My heart stopped when I first encountered Afro-Cuban artist Harmonia Rosales’ I Exist. By reinterpreting Michelangelo’s Crucifixion, Rosales gave voice to the often-silenced blackness and femaleness of Christ.
Even though I know in my head that Christ is not a white man, I still sometimes continue to experience that reality in my heart, body and nonconscious perceptions. And though James Cone and others have helpfully examined God’s blackness on the cross, I’ve been wanting to dive deeper into an intersectional exploration that examines both God’s blackness and femaleness on the cross, and the ways in which God explicitly relates to black women while on the cross.
Last fall, while I was on my Black Madonna pilgrimage in France examining cultural perceptions of race, gender and the Divine, I learned that Rosales collaborated with black designer Fe Noel to create an I Exist dress. And that’s when I knew that it was time to do this. Perceptions of God’s femaleness and blackness directly impact our interpretations of God, including our theology of the cross. This series shines a light on that impact.
Some of the most beautiful feminist interpretations of the cross see it as a birthing center rather cosmic punishment. As a woman, this resonates with me. Because Christ’s tomb is also a womb, I’m eager to go beyond theologies of suffering and survival to also examine the theologies of life, flourishing, strength, meaning-making, and #blackgirlmagic that stem from black women’s experiences and perspectives. What does the cross say about black women’s flourishing, life-making, and magic? And what does God's blackness and femaleness on the cross reveal about who God is and what God is passionate about?
This is public theology. As precious Patrons, I’m inviting you in to my theological process. Beginning on Ash Wednesday (March 6) and concluding on Good Friday (April 19), each week I will publish a photo and brief reflection on each of Christ’s 7 Last Words on the Cross. All of the photos were taken at Stagville Plantation in Durham, NC, and I plan to write each weekly reflection at Stagville and/or other NC plantations. After doing a contemplative walk on the grounds, I will take no more than 90 minutes to reflect and write on that week’s Last Word. This is NOT systematic theology. In the weeks leading up to this project, I have intentionally refrained from writing outlines, reading tons of books, and reviewing feminist/critical race apologetics. Instead, I want to listen to my body, my heart, my experiences as a black woman, the Divine, and the ground, trees, and wind around me – and simply write what fills my theological imagination.
I am eager to receive your feedback each week, especially if you’re a black femme and/or person of color who does not identify as male. This series is especially for you.
Beloved Patrons: THANK YOU for your financial and emotional support. This project is exactly the kind of project that I want to do more of; truly, it is a dream come true. I would not have the freedom or time to devote to it without your support. Thank you thank you thank you! If this series resonates with you, please encourage your friends to become Patrons and join in! To make things easier for you, I’ve attached a flyer for you to share via e-mail, text, or social media.
WHY “CHRIST OUR MOTHER”?
- Because biblical interpretation needs to be depatriachalized. Biblical scholar Phylis Trible makes it plain: “Born and bred in a land of patriarchy, the Bible abounds in male imagery and language. For centuries interpreters have explored and exploited this male language to articulate theology, and to instruct human beings - female and male - in who they are, what rules they should play, and how they should behave. So harmonious has seemed this association of scripture with sexism, of faith with culture, that only a few have even questioned it.”
WHY “CHRIST OUR BLACK MOTHER”?
- Because patriarchy and whiteness need to be exorcised from biblical interpretation. Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas teaches us, “Those who proclaimed that Christ was Black were blinded by their maleness. Their peculiarity as men prevented them from appreciating vital facets of Jesus’ ministry…This inability to consider Black women’s lives profoundly contributed to their one-dimensional understandings of what it meant for Christ to be Black."
- Because black women’s experiences are distinct from white women’s experiences. As theologian Jaquelyn Grants reminds us “it is important to distinguish between Black and White women’s experiences, it is also important to note these differences in theological and Christological reflection.”
- Because “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.” – Malcolm X
- Because I decided to
WHY A PLANTATION?
- Because whitemalegod, the patron saint of white supremacist patriarchy, flourished on the plantation and effectively silenced Christ’s blackness and femaleness on the plantation and beyond. This series attempts to visually and verbally (re)invigorate our theological imagination of Christ our Black Mother on the plantation.
- Because our society is a plantation. Our society continues to bear the fruit of white supremacist patriarchy in which black women’s bodies, labor, experiences, and stories are commodified. This perpetuates a plantation-like society.
- Because I work on a plantation. When I first joined the faculty at Duke Divinity School (DDS), I met with a number of local black community leaders and was shocked to hear many of them exclusively refer to Duke as ‘the Plantation.’ Now I understand. The Underground Railroad that rolls through DDS is busy; in the 3+ years I’ve been at DDS, I have witnessed a mass exodus of black colleagues. One former colleague refers to their twelve-year stint at DDS as their “12 Years a Slave.” Another proclaims that DDS has a “vitriolic hatred for black women’s bodies.” The all-black/brown custodial staff at DDS are officially titled “housekeepers” and many of the campus buildings are named after known racists – such as Carr Hall, named after Julian Carr who publicly boasted about “horse-whipping black women.” As faculty at DDS, I’m essentially a black woman trying to do theology on a plantation. I might as well make that explicit.
WHY THE "7 LAST WORDS"?
- Because it's a Black Church tradition. Many Black churches commemorate Good Friday by holding a service that focuses on the 7 Last Words of Christ. Typically, the service is comprised of music and 7 different preachers, each giving a mini-sermon on one of the 7 Last Words.
WHO GETS ACCESS TO THIS SERIES?
While this introductory post is available to all, the remaining series content is supported by and accessible to Patrons. Become a Patron today!