Womanist Humanism: A Deeper Look

By Harris, Melanie L. | Cross Currents, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Womanist Humanism: A Deeper Look


Harris, Melanie L., Cross Currents


Womanist Humanism is a hermeneutic within the study of Black religion. It combines aspects of a black humanist "nitty-gritty hermeneutic" (1) with womanist analysis to provide a fresh mode of inquiry into the "complex subjectivity" (2) of womanist identity. At the same time that this mutually enhancing hermeneutic looks at religious plurality within womanism, it also examines the theoretical framework of black humanism, giving attention to the lack of female voices represented in the perspective. Questions that arise from the womanist analysis applied in the approach include: Are there sexist norms embedded in the framework of black humanism? Is the concept of the self in black humanism limited to a male gendered self; thereby making the thought less accessible to womanist theological perspectives?' Would reawakening the dormant "weak humanist," (3) theistic perspective within black humanism make it more accessible? As a new approach within the study of Black religion, womanist humanism contributes to the field by furthering the development of both womanist religious thought and black humanist perspectives.

Womanist Roots

Womanist theological perspectives emerged in the early 1980s as black women scholars in the fields of theology, ethics, biblical studies, history and sociology of religion began problematizing and critiquing the ways racist, sexist and classist ideologies were sewn into dominant Christian, black liberation and feminist theological perspectives. While black women scholars including Katie G. Cannon, Jacquelyn Grant and Delores S. Williams found some of the theological categories and constructs within Christian perspectives familiar, they argued that black women's experiences of and resistance to racism, classism and, sexism shaped their theological perspectives. The theological lens through which black women examined traditional Christian categories caused them to interpret the meaning and significance of certain categories differently and place less emphasis on some constructs and more on others. (4) Prioritizing the theo-ethical perspectives, communal and social actions of black women and black women foremothers also shed additional 'womanist light' on notions of Christian morality, and ethical approaches. (5)

Black women scholars found that white feminist theological perspectives helped to uncover ways in which dominant theological ideas perpetuated gender oppression and agreed that feminist perspectives provided helpful methodologies to critique patriarchy. However, they insisted that feminist theological analytical critique did not go far enough. It fell short in that it did not include racial analysis. Thus it allowed white feminism to fight against gender oppression while maintaining a heavy layer of racial oppression used against black women and other women of color. Racial analysis was central to black male theological perspectives; however, the black male perspectives lacked attention to gender analysis. Some black theologies were laden with sexist ideology and black women scholars found that this fact left black theology itself open to critiques of sexism. They questioned whether black theology's goal of empowerment for black people included the empowerment of black women. They found it necessary to push black male theologians to incorporate the voices, experiences and theological perspectives of black women in their ideas of black liberation.

Black women scholars also found it imperative to critically assess the role male dominated theological ideas had on the practice of sexism within black churches. Many male black church leaders claimed that there was theological and biblical grounding to relegate the roles of women in church, and limit the opportunities for women to hold ecclesiastical leadership positions. Calling sexism a necessary category of contemplation for black church leaders and arguing that interrelated black feminist race-class-gender analysis be used in the methods, practice and pedagogy of black liberation thought, the "confessional" (6) generation of womanist theology and ethics moved to establish a new theological perspective, womanism, that would center the theological voices and theo-ethical reflections of black women. …

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