What Becomes of the Colored Girl? Black Women, Autobiography and Womanist Theology

"What becomes of the colored girl? The muses of song, poetry and art do not woo and exalt her. She has inspired no novels. Those who write...seldom think of this dark-skinned girl who is persistently breaking through the petty tyrannies of cast into the light of recognition."
"The Colored Girl" by Fannie Barrier Williams

In the above quote, Fannie Barrier Williams pays homage to the Black woman, who, despite the absence of her vision in critical race discourse authored by Black men, and despite the stifling of her distinct legacy when Black community history is memorialized, still forges a path for her own recognition, on terms that do not require traditions sacred to whiteness or maleness. The violation of Black community through her body has been overlooked as a central disruption of Black American community identity.

In Black Theology, her absence rendered the conversation stagnant, at best; at worst, Black Theology, without her, became an addendum to white theology in it's patriarchal, traditionalist (even when revolutionary) construction. The emergence of Black Womanist Ethics and a Black Womanist Theology presents possibilities for rewriting Black community Christianity in a way that speaks to the complexities, sensibilities and uniqueness of Black male and female experiences.

Using autobiography to undergird the creation of an ethics for Black community modeled by Black women, I would like to consider the advantages of autobiography viz. three sub-genres of Black women's self-stories: My intention is to consider the methods Black women have used in constructing a woman-centered, Black community-based, theological model, and to then insert the autobiographical tradition adapted by Black American women. According to Temma Kaplan, "Often in the most oppressive situations, it is the memories of mothers handed down through the daughters that keeps a community together. The mother tongue is not just the words or even the array of cultural symbols available to a people to resist its tormentors. The mother tongue is the oral tradition." (Braxton, 5) In African American tradition, it is the story of oppression as handed down by mothers, that can further inform the way we devise models, advocate doctrines, develop ideologies and adapt philosophies to govern Black life.

In the course of this essay, I will consider the specific advantages of autobiography in extending woman-centered theological models. Therefore, will give attention to the foremothers of womanist theology: Katie Cannon (specifically Black Womanist Ethics) and Cheryl Sanders (Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People). I am particularly interested in the question of moral agency, the unique moral agency of Black women, and how it has been memorialized in narrative form.

I will argue for the adaptation of an autobiographical-model for several reasons: first, autobiography is born out of a particular introspection, in this case as it relates to Black American experience; second, autobiography speaks to a construction of one's own reality, and it is through the memorialization of this reality (what Socrates called the "examined life") that the relationship between the self and the "spirit" can be understood; third, autobiography raises up the value of individual experience, though not heralding individuality as a community value; and finally Black women's autobiographies are disproportionately Christian narratives, that is, the experiences are framed around an individual[ized] application of Christianity. I have chosen three sub-genres of Black women's autobiography, and one literary work within each genre; each sub-genre and each literary work represent a different approach to developing the "self-story." The genres and texts are: slave narratives (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl); folk autobiography (Listen to Me Good); and popular/normative autobiography (Coming of Age in Mississippi).

The Black male is assigned a peripheral position here, and I will forego justifying his marginalization: just as whites excluded Black bodies and were not made to account for this absence, so have Black men created a Christian-based agenda written in a gendered pronoun and, indeed, implemented by and for "humanity" as it is defined by the universal-male pronoun. It is only Black women who are asked, "Have you thought of the other?" without males of all races or white women being asked to consider this first. Therefore, I will give attention to woman-authored community-centered approaches to Black theology first, followed by a consideration the alternative models. Katie Cannon and Cheryl Sanders: A Women's Conversation

In Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People, Cheryl Sanders "draw[s] from the activity of Black Christian women" to argue for a progressive moral agenda, one that demonstrates the development of Christian religious doctrine from slavery to liberation, from victimization to moral agency. (Sanders ix)

Sanders defines empowerment as "the process by which an individual or group conveys to others the authority to act." (Sanders 4) Empowerment ethics are the norms, values and principles that have guided Black people's journey. (Sanders ix) Sanders outlines six approaches to empowerment.

1) Testimony: conversion, followed by the willingness to accept the "divine commission," thus creating a worshiping community that is spiritually empowered to fight for freedom and justice. (Sanders 25)

2) Protest: an appeal to the "reality and power of God" as evident, for example, in early American slave narratives. (Sanders 26)

3) Uplift: "the moral integrity and communal articulation of empathy" modeled in the Black women's club movement. (Sanders 60)

4) Cooperation: repairing the scission between men and women by advancing a system of egalitarian spiritual leadership. (Sanders 67)

5) Achievement: excelling in, for example, academics accompanied by a self-understanding. This understanding allows you to apply knowledge to the peculiarities of Black life, thus "carrying forward . . . the struggle." (Sanders 94)

6) Remoralization: to restore moral strength through "intragroup social responsibility," that is, a reinstitution of core ethical values and ethically responsible moral leadership. (Sanders 102,104)

In short, ethics for an enslaved people is defined within restricted activity while waiting for God to act; empowerment ethics for a liberated people is decidedly based on action. It is fitting, then, that she ends her study with Ministry. She defines Ministry as the combination of worship and activity, the work of the empowered that advances the social and spiritual position of Black folks.

Sanders sees the moral wisdom of Black women as a "commitment to uplift, empowered by a bold vision of the imperative to love God, neighbor, and self," which "inspired countless Black women to become engaged in a dynamic movement toward justice and human wholeness." Black female leaders have exhibited the quality of moral integrity and empathy that will be necessary for the empowerment of Black people. (Sanders 60)

Similarly, in Black Womanist Ethics, Katie Cannon suggests that Black women "live out a moral wisdom" that is different from that of Black men because of the uniqueness of Black women's vulnerability and exploitation, and different from whites because whites created and advance the system of oppression. This moral wisdom does not rescue Black women from the bewildering pressures and perplexities of institutionalized social evils, but rather, exposes those ethical assumptions which are inimical to the ongoing survival of Black womanhood. The moral counsel of Black women captures the ethical qualities of what is real and what is of value to women in the Black world. (Cannon 5) Cannon says that Black women have effectively adjoined American literary devices with their distinctive appreciation of orality and folk expressions. The resulting narratives bare witness to their wisdom in the face of "the insidious effects of racism, sexism and economic exploitation on members of their communities." Because of their loyalty to Black community culture -- especially traditions and social mores - the work of Black women writers serve as a repository for folk-knowledge and will preserve the past and usher in the future of Black community life. (Cannon 87)

Conversely, in Black male-authored literature -- Invisible Man and Native Son are poignant illustrations -- the narrative development, thus the moral dilemma, occurs after the characters have moved away from their communities and their roots. (Cannon 90) In the end, Black women's literature offers the "sharpest available view of the Black community's soul." (Cannon 87)

Cannon's methodology seeks to allow Black women to "appreciate the richness of their own moral struggle through the life of the common people." (Cannon 5) Like Sanders, she also wishes to distinguish the ethics of oppression (that is, slavery) from the ethical approaches to freedom. To achieve this objective, Cannon uses the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston, which demonstrates the characteristics of Black women's moral agency: invisible dignity (105), quiet grace (125-26) and unshouted courage. (159)

That Cannon then looks to Black men to "round out" her definition of Black womanist ethics seems, on the surface, to be a contradiction. After all, even while she credits Hurston with affirming her worth "without scampering around for male validation," Cannon depends on Hurston's male contemporaries - Martin Luther King, Jr. and Howard Thurman - and on the Black [male] theological tradition to complete her definition of an ethic specifically for Black women's lives. (Cannon 160) In the way of clarification and defense she says that in the development of an ethic for Black women's lives must be an . .

. .. unequivocal acknowledgment of the Black theological tradition. By applying the faith claims of Christianity to the nuances and ambiguities of Black life, [King and Thurman] provide conceptual elements for enhancing the moral agency of Black women. (Cannon 160)

Here is evidenced a central element of her Black womanist ethics: without support, without money, without a means to live, even without community, Black womanist ethics existed in the form of a willfulness, an inherent sensibility, a dedication to affirming the value of Black life. For Hurston, "the moral quality of life was expressed not as an ideal, but . . . as a balance of complexities in such a way that suffering did not overwhelm and endurance with integrity was possible." (Cannon 104) Suffering, therefore, was not a stronghold on Black morality; pain was not an "ethical quality"; surviving was not virtuous; survival techniques are not virtues.

There are some central similarities between the works of these two women: both acknowledge the importance of education for empowerment; still, both recognize that even with formal learning, economic instability and poverty are central challenges in African American communities; both recognize the doctrine of Martin Luther King, Jr. as central to Black liberation ideology, and acknowledge the moral agency of King's ideology of love within empowerment ethics (in her Remoralization argument, Sander's questions King's prominent placement in Black womanist ethics, but she does not challenge the substance of his ideology); finally, both recognize that the moral situation of Black people is understood through community, while the moral dilemma of Black life is defined by struggle.

A central difference between the two is that while [Cannon's] Black womanism "prod[s] Black male leaders toward a more inclusive agenda," [Sanders'] empowerment ethic looks to a model of moral leadership fashioned by Black women, while beseeching Black male leaders (whose exclusiveness deflects empathy) to begin repairing the "brokenness and alienation" that they have created in Black communities. (Sanders 112-113)

In the end, Sanders describes the relationship between Black empowerment ethics and Black womanist ethics as "a wheel within a wheel." The missing spoke is that Black womanist ethics conveys a defiance, an independence, even a rebelliousness, all of which are inconsistent with the "fruit of the Spirit." (Gal. 5:22-23) According to Sanders this "fruit" is the seed whereby empowerment ethics is nurtured and cultivated.

I would be remiss were I not to take issue with the adaptation of Walker's denotation of womanism. As a model, it is not one born out of a Christian sensibility, and was not created to reflect a decidedly or distinctly Christian agenda. Her omission of God is glaring; she evokes what she names "the unholy trinity": Zora Neale Hurston, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday; and she learns one lesson from Jesus: "that we cannot live on [His] bread alone." (Walker 91, 125) Rather than identify Walker as the artist-of-the-landscape, this essay simply acknowledges Walker as a bridge: In In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, Walker is attempting to "posits a theory of Black female creativity and defines a tradition of Black women's art in which she can locate her own." Cheryl Wall, in "Taking Positions and Changing Words," says of Walker,

Walker imagines generations of Black women artists - both those defeated and "driven to a numb and bleeding madness," by that creativity for which they could find no release and those who released their creativity in song and the crafts of quilt making, baking and gardening which Walker reevaluates as art. Walker's portrait of her mother is surely the portrait of an artist: "Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty." (Wall 5-6)

In the autobiographical models that follow, I identify the works as woman-authored personal narratives that -- as modeled in womanism -- embrace "the whole" from a female perspective. My appendage is that they yield to the power of God in determining how to order their universes.

Folk Autobiography: Listen to Me Good

It is perhaps contradictory to assert that Alice Walker's definition of "art" cited above is the best argument for inclusion of folk autobiography in this essay. Folk autobiography remains one of the most poignant and least recognizable genre of Black women's writings. It is predominated by as-told-to autobiographies of "folk" Black women, that is, Black women whose primary form of communication is oral. While this definition has become dated, and while it is increasingly difficult to determine what specific traits distinguish this genre, location (generally rural), profession (domestic and midwifery) and mode of story telling (generally "simplistic" life story) are also identifiers of this genre.

Another invariable trait of folk autobiography, and the most compelling argument for its inclusion here, is the overwhelming presence of God in the telling of folk life stories. God appears not only as a character, but as the teller: the author can only compose her life through a God-informed memory. In Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of An Alabama Midwife, Margaret Charles Smith's story begins and ends with an acknowledgment of God's presence in the path from slavery to freedom. Her first words are "I was raised by a slavery time lady." Her last are

I'm blessed from where I use to be. Sit anywhere on the plane. Sit anywhere on the bus. We don't think where we've come from. People don't thank the Lord enough for how the Lord done blessed them. The colored folks don't have as much power as the white man, but we have more than we ever had." (133)

Without lovingly embracing the difficulties of her condition, without heralding her suffering, the representation of Black women as life-sustainers contribute to an understanding to the notion of community-as-extension-of-self. Here, Margaret Smith recounts her experience delivering her first child without assistance, after a full day of "washing white folks dishes," all the while in labor.

When I made it there, I said, "Thank God, I done made it to the house." I threw down them things and put that quilt down with a pillow where I could put my arms up on it. And right there is where it happened. So there I was, me and the baby. Then I got me a piece of quilt and put it between my legs and I took the baby and put him out from the placenta and propped his head up, and then I got back in the bed. I did it all myself. (48)

When asked by her white boss who was with her during the birth, Smith answered, "Nobody but me and the good Lord." Mothering becomes a pathway to moral agency for Black communities through Black women. In the process referred to as "remoralization" by Cheryl Sanders, the "alienated and self-destructive" African American male experiences disinheritance. (Sanders 107) While she argues that remoralization can be found through the church, Smith's life of midwifery provides evidence that it exists first in the God-visited family home. While this view does not immediately appear new or transformative, her implicit argument -- that birth and birthing cements and centers the experience of Black men and women -- is advanced: within this model, the "creation" experience is the key to a restored community morality.

The Slave Narrative: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

This notion is furthered when we consider Margaret Smith's autobiographical predecessor, Harriet Jacobs, whose battle to guard and defend her motherhood bares witness to the resistance to the destruction of black family. In "Allegories of Black Female Desire; or, Rereading Nineteenth-Century Sentimental Narratives of Black Female Authority," Claudia Tate argues that,

It hardly bears stating that slavery demanded slave women to be bearers of human chattel. Although slave women might appropriate the term mother for themselves, they were regarded as "mammies"; motherhood was an institution to which they had only biological claim. (Tate 108)

Tate recognizes that a measure of the significance of Incidents is that it successfully exploits the divergence between Black women's moral outrage at sexual abuses during slavery with Black men's petition for their own liberty. (Tate 108) Although Jacobs is ultimately successful at securing the freedom of her own children, most slave women are not; in this regard, Jacobs narrative forms a triumphant counterpart to the tragic norms that governed institution of slavery. (Tate 109)

Incidents is "the only full account of a maturing slave girl's initiation into the sorrows of motherhood," and thus "emerges as a text central to the slave narrative genre and to the autobiographical writing of Black Americans." (Braxton 38) Black women's slave autobiographies are rooted in two foci: the quest for multiple freedoms (that is, freedom for all people and from all types of oppression); and quest for religious purification. "Freedom" and "Escape" are two different concepts in this framework. Escape is finding a way out of sin, out of discordance with God. Freedom is liberation; not simply deliverance from slavery, but also from sexual torture.

Incidents, more than any other work, speaks to the distinct ways that Black women order their stories; they write through a schizophrenic femininity, because it is shaped through the conditions of bondage, unprotected motherhood, brutality and rape. Indeed, Incidents is "the only work in the slave narrative genre in which the articulate hero is a woman, a mother, and a coherent first-person narra[tor]." (Braxton 38) Through Jacob's degeneration into a forced immorality she identifies motherhood, for her readers, as a passageway to building a new identity. Thus, it is clear that through a study of early Black women's writing, we can revolutionize definitions of genre, "of archetype, of narrative traditions and of the African-American experience itself." (Braxton 38)

Jacobs says of her child,

The little vine was taking deep root in my existence, though its clinging fondness excited a mixture of love and pain. Sometimes I wished he might die in his infancy. God tried me. I had prayed for his death, but never so earnestly as I now prayed for his life; my prayer was heard. Alas, what a mockery it is for a slave mother to try to pray back her dying child to life! Death is better than slavery. (62)

As with Margaret Charles Smith, motherhood, for Jacobs, is the vehicle through which Black women gain moral agency, it is the tie that binds Black community. Jacobs, after beginning a love affair with a free Black man, "plans" a pregnancy, an act that can be viewed both as rebellion and as a community solidifier. (Braxton 24) If creating life is evidence of God, then the memorialization and particularizing of it in autobiography - with the life examination it precipitates - holds great and potential power. In a reference to Isaiah 51:17 Harriet Jacobs wrote: "Thank God the bitter cup is drained of its last dreg": her reader is informed that even after her sexual disgrace, the "autobiographical act" is part of her pathway to redemption.

Popular Autobiography: Coming of Age in Mississippi

Like her literary predecessors, Anne Moody grows up impoverished, fatherless, hungry and -- like Margaret Smith -- in the church. Her earliest church memories are not pleasant ones: she remembers, in dramatic detail, a forced baptism at the hands of her mother and pastor. Where baptism should represent a cleansing and rebirth, the scene signifies a highly complex and decidedly disturbing pathway to "saving grace."

Suddenly a wet hand was slapped over my face and I felt the mud folding over me, sucking me down. Just as I began to feel the heaviness of the mud, I was lifted out of the water. I tried to open my eyes but mud was stuck to my lashes, so I just left them closed. As they were leading me out of the water, I could hear the cows mooing, Jack laughing, and everyone singing, "Take Me to the Waters." Everything sounded far away. It took me a minute to realize that my ears were stuffed full of mud. (79)

The muddiness of the water is perhaps literal, but it is also symbolic of Moody's incomprehension of the relationship between baptism, new life via "going to the waters" and the function of Black religion in practiced life. Where the cleansing water should provide her with a new vision, it simply blinds her, soils her new white dress and prevents her from hearing. Rather than provide her with purity, baptism appears to take it away.

It isn't until Moody becomes older, witnesses the ordeal of being born Black in the south, and the profound luxury of being born white in any station, that religion begins to have meaning for her. It gains a new function: its function is protest. Christianity makes little sense to her in her starvation as a child, in watching her mother bare one child after another with no husband or source of income, in her physical abuse. It does make sense when she learns about the relationship between Black anguish and white indulgence, and when Christianity becomes a tool, viz. the Civil Rights Movement, for change.

Moody represents an essential link between the old and new literary traditions of Black America. While Moody is shunned by her home community (she and they fear they will suffer repercussions for her political activity) everyone recognizes freedom as a Christian ideal. In the end, Anne Moody questions the saliency of nonviolence and the Christian precepts that undergirded the Civil Rights Movement.

I sat there listening to "We Shall Overcome," looking out of the window at the passing Mississippi landscape. Images of all that had happened kept crossing my mind: the Taplin burning, the Birmingham church bombing, Medgar Evers' murder, the blood gushing out of McKinley's head, and all the other murders. We shall overcome, We shall overcome We shall overcome some day. I WONDER. I really WONDER.(384)

Does Anne Moody advance an indictment of Christianity? She resists doing so, even while she counts the Civil Rights Movement a irreparable blow to the moral optimism of Black America. She identifies herself as a soldier who, called to duty, performed each task with conviction. The mistakes, she seems to suggest, where sometimes her own. This bitter brand of individual awareness at first seems to be self-deprecating and unprovoked pessimism. But, in the end, she brings the profound value of self-examination to the surface. By evoking spirituals in her life analysis, Moody has a place wherefrom she can evaluate her spiritual, political and perhaps literary relationship to African American traditions.


In Revolutionizing Motherhood, Marguerite Guzman Bouvard argues that as traditional families are torn apart, mothers bear the responsible of reinventing the construction of family in a "unique blend of public and private that characterize[s] their political style." (178) In other words, Black women's transforming notions of motherhood precipitated changes in the dynamic of Black family, as much as the challenges to Black family reordered their motherhood. Religion was the material through which motherhood, then family-hood, could be quilted.

What becomes of the colored girl? She, "as invisible to the dominant culture as rain," possesses a triple consciousness that can, as Cheryl Sanders suggest, convey to others the authority to act. (Sanders 4) Several points can be advanced by considering the self-stories of Black women as a vehicle for conveying authority to act:

First, the relationship with God that has been fostered by Black women is action based. She celebrates the God-presence by living out a responsibility to Black community.

Second, it is individual, that is, it acknowledges and promotes the strength and uniqueness of the individual encounter with God and with the world.

Third, it considers the unique moral agency of Black women, and explores the possibility that her moral agency has the force to safeguard others.

Fourth, it offers simple instruction on a universal theme: the responsibility entailed in bringing new lives into the world. The three women chosen - Harriet Jacobs, a mother; Margaret Smith, a midwife; and Anne Moody, a daughter-activist - not only affirm their humanity through their Christianity, but, in the act of writing it in their own words, they transform it into a vehicle for liberation and equity.


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Morrison, Toni. Race-ing, Justice, En-gendering Power. New York: Pantheon, 1992

Sanders, Cheryl. Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995

Smith, Margaret Charles. Listen to Me Good: Life of an Alabama Midwife. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996

Tate, Claudia. "Allegories of Black Female Desire; or Rereading Nineteenth -Century Sentimental Narratives of Black Female Authority," Changing Our Words. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 98-126

Wall, Cheryl. Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory and Writing by Black Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harvest, 1983

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Emerging Church Economics

There are too many errors in this book for unsophisticated readers. McLaren’s book has value only to readers who recognize the mistakes but are willing to learn about a position that springs from ideology and a theological framework. For me, the emerging church movement is enough to consider by itself without flawed economics intertwined

Mordecai Kaplan: Rethinking Judaism for the New World

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