Defiance by Existence

WHOOPI GOLDBERG,MARGARET AVERYThe Color Purple traces the life of the protagonist Celie through her own words via her correspondence first with God and then with her sister Nettie. Alice Walker narrates Celie’s journey towards self-actualization despite and in the midst of profound suffering—rape by her father (who turns out to not be her actual biological father), marriage to an abusive and unkind man, the assumed abandonment of her sister, etcetera. At one point in the novel, as Celie reaches a point where she leaves her husband, emboldened in large part by the relationships with the other black women in her life, including her relationship with Shug, the sultry blues singer who is her husband’s mistress, Celie exclaims:

“I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here. Amen, say Shug, Amen, amen.”

We were discussing this novel, and this particular passage, the other  morning in a course I took this past semester on Womanist/Feminist Ethics. As we were wrestling with questions around what resistance and even liberation look like at various points of the text, a very smart and wise colleague of mine pointed to this passage, and noted that, perhaps, the greatest act of defiance is to still exist. To risk stating the obvious and even perhaps sounding cliché, what profound claims, both by Celie and by my colleague! In Celie’s words, echoed and summarized by my colleague, we find a bold affirmation, a prayer, and an ethical assertion,  all wrapped up in one short statement.

Celie’s assertion was one I will never truly understand in a number of ways, but one that I nevertheless could not help but resonate with on some level. While I will never even begin to grasp Celie’s experiences, and never fully understand the privilege that comes with me being white, amongst other things, I can grasp a glimpse of that sense of feeling as though I perhaps shouldn’t be here. Here, in my context, being in the theological academy. At the risk of being even more autobiographical than I already have been, I’ll share that I grew up in a pretty uneducated family (I’m the first in my family to even go to college, let alone graduate school) in a working class neighborhood, in a conservative Pentecostal church. In the church I grew up in, people, and especially kids and adolescents, were often prophesied over and such. I never was. I was not the smart one, nor the pretty one, nor the athletic one. I was never one of the kids with “promise.” Rather, I was the socially awkward (some things never change, I supposed), hyperactive kid with the patchy family life that was smart but never focused enough (it wasn’t until I was in Divinity school that I was diagnosed with ADHD), who was always just a bit too whimsical and wild. I grew up thinking (and I’m pretty sure almost everyone around me grew up thinking) that my destiny was one of disciplined mediocrity and simplicity—and that was only if I could manage to follow God’s path and not get myself into trouble. Yet somehow, between the grace and goodness of God and of others in my life and a little tenacity—by showing up and by others showing up for me—life has been more (and assuredly far different!) than I ever would have imagined.

I can’t help, then, but find immense hope in, as my colleague put it, Celie’s defiance simply by virtue of her existence, let alone by her assertion of it. Part of the reason I’m so grateful for this blog, and am honored to be even considered to participate more fully in it, is it reminds me and affirms me that I exist, and moreover, that I don’t exist alone.

I was recently at a theology conference where  I was one of very few women present (let’s be honest, that’s true of most theology conferences I attend!) where I struggled for my voice to be heard, which of course meant that I struggled internally on whether my voice was valuable or even necessary, whether what I was arguing was relevant or “theological” or smart.  I suspect that I’m not alone, in this experience or this feeling.

One could turn to numerous sources to validate this premonition. For example, Church of Christ blogger and psychologist Richard Beck posted a graphic recently of the percentage of Ph.D.’s awarded in the U.S to Women in 2009, a graphic that demonstrates that religion and philosophy programs rank near the very bottom, only to loose to engineering, computer science, and physics. In past attempts at blogging, I’ve noted the dearth of women in the theological academy and the theological blogosphere, and recent conversations in the theoblogosphere regarding the Theology Studio and gender and Tony Jones’s blog have pointed to the lack of diversity in the academy and the resultant problems of such homogeneity.

Yet, at this particular conference, I struggled a little less than I have in the past, because of places like this blog, and because of the graduate school I attend, where I’ve been so incredibly lucky to have found colleagues and professors that said amen to and with and for me when I’ve simply said “I’m here.”

So, by way of introduction, I simply want to say I’m here, and, in the spirit of/with credit to a womanist liberationist methodology (see, for instance, Katie G. Cannon, Katie’s Cannon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community, and Stacy Floyd-Thomas,  Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics), that this is a starting place for my theological work: the realities of experience, of mine and others. I look forward to potentially participating more explicitly in this space where I can be encouraged in my existence, affirm others in theirs, and where together, we can continue to both hear and assert, in the midst of spaces in the theological academy and elsewhere that are often racist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, ageist, etcetera, etcetera, that we exist, to learn from each others’ existences, and to imagine and enact spaces where we can not simply exist but flourish.

7 thoughts on “Defiance by Existence

  1. You had me at… “I look forward to potentially participating more explicitly in this space where I can be encouraged in my existence, affirm others in theirs, and where together, we can continue to both hear and assert, in the midst of spaces in the theological academy and elsewhere that are often racist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, ageist, etcetera, etcetera, that we exist, to learn from each others’ existences, and to imagine and enact spaces where we can not simply exist but flourish.”

    Truly – you had me from word one, and I am very grateful. What a gift it is to find your post today. Last Friday, I received my MA in Pastoral Studies at the age of 55. As someone who struggled through school and college, many years ago, I never imagined this day would come. Yet, it has. I was also the first person in my own family to graduate from high school, and then college – and now this.

    The Color Purple has always resonated for me. I too am white, but somehow in the morass of my own life, which as at a truly low point when the book came out, I found some chink of life to focus on.

    Your words resonate in my heart today – and I look forward to hearing more. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: And Another Powerful Voice | Cenizas, Estelas y Senderos

  3. I love the quote from The Color Purple. A more modern example of this same kind of “a bold affirmation, prayer and an ethical assertion” I find in a lot of modern (though mysogenyst among other problems) hip hop. Especially this hook from Kendrick Lamar’s song “Real”: “I do what I wanna do, I say what I wanna say/When I feel, and I..look in the mirror and know I’m there/With my hands in the air, I’m proud to say yeah/I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real.” The other important line of the song being this: “But what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself.” Thanks for sharing, Brandy. Love ya.

  4. I love The Color Purple and the quote you pull from it. Another more modern example of this kind of “a bold affirmation, a prayer, and an ethical assertion” I find in Kendrick Lamar’s song ‘Real’: “I do what I wanna do, I say what I wanna say/When I feel, and I..look in the mirror and know I’m there/With my hands in the air, I’m proud to say yeah/I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real.” And this important repeating line: “But what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself.” Thanks for sharing, Brandy. Love ya.

  5. Women and words and God have been my life work, in one way or another, since I encountered feminist theology while in seminary at Candler in 1985. It was as though some part of myself, held tightly against an onslaught of “man” and “father” and “men,” could unwind, stand upright, look in the mirror and say, “made in the image of God.” My convictions about these issues were enforced by the work I did as part of my MDiv thesis on the impact of words on the sense of self, particularly for women.

    I hear again and again that the words which so trouble me are a source of strength and beauty for others, or that in the liturgies and hymns of worship, the troublesome words can just be ignored. My experience tells me that this is not so, and that whatever progress we make in raising awareness is lost on each Sunday morning when the the world of patriarchy is reestablished with songs like:
    Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost!
    As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
    world without end. Amen.

    I am writing, and am so delighted to see others writing, so that there will be a new beginning, a changed world, that we can celebrate with a new song. One of my favorite possibiliies was shared by a woman in a long ago pastoral counseling workshop — her name is unknown to me, but her words have warmed my heart on many days:

    Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
    whose womb gave birth to all we know,
    who draws us close to her warm breast,
    for nurture, love, and perfect rest.

    My present work is to take the words from the tradition, examine them, toss them up in the air, rearrange them, revise them — demonstrate that they are not so sacred that they are beyond our influence or creativity — and make accessible some of the thinking about how we construct our worlds with words. I have done this in a book on the Nicene Creed and in a forthcoming book on the psalms.

    Again, it is so delightful to discover new companions on this journey, and I look forward to future posts

    Martha Porter

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