"My Mother's God Is Mine": Finally the Most Powerful Recognition of the Importance of Women to African American Religion

By Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend | The Journal of African American History, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

"My Mother's God Is Mine": Finally the Most Powerful Recognition of the Importance of Women to African American Religion


Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend, The Journal of African American History


In 1938 Roberta Martin, one of the pioneers of Gospel music, published a song that interlaced her Christian experience with the historic hymn "Amazing Grace." In the song, Martin tells about her mother who enjoyed singing. From the way Martin sketches the scene, one can see a little girl sitting in her mother's lap "as she sang of God's amazing grace." Martin's mother was the young girl's first and frequent evangelist, persuading her to seek God. Believing her mother and following her mother's advice, Martin declared, "And today, my mother's God is mine." (1) Martin's experience and the powerful point of the song celebrate the cen-trality of women, especially mothers, in shaping religious experience. If we take seriously the power of mothers in African American religious history, not just Roberta Martin's mother, but al! of the praying and singing and teaching mothers and other mothers who appear throughout slave narratives and autobiographies, then we may need to re-imagine the entire span of African American religious history with women at the center.

Roberta Martin's song reminds me that I have believed for a long time that African American women are the central motor force in African American history. I have argued that black women's organizations and activities in communities, churches, and national organizations account for the organizational integrity of African American communities and social movements. W. E. B. Du Bois said as much in his 1924 volume. The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America. Along with the "gifts" of African American labor, creativity, political criticism, liberatory practices, and civic participation, Du Bois devoted an entire chapter to the role of African American women as a liberating force for all women and as agents of racial reconciliation. Du Bois pointed to the way that African American women were doing "humble but on the whole the most effective work in the social uplift of the lowly, not so much by money as by personal contact." (2) That "personal contact" occurred in African American churches, clubs, and neighborhoods generating an infrastructure of hberation and survival. Our sociological and historical focus on national leaders, usually male, and their conflicts, and on the institutions and organizations over which they had charge, led to an erasure of the indispensability of women to "the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female." (3)

Jesus, Jobs, and Justice makes clear that we can no longer explore African American life and culture as historians and social scientists without affirmatively and diligently placing women at the center of our descriptions and analyses. Encyclopedic in scope, this book makes every analysis of African American religion obsolete if that analysis does not pay substantial attention to the roles and activities of women as agents of history, community, and social change. Even Du Bois, when he offered a paradigm for African American church studies, did not, at that moment, appreciate fully the importance of placing women at the center of his analyses. In his classic essay, "Of the Faith of the Fathers," Du Bois, building on slave religion as a foundation, offered us the pillars of "the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy." (4) After more than a century, it has become clear that his paradigm needs updating in order to make it more inclusive of the reality of black religion. Instead of only "the preacher," it is necessary to focus on leadership. In addition to the music, there is the tremendous variety of creative forms that can be observed in the largest and smallest churches, including the pageantry of churches' annual days. Instead of the archaic term "frenzy," the African American emphasis on "the Spirif' is a rich focal point for theological and cultural analysis. As my students have pointed out eloquently and often, if Du Bois were alive today he would surely revise and expand his paradigm in a way that placed the spotlight on women. …

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