“I stood in the authenticity of my being: Black, preacher, Baptist, woman. For the same God who made me a preacher made me a woman, and I am convinced that God was not confused on either account.”
– Reverend Dr. Prathia Hall
These words came across my Facebook feed on Sunday in celebration of International Women’s Day. Reconciling Ministries Network put the statement on its Facebook page, along with a picture of Prathia Hall preaching from the pulpit, in remembrance and honor of women leaders who contributed to the US Civil Rights Movement. This past Sunday, March 8, when the quote was displayed, marked the 50th anniversary of Selma’s Bloody Sunday. Prathia Hall was a leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and one of the activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge who were attacked as they began to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Later in her life, she became an ordained minister, professor, and womanist theologian.
For me, this past weekend was about remembrance through many forms. While there were many events commemorating Selma and the important events that unfolded there 50 years ago, my family and I were focused on a more intimate form of remembrance. On Saturday, we held a dinner and informal memorial service for my godfather who passed away last month. I got the news of his death on a day when I’d been doing some deep soul-searching and reflecting about the image I present to the world and its correspondence with who I am and desire to be. Just a few days prior, I’d spoken to my godfather about his health and subsequently, I had been questioning how I might be more connected to him. We lived several states apart, and I wondered how I could be a good goddaughter to him despite the distance. Those questions are left unanswered in the wake of his death.
In the weeks that have followed, questions about my self-image, goals, and desires have intersected with the questions about how well I am fulfilling my responsibilities related to certain roles–goddaughter, daughter, sister, friend, educator, writer, etc. Am I doing the things I should be doing for my family? Do I spend enough time writing? How do close the gap between the things I want to do in the classroom and the things I do now?
Prathia Hall’s words alerted me to the narrowness of my reflection. Clearly, her statement is a challenge to critics who objected to her preaching. Regular readers and contributors to this blog know about the ongoing struggles that women face to be fully included in religious leadership. I wholeheartedly agree with Hall’s affirmation that her sex did not preclude her calling as a preacher. But that’s not what held my attention. It was the phrase “authenticity of my being” that gave me pause.
Her statement captures my belief that God created me (like anyone else) as a unique interrelation of many facets and characteristics. Some aspects of who I am reflect the contingency of my soul and spirit being united with my particular body. In other words, there are certain aspects of me that didn’t have to be, but are by virtue of the circumstances around my birth–my race, sex, nationality, familial heritage, age at particular historical moments, etc. There are other parts of my being that come about through the influence of certain experiences. Like Hall, I am a Baptist. I am a feminist. These are choices about whom to identify with based on my convictions and an affinity with others who share them. Hall reminded me that these aspects of who I am should not be eclipsed by what I do. In other words, who I am is so much broader than the roles I occupy.
Too often, I focus on what I do and how well I am doing it. It’s not a bad thing to care about these things and reflect on them. But when I overlook the deeper dimensions of who I am and how I feel and what I believe, I can too easily put myself in a box made by others. I can too easily define my worth through a particular kind of performance or production. It’s easy to quantify those aspects and translate them into value: Did I meet my deadline? No? Then I’m wasn’t a good writer today. Did I get a positive evaluation from my colleagues? Yes? Then I was a good professor today. You can see the pattern here: productivity equals merit.
The harm in assessing merit or value on a sliding scale for those other aspects of my being–Black, Baptist, woman–is too obvious for me to consciously do. I know that my race, religion, or sex doesn’t make me better or worse than any other person. I know how misguided and pernicious standards of what a “good Black woman” or an “ideal Baptist woman” can be. So why would I let my self-image and self-worth get so caught up in evaluating myself by roles?
I’m proud of the roles I inhabit and I will continue to try to fulfill the responsibilities of those roles faithfully. But as I try to be the most authentic person I can be, I must remember that defining myself by roles is too limiting and constraining. “Preacher” is just one of the aspects of who Prathia Hall was and that role was integrated with the other facets of her being. I have to recognize that the struggle to maintain authenticity or coherence between my interior self and the one I project to the world is about much more than what I do. It’s about who I am.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.
Categories: Academy, Activism, Christianity, civil rights, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, God, Grief, In the News, institutional racism, Justice, Racism, Relationships, Social Justice, Violence, Womanist Theology, Women's Ordination