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The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness by Katie Geneva Cannon. From 'Feminist Interpretation of the Bible'

The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness

Katie Geneva Cannon

From Feminist Interpretation of the Bible
Edited by Letty M. Russell
Westminster Press Philadelphia

The feminist consciousness of Afro-American women cannot be understood and explained adequately apart from the historical context in which Black women have found themselves as moral agents. By tracking down the central and formative facts in the Black woman’s social world, one can identify the determinant and determining structures of oppression that have shaped the context in which Black women discriminately and critically interpret scripture, in order to apprehend the divine Word from the perspective of their own situation. Throughout the history of the United States, the interrelationship of white supremacy and male superiority has characterized the Black woman’s reality as a situation of struggle-a struggle to survive in two contradictory worlds simultaneously, one white, privileged, and oppressive, the other black, exploited, and oppressed. Thus, an untangling of the Black religious heritage sheds light on the feminist consciousness that guides Black women in their ongoing struggle for survival.

The Struggle for Human Dignity

The Black church is the crucible through which the systematic faith affirmations and the principles of biblical interpretation have been revealed. It came into existence as an invisible institution in the slave community during the seventeenth century. Hidden from the eyes of slave masters, Black women, along with Black men, developed an extensive religious life of their own. Utilizing West African religious concepts in a new and totally different context and syncretistically blending them with orthodox colonial Christianity, the slaves made Christianity truly their own. C. Eric Lincoln puts it this way:

The blacks brought their religion with them. After a time they accepted the white man’s religion, but they have not always expressed it in the white man’s way .... The black religious experience is something more than a black patina on a white happening. It is a unique response to a historical occurrence that can never be replicated for any people in America.’ (1)

The biblical interpretation of the antebellum Black church served as a double-edged sword. Confidence in the sovereignty of God, in an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God, helped slaves accommodate to the system of chattel slavery. With justice denied, hopes thwarted, and dreams shattered, Black Christians cited passages from the Bible that gave them emotional poise and balance in the midst of their oppression. In the prayer meetings and song services, in the sermons and spirituals, the biblical texts provided refuge in a hostile white world. Howard Thurman argued that this stance enabled enslaved Black women and Black men to make their worthless lives worth living.(2) “Being socially proscribed, economically impotent, and politically brow-beaten,” Benjamin Mays wrote, “they sang, prayed, and shouted their troubles away.” (3)

The biblical interpretation of the Black church also made the slaves discontent with their servile condition. Under slavery the Black woman had the status of property: Her master had total power over her, and she and her children were denied the most elementary social bonds-family and kinship. The Black woman was defined as “brood sow” and “work ox.” Concession was given to her gender only when it was expedient for the slaveowner. Much of the theology of this period encouraged slave women to eliminate the sources of their oppression. The Black religious experience equipped slaves with a biblical understanding that called them to engage in acts of rebellion for freedom. The faith assertions of the Black church encouraged slaves to reject any teachings that attempted to reconcile slavery with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As George Rawick points out:

It was out of the religion of the slaves, the religion of the oppressed, the damned of this earth, that came the daily resistance to slavery, the significant slave strikes, and the Underground Railroad, all of which constantly wore away at the ability of the slave masters to establish their own preeminent society.’ (4)

The slave woman’s religious consciousness provided her with irrepressible talent in humanizing her environment. Having only from midnight to daybreak to provide love and affection for her own offspring, the Black woman returned at night with leftovers, throwaways, discarded shells of the white slaveowner’s rubbish to the small, crude, squalid dwelling where she made a home for her family. Often she took into her quarters Black children whose parents had been sold away from them or they from their parents with the full knowledge that she could expect to have her own offspring with her for a few years, at the most.

When the state laws adopted the principle of partus sequitur ventrem - the child follows the condition of the mother regardless of the race of her mate- the Black woman became the carrier of the hereditary slave status. Absolving all paternal responsibilities, this principle institutionalized and sanctioned sexual prerogatives and the rape of Black women by white men. No objective circumstances such as education, skill, dress, or manner could modify this racist arrangement. The Black woman’s slave status extended to her children and her children’s children, a lifetime of abject servitude, supposedly to the infinity of time [99].

Being both slave and female, the Black woman survived wanton misuse and abuse. She was answerable with her body to the sexual casualness of “stock breeding” with Black men and to the sexual whims and advances of white men. Virtually all the slave narratives contain accounts of the high incidence of rape and sexual coercion. La Frances Rodgers-Rose, in The Black Woman, describes the sexual exploitation of the Black slave woman in this manner:

The Black woman had to withstand the sexual abuse of the white master, his sons and the overseer. A young woman was not safe. Before reaching maturity, many a Black woman had suffered the sexual advances of the white male. If she refused to succumb to his advances, she was beaten and in some cases tortured to death.(5)

White men, by virtue of their economic position, had unlimited access to Black women’s bodies. At the crux of the ideology that Black women were an inferior species was the belief that Black women, unlike white women, craved sex inordinately. “The rape of the black woman by white men or the use of their bodies for pleasure could be rationalized as the natural craving of the black women for sex, rather than the licentiousness of the white men.”(6) The mixed blood of thousands upon thousands of African peoples’ descendants is incontrovertible proof of sexual contact between white slave masters and Black slave women.

Reduced to subservient marginality, the Black slave woman was constantly being stripped of familiar social ties in order for her owner to maximize his profit. All of the Black woman’s relationships existed under the shadowy threat of a permanent separation. As an outsider in society, the Black woman lived with constant fear, and most of the time she had to endure the reality of having her husband and her children sold away from her in the likelihood that she would never see them again. Countless slave families were forcibly disrupted. “This flow of enslaved Afro-Americans must count as one of the greatest forced migrations in world history.”(7)

In nothing was slavery so savage and so relentless as in its attempted destruction of the family instincts of the negro [sic] race in America. Individuals, not families; shelters, not homes; herding, not marriages, were the cardinal sins in that system of horrors. Who can ever express in song or story the pathetic history of this race of unfortunate people when freedom came, groping about for their scattered offspring with when freedom came, groping about for their scattered offspring with only instinct to guide them, trying to knit together the broken ties of family kinship?(8)

The Black woman’s consciousness in the first two centuries of the American colonies’ existence focused on identifying resources that would help her sustain the inescapable theological attacks-either Black people were human beings and could not be property, or they were property and something less than human. “Black and white were constantly presented as antipodes, negative and positive poles on a continuum of goodness. In the minds of whites, Negroes stood as the antithesis of the character and properties of white people.”(9) All of life was graded according to an elaborate hierarchy, inherited from the Middle Ages, known as the “great chain of being.” Blacks were assigned a fixed place as an inferior species of humanity. The common property of white culture were certain preconceptions about the irredeemable nature of Black women and Black men as “beings of an inferior order,”(10) a species between animal and human. Unwavering faith in God provided Black Christians with patience and perseverance in the ongoing struggle for survival.

The Struggle Against White Hypocrisy

The institution of chattel slavery in America was destroyed by the most momentous event of the nineteenth century, the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865. Emancipation removed the legal and political slave status from approximately four million Black people in the United States, which meant that, in principle, these Blacks owned their person and their labor for the first time. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of Afro-Americans, the traditional practices of racial and gender subordination subjected them to incredible suffering after the war. The general patterns of de facto social segregation and disenfranchisement of Blacks, which were integral to the raison d etre of the peculiar institution, continued as the norm. White Southerners accepted the abolition of slavery as one of the consequences of their military defeat and surrender at Appomattox in 1865, but they were totally unwilling to grant Black women and men respect as equal human beings with rights of life, liberty, and property. The “rightness of whiteness” counted more than the basic political and civil rights of any Black person. Southern apologists received widespread acceptance from many Northerners who had opposed slavery on the ground of an indivisible United States while avidly supporting racial subordination. Many academic historians, sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, and biblical scholars dredged up every conceivable argument to justify the natural inferiority of Blacks and their natural subordination to whites. Institutional slavery ended, but the virulent and intractable hatred that supported it did not.

During the Reconstruction Era, the Black church continued to assume its responsibility for shaping the expository and critical biblical reflections that would help the adherents of the faith understand the interplay of historical events and societal structures. The biblical teachings of the church continued to develop out of the socioeconomic and political context in which Black people found themselves. In every sphere where Black people were circumscribed and their legal rights denied, the Black church called its members to a commitment of perfecting social change and exacting social righteousness here on earth. The scripture lessons that were most important after emancipation were those texts which focused on Christians working to help the social order come into harmony with the divine plan.

When the Freedmen’s Bureau was effectively curtailed and finally dismantled, Blacks were left with deadletter amendments and nullified rights acts, with collapsing federal laws and increasing white terrorist violence. Beyond the small gains and successes of a few Blacks, the optimism of ex-slaves about full citizenship was soon extinguished. Hence, the aftereffects of Reconstruction and their consequences called the Black church forth as the community’s sole institution of power. Whether urban or rural, the Black church was the only institution totally controlled by Black people. It was the only place outside the home where Blacks could express themselves freely and take independent action. The church community was the heart, center, and basic organization of Black life. And those who were the religious leaders searched the scriptures to give distinctive shapes and patterns to the words and ideas that the Black commu nity used to speak about God and God’s relationship to an oppressed people.

The Black woman began her life of freedom with no vote, no protection, and no equity of any sort. Black women, young and old, were basically on their own. The patterns of exploitation of the Black woman as laborer and breeder were only shaken by the Civil War; by no means were they destroyed. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Black women were severely restricted to the most unskilled, poorly paid, menial work. Virtually no Black woman held a job beyond that of domestic servant or field hand. Keeping house, farming, and bearing and rearing children continued to dominate all aspects of the Black woman’s life. The systematic exclusion and routinized oppression of Black females from other areas of employment served as confirmations for the continuation of the servile status of Black women. As Jeanne Noble describes it, “While freedom brought new opportunities for black men, for most women it augmented old problems.”(11) After emancipation, racism and male supremacy continued to intersect patriarchal and capitalist structures in definitive ways.

he religious consciousness of the Black freedwoman focused on “uplifting” the Black community. The Black female was taught that her education was meant not only to uplift her but also to prepare her for a life of service in the overall community. It was biblical faith grounded in the prophetic tradition that helped Black women devise strategies and tactics to make Black people less susceptible to the indignities and proscriptions of an oppressive white social order.

The unique alliance between northern missionary and philanthropic societies afforded an increasing number of Black women opportunities of education. The Black woman as educator attended Sunday services at local churches, where she often spoke in order to cultivate interest in the Black community’s overall welfare. Churchwomen were crusaders in the development of various socialservice improvement leagues and aid societies. They sponsored fund-raising fairs, concerts, and all forms of social entertainment, in order to correct some of the inequities in the overcrowded and understaffed educational facilities in the Black community. These dedicated women substantially reduced illiteracy among Black people.

The biblical teachings of the Black church served as a bulwark against laws, systems, and structures that rendered Black people as nonentities. Fearful of the emerging competitive race relations with Blacks, white America instituted a whole set of policies and customs in order to maintain white supremacy. White people wanted to regulate and eventually stamp out all notions of social equality between the races. Terror of Black encroachment in areas where whites claimed power and privileges even caused southern state legislatures to enact Black Codes, similar to slave codes, designed to limit drastically the rights of ex-slaves

Although their provisions varied among states, the Black Codes essentially prevented the freedmen from voting or holding office, made them ineligible for military service, and disbarred them from serving on juries or testifying in court against whites. Moreover, blacks were forbidden to travel from place to place without passes, were not allowed to assemble without a formal permit from authorities, and could be fined and bound out to labor contractors if they were unwilling to work.(12)

“Jim Crowism” became a calculated invidious policy to exclude the mass of Black folk from interracial contacts in public places and on public transportation facilities. With de jure segregation, civil rights for Black people fell outside the realm of legal contract. Not only were Blacks granted no protection under the law, but direct steps were taken to control even the most personal spatial and social aspects of Black life. “It became a punishable offense against the laws or the mores for whites and Negroes to travel, eat, defecate, wait, be buried, make love, play, relax and even speak together, except in the stereotyped context of master and servant interaction.” (13) Segregation took a less blatantly visible form in the North, but it was only slightly less rigid.

The Black woman’s consciousness during this period caused her to evaluate this extreme social impoverishment-caused by a panoply of state laws requiring a rigid system of segregation-as an abominable evil. She believed that Jim Crowism was contrary to nature and against the will of God. The Black church with its own ideas of morality condemned the hypocrisy of white Christians. How could Christians who were white refuse flatly and openly to treat as fellow human beings Christians who had African ancestry? Was not the essence of the gospel mandate a call to eradicate affliction, despair, and systems of injustice? The Black church’s identification with the children of Israel was a significant theme in the consciousness of the Black woman.

During the migratory period (1910-1925), the Black church was the citadel of hope. A series of floods and boll weevil infestations, diminishing returns on impoverished soil, wartime curtailment of European immigrants for industrial labor markets, and rampaging racial brutality accelerated Black emigration from South to North and from rural to urban areas. Tens of thousands of Black women and men left home, seeking social democracy and economic oppor

tunities. Black churches were used for almost every sort of activity: as boarding quarters for migrant people who had nowhere else to go, as centers for civic activities, as concert halls for artists and choirs, and as lecture rooms for public-spirited individuals. During this colossal movement of Black people, the church continued to serve as the focal point for the structure of Black life.

This accelerated movement of Blacks out of the South impinged on the Black woman’s reality in very definite ways. Black women migrated North in greater numbers than Black men.14 Economic necessity dictated that most Black women who migrated to the urban centers find work immediately. In order to survive themselves and to provide for their families, Black women once again found only drudge work available to them. Small numbers of Black women were allowed inside the industrial manufacturing system but were confined to the most tedious, strenuous, and degrading occupations

White women had no intentions of working alongside black women; even if some of them did speak of sexual equality, most did not favor racial equality .... Fear of competing with blacks as well as the possible loss of job status associated with working with blacks caused white workers to oppose any efforts to have blacks as fellow workers.(15)

The interaction of race and sex in the labor market exacted a heavy toll on the Black woman, making all aspects of migration a problem of paramount religious significance. Her experience as wife and mother, responsible for transmitting the culture, customs, and values of Black community to her children, served as a decisive factor in determining how the Bible was read and understood. At the same time that the Black woman was trying to organize family life according to her traditional roles, the male-dominated industrial society required that she serve as catalyst in the transition process. Her own unfamiliarities and adaptation difficulties had to be repressed because she was responsible for making a home in crowded substandard housing, finding inner-city schools that propagated literacy for her children, and earning enough income to cover the most elementary needs.

The struggle for justice

Black religion and the Black church served as a sustaining force, assuring boundless justice. During these stormy times, the Black church tradition renewed hope and spiritual strength, touching these women’s lives in all their ramifications, enabling migrant women to carry on in spite of obstacles and opposition. It was the interpretive principle of the Black church that guided Black women in facing life squarely, in acknowledging its raw coarseness. The white elitist attributes of passive gentleness and an enervative delicacy, considered particularly appropriate to womanhood, proved nonfunctional in the pragmatic survival of migrant Black women. Cultivating conventional amenities was not a luxury afforded them. Instead, Black women were aware that their very lives depended upon their being able to decipher the various sounds in the larger world, to hold in check the nightmare figures of terror, to fight for basic freedoms against the sadistic law enforcement agencies in their communities, to resist the temptation to capitulate to the demands of the status quo, to find meaning in the most despotic circumstances, and to create something where nothing existed before. Most of the time this was accompanied by the unceasing mumbling of prayers. “But nothin’ never hurt me ‘cause de Lawd knowed how it was.”(16)

World Wars I and II brought the most visible changes in Black life. Under coercive pressure from the Black community, the federal government was forced to take definite steps to halt discrimination in war industries. With white labor reserves depleted, large numbers of Black women and men were hired. In segregated plants and factories, Black women attained semiskilled, skilled, and supervisory positions. A few were even granted limited rights in auxiliary unions. Most Black women, however, were assigned the most arduous tasks, worked in the least skilled jobs, and received lower wages than their white counterparts.

The biblical teachings of the Black church continued to initiate and envision the fundamental truth claims operative in the community. The ministers’ expositions of the biblical faith corresponded to the efficacious ways that the Black community dealt with contingencies in the real-lived context. The scriptures made a significant difference in the notions Blacks used to see and to act in situations that confronted them .

For instance, during this period, segregation was still legally maintained in almost every area of social contact, the horrors of lynching became an accepted reality, and blackface minstrel-burlesque shows were used to reinforce the stereotype of Black people as inferior. Black churchwomen became crusaders for justice. They recorded and talked about the grimness of struggle among the least visible people in the society. Given their hostile environment, deteriorating conditions, and the enduring humiliation of the social ostracism of the war years, these women exposed the most serious and unyielding problem of the twentieth century - the single most determining factor of Black existence in America - the question of color.

In the years following the world wars, white mob violence, bloody race riots, and “hate strikes” broke out in northern and southern cities alike. Innocent Blacks were beaten, dragged by vehicles, and forced out of their homes. Substantial amounts of Black-owned property were destroyed. Throughout the country, extralegal barriers resurged to prevent social equality. Lynching, burning, castrating, beating, cross-burning, tarring and feathering, masked night rides, verbal threats, hate rallies, public humiliations, and random discharging of shotguns in windows were all used by white vigilante groups “to shore up the color line.”

Blacks served in World War II as soldiers and civilians. Thousands worked in noncombatant labor battalions. All returned home calling for the “double V”-victory abroad and victory at home. Black veterans objected to the second-class treatment traditionally accorded to them. In their cry against the ideological supremacy of racist practices and values, they appealed to the religious heritage of Blacks that began in the invisible church during slavery.

Black Womanist Consciousness

From the period of urbanization of World War II to the present, Black women find that their situation is still a situation of struggle, a struggle to survive collectively and individually against the continuing harsh historical realities and pervasive adversities in today’s world. The Korean and Vietnam wars, federal government programs, civil rights movements, and voter-education programs have all had a positive impact on the Black woman’s situation, but they have not been able to offset the negative effects of inherent inequities that are inextricably tied to the history and ideological hegemony of racism, sexism, and class privilege.

The Black woman and her family continue to be enslaved to hunger, disease, and the highest rate of unemployment since the Depression of the 1930s. Advances in education, housing, health care, and other necessities that came about during the mid- and late 1960s are deteriorating faster now than ever before. Both in informal day-to-day life and in the formal organizations and institutions in society, Black women are still the victims of the aggravated inequities of the tridimensional phenomenon of race/class/gender oppression. This is the backdrop of the historical context for the emergence of the Black feminist consciousness.

In essence, the Bible is the highest source of authority for most Black women. In its pages, Black women have learned how to refute the stereotypes that depict Black people as minstrels or vindictive militants, mere ciphers who react only to omnipresent racial oppression. Knowing the Jesus stories of the New Testament helps Black women be aware of the bad housing, overworked mothers, underworked fathers, functional illiteracy, and malnutrition that continue to prevail in the Black community. However, as God-fearing women they maintain that Black life is more than defensive reactions to oppressive circumstances of anguish and desperation. Black life is the rich, colorful creativity that emerged and reemerges in the Black quest for human dignity. Jesus provides the necessary soul for liberation.

Understanding the prophetic tradition of the Bible empowers Black women to fashion a set of values on their own terms, as well as mastering, radicalizing, and sometimes destroying the pervasive negative orientations imposed by the larger society. Also, they articulate possibilities for decisions and action which address forthrightly the circumstances that inescapably color and shape Black life. Black women serve as contemporary prophets, calling other women forth so that they can break away from the oppressive ideologies and belief systems that presume to define their reality.

Black feminist consciousness may be more accurately identified as Black womanist consciousness, to use Alice Walker’s concept and definition. (17) As an interpretive principle, the Black womanist tradition provides the incentive to chip away at oppressive structures, bit by bit. It identifies those texts which help Black womanists to celebrate and rename the innumerable incidents of unpredictability in empowering ways. The Black womanist identifies with those biblical characters who hold on to life in the face of formidable oppression. Often compelled to act or to refrain from acting in accordance with the powers and principalities of the external world, Black womanists search the scriptures to learn how to dispel the threat of death in order to seize the present life.


2: The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness

1: C. Eric Lincoln, in his foreword to William R. Jones's Is God a White Racist? (Doubleday & Co., Anchor Books, 1973), pp. vii-viii.

2. Howard Thurman, Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Friends United Press, 1975), p. 135.

3. Benjamin Mays, The Negro's God as Reflected in His Literature (Chapman & Grimes, 1938; reprint ed., Greenwood Press, 1969), p. 26.

4. George P. Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, From Sundown to Sunup (Greenwood Press, 1972), p. 51.

5. La Frances Rodgers-Rose, ed., The Black Woman (Sage Publications, 1980J, p. 20.

6. Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 (Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 13.

7. Paul A. David et al., Reckoning with Slavery: Critical Essays in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery (Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 59. For a detailed discussion of the internal slave trade, see Frederic Bancroft, Slave Trading in the Old South (Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1959).

8. A quotation by Fannie Barrier Williams in Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings, ed. by Bert James Loewenberg and Ruth Bogin (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), p. 15.

9. Henry Alien Bullock, A History of Negro Education in the South from 1619 to the Present (Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 155-156.

10. Stated by then Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case, March 1857.

11. Jeanne L. Noble, Beautiful, Also, Are the Souls of My Black Sisters: A History of the Black Woman in America (Prentice-Hall, 1978), p, 63.

12. William J. Wilson, Power, Racism, and Privilege: Race Relations in Theoretical and Sociohistorical Perspectives (Macmillan Publishing Co., 1973), p. 99.

13. Pierre L. van den Berghe, Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective (John Wiley & Sons, 1967), p. 77.

14. According to Negro Population in the United States 1790-1915, five Black women migrated out of the South for every four Black men.

15. Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, eds., The Afro-American Woman, Struggles and Images (Kennikat Press, 1978), p. 8.

16. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (J. B. Lippincott Co., 1937; reprint ed., University of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 34.

17. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), pp. xi-xii. Walker indicates that the term "Womanist" is "from womanish (opposite of'girlish,' i.e., frivolous, 'irresponsible, not serious'). A black feminist or feminist of color." Among other things she loves women, is committed to the survival of her people and their culture, loves herself. "Womanist s to feminist as purple is to lavender."

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