginalized ways of knowing which have been suppressed and dominated by the
discourses which govern our societies.
What are the dominant cultural themes with which we are living? We may believe that the
culture with which we are most familiar is the dominant one, but that is not always nor
necessarily the case. Renato Rosaldo in Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social
Analysis examines a university in California that was reviewing its first-year core
curriculum.(1) There was an assumption on the part
of many faculty, who had been teaching for several years, that the course,
"Introduction to Western Civilization," would naturally be continued without any
revisions. When faculty members with alternative pedagogical perspectives began to raise
questions about whether this was the best course to undergird first year students living
in a rapidly changing world, many who sought to maintain the status quo were surprised.
The latter posed adamantly the following query: Why shouldn't that which had worked over
many years be continued? In response, those who proposed a revamped curriculum argued:
Mainly, because what was assumed to work may have worked for some, but not for all.
From such a highly charged intellectual debate, we can discern how marginalized and
locked-out voices are speaking up in a forceful manner. Consequently a radical shift must
take place in our thinking because monovocal myth is being dislodged and a truth of
inclusivity is being restored. Reconstructing knowledge means tearing down myths that have
paralyzed communities, and recreating truths which have been buried in annals that contain
vast sources of knowledge. In brief, I am talking about knowledge construction that is
inclusive. Inclusive construction of knowledge denotes exploring sources that culturally
may be vastly different from our own epistemological points of departure. It may be
knowledge based on human experience as well as theory; and it decidedly involves inclusion
of the ideas, theories, orientations, experiences, and worldviews of persons and groups
who have previously been excluded. When such views are included, we infuse the Eurocentric
and male construction of knowledge with other vitally important constructions. The
normative Eurocentric male construction of knowledge, while construed to be universal, is
but one perspective now undergoing supplementation and correction.
Womanist theologians bring to the center the experience and knowledge of those
marginalized by a complex layering and overlapping by race, gender, and class experiences
of all groups, inclusive of those with privilege and power. Thus, as we explore this
multiple effect dynamic, we pose the question: If historically suppressed voices were
central to our thought processes, would our conception of the world and analytical
sensibilities be any different? If we pursue such epistemological dynamics as the
personal/experiential or theoretical/scholarly, what influence would this endeavor have on
the reconstruction of knowledge? (See Andersen and Collins 1992:2). Womanist theologians,
in a word, retrieve sources from the past, sort and evaluate materials, and thereby
construct new epistemologies that effect change in the space and time occupied by
A New Paradigm for Womanist Theology
The overwhelming majority of contemporary womanist religious scholars rely primarily on
written texts, such as, fiction, biography, and autobiography. I agree with the value of
these crucial sources and methodological approaches; however, I urge that we examine
further our procedural tools of analysis. Not only should womanist scholars include
historical texts and literature in our theological constructs and reconstruction of
knowledge, but we should also embrace a research process which engages poor black women
who are living human documents. This is a very appropriate way to access the direct speech
(e.g., the primary textual narrative) of subordinated African American women who are in
our midst. That is to say, we must view books written about poor black women as secondary
sources and employ anthropological techniques to collect stories and publish ethnographies
of women who are still alive. The direct speech of marginalized black women invites a
community of readers to participate in the interpretive process. For instance, by
providing the unedited testimonies of poor African American women, readers can thereby
glean for themselves that which is important for them. Such a hermeneutical undertaking
removes the monopolizing interpretive power of the ethnographer.
Moreover, such an approach would utilize what Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau called in
the title of his book A Return to the Source (Cabral 1973), which positions
culture as an integral component of the history of a people and which also explores the
dynamic between culture and its material base (e.g., its class position). The level and
mode of production determine dominant cultural forms. Thus, he asserted that: "A
people who free themselves from foreign domination will not be free unless they return to
the upwards paths of their own culture" (142-43). From this perspective, culture is a
historically contested resource struggled over by those working for or against social
change to justify their respective standpoints (Thornton 1988:24). This definition
supports the earlier notion of knowledge being distributed and controlled. Therefore, if
womanist scholars would collect data out of the context of the poor and working-class
culture of black women who are living, womanists would act as intentional agents in the
control and distribution of knowledge. Such a project would be greatly enhanced by a
critical interchange of and solidarity with the narratives of similar women on the African
continent as well as others in the third world or "two-thirds world."
A womanist anthropology of survival and liberation is a new paradigm for the
twenty-first century. This novel model deploys a self-reflective sensitivity about the
historical factors giving rise to oppressed voices, specifically for my purposes, the
production of political economy and its impact on marginalized African American women. An
interpretive anthropological approach (e.g., the intentional assertion of poor and
working-class black women's voices) therefore augments an analytical methodology for the
womanist scholar that invokes the African American woman's perspective and clarifies how
diverse cultural productions of everyday life influence the decisions and practices which
womanists make and implement in their lives.(2)
For womanist scholars who wish to employ the ethno-historical approach, there are
anthropological theories that may be applied to the historical text which conveys
knowledge about the womanist subject. The histories of poor and working class black women
arise out of specific contextual locations. Interpretive anthropological conceptual
frameworks, therefore, guard against ahistorical methods and magnify the particular
textures of these women's social and cultural locations. This process of theoretical
application to primary data will enable the womanist religious scholar to access the
subject's systems of cultural meaning in order to let as much of the subject's life story
in historical context emerge as possible.(3)
In addition to the interpretive anthropological approach, with its accent on
specificity of cultural location, an anthropological concern for political economy is
warranted. Within the historical contexts of poor and black women, the womanist religious
scholar must interrogate the nature of the power and resource configurations present; that
is, who has influence derived from ownership and distribution of wealth? At the same time,
we must not be provincial in our analysis, for local economies themselves are
contextualized and implicated in global political economies. It is imperative for womanist
scholars to "find effective ways to describe how [marginalized African American
women] are implicated in broader processes of historical political economy" (Marcus
and Fisher 1986:44).(4)
Ideally the womanist religious scholar is an indigenous anthropologist -- that is, one
who reflects critically upon her own community of origin and brings a sensitivity to the
political, economic, and cultural systems which impact poor and working class black women
being studied. At the same time, she gives priority to the life story of the subject in a
way that underscores the narratives of a long line of subjugated voices from the past to
Womanist theology is the positive affirmation of the gifts which God has given black
women in the U.S.A. It is, within theological discourse, an emergent voice which advocates
a holistic God-talk for all the oppressed. Though centered in the African American woman's
reality and story, it also embraces and stands in solidarity with all suppressed subjects.
In a word, womanist theology is a theory and practice of inclusivity, accenting gender,
race, class, sexual orientation, and ecology. Because of its inclusive methodology and
conceptual framework, womanist theology exemplifies reconstructed knowledge beyond the
monovocal concerns of black (male) and (white) feminist theologies.
Such a reconstructed knowledge (e.g., an epistemology of holistic inclusivity,
survival, and liberation) serves as a heuristic for the broader notion of recreating
knowledge and thereby offers some elements for a theoretical conversation. Womanist
epistemological insights suggest the importance of commencing with all who have been left
out of reflection upon a society, both its past and present.
The current state of womanist theology and its implications for larger reconstructed
knowledge conversations are advanced further with an imaginative womanist anthropological
paradigm. Here we note the importance of secondary materials about African American women,
but underscore the decisive role of fieldwork among poor and working-class black women
living today. Out of an emphasis on their historical and cultural specificities and the
impact of political economy, a creative model emerges where the voices and meaning of the
anthropological subjects themselves move to the foreground. And simultaneously the power
of the womanist religious scholar, as researcher, does not impede the presentation of data
which invites the reader of ethnographic work to enter the interpretive dialogue with the
voices of marginalized black women.
Andersen, Margaret L., and Patricia Hill Collins, eds. Race, Class, and Gender: An
Anthology. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing, 1992.
Cabral, Amilcar. Return to the Source. New York: Monthly Review
hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End
Marcus, George E., and M. Fischer. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An
Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago
Rosaldo, Renato. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston:
Beacon Press, 1989.
Thornton, R. "Culture." In South African Keywords, ed.
E. Boonzaier and E. Sharp. Cape Town: David Philip, 1988, pp. 17-28.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace
1. [Back to text] See Rosaldo 1989:x for
details about Stanford University's "Western Culture Controversy."
2. [Back to text] See Marcus and Fischer
1986:25 for an analysis of interpretative anthropology.
3. [Back to text] For an explanation for
how anthropological theory has accented the subject's own life story, see Marcus and
Fischer's discussion of the "native point of view" (1986:25).
4. [Back to text] Marcus and Fischer
(1986:25-44) summarize two approaches to anthropological methodology. One deals with
interpretation which accents culture (i.e., values) and the other underscores the
relationship between particular ethnographies and global economies.
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