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Soul Food: Embracing My Inner Old Black Lady (Part I)

June 11, 2011

Grandma Florence, circa 1990

My maternal grandmother was the worst singer of church songs, ever. I mean, Florence Paschal James could not sing a lick. Maybe that’s why it took so many years for me to love the Traditional Spirituals (or what used to be called the Negro Spirituals).

After a Sunday morning of Grandma Florence’s reedy, off-key singing, all of us in the house would head out to Flat Rock Primitive Baptist Church for Sunday services. Flat Rock was a church of mostly old folks who dragged their grandchildren along. The songs dragged as well, as the song leader led the congregation in what I now know is called “line singing.”

There was “shouting,” too, as one or more of the old ladies would catch the Holy Spirit, start screaming, and fall into the arms of one of the church members. Then, they would fan her with a church fan that had a blond Jesus on the front and the name and address of Rice’s Funeral Home on the back. Mr. Rice was the African American mortician in town; to this day, I don’t know where the White folks in Eatonton, Georgia go when they need to bury their dead.

Those summers represented my first and most lasting experience with spirituality, and for many southern Black folks, my early memories of church are extremely familiar, but I did not and still do not follow a traditional path to spirituality, at least how that path tends to look in most African American community(ies).

These days, I’m a radical Black Feminist Christian and sometimes I think there are maybe ten other people like me in the world (if I am lucky.)  And so, there’s no comfortable spiritual model for me.  This has been a problem for Sisters going all the way back to the African American spiritualist Jarena Lee, the first woman authorized to speak publicly by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Within my own family, which is populated with fundamentalist Christians, I’m something of a pariah because I don’t go to church. Mama, who is a feminist but also a devout Catholic, finally gave up on my attendance, though on Christmas and Easter, she’ll gently remind me that I can always go back to church; it will be there when/if I need it. “Thank you, Mama,” I say, in that childhood, exasperated cadence of old.

And then, there are my “strange” theological interpretations of The Word.

For example, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with being gay, despite the “Sodom and Gomorrah” section of the Old Testament. One reason is that particular section of Genesis is full of extremely problematic contradictions: Lot first offers his daughters to a crowd of men to gang rape who circle the house, instead of the male guests the crowd wants to “know.” After Lot’s wife is turned into salt, Lot commits incest with those same daughters, though it is framed in scripture as the daughters plotting to ply him with alcohol so that they may “preserve the seed” of their father; once he’s drunk as Cooter Brown, they take—ahem—advantage of him. That’s just completely nasty, ok?

So some man offering up his female children to be gang raped and then having nasty incest with them are both perfectly fine—but being gay (even in a committed, loving, monogamous relationship) isn’t? What kind of sense does that make? Nonsense.

Also, although men wrote the biblical scriptures, there are many, many examples of faithful women in those scriptures.  In the New Testament, all of the Twelve Apostles abandon Jesus when he’s arrested by officers of the Roman Empire, but ironically, it is his female followers who remain faithful all the way through his execution. And despite some problematic sexist moments for Jesus in the New Testament, he performs (for me) the ultimate feminist act: he trusts a woman with his spiritual mission.

Mary Magdalene was the one Jesus revealed himself to on the third day when he rose from the dead; she was the one who went and spread the Good News. To me, that is clear evidence that Jesus was a Colored Male Feminist. He may have been celibate, but he clearly preferred the ladies’ company when it came to doing the real work of God.

In the Black church, it’s Ladies First, too. I think about those old Black women of my childhood who got happy at Flat Rock Primitive Baptist. Catching the spirit was how they experienced God, how He arrived in their souls.  And I think about those church fans; they had the picture of a White Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes, but when I was a young girl, my grandma Florence had a vision of Jesus. In the vision, he was a Black man with nappy cornrows down to his shoulders.

What you need to know about my grandma Florence is that she was nobody’s racial radical and nobody’s feminist, either. (Though in her youth,  she did once beat a grown man senseless, and at the time she weighed only about a hundred pounds and stood at five feet three inches. That’s another story, though.) In fact, just the opposite. Born in 1909, grandma did not believe in challenging the White power structure in the least. But when she had her vision of Jesus, she took it as a sign from God, and never questioned it as the truth, up until the day she died.  She also spoke publicly about it.

Like grandma, I can note my own signs from God. Years ago, before I came to live a whole-hearted spiritual life, I was living in Talladega, Alabama with my mother, and there was a Black male minister who worked at the historically African American college that was named for the town. He was a nice guy and he liked to talk to my mother all the time. If I was in my mother’s office, he would talk to me, too.  He always referred to God as both male and female.

One day, I asked him how a strong, feminist woman could ever be a happy Christian. I’d noticed that in the Black churches, women were discouraged from speaking, yet in our community churches, women represented the largest population. And he said to me, “Honorée, I don’t know that a truly strong, Black woman can ever be happy in this sexist world, period. But God made you this way on purpose. He/She never makes any mistakes. He/She makes mystics to question folks about faith, to keep them honest and true to His or Her word. And Honorée, you are a mystic.”

A mystic? I didn’t live in a cave, I didn’t wear loincloths, I liked to have sex outside of marriage, and if anything, I looked at religion as a figurative crack pipe for weak-minded people to suck on. I wanted to laugh in this brother’s face, but I was polite and didn’t say anything in response to him, because again, he was a nice guy, and besides, my mother was sitting right there.

When I look back, having that conversation with that minister in Talladega was one of the defining moments of my spiritual life. He saw me, so clearly, even when I didn’t see myself at the time. (A decade after that, I encountered into a young Native American sundancer, a Mvskogee student of mine who asked me, out of the blue, “You have visions, don’t you, Professor Jeffers?” That was another defining moment.)

It’s taken me all these years to look up what that minister called me, a “mystic.” It means “one who believes in mysticism.” And “mysticism” means “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be obtained through subjective experience.” It doesn’t say anything about where you live or whether you like to get naughty every once in a while.

So those ladies from Flat Rock Primitive Baptist were mystics. When they got happy with the Holy Spirit, they had a “direct knowledge of God or spiritual truth.” My grandma was a mystic; when she had her vision of a Black Jesus that was her “subjective experience.”

I’d been defensive about how fundamentalist Christians criticized my feminist/womanist beliefs and made assumptions about my approach to spirituality, but at the same time, I’d been condescending toward my country grandma’s spirituality. I’d thought that she couldn’t be anyone’s mystic because she hadn’t been the best reader, she’d spoken in non-grammatical English—what we now call the “Black vernacular”—and she hadn’t been to anybody’s seminary and couldn’t tell you where one was located if you asked her.

Yet she was someone who believed God talked to her, even if what He said contradicted the teachings of her church, as her vision of Jesus had. (It was no mistake that Jesus was a White guy on the front of those church fans; they had been made special for the Black churches in that town.)

So if being a mystic was good enough for Grandma, the ultimate Old Black Church Lady, it should be good enough for me, too.

As a Christian, I’ve been told by other Christians—presumably better and more faithful Christians—that there is only one way to believe in God: by reading the Bible. The Word will give me everything I need, and what I needed was to stop being a feminist woman who didn’t believe that a man had more power than I did.  But for me, a strong-willed, questioning grown woman who’s paying all her own bills without a man to “head” my household, I’ve had to go back to those Old Black Ladies to find my way on my brand-new, modern holy path.  But I will admit that I had to learn to sing the Spirituals all by myself.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara Soloski Albin permalink
    June 11, 2011 7:42 pm

    Different religions, or lack of. I have my own sense of spirituality (word?). I consider myself Jewish, spend the holidays with my children and their children, but I have just never been religious. May come from my mother’s father who was an atheist, although he never said anything about my grandmother and his two daughters(one my mom) involving themselves. Both my mother and aunt have stayed very traditional to Judaism. One thing about Judaism, most of our holidays are celebrated in the home.

    I could have sympathized with your Grandmother, as when I was a child in Temple they did not allow me to be in the choir because my voice was that bad (although I was willing to lip sync). It did leave a lasting impression. I guess I should mention I didn’t make it in tap dancing or ballet! (nothing to do with religion).

    These days, I believe my sons and family have trouble understanding my lack of interest in organized religion, my husband is fine with it, I feel spiritual in my own way and I am still proud to be called Jewish. We are part of the Reform movement, so therefore, we have had same sex marriages for awhile, gay and lesbian rabbis, etc. We tend to be liberal, woman are temple presidents, rabbis, cantors, etc.

    I still didn’t like being kicked out of the temple choir. After all it is a temple!

  2. Barbara Soloski Albin permalink
    June 11, 2011 7:48 pm

    Your embarassment over your Grandmothers “black venacular” was similar to our embarassment over our grandparents (and my husband’s father) being European born and speaking with an accent – a conglomation of English, Yiddish, German, Polish, etc. Wasn’t cool to have family that weren’t Amercian born with pristine English. My parents were born in the United States, but non of my grandparents. My husband said there was definite embarassment in his family amongst is mom and sisters that his dad was a native born American, speaking proper English. Different religions, different backgrounds, but similar problems.

  3. June 11, 2011 9:46 pm

    I gave up on church for a long time in my late teens through my mid-30s because I didn’t like any of the people I met there, particularly my mom. (Who I now adore, but that’s a whole other life-and-death story.) I now think it’s important to belong to a church family, not just for what I get from them, but for what I have to give to them, which is the perspective of someone who walked away from church and actively being in relationship with Jesus, and very much struggles with the church’s stand on things like homosexuality. (Surprisingly I’m okay with the no sex before marriage thing cause I’d given that up long before I got “saved.” I just got way too attached when it was just supposed to be a one night stand.) I am blessed that God found me the church that he did, a church for people who had been spiritually wounded by their past churches, and church that truly believes that as Christians we can be part of the reason why people reject God, so we really need to practice love. Doesn’t mean we can’t take a moral stand, but going around judging everyone accomplishes nothing. I have learned a lot from my pastor and his wife, particularly what a genuine marriage looks like, and what parenting looks like when the parents aren’t too self-involved to truly be there for their children. And though I’m sure he shakes his head at some of my poems, my Pastor fully believes that God has called me to be a poet and supports that at every turn. And he once said something to me that I try to keep in mind always–that God is calling me to be the Christian that I am, not what anyone else is. Just wanted to add the perspective of someone who goes to church “anyway….” p.s. We were Catholic until I was about 12, and my grandma would embarrass the heck out of me screeching out the hymns at the top of her lungs and her register.

  4. June 12, 2011 1:29 pm

    As usual Honoree, you’ve managed to rock my little world. I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on how to marry my feminist self with my spiritual beliefs which are rooted in Christianity.

    This speaks so much to what I see happening more and more frequently among Black folks. Most of us were forced to attend church as children and during our teen or early adult years, we broke free. Then we come back to spirituality but with other beliefs that can be conflicting or, to the church, contradicting.

  5. David Lummis permalink
    June 14, 2011 1:46 pm

    Interesting. I’ve had on my mind the issue of attempting to reconcile Christian doctrine as embraced by African Americans (which with my admittedly limited perspective is hard not to view as some form of protracted Stockholm Syndrome) with bible-based antigay bigotry/violence all week long, ever since last week when I belatedly read your Slave Ships blog entry. (Also during this week, I happened to see the movie Children of God, which is set in Barbados and also goes there.) So thank you for this. I still have way more questions than answers, but as always, your wise perspective helps!

    P.S. Reading The Gospel of Barbecue and loving it. You are a truly amazing poet.

    • June 14, 2011 3:41 pm

      Dear David:

      Yes, this religion thing in Black American communities is fraught with issues, but at the same time, our believe in a good (Christian) God has been our rock throughout the centuries. It’s confusing, to say the least.

      Thank you so much for your kind words about my poetry! I appreciate you. And it’s also a nudge reminding me that I need to get back to working on this latest book!:-)

      Take care,
      Honorée

  6. June 15, 2011 4:51 pm

    Thanks for this beautiful reflection – although our journeys are somewhat different I also identify as a radical black feminist Christian, who also happens to be lesbian (albeit coming out later in life). You likely won’t remember, but I had a class with you when you were teaching in Cleveland. I’m glad to have found you on these pages.

  7. bmbu permalink
    August 8, 2011 1:26 pm

    I needed this post. Badly. As a 22 year old feminist growing up with an extremely devout Catholic mother and somewhat atheist but highly patriarchal father, I’ve been struggling with where I stand: my need for spiritual nourishment as well as my need to believe that women are not lesser or some kind of devil and they exist on equal footing with men. I’ve felt so bad about not going to church or choosing my feminism over my relationship with God, so thank you so much for writing about how you still believe, and you’ve found a way to balance your spirituality with your feminist and humanist points of view.
    I hope you keep discussing this topic, because there are a lot of young women who feel the same but whose voices are crowded out by what a small minority of fundamentalists believe is how Christianity should be practice.
    B

    • August 8, 2011 2:06 pm

      Dear B:

      I’m so glad that you could find some solace in what I’ve written, because my spirituality has been such a source of comfort to me as a feminist. I know that’s strange sounding but it’s true. I have found such a sense of strength–and I found survival, too–by believing that God made me equal and profound in my humanity, as both a woman and a person of African descent.

      If I may, I’d like to suggest that you read some works on Feminist and Womanist Christianity, which offer a unique, pro-woman approach to Christianity, either from a mainstream feminist and/or Black feminist/womanist points of view. One of my favorite books on this subject is White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response by Jacquelyn Grant. These sorts of books have helped me craft a response to ugly, anti-woman propaganda from the fundamentalists.

      I always say to the fundamentalists that 1) Jesus was born of woman, not of man, so it took BOTH man and woman to bring Christianity forth; 2) women were the only ones who remained in Jesus’s corner after he was arrested by the Romans; all of the Apostles scattered and left Him, but the three Marys sat at the foot of the cross when he was crucified; and 3) He revealed himself to Mary Magdalene on the Third Day when He rose and she went and spread the Good News–a woman is responsible for the spread of Christianity. Thus, there is scriptural basis for the absolute equality of women in the Church, and that male and female are complementary entities in God’s sight, not hierarchical entities. So there to those sexists.:-)

      In the meantime, I wish you so much strength on your spiritual journey–and keep the faith!

      Take care,
      HFJ

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