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.