Re-Reading for Liberation: African American Women and the Bible

Re-Reading for Liberation: African American Women and the Bible

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Understanding the necessity for comprehensive cultural diversity in biblical hermeneutics—even women’s biblical hermeneutics, can be wrapped up in Katherine O’Connor’s statement, re-articulated by Renita Weems, “we are drenched in our context.[1]” In other words, the greatest shortfall for those of us who proclaim to think and act theologically is our understanding of context. Sharon Ringe and Frederick Tiffany in their book, A Roadmap to Biblical Interpretation, teach that it is necessary to start by analyzing one’s own context; by understanding that who we are and how we view the world around us colors the way in which we evaluate the Biblical text. However, the problem with most biblical scholars is that their work begins and ends with their context; there is not enough concerted effort to reach beyond the bounds of what works for the person analyzing the text. This shortsightedness provides for a limited, and sometimes dangerous, understanding of where the text can lead the larger community of people who are steep in the Biblical canon. Renita Weems argues that in order for us to come to a deeper and more relevant understanding of the power of Biblical reading, the collective community of scholars and practitioners must not only acknowledge but comprehend the breadth of existences that shape the field of exegetical study. Weems particular interest is in the existence and formation of womanist identity and scholarship, relative to the larger academic community.

Womanist thought is berthed out of the failure of both feminists and black liberationists to acknowledge the unique and particular struggles of African American women. In essence, womanism affords African American women the opportunity to re-claim identity, relevance, and substance within the academy and within the larger context of social struggle. Weems is correct; the tendency amongst feminist and Black liberationist communities is to assume that their experiences are universal in their approached to marginalized individuals within that group. What can be unfairly extrapolated from such an ideology is that by a simple “mix and serve” model of theology, African American women can find their voice in the Bible.  In doing this, people fail to acknowledge the other barriers and issues that Black woman face in their reality; it ignores how these two marginalized come together with the added issues of classism and other spheres of violence that colors African American female struggles. As a result, Weems rightly asserts that “every marginalized group has a right and duty to name its own reality[2]”  As a part of owning that reality and giving it voice, Weems also gives African American women license to reject ownership of stories that stand in conflict or hostility to our existence. Too often in our marginalized placed as womanist scholars, we attempt to glean glorified Divine presence and relevance out of something that is contentious to our identity because that is what the church and society has pushed us into.

Finally, if W.E.B. Dubois points us, sociologically, to the “two-ness” of Black people in America as being both African and American and the duality of the experience, Weems likewise points us in the direction of the “three-ness” of African American woman. Weems directs us towards being African, American, and woman; and owning the tension that exists between those identities. Out of Weems assertions we come to an understanding that a pluralistic identity necessitates a pluralistic understanding of text. In that way even those of us are marginalized must acknowledge the places in which we assume places of privilege. We must acknowledge that in different contexts, as African American women, we assume places of authority within the context of the “two-thirds” world. Owning that place of privilege relative to our places of disenfranchisement allows us the opportunity to step into different understandings of the text that we might otherwise rage against. It is an understanding that at moments in life we identify with the slave and other times where we identify as the master depending on where we find ourselves situated in the moment. Ultimately, what Weems points us to is the idea that we must be able to start and finish with context, but that we must be willing to start with our own context and live into our own context but also understand and maybe even end up in a place in which our contextual understanding is an amalgamation of those experiences that are our own and others. In addition, in owning our context we must understand the multi-layered, multi-dimensional, nuanced understanding of what our context actually is. If, as Weems claim is true, and I believe it to be, that African American women relate to stories, then we must be willing to claim the reality that our diverse collective and individual stories bring a complex, different, sometimes contentious and difficult perspective into the world of hermeneutics. Our stories as African American women give us the space to accept and at times embody a hermeneutics of suspicion.

[1] p. 28

[2] p. 29