we are not yours

BLACK WOMEN ARE SUPREME BUT NOT SU­PER­HU­MAN

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - NEWS - By jor­dan mcdon­ald

Black women are supreme but not su­per­hu­man.

[ PLAY­ING WITH GOD ]

In her 1976 chore­opoem for col­ored girls who have con­sid­ered sui­cide/ when the rain­bow is enuf, Ntozake Shange wrote, “I found God in my­self, and I loved her. I loved her fiercely.” Shange likens God to an en­tity akin to her­self—not nec­es­sar­ily a woman, but a fem­i­nine pres­ence—from whom she wishes for “not a lay­ing on of bo­som and womb, [but] a lay­ing on of hands, the ho­li­ness of my­self re­leased.” Her words of­fer a spir­i­tual al­ter­na­tive, a God that lives within her. It is an au­da­cious as­ser­tion that com­ple­ments the po­lit­i­cal and artis­tic recla­ma­tion that Shange is known for; her plays and po­ems con­stantly reimag­ined the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Black­ness, wom­an­hood, spir­i­tu­al­ity, and lan­guage. Through her de­cid­edly Black fem­i­nist work, she brought at­ten­tion to those who Su­danese poet Safia El­hillo would re­fer to as “us who falls into the gap we leave in the world.” Her cho­sen name, Ntozake, trans­lates to “she who has her own things” in the South African lan­guage Xhosa, a nod to the “some­thin’ promised...some­thin’ free” she had been miss­ing.

Decades af­ter Shange’s poem, the im­age of a Black fe­male God has be­come a cul­tural fix­a­tion. In 2015, Dy­lan Chen­feld, a self-de­scribed ag­nos­tic Jew, be­gan sell­ing “I Met God, She’s Black” t-shirts on­line. The shirts in­spired praise and back­lash, en­joy­ing wide­spread so­cial-me­dia vi­ral­ity, celebrity shout-outs, and “a mas­sive sales and press spike” be­cause they ques­tioned the cul­tur­ally in­grained ac­cep­tance of God as a white man. When in­ter­viewed by the Huff­in­g­ton Post about his con­tro­ver­sial shirt, Chen­feld said that he “like[d] pok­ing fun at sa­cred cows” by “tak­ing the idea that God is a white male and do­ing the op­po­site of that, which is a Black woman.” Though his mo­ti­va­tion was partly mon­e­tary and an­tag­o­nis­tic, he, like many Black the­olo­gians and fem­i­nists, was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the dis­com­fort peo­ple feel when they are forced to ques­tion their pre­con­cep­tions about God.

It’s a phe­nom­e­non that’s em­bed­ded in white supremacy and pa­tri­archy: an in­sis­tence on ex­pand­ing priv­i­lege to the realm of divin­ity. Within this con­text, the sug­ges­tion of a Black fe­male God be­comes a rad­i­cal push against what Black the­olo­gian Wil­liam R. Jones called “di­vine racism” in Is God a White Racist? “Di­vine racism” as­serts that God is an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in the main­te­nance of ra­cial in­equal­ity and fur­ther im­plies that God is the “found­ing fa­ther” of a so­ci­ety’s racially su­pe­rior group. Sim­i­larly, the cul­tural in­flex­i­bil­ity to­ward the sup­posed gen­der pre­sen­ta­tion of God could be a di­vine sex­ism of sorts. Em­bed­ded in West­ern cul­ture, this phe­nom­e­non man­i­fests it­self in the de­pic­tions of God, Adam, and Je­sus as white and male in mass me­dia and re­li­gious spa­ces. Our cul­tural in­vest­ment in this un­der­stand­ing of God speaks vol­umes about our re­fusal to dis­avow both pa­tri­archy and white supremacy. In their own way, Chen­feld’s shirts at­tempt to ad­dress this very is­sue. He used fash­ion to chal­lenge and dis­rupt so­cial mores, but the young en­trepreneur’s most con­tentious ques­tion—“why can’t God be a

Black woman?”—re­mains largely unan­swered.

Grap­pling with this ques­tion and oth­ers, Bey­oncé re­leased Lemon­ade, an in­ti­mate but un­apolo­getic med­i­ta­tion on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Black wom­an­hood and Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. The 2016 al­bum de­picts the unique so­cial con­di­tions Black women en­dure: state vi­o­lence, emo­tional and phys­i­cal abuse, and re­la­tion­ships ab­sent of true rec­i­proc­ity. Buried un­der these is­sues, many Black women are taught to find respite in God, to bare their souls to the one who will al­ways lis­ten. And de­spite mak­ing up the pri­mary de­mo­graphic in Chris­tian, Bap­tist, and Pen­te­costal churches in the United States, faith­ful Black women find them­selves hav­ing to fight for full sup­port and recog­ni­tion from the spa­ces and com­mu­ni­ties to which they be­long and of­fer them­selves. They must ne­go­ti­ate the lack of Black fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion in church lead­er­ship po­si­tions and the con­tin­ued de­pic­tion of God as an en­tity op­po­site to Black fem­i­nin­ity, all while at­tempt­ing to build a spir­i­tual re­la­tion­ship with God. Ef­fec­tively, both divin­ity and min­istry are made inac­ces­si­ble to those on the mar­gins.

On “Don’t Hurt Your­self,” Bey­oncé reck­ons with her frus­tra­tions and firmly plants her­self in right­eous anger and the pains of un­re­quited loy­alty. Tak­ing to her cho­sen pul­pit, she or­ders us to “love God her­self.” Her words are more cau­tion­ary than sug­ges­tion: “Love God her­self” is the al­bum’s call for rev­er­ence, and “Don’t Hurt Your­self” is a warn­ing to all those—her hus­band in­cluded—who take Black women for granted. In the video for “Don’t Hurt Your­self,” the words “God is God and I am not” are em­bla­zoned on a wall be­hind Bey­oncé. With these words, Bey­oncé, a Black woman who has been de­i­fied in pop­u­lar cul­ture, makes a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween her­self and God. Bey­oncé is con­stantly en­gaged as su­pe­rior or su­per­hu­man: She’s af­fec­tion­ately re­ferred to as “Bey­sus”; has been be­stowed with the ti­tle of king or queen; and is fer­vently praised for her awe-in­spir­ing tal­ent and con­stant artis­tic evo­lu­tion. It’s a framing that she re­claims through self-cel­e­bra­tory mo­ments such as her ma­ter­nity shoots and then sheds when she re­flects on her vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

Lemon­ade is a glimpse into her heal­ing process af­ter her trust is bro­ken and sys­temic vi­o­lence takes more Black lives, but it’s also her re­jec­tion of be­ing a de­ity. She pur­pose­fully places her­self among other Black women and weaves her story into the ta­pes­try of Black wom­an­hood in or­der to re­mind the world of her hu­man­ity. Bey­oncé de­mands the emo­tional free­doms and re­spect of­ten de­nied to Black women. Her con­tin­ued in­ter­twin­ing of Black wom­an­hood and god­li­ness through the con­text of moth­er­hood and fem­i­nine rage of­fers a wom­an­ist take on the mat­ter of God. Lemon­ade’s jour­ney from in­tu­ition to redemp­tion is a guide for heal­ing af­ter per­sonal and so­ci­etal tragedy. The al­bum as­serts God’s dis­tinct con­nec­tion to the in­ner work­ings of Black women’s lives, and dou­bles as a for­mal re­jec­tion of the pedestal Bey­oncé has been of­fered.

[ IN HER IM­AGE ]

In the New York Times’ best­selling novel The Shack, pro­tag­o­nist Mack Phillips em­barks on a jour­ney to heal from the grief of los­ing his daugh­ter and the mem­ory of an abu­sive fa­ther. Phillips turns to God, who man­i­fests as a Black woman. In the film adap­ta­tion, God is played by Oc­tavia Spencer, a de­ci­sion that re­ceived in­tense back­lash. Cal­i­for­nia pas­tor Joe Schim­mel de­scribed the cast­ing as “pre­ten­tious” and said the film’s de­pic­tion of God as a “heavy­set, cushy, non­judg­men­tal, African Amer­i­can woman” and the Holy Spirit (Su­mire Mat­sub­ara) as a “frail Asian woman with the Hindu name Sarayu” pro­moted a “dan­ger­ous and false im­age of God.” Schim­mel deemed their cast­ing a blas­phe­mous ex­am­ple of what he refers to as “Hol­ly­wood’s war on God.”

Our (pref­er­en­tial) de­pic­tions of a God of­ten say much more about us than they do about God. If Schim­mel were a true es­sen­tial­ist who be­lieved in the most ac­cu­rate de­pic­tions of “the one true God re­vealed through the Lord Je­sus Christ,” he would have to then also take is­sue with the char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of Je­sus as a white man since he is de­scribed in the Bi­ble as a man born in the Mid­dle East to a Jewish mother. Schim­mel only has a prob­lem when the dis­tor­tion of Je­sus’s im­age is made into any­one who isn’t a white man. His is­sue with the cast­ing is a prod­uct of per­sonal dis­com­fort and cen­turies of white-su­prem­a­cist and pa­tri­ar­chal ren­der­ings of both God and Je­sus. Un­will­ing to let go of his white male de­ity, the reimag­in­ing of God as any­thing other is re­ceived as a kind of blas­phemy. In­stead of a “war on God,” he’s fight­ing to pre­serve his own po­si­tion in so­ci­ety and there­fore up­hold­ing a his­tory in which God, too, is a weapon to wield.

On May 5, 2017, Afro-cuban artist Har­mo­nia Ros­ales posted her paint­ing “Cre­ation of God,” which reimag­ined Michelan­gelo’s “The Cre­ation of Adam,” on In­sta­gram, through which she re­vealed once more the power in depict­ing God as any­thing other than white male. The paint­ing went vi­ral, and was ul­ti­mately placed in the Si­mard Bilodeau Con­tem­po­rary art gallery in Los An­ge­les. In Ros­ales’s ren­di­tion of the Re­nais­sance paint­ing, Black women are cast as both Adam and God. Just as in Michelan­gelo’s orig­i­nal paint­ing, Ros­ales’s Black fe­male Adam and God are bridged to­gether by their nearly touch­ing fin­ger­tips, as close as they can be with­out graz­ing the other, but this time it feels dif­fer­ent. By por­tray­ing Adam as nei­ther white nor male, the ques­tion is not sim­ply about the racial­iza­tion and gen­der­ing of God, but of hu­man­ity as well. The con­tin­ued de­pic­tion of Adam— a bib­li­cal fig­ure un­der­stood as the orig­i­nal hu­man—as a white man re­in­forces white­supremacist and pa­tri­ar­chal ideas about what it means to be a per­son. It is a re­minder of our sup­posed dis­tance from ho­li­ness and hu­man­ity, and an af­fir­ma­tion of white men’s so­cial po­si­tion­ing and im­plied prox­im­ity to God. For this rea­son, Ros­ales’s race and gen­der bend­ing of both God and Adam was a wel­come sub­ver­sion for those of us who are of­ten

ex­cluded from the nar­ra­tive of full per­son­hood and god­li­ness. “Cre­ation of God” is a rad­i­cal re­minder of the ways in which both divin­ity and hu­man­ity have been tainted in the interest of main­tain­ing power.

Ac­cord­ing to Chris­tian tradition, the bib­li­cal fig­ure whose story best re­veals this hu­man prob­lem is Je­sus. Je­sus is con­sid­ered the hu­man em­bod­i­ment of God, and is fre­quently de­picted as a white man de­spite his ge­o­graphic ori­gins in the Mid­dle East. Even though Je­sus is not in Ros­ales’s paint­ing, by por­tray­ing God as a Black woman, it im­plies that Je­sus, known in Chris­tian tradition as the son of God, would also be born of a Black woman. In this sense, the sug­ges­tion of a Black fe­male de­ity dis­rupts our ad­her­ence to white­washed and heav­ily gen­dered re­li­gious iconog­ra­phy. Cast­ing a Black woman as the cre­ator places all that She would bring about into ques­tion. Made in Her im­age, the blue­print for the di­vine and the hu­man would have to be reimag­ined.

The char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Black women as God or god­like is of­ten rooted in Black women’s sup­posed sim­i­lar­ity to Je­sus be­cause, in many ways, our cul­tural re­la­tion­ship to Black women in the United States is akin to that with Je­sus, a man sent to Earth to bridge the gap be­tween hu­mankind and their cre­ator. Je­sus spent his life serving the very peo­ple who would later for­sake him. He is a sym­bol of great sac­ri­fice and en­durance—af­ter all, Je­sus is said to have res­ur­rected af­ter his own cru­ci­fix­ion. Je­sus en­dured pain, be­trayal, and a bru­tal death dur­ing his time on Earth. In an in­ter­view with the Paris Re­view, au­thor Clau­dia Rank­ine stated, “Black women are noth­ing if not prag­matic, be­cause their whole ex­is­tence in this coun­try has been about ne­go­ti­at­ing a life with­out the fan­tasy of ex­ter­nal sup­port.” As of 2013, the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress re­ported that African Amer­i­can women are more likely to be their fam­i­lies’ sole providers; ex­pe­ri­ence higher rates of un­em­ploy­ment, in­car­cer­a­tion, low wages, and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence; and are dras­ti­cally un­der­rep­re­sented in all lev­els of gov­ern­ment. Black women must sur­vive de­spite these ob­sta­cles, sac­ri­fic­ing our­selves be­cause our com­mu­ni­ties de­pend upon it.

Like Black women, Je­sus was forced to ne­go­ti­ate a life in which his com­pan­ions and com­mu­nity con­sis­tently doubted and failed him. In Sis­ter Out­sider, Au­dre Lorde ex­plains that “[Black women] have cared for whites be­cause we had to for pay or sur­vival; we have cared for our chil­dren and our fa­thers and our broth­ers and our lovers” and that “our scarred, bro­ken, bat­tered, and dead daugh­ters and sis­ters are a mute tes­ta­ment to that re­al­ity.” Lorde’s in­dict­ment of this phe­nom­e­non draws a par­al­lel be­tween Black women’s suf­fer­ing and the cru­ci­fix­ion of Je­sus, a fig­ure whose pain is di­min­ished by his res­ur­rec­tion. Our con­tin­ued re­silience in the face of ad­ver­sity is the rea­son

The sug­ges­tion of a Black fe­male de­ity dis­rupts our ad­her­ence to white­washed and heav­ily gen­dered re­li­gious iconog­ra­phy.

so­ci­ety paints Black women as sym­bols of sav­ior­dom and prin­ci­pled right­eous­ness, a coded ex­pec­ta­tion of god­li­ness placed upon us in ex­change for sac­ri­fice.

When global grass­roots move­ments such as Black Lives Mat­ter are founded by queer Black women and a Black woman is shown on na­tional tele­vi­sion tak­ing down a Con­fed­er­ate flag while the rest of the coun­try is still dis­cussing its mean­ing, it is no won­der we’re re­garded as a dis­tinct or even a di­vine pres­ence in the of­ten in­dis­tin­guish­able mess of the world. As our vis­i­bil­ity grows, the ef­forts, ex­pe­ri­ences, and cul­tural con­tri­bu­tions of Black women have be­come harder to ig­nore. But there is a cost to rev­er­ence and that rev­er­ence also must be an­a­lyzed.

[ CALLING OUT TO GOD ]

In the af­ter­math of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, catch­phrases such as “Black women will save us” and “You should have lis­tened to Black women” were born of yet an­other in­equitable ex­change be­tween Black women and the rest of the United States. Ac­cord­ing to Edi­son’s elec­tion poll data, 95 per­cent of Black women voted against Don­ald Trump, a per­cent­age higher than that of any other gen­der-race cat­e­gory. Sud­denly, ev­ery­one wanted to un­der­stand the stag­ger­ing po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween Black women and white women, the lat­ter of whom—53 per­cent to be ex­act—voted for Trump.

“Black women will save us” be­came a pro­gres­sive mantra that sought to high­light Black women’s con­tin­ued fight against op­pres­sive sys­tems. The sen­ti­ment grew legs when me­dia be­gan en­ter­tain­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a Michelle Obama pres­i­dency. “Michelle 2020” be­came the light at the end of the tun­nel, the former first lady cast as Amer­ica’s sav­ior, de­spite her con­tin­ued re­jec­tion of the in­for­mal nom­i­na­tion. Her grace in the face of great scru­tiny dur­ing her hus­band’s pres­i­dency was a cam­paign of its own in the eyes of the peo­ple, a nod to her abil­ity to rise above and en­dure. Forced to re­claim her im­age from both ad­mir­ers and en­e­mies, Michelle re­peat­edly ex­pressed a disinterest in tak­ing on the bur­dens of such a life once more. Even as a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of the former first lady’s fan club, I was dis­heart­ened by the re­lent­less na­ture of the na­tion’s re­quest. She re­fused and yet her em­phatic “no” went un­heard.

State­ments like “Black women will save us” leave a bit­ter af­ter­taste be­cause these ex­pres­sions for­get Black women’s so­cial vul­ner­a­bil­ity. There is lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion for the ob­sta­cles Black women face to sur­vive and save our­selves in an op­pres­sive so­ci­ety. In the end, the pro­jec­tion of su­per­hu­man­ity onto a marginal­ized per­son be­comes an­other form of de­hu­man­iza­tion. In the process of be­ing ex­alted, the su­per­hu­man is oth­ered rather than pro­tected or sup­ported. Black women are asked to save peo­ple and po­lit­i­cal sys­tems that do not cen­ter or con­sider us. My ques­tion in re­sponse to these re­quests is, “Who will res­cue the sav­iors?”

“Black women will save us” fails to hold all those who aren’t Black women ac­count­able for them­selves, their ac­tions, and their im­pact. Stripped of our hu­man­ity and agency, the re­frain does not ask that Black women save, but ex­pects it of us, as if we each were God her­self. It is a dis­turb­ing tes­ta­ment to the world’s con­tin­ued fail­ure to love us prop­erly.

Ac­tor and co­me­dian Jes­sica Wil­liams put it best in 2015 when re­spond­ing to fans who were push­ing her to “lean in” and be­come the host of the The Daily Show—a po­si­tion she had al­ready de­clined. She tweeted, “I am a Black woman and I am a fem­i­nist and I am so many things. I am truly hon­ored that peo­ple love my work. But I am not yours.” It was an as­ser­tion many Black women, fa­mous or other­wise, have had to make, a de­mand that we be granted our long-de­nied per­son­hood. In this way, Bey­oncé’s afore­men­tioned clar­i­fi­ca­tion, “God is God and I am not,” can be un­der­stood as a re­sponse to this long-stand­ing sen­ti­ment that re­gards Black women solely for their ca­pac­ity to sac­ri­fice, en­dure, and bend to the will of oth­ers. Rem­i­nis­cent of the “Mammy” archetype, a slav­ery-era car­i­ca­ture that de­fined Black wom­an­hood as per­pet­ual thank­less servi­tude, the cul­tural in­stinct to de­mand too much of Black women, as a child would their mother, is not with­out its ori­gins. Bey­oncé’s dis­tinc­tion is a de­lib­er­ate dis­tanc­ing from both the su­per­hu­man and sub­hu­man ex­pec­ta­tions of Black women. It’s a dec­la­ra­tion that con­tended with these ex­pec­ta­tions and pro­fessed that Black women owe noth­ing to any­one.

We be­long to our­selves. We are not yours to de­ify. God can do the sav­ing.

In the end, the pro­jec­tion of su­per­hu­man­ity onto a marginal­ized per­son be­comes an­other form of de­hu­man­iza­tion.

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