I have felt helpless in the past few weeks as I watched the #BlackLikeMe protests re-ignite our passions for equality and flourishing lives for all. I am not an activist, though I often feel guilty about not taking to the streets in solidarity with others. I stopped watching the news because the stories are being filtered through the lenses and voices of, for the most part, white men who broadcast the stories. This has led me back to a world I do know – the university, specifically women who teach and write theology. I want to hear the voices of Black women theologians – womanist theologians – about the protests through their lenses and interpretations.
I first learned the term womanist ten years ago when I was writing a paper on feminist theologies in the United States. As defined by noted author Alice Walker, the term womanist derives from the Black term womanish, which is opposed to “girlish” and means outrageous, audacious, courageous, or engaging in willful behavior. (In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, 1983) When an African American woman identifies herself as a womanist (and not all Black women scholars do), she proclaims who she is as woman and as Black in a world that places little value on either status. Ten years ago, through their writings, I met Delores Williams, Stephanie Mitchem, Diana L. Hayes, Karen Baker-Fletcher, and Cheryl Kirk-Duggan.
Today, I want to highlight five more prominent theologians who are African American, women who are at the forefront of conversations about womanist theology, gender, and race in the society and particularly in the Christian Church. I chose these women for three reasons: 1) they are still teaching and writing about theology and Biblical studies in the academy; 2) their books are recent publications; and 3) their lectures and sermons are accessible as YouTube videos.
The womanist theologians are presented here in alphabetical order – two in this post and three in a subsequent post. I highlighted their most recent books, and the videos of their most recent lectures and interviews. I encourage you to join me in taking time to pause, to find a quiet place to read and watch videos, and to discover the depths and wisdom these theologians have to offer.
Monica A. Coleman
Monica A. Coleman is Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Delaware. She spent more than ten years in graduate theological education at Claremont School of Theology, the Center for Process Studies and Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Answering her call to ministry at 19 years old, Dr. Coleman is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and an initiate in traditional Yoruba religion.
Video: “Fear of the Dark Is Learned Behavior”, 2018 Festival of Faiths, August 22, 2018, 16 min.
Book: Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith (Augsburg Fortress, 2016)
Monica A. Coleman’s great-grandfather asked his two young sons to lift him up and pull out the chair when he hanged himself, and that noose stayed in the family shed for years. The rope was the violent instrument, but it was mental anguish that killed him. Now, in gripping fashion, Coleman examines the ways that the legacies of slavery, war, sharecropping, poverty, and alcoholism mask a family history of mental illness. Those same forces accompanied her into the black religious traditions and Christian ministry. All the while, she wrestled with her own bipolar disorder. Bipolar Faith is both a spiritual autobiography and a memoir of mental illness. In this powerful book, Monica Coleman shares her life-long dance with trauma, depression, and the threat of death. Citing serendipitous encounters with black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Angela Davis, and Renita Weems, Coleman offers a rare account of how the modulated highs of bipolar II can lead to professional success, while hiding a depression that even her doctors rarely believed. Only as she was able to face her illness was she able to live faithfully with bipolar. And in the process, she discovered a new and liberating vision of God.
M. Shawn Copeland
Mary Shawn Copeland is Professor Emerita of Systematic Theology at Boston College. She is known for her work in theological anthropology, political theology, and African American Catholic Theology. Prior to Boston College, Dr. Copeland help posts at Xavier University of Louisiana, Yale Divinity School, and Marquette University. She was the first African American and the first African American woman to serve as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
Video: “Theology and the Weight of the World”, Yale Divinity School, February 22, 2019, 48 minutes
Book: Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, 2nd ed. (Augsburg Fortress, available November 2020)
The achievement of our humanity comes about only through immersion in concrete, visceral, embodied relational experience; yet for many human beings that achievement is stamped by the struggle against oppression in history, society, and religion. In this incisive and important work, distinguished theologian M. Shawn Copeland demonstrates with rare insight and conviction how black women’s historical experience and oppression cast a completely different light on our theological ideas about being human. Copeland argues that race, embodiment, and relations of power reframe not only theological anthropology but also our notions of discipleship, church, Eucharist, and Christ. Enfleshing Freedom is a work of deep moral seriousness, rigorous speculative skill, and sharp theological reasoning. This new edition incorporates recent theological, philosophical, historical, political, and sociological scholarship; engages with current social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo; and presents a new chapter on the body.