Body Talk by Kelly Brown Douglas

The more I reflect upon the complex and multiple ways in which various bodies are put upon and disregarded, the more I am persuaded that we have a body problem.

Our bodies communicate to us in many ways. They are a valuable source of knowledge in terms of our present realities and they are also valuable storehouses for memories. Long after the memories of the mind fade away, memories of the body linger. The mind may not remember, for instance, the details of a particular event, but the body remembers how it felt.  The memories of sadness, anxiety, hurt and pain as well as happiness, peace, healing and love are grafted upon our bodies. Feelings, sensations and instinctive reactions—things that are hard to explain—are oftentimes our bodies’ ways of communicating memories. These are embodied memories reminding us of what it means to feel torn apart or to feel whole. It is the body giving feedback at any given moment in time. Embodied memories certainly involve what Audre Lorde identifies as “erotic power.” This, Lorde says, is an “internal sense” and a “depth of feeling” “that is a source of  power and information” (Lorde, Sister Outside). Embodied memories are one of the ways in which our bodies speak to us and help us to know the good, right and just thing to do, from within ourselves and through depth of feeling.

Why am I talking about embodied memories?  Because the ways in which we hurt each other and are insensitive to each other’s feelings and needs never cease to amaze me. The cavalier manner in which edicts are pronounced and laws are made, with little regard for the impact these things have on actual bodies, constantly astounds me. It is for these reasons that I speak about embodied memories. I cannot imagine that we would engage in actions that would hurt others if we were in touch with our embodied memories. I cannot imagine that a body that remembers how it feels to be hurt, could hurt another body, or that a body that knows the pain of injustice could perpetuate such pain on another.

To be sure, it takes more than embodied memories to disrupt systems and structures of oppressive power.  However, I do believe the more we are alienated from our own bodies, the more likely we are to disrespect other bodies and to be complicit in the oppression of others.  I am convinced that it is only when we become more aware of our bodies and the memories held within that we will be able to truly move forward in creating a world that respects the bodies of others.  The more I reflect upon the complex and multiple ways in which various bodies are put upon and disregarded, the more I am persuaded that we have a body problem—a problem of appreciating the knowledge that our bodies hold.  The first step toward a more humane society and world has to be getting back in touch with the wisdom carried in our own bodies.

Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.”  She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul.  Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.

Categories: Body, Embodiment, General, power, Womanist Theology

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3 replies

  1. A wonderful wise piece. I am no longer a creed-saying Christian, but the Incarnation still moves me. That Jesus has a body and was born from a woman’s body. Let’s stop the frantic scramble for transcendence and re-member our bodies–and each other’s. Thanks, Kelly Douglas Brown for this beautiful reminder.


  2. I couldn’t agree more. Lorde has been a teacher to me, as has Alice Miller, who points to abuse, whether only in the form of telling us we didn’t have a right to our (body) feelings, or in the form of physically or sexually abusing our bodies, as one of the reasons we shut down the connections with our bodyselves. Thanks!


  3. Another wonderful post about the body! Like the last one, it makes me wonder when we will finally understand that we can’t disconnect our bodies from our minds. It’s one package. Our language is part of the problem. As someone pointed out in response to the last post about our bodies, the neologism “bodymind” still implies a split. Science is beginning at long last to demonstrate that we can’t distinguish the body from the mind. Since we live in a scientific age — where science seems to trump other forms of knowledge — maybe we’re on our way to a change in our dualistic philosophy.


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