lectio difficilior

European Electronic Journal for Feminist Exegesis

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Valerie Bridgeman

Womanist Tribe Rising and Coalition Building in the Guild

 

I readily answered “yes” when asked to reflect on the 2018 assertion from Dr. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza that as the invitational e-mail read “progressive movements will only succeed in the neoliberal-authoritarian age if various progressive groups and organizations build strong coalitions among themselves.” I mused that since I have been thinking about Womanist survival, intersectionality, the politics of the academy, and what it means to have power or not, I would be able to whip out something in short order. The request begins to seem unbearable, if not impossible, however, as the days passed. Given the ongoing rise of authoritarianism around the globe, the task for members of the academy to amplify our work and our voices seemed inconsequential. Who is listening to us besides us, I wondered? How do we get beyond our own territorialism? What is the real goal of our coalition building?

            I revisited an essay I read first in the late 1980s to get to these questions. The Rev. Sandra Wilson wrote a brief essay, titled “‘Which Me Will Survive All These Liberations…’ on Being a Black Woman Episcopal Priest.” This essay appears in a collection of essays edited by Diana L. Eck and Devaki Jain, titled Speaking of Faith: Global Perspectives on Women, Religion, and Social Change.[1] The collection is divided into five sections, representing women’s voices from eighteen countries. No United States woman’s writing occurs until the third section titled “Changing Leadership Roles: Religious Institutions and Women’s Challenge,” the section in which Wilson’s essay appears. Wilson’s essay is the only one in the book by an African American woman, though there are black women from Africa included. Wilson’s essay seemed apropos for launching my reflection, even though her essay is not from an academic/biblical field. Her essay led me to reflect on the issue of tribalism versus affinity groups, trying to take into consideration the impact intersectionality and coalition building have on our scholarly commitments.

 

Tribalism or Affinity Groups?

 

At the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) 2016 meeting, an African American woman biblical scholar published a book arguing that Womanist biblical scholarship was, at best, inchoate in that current moment and, at worst, non-existent since its only qualifying “distinction” was that it was done by black women. I admit this characterization of her argument is simplistic. In subsequent articles and interviews, this scholar (I am deliberately relegating her name to the footnotes) made it clear that she was not a Womanist and that people “had better stop” referring to her as such.[2] I was asked to review her book, and decided not to do so, though in hindsight I should have if for no reason but to dismantle the argument that Womanist work is the only work that might be considered “essentialist” unlike any other hermeneutical lenses. Indeed, I would argue that Womanist biblical work is “particular,” “contextual,” and “political,” as is all biblical interpretation, whether acknowledged as such or not. Further, another conversation with a white Feminist woman at the same guild gathering was disheartening because, she explained to me, that there was no need for Womanist scholarship. She explained to me that feminism had taken up questions that started Womanist scholarship, i.e., class and race in addition to gender, and that Womanist scholars only divided Feminist power in the guild. That conversation was disheartening to me because it assumed that there were no Black Feminists, that Womanists have no right to name ourselves, and that our work could be so readily dismissed and coopted.

At the same time, however, several essay collections and a couple of monographs by self-described Womanist biblical scholars were either already on the market or beginning to appear.[3] What both the book I discussed above and the conversation I had pointed to for me was that Womanists’ agency assertions to center experiences of marginalized black women often is considered “tribal” and divisive. Womanist scholarship often has been relegated to one or two essays in collections edited by white Feminists, and often in the back of the collection. After years of conversations with publishers, who are gatekeepers to our work, only now are there collections of essays available that are written and edited by Womanist scholars, with more on the way.[4] In 2018, Fortress Press begun a Womanist series edited by New Testament scholars Mitzi Smith and Gay Byron. It took 30 years of arguing, publishing, and explaining ourselves in biblical scholarship, though Womanist ethicists and theologians have a longer record of publication.[5]

Now, at the very moment Womanist biblical scholars are finding power through publication and a footing - though still ghettoized and isolated - in the guild, we receive this call for coalition building. This call to coalition building can only be taken seriously, in my mind, when non-Womanist scholars agree that coalition building cannot flatten this power or subsume it. Coalitions must build power-sharing strategies that privileges those voices that have not before been privileged. I do not suggest a merely “flipping of the charts,” or reversal of fortune. I am suggesting that we must consider what changing the rules - even for an imagined liberation/freedom goal - means to those who have finally arrived at the goalpost, only to find the goalpost moved and the rules changed. This position is where I see Womanist biblical scholars in such a call.

In her essay, Rev. Wilson noted that hierarchy has been built into all institutions. So,

 

“[i]n any institution run by white males there is a need for coalition building among all on the lower rungs. We need to understand our interconnectedness and interrelatedness… and to understand that the movement forward of the black woman is our (emphasis hers) movement forward.”[6]

 

While Wilson speaks of church, I believe the same statement applies for the guild. The SBL is overwhelmingly white and male, and though women have ascended to hold office, a glance at the “traditional” sections unveil Wilson’s written truth. For Womanist scholars, dismantling hierarchy means that the circle cannot be a spiral where our work would be continually marginalized, and considered “less,” “exotic” or “peculiar.”

I am convinced that Womanist scholars need our affinity group more than ever, even as I believe we must build coalitions. We must resist the label that this group need is “tribalism” which, though not actually a pejorative term, has been used pejoratively in our current political climate. Womanist scholars need more conversations among ourselves, even while we talk with other liberationists. As an affinity group, Womanist biblical scholars have intersectionality areas among us we have yet to explore in depth, for example. We need even more intra-womanist conversations to think together about what we want to offer to a larger collaborative thriving project. We also need to build internal strategies that help us resist white supremacist patriarchal tendencies in our guild/s to crown “the one,” or “the three.” This “choosing” usually leaves behind or outside very valuable insights from Womanist biblical scholars working with an array of methodologies, resources, and commitments.

This notion that we need our affinity groups became clear to me during the year after Michael Brown was murdered[7] in Ferguson, Missouri. For a year, several black scholars from across guilds and disciplines found ourselves in conversations. In various settings, we sought to answer the call to be “a credit to our people,” an old adage black people coming up from the segregated United States south often used. I tried to address the impact of that year in an essay titled “Interpreting the Bible in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter: The Gideon Story and Scholarly Commitments,” published in Second Wave Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible.[8] In this essay, I did not privilege the text. Nor did I simply use the text as a pretext to say what I wanted to say in the first place. I chose it because the biblical text had been needling me for some time, and reading through Gideon’s predicament (i.e., “why is this trouble finding us”) provided a lens through which to read the current political, moral environment. And the current environment allowed me to see something in the Gideon story that I had overlooked when trying to see it merely through Eurocentric historical-critical methodologies. Reading through a Womanist lens and a #BlackLivesMatter methodology helped me interpret the story in a new way.

In the essay, I memorialized an event that occurred on the one-year anniversary weekend of Brown’s death, when several black scholars gathered in Ferguson to reflect on how Brown’s death and other extra-judicial killings of black people could, should, or would impact our scholarly work in the guild, in the church, and in society. In that essay, I reflected on another essay, written by Vincent Harding, titled “The Vocation of the Black Scholar and the Struggles of the Black Community,”[9] published in 1974. Any conversation about coalition building has to account for the struggle for black scholars to be more than participants in the guild, but also active resources for black communities. For black scholars it means doing our work in a way that protects the interests of vulnerable black communities. Such scholarship can never be scholarship for scholarship’s sake, or even for tenure’s sake. Neither can it be scholarship that primarily serves dominant interests. If, as Wilson says, the movement forward is black women’s movement forward, does that require in coalition building that those who have more advantage, or who are white supremacist/patriarchal adjacent agree to follow, rather than lead? Does it mean that in a circle of equals, those who have had the least power must wield the most as “power with,” elevating their voices and concerns above the din of competing commitments? Another way of asking these questions is “does all our survival depend on following survivalists?”

 

An Offering/Conclusion

 

When I began this reflection, I asked three questions: Who is listening to us besides us? How do we get beyond our own territorialism? What is the goal of our coalitions? I have reflected on these questions, though not explicitly, by lifting up the need for Womanist affinity groups. The call for affinity groups among Womanist scholars is not a call to close off from dialogic coalition building to which this panel calls us. Rather, affinity needs is a call to work together on our own intersectional work. We must continue to perceive how Womanists are not just United States-citizen black women and to delineate how not all black women scholars are womanists. We must explore how our variety of layered identities impact our work. We must interrogate what it means that we are also immigrants, differently bodily able, queer, working poor, activists, and more. As Wilson’s essay suggested, we cannot cordon off any section of us in order to be in conversations; we cannot compartmentalize our lives. There is no “work-life” balance to maintain; there is only the goal in which all thrive in every way thriving may be defined.

Womanists have to continue to be decidedly ideological in our work. We have to privilege the most vulnerable black populations, while also resisting what has been termed “the Oppression Olympics,”[10] the game where we spend more energy on who is most oppressed than we spend on how to be free in this current world. Whatever Womanists decide about coalition building, we must do so without compromising our commitments to our communities of accountability, or better, without privileging the guild to the detriment of our communities or our health. We must not diminish our own scholarship, acquiescing to some form of coalition building that calls for an amalgamation of “liberations” that hides our concerns within larger concerns.

I am deeply aware that any affinity group could make these same arguments for themselves, and along the same schema, and perhaps that is the call for us all. How do we, as Rev. Wilson calls for, find a “sense of the commonalities of our struggles”?[11] What is our Venn diagram, those points of commonalities that also recognizes the gifts of our differences? How do we amplify our voices in a way that is a symphony and not a cacophony, so that we are not the only ones listening to us? How do we honor the need for affinity conversations, while refusing to bunker down and not engage others in common cause? How do we agree upon common goals, while acknowledging that different affinity groups may need us only to affirm and support their goals in the spirit of “none of us is free until all of us are free”? These questions are what I bring to the conversation. I also bring my hope that we will find some way forward. 



[1] Sandra Wilson, “‘Which Me Will Survive All These Liberations…’ on Being a Black Woman Episcopal Priest,” 130137, in Speaking of Faith: Global Perspectives on Women, Religion, and Social Change, edited by Diana L. Eck and Devaki Jain (New Society Publishers, 1987).

[2] Around 24 minutes in, https://podtail.com/podcast/onscript/nyasha-junior-an-introduction-to-womanist-biblical/. Nyasha Junior notes that people identify her as a womanist because she wrote about it, but she is not. Nyasha Junior, An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation (Westminster/John Knox, 2015). In the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Antonio (2016), she told the gathered scholars that she named the book “Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation” even though she does not address Womanist scholarship, and then only polemically, at page 96 of a 131-page book, “because I knew you all would buy it. It was a marketing tool.” The book’s back cover is affirmed by a black male scholar and a Womanist theologian, but no Womanist biblical scholar, of which there are several.

[3] Mitzi Smith, ed., I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader (Cascade Books, 2015) and several essays in a variety of collections, for example. Also, now Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Westminster/John Knox, 2017) and Mitzi Smith, Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation (Cascade Books, 2018).

[4] Fortress Press has a Womanist biblical series now that is edited by biblical scholars Gay Byron and Mitzi Smith.

[5] For example, Emilie Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Black Religion/Womanist Thought/Social Justice) (Palgrave/McMillan, 2007); Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Orbis Books, 1993); Katie Canon, Emilie Townes, and Angela Sim, Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (Library of Theological Ethics) (Westminster/John Knox, 2011), etc.

[6] Wilson, “‘Which Me Will Survive,” 132.

[7] I am aware that Darren Wilson was not convicted of murder, but non-conviction is not the same as “not guilty.”

[8] Valerie Bridgeman, “Interpreting the Bible in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter: The Gideon Story and Scholarly Commitments,” 311325, in Second Wave Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible, edited by Marianne Grohmann and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (SBL Press, 2019). A version of the essay was first presented in the Minoritized Criticism and Biblical Interpretation Section of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2017. I presented “‘A Long Ways from Home:’ Displacement, Lament, and Singing Protest in Psalm 137,” at the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament in Stellenbosch (2016), which was my earlier attempt to take seriously the conversations during that year. That essay was later published in a Festschrift for Dr. William “Bill” Bellinger in 2018 in Perspectives in Religious Studies 44 (2017), 213223.

[9] Vincent Harding, “The Vocation of the Black Scholar and the Struggles of the Black Community,” in Education and Black Struggle: Notes from the Colonized Word, edited by the  Institute of the Black World (Harvard Educational Review, 1974).

[10] I was unable to determine where this term first appears, but Mary Pender Greene defines it as “The Oppression Olympics are an one-upmanship dynamic that can arise within debates amongst people who adhere to the ideological values of identity politics, intersectionality and social privilege” on her site, “Undoing Racism Resources,” https://www.marypendergreene.com/bookshelf/oppression-olympics.php. A Wikipedia article (not scholarly) notes the term appears in 1993 in an interview with Chicana feminist Elizabeth “Betita” Martínez, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppression_Olympics.

[11] Wilson, “‘Which Me Will Survive,” 137.

 


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Valerie Bridgeman, is Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Homiletics and Hebrew Bible at Methodist Theological School in Ohio in Delaware, OH. Her research interests include Womanist and feminist thought in biblical interpretation; interdisciplinary approaches to the use of scripture in homiletics; cultural criticism; interdisciplinary approaches to bible and arts; hermeneutics; postcolonial interpretations of texts; and rhetoric for preaching.
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© Valerie Bridgeman, 2020, lectio@theol.unibe.ch, ISSN 1661-3317

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