Published on August 22nd, 2019 | by Nina Pulley
Howard University’s School of Divinity Hosts 30th Annual Womanist Consultation
Howard University’s School of Divinity Hosts 30th Annual Womanist Consultation.
The 30th Annual Womanist Consultation, entitled Continuing the Womanist Tapestry, took place on March 29th and 30th. Organized by Howard University’s Divinity School, it featured doctors from around the country, including three from Howard’s School of Divinity, discussing womanist thought in two panels.
Womanism is a set of ideas that center Black women within a deeper and more nuanced feminist practice, way of life, and method of approaching real-world problems. Womanism is a direct product of Black women’s experiences under enslavement and the Jim Crow era, as well as their unique experiences both in and outside of the United States. It reveals an ideology that benefits, centers, and is concerned with the wellbeing and political status of Black women and the communities in which they find themselves. It is concerned not with Black women singularly, but with the health and prosperity of the communities in which Black women locate themselves. Womanism is a potentially revolutionary philosophy that acknowledges the fact that white male patriarchy, as well as dysfunctional performances of Black masculinity, have plagued society for ages. Black churches and institutions of higher education, not to mention businesses and public amenities, are included in those affected. It does so by prioritizing these systems of power have affected most: Black women.
Significantly, Howard University’s School of Divinity has consulted the voices of Black women in this conference for thirty years. They ask their opinions and definitions of womanist thought and how it manifests in the world. The outcomes of this conversation are central, if not vital, to the health of Black communities across the country. We often consciously and unconsciously perpetuate the same horrors committed through systemic oppression. Womanism is a theory and philosophy that offers intellectual tools to dismantle unjust systems. Through a conscious reversal of oppressive societal norms, womanism seeks to place Black women in a place of honor and equality. It gives us the time to reflect upon often accepted power imbalances that many take as “the way things are,” critiquing and transforming them. Womanism also offers alternatives to established White-male-centric traditions.
The first panel hosted by the School of Divinity entitled Womanist Thought: Three Decades in Perspective featured four speakers ‒ Drs. Cheryl Sanders and Dolores Carpenter from HUSD, Rev. Dr. Renita Weems from Ray of Hope Community Church, and Rev. Dr. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes who teaches at Colby College. The panel focused on the legacy of thirty years of womanist thought, as well as earlier versions of the ideology that began as early as the nineteenth century.
The second talk featured four additional panelists. Among them was Dr. Gay Byron from HUSD and Dr. Judy Fentress Williams from Virginia Theological Seminary, as well as Dr. Stacy Floyd-Thomas from Vanderbilt’s School of Divinity. Rev. Melanie C. Jones, who teaches at the Seminary of the Southwest, was also on the panel. Entitled Womanist Thought: A Tapestry for Church and Society, the talk featured discussions of how womanism informs social relations, political mechanisms, and cultural formation in both church and the world.
What is also interesting is not only womanism’s relevance to our current society but also its relationship to religion and, more so, spirituality. Sacred spaces have a legacy of colonialism etched into their history, and Black communities across the country wrestle with that visibly. Where do Africanisms enter, or exit, the stage during services? What sorts of traditions survived from the continent? Or syncretisms? What was left behind? What emerged anew? In what ways were Puritan religious ideals etched into the minds of people enslaved? How resilient were we? Were our ancestors passive recipients of racist ideologies disguised as religious rites, or did they find a way to appear to conform while practicing their own beliefs? There is literature on this, and scholars who dedicate their lives to this study. Here we see womanism and colonialism, as well as Africanisms, combine and interrelate.
Most of all, what does womanism have to do with any of this? Womanism is central to this conversation because it centers the Black woman, rather than the White male colonizer, in the formation of spiritual values and practices. The potential to reform the structure of educational and faith-based establishments is evident. From positions of authority to the construction of church governance, to the interpretation of Scripture, to the number of times women are given to speak in traditional church settings, the potential for positive change is overwhelming. How do meanings gleaned from the Bible transform when considered through a feminist ‒ no, a womanist ‒ lens?
Very few churches and schools incorporate Black feminist thought into the conversation of operations. Fewer discuss how womanism, an emanation of Black feminism, informs what they prioritize in their services. The philosophy confronts who institutions implicitly cater to, how to incorporate justice into event planning, publishing findings, or conducting any business related to the establishment. It is of interest to Black women, college students, men or women, professors, parents, and every individual of not only Black communities but also all minority communities, to consider the conclusions and key points of this conversation. Womanism is an old but continuously regenerating philosophy that is exciting in our currently troubled political time. We are not just feminine; we are woman.