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July 2012

Feminist Black Women and “The Black Church”

Any Sunday that I use Twitter, I see very negative tweets from Black women who are feminists, yet still attend Judeo-Christian churches. Actually…this happens even when it is not Sunday. A weekday. Saturday. Any day.

Their tweets mention important realities about Black church culture: women having fewer leadership positions, the role of capitalism and fraud in prosperity churches, Black men being excused for wrongs and errors that Black women never are, Black women bending over backwards to please the men in their lives and in the churches, only to be told that Black women “never” support Black men.

Then there are the social issues that are rather repetitive and sometimes exploited by the media (and not in the interest of the victims, but to socially brand Blackness itself as pathological, as if the same things do not occur in other faith-based industrial complexes): child physical/sexual abuse, adultery (deemed acceptable if those in power do it, not acceptable if a member does), homophobia vs. church-accepted LGBT relationships.

I keep wondering, WHY are they still going to these churches? Why go anywhere you aren’t required to go to if you always feel worse when you leave?

I know the role of religion and church culture for Black people, examined through historical, sociopolitical, economic, political (i.e. vote/march) and familial lenses. I get this. At the same time, at some point doesn’t self-preservation have to kick in? How much emotional toil of dealing with sexism, homophobia, and scandals can one woman take? Each woman? All Black women feminists? All Black women? I tweeted once that if Black women boycotted the Black church for one week, it would collapse. Most who replied to me agreed. One person said I was wrong. He said he would give it 2 to 3 days.

Which one of these are optional?

Dealing with patriarchal misogynist men in dating/marriage.

Dealing with patriarchal misogynist men in the Black church.

Dealing with patriarchal misogynist men at the job.

Dealing with patriarchal misogynist men in society (i.e. street harassment, the media, art etc.)

Dealing with patriarchal misogynist men making political policies (most of those in elected office.)

To me, the first two feel way more optional than the rest. It’s hard to just “not work” anywhere sexism is, avoid every single male in public and altogether avoid the political system of the country that you live in (though ALL FIVE example areas need revolutionary change.) It’s much easier to simply not be a part of personal or religious relationships where sexism and other social ills dictate. I know it’s easier because I made that choice long ago. It genuinely improved my mental health by doing so. I rarely to never date. I haven’t attended a Black church since 2000 (though I visited a White one for a few months from 2008-2009, and visited a non-denominational one in another state ONCE in 2010. I haven’t been to any between these times or since the last time.) It might be a matter of finding a new way to spend personal time and a new choice of Black (and other) people with whom to congregate.

But what about “changing” this for the better? Here’s the problem. I don’t think most men, especially minority men, who desperately cling to patriarchal masculinity performance as an indicator of manhood are so easily changed that it is worth the risk of the sexism and abuse to be in a personal relationship with one trying to “change” him. That evolution needs to begin to occur BEFORE a romantic relationship forms. As for the church, HOW can the Black church reform if its core principles need hetero-patriarchy to stand on? You can repaint a house, redecorate a house but it still doesn’t change the trusses that made the foundation.

For a moment, I’ll play “devil’s advocate” to myself. The American economy—the country itself—-could not and would not exist today without the slave labor force. Period. Yet today, the economy thrives without a primarily Black slave labor force (though possibly only because of the replacement of slave labor with low paid labor, undocumented workers, Prison Industrial Complex, and third-world slave and low paid labor). The foundation itself was partially “changed,” though it is just as corrupt now as it was before, only slightly differently. My point is, even when changes to the foundation occur, the outcome may be the same. The core ideologies that make something corrupt have to change. That’s like…choosing different land to build a house on—and building it differently, not even just changing the foundation of the house, let alone the interior and exterior.

Is it the job of the feminist Black woman to try to change the Black church? Can this even be done? If the core is founded on principles that are antithetical to feminism in many ways (even if it supports a “pro-Black” dynamic, well quasi-support—-since this support is primarily for the edification and reinforcement of patriarchy), is there a way a Black woman can truly remain a believer (and attend church) but be willing to challenge patriarchy?

I had a conversation with one of my sisters about Black women and feminism, and the “doors of challenge” that I call them. The first door is challenging White women’s class-privileged feminism. The second door is challenging Black male privilege. The third door is actually seeing which Black men (in each woman’s life) are willing to embrace an ideology that will actually make their lives better, not worse: feminism. The fourth door is challenging the patriarchy of religion (i.e. the Black church). The final door is…challenging religion itself, i.e. god as “male.” (Of course there are MANY other challenges that can be discussed such as sexuality/LGBT, first-world privilege, able-bodied privilege….many things. Exploring intersectionality is more of a circle than a straight line. I mention these specific doors because from the Black women I have known my whole life, these seem to be the HARDEST for them to challenge.)

Should more Black women pursue secular feminism? I don’t know. I don’t tell anyone what to believe or not. I’m just a Black woman who identifies as a feminist, a womanist, a person who doesn’t want much to do with religion and well…I guess I just get sad seeing the abuses inflicted upon women who choose to endure church. The sad tweets just get to me…I guess.

This isn’t to say that the only goal in life should be personal happiness.  

"Personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one." - Toni Morrison

But it surely isn’t to stew in misery for the sake of tradition, especially when it’s a somewhat avoidable choice. It doesn’t mean that the reach of sexism and patriarchy through religion won’t impact our lives even if we aren’t personally involved in religion. It does mean that a Sunday can be spent peacefully, or serving people in another way, instead of stewing for hours in a place one doesn’t truly want to be at and ending that Sunday in regret.

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