As an artist and author, my time is often divided between painting and writing, with my interests in religion, gender/sexuality, and justice being the connection between the two. Painting teaches me something unique about writing, at the same time that writing brings clarity to my painting. For me, the two go hand-in-hand. Such is most certainly the case with my painting of the revolutionary Grimké sisters and in the writing of my most recent book, co-authored with Cody Sanders. Now that the painting, one of my newest with a , has toured parts the East Coast and is officially available for , I’ve had an opportunity to reflect on these seemingly disparate projects and mediums, only to realize how mutually informing they truly are.
The Grimké Sisters: Sarah (1792-1873) and Angelina (1805-1879)
Though these revolutionary sisters have always been famous in feminist-preaching-justice-antiracism-vegetarian circles, their name recognition bolstered with the stirring novel by Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. The Grimké sisters were Southern American Quakers, writers, public speakers, and the first American women advocates for both abolition and women’s rights. Born to a wealthy plantation owner with hundreds of slaves, who held that women were strictly subordinate to men, these daring daughters experienced the evils of slavery first-hand. In fact, at age five, Sarah witnessed a slave being whipped and tried to escape South Carolina on a steam ship to a “place where there was no slavery.” In violation of the law, she taught several slaves to read during her adolescence.
Thirteen years her junior, Angelina was more of a daughter than sister to Sarah, as Sarah begged her parents to make her Angelina’s godmother. Together, the sisters left the South, became Quakers, committed themselves to pacifism and vegetarianism, and dedicated their lives to abolitionism. They gave countless public lectures—at first in “parlor meetings” for only women, but expanding to include men—decrying the evils of slavery. Not only did they preach abolition based on their interpretations of scripture, but they also held that black and white people are equal and should be treated as such. This latter belief was considered completely radical, even in abolitionist circles. In giving public lectures, they were attacked for their anti-slavery stance. In fact, they were forced to leave the Quaker church because of their views. But their radical abolitionism was not the only reason for critique; they were also condemned for stepping into the male sphere of public speaking. In the midst of such critique, the sisters were forced to grapple with their views of gender, inadvertently becoming feminists and women’s rights activists, as well. After much thought, prayer, and study, Sarah and Angelina also determined that women’s equality was rooted in scripture.
Angelina married another abolitionist and, though Sarah experienced love for men throughout her life, she chose a less traditional route. In these ways, Sarah Grimké not only shifted the status quo regarding issues of race and gender, but also of sexuality. Not so much because Sarah identified as LGBTQ, because she did not, but because she chose to “queer” her personal life in the sense that it was transgressive and challenging to social norms. Being a wife and mother were not a part of Sarah Grimké’s calling; being a radical abolitionist and women’s rights advocate was.
“Our church is colorblind. Race just doesn’t matter to us.”
“You’re the best woman preacher I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s fine if gay people want to get married, but I just worry about the children.”
Statements like these are regular occurrences in the lives of persons of color, women, and LGBTQs. In our society, and in churches in particular, we like to think of ourselves as good, moral, thoughtful, open-minded people. We don’t want to think that we—or our churches—are racist, sexist, or heterosexists. And yet marginalized persons continue to find themselves feeling invalidated, undercut, or unwelcome in subtle ways. These seeming subtleties add up over time in ways that assault the psyche, the body, and even the soul. These everyday subtleties that attack the souls of oppressed persons and groups are called microaggressions.
Microaggressions—subtle and often unintentional slights, insults, and indignities experienced by persons of varied minority statuses—occur on a regular basis in education, the workplace, and daily life. Drawing from our background as ordained clergy, Cody Sanders and I address microaggressions directed at race, gender, and sexuality in church in our newest book . Asserting that the context and language of religion can intensify the impact of microaggressions, our book provides examples and tools for grappling with microaggressions in preaching, religious education, worship, spirituality, pastoral care and counseling. This is surely a text that will benefit congregations and clergy concerned with diversity and difference in the church.
And you may be wondering, “What on earth do microaggressions have to do with the Grimké sisters?!” Sarah Grimké died in 1873 and Angelina died in 1879. They dedicated their lives to racial equality, abolition, and women’s equality. Sarah transgressed societal norms regarding sexuality. That was over 135 years ago. Many are quick to quip at how much has changed, at how far we’ve come. Slavery was abolished. Women can now vote. As of this summer, LGBTQs can legally marry. “We’re all treated equally,” is the common refrain.
And yet we know this is simply not true. Though society and facets of the church are eager to condemn blatant forms of racism, sexism, and heterosexism with the wave of a politically correct finger and a quick quote of Galatians 3, churches still manages to hurt, insult, and invalidate the souls of countless persons of color, women, and LGBTQs. It is for this reason, we still need bold, daring, revolutionaries like Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Painting their icon and writing about microaggressions were a summons to me, a calling, a challenge to risk, to rage, to change, even if the consequences are dire.
Bound by one heart, these two simple sisters reach up and out, working together in one accord, as their heart cries out to us:
Bound by a thirst for justice,
Their beating hearts pulsed in
Abolition, equality, simplicity…
Confronting the violence of everyday church isn’t easy. It’s painful. It involves admitting when we’re wrong and acknowledging our privileges. I know that hasn’t been easy for me, but it’s a vital part of the work of justice. Let us continue the work of these bold sisters.
Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of , , , , , and . She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: