In 1975, a professor of English at Wellesley College published a book intending to articulate “the female imagination” at play in women’s literature. Not one female person of color writer was mentioned.
Alice Walker, for one, was distressed by this. How possibly could the Wellesley professor, a feminist by the name of Patricia Meyer Spacks, think that the voices of white, middle-class women were representative of all women of all colors and all classes and all other possible markers of identity?
To devalue the voices of women of color like this is wrong. But Patricia Meyer Spacks had her supporters. One of them justified her exclusion of women of color authors by saying that she didn’t want to theorize about women whose experiences were so very different from hers. To this, Alice Walker said, “Spacks never lived in 19th century Yorkshire, England, so why theorize about the Brontes?”
It’s a great question. The life circumstances of the authors of such classics as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are completely different from that of 20th century American women! Yet I guess since they all share whiteness, well….
There is a reason that Alice Walker, just a couple years later, in 1983, would coin the term “womanism” and develop a corresponding theory and movement. It was past time. The feminism of the 19th and 20th centuries was really about the survival of white, relatively well-off women, so no wonder issues of race and class were ignored. But when you are a black women, your survival can’t ignore any form of oppression, since practically every form is aimed at you, all at once. From the very beginning of your life, the world is swinging at you, from multiple directions.
Which gives the voices of women of color true profundity. They/you know how deeply oppression can cut. You know how sharp the hunger for healing and wholeness can be. You know, first hand, how to stay resilient and feisty, to thrive despite all.
To be magic.
Your voice, which is the one most likely to be silenced, is the one that most needs to be heard.
So we at UUCA are hearing these voices. We hear Alice Walker when she speaks that word, “womanism,” and when she defines it. A “womanist” is “A woman who loves another woman, sexually and/or non-sexually. She appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility… [she] is committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically for health… loves the spirit…. loves struggle. Loves herself. Regardless.”
Note especially the part where she says that the womanist is committed to the survival of an entire people. Some feminists have argued differently, saying that men are the enemy. But the womanist refuses to polarize like this. The womanist affirms women’s relationships with men and the health of the family, and wants men to be well. How precious and necessary in this moment when masculinity can take toxic forms, and again and again it’s a white male shooting up yet another school.
More about all this another time.
For now, let’s bring things back to the beautiful voices of the womanists in this space. The commitment to the survival and wholeness of all, starting with oneself.
What might this look like?
A moment ago we heard Kim Green say, “As a womanist, I am compelled to resist that which tries to shrink me. I have learned to demand that others see me how I see myself: awoke, nuanced, and of course, whole.”
That is a revolutionary standpoint. You want to be whole, says this womanist? Know that there are so many systems out there that want to create you in their own image. Know this, read the signs of this, and then snatch yourself back from every one, as best as you can. Even the system of one’s skin color, which is a system that racism imposes, and which, for people of color, is felt inside as a painful double-consciousness. “Shedding my skin,” says Kim, “did not imply that I rejected my Blackness, but it did require me to be more than ‘Black.’ Being ‘Black’ could not be my most important feature. We are not merely the color of our skin or the tragedy of our pasts. It can’t be or we’ll miss this planet in all of its glory.”
This is essentially the same thing we heard Carol Welter saying, while our amazing dancer was dancing. “What’s black anyway? I am who I am.”
This is so because we are beings with inherent worth and dignity, who possess a wholeness that transcends every smaller part that makes us up. Our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, our class, our ability are undeniably significant parts of who we are, but to identify who we are with any one of them completely and exclusively is to participate in our own oppression. Each of us is all our parts, together, and even then, we are more than that.
We are ourselves. We are individual. We are whole.
But so much wants to shrink us down to some smaller part. And so, like Kim, we feel the “constant hunger pangs of needing more than what we’ve been given.”
But though some aspects of the world are so deeply wounding to us, can we trust that there are other aspects that will somehow feed us and help us into our wholeness?
Despite all, can we still hope?
To become whole, says Kim’s womanism, “is (in part) to be courageous enough to steal the precious pieces from the hearts of others.”
Why courage? Maybe because no precious piece from others comes perfectly and without complications. Kim’s mother gave her a precious piece about living boldly and large, but this same woman died suddenly in a New York City subway and that’s a powerfully haunting memory. Kim’s school friends gave her precious pieces about love for nature and animals and laughter and friendship and so much more, but they were of a different race and class than her, and that brought challenges. Kim’s family in Cincinnati gave her precious pieces of disco and R&B and funk and dancing with drunk Uncle Jack at a backyard barbecue, but they didn’t understand who she had become in New York City, they didn’t understand her.
Every precious piece she stole/she was given came with complexity, but it was her courage that enabled her to be vulnerable and to be open and to engage.
“Where would I have been,” she says, “without allowing my heart to roam freely in places to which I was not invited?”
And I want to join her in that. Allowing the heart to roam free, to become whole.
I want wholeness for us all.
And I want it from the spiritual tradition that unites us together today. Unitarian Universalism.
You know, as I was thinking about Alice Walker and her outrage at discovering no women of color authors represented in that book by the feminist Wellesley professor, I couldn’t help but connect the dots and see something completely analogous with how people of color, men and women alike, might find something vital missing when they read the “book” of Unitarian Universalist history. Where are the people of color? How can a religious tradition that preaches faith in the inherent worth and dignity of EVERY person be so … middle class white?
My colleague the Rev/ Mark Morrison-Reed calls it “The black hole in the white UU psyche.”
When there is a hole, you don’t have true wholeness.
The hole is a lack, a vacuum, an absence, a poverty. It’s being schooled in ignorance about all that is not white middle class. It’s being taught to be afraid to go beyond the information you already know and the people you already know.
That’s not freedom. That’s unfreedom.
That’s how a movement misses the planet in all of its glory.
We are needing to build a new way. We are needing to hear voices that we have never heard before.
We are needing to fill in the hole so we can achieve wholeness.
We are needing to be fearless in being open to how the next chapter of the story unfolds, starting now.
No precious piece we steal or which comes to us will be perfect or without complication. Especially when the piece is a move. But, like Kim, we can trust that what comes our way will be enough.
The past is what it was, but now, you and me: we stand upon the threshold of something new. Unitarian Universalism can achieve a wholeness it has never had before, even as we carry forward all the history that deserves to be carried forward, all the precious pieces that deserve to be stolen.
All I know is that a great way to start a new chapter in our collective life is with womanist voices.
Voices that won’t allow us to remain asleep.
Voices saying, Give yourself the gift of a new day.
Voices saying, Wake up and smell the possibility.