“[Shakespeare] was an alright writer. I did not always understand him, but some things he said were beautiful and he made some things so clear the way he explained people. But one thing he was wrong about. That ‘To be or not to be?’ is not the first question. ‘What is the truth?’ – that is the question! Then ‘To be or not to be?’ is the second question.”
-from “Feeling for Life “ in Some Soul to Keep by J. California Cooper
This past weekend, I taught a lesson for an adult church group about Christian imagination in the short stories of J. California Cooper. The quote above comes from one of her stories. I was invited to teach a lesson as part of a series on exploring God through literature. It was a delight to participate for several reasons.
First, I got to read fiction in the midst of several busy weeks consumed with grading students’ essays, conducting research for upcoming writing projects, and staying abreast of numerous email discussions. Getting absorbed in fictional literary worlds was a real treat for me. It’s not mindless entertainment, but it is a glimpse of other worlds at a moment when mine seems overburdened. The second reason I was happy to do this is that I got to engage in conversations with sincere Christians who have of a different religious tradition and were mostly not my age or race. Yet, we had a wonderful discussion. It reminded me that making connections isn’t always difficult, especially when those we encounter are intentional about hospitality. Finally, and most importantly, I was delighted because I got to share some insights from womanist theology and ethics with a group who had not encountered them before.
When the priest at this church asked me to be a part of the series, he explained,” You would have complete freedom in whom you choose to discuss. The tendency in Episcopal circles is to pick people from the Western (white male) canon. I would be very pleased for you to bring in a feminist, womanist literary voice, as well as to speak to the experiences of people of color. But again, you could choose whomever you like.” His directness was refreshing. Because of the way he phrased the request, I did not feel an obligation to choose a black woman literary figure, but I did see it as an opportunity. I selected J. California Cooper because she is perhaps less well known than Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston, but her writing is evocative and deceptively simple in its folksy tone.
I also chose to draw from the black women’s literary tradition because, as Stacey Floyd-Thomas explains, “Womanists and black feminists have long contended that black women’s writings should not be regarded merely as fiction—that is, art for art’s sake—but rather as a researched response to black women’s socioethical experiences in the face of a history of oppression.”
I shared that quote with the group on Sunday as a way of describing Christian theology and praxis’s intersection with art, beauty, and everyday life. One of the participants asked about the phrase researched response, noting that research not something we typically associate with fiction. (Oh, the myths that abound about the creative process!) Many fictional works are based in skillful research. Beyond that, we know that Zora Neale Hurston, a significant contributor to the African-American literary tradition, was an anthropologist and folklorist as well as a writer. Her writings, and those of others like her, were informed by years of listening to the stories of people whose voices were routinely excluded and silenced. By highlighting the perspectives of the marginalized in their works and revealing their particular moral wisdom, skilled artists like Hurston and Cooper re-create the world of the “other” in way that challenges accepted notions of respectability and moral goodness.
Here is a lesson from womanist methodology that has relevance for us all: It is only by attending to the stories of those who are ignored, forgotten, hidden, and excluded that we will uncover the pressing moral issues of our time. Unless we pay attention to the lives of those we relegate to the margins, we will never know the wrongs confronted by the ones Jesus identified as “the least of these.” We should listen to them identify their concerns in their own language and on their own terms, respecting their knowledge of their own lived realities above our own desire to be heard, too.
One aspect that has caught my attention in the recent controversies about racism and the campus climate at the University of Missouri is that in this case, the protests and boycotts worked to expose administrators’ lack of attention to students who were trying to tell telling their stories about experiencing racism. Student demonstrators who called themselves Concerned Student 1950 (notably assisted by members of the university’s football team) were able to bring national attention to stories that were being swept under the rug. Without their voices and their agency, most of us would not have known what was occurring on their campus, and hopefully this provokes some of us to take a closer look at our own campuses, workplaces, and homes.
If truth is valuable–if it is the first question when we seek to make meaning of life, as the character in Cooper’s story suggests –we have to make an effort to seek out and listen to the voices we typically ignore. This is true even if–especially if–we are afraid to hear what they say.
 Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2006), 15.
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, Black Feminism, Books, Christianity, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Fiction, Justice, Power relations, Racism, Reform, Social Justice, Womanist Theology, women of color