white femininity: whitemalegod’s secret weapon By Christena Cleveland, PhD

For the first several weeks of my walking pilgrimage, I debated whether to visit the famous Black Madonna of Orcival. It wasn’t the walking distance that deterred me; She lived in a gorgeous Romanesque cathedral nestled in a charming medieval mountain town only fifteen miles away. Rather, I was hesitant to visit Her because I knew that, after a thousand years of being Black, She had undergone a mid-twentieth-century “renovation and restoration” process that whitened Her skin. I knew from photos that Her once gorgeous melanated skin was now a ghastly beige-ish pink. The incredible Black Madonna of Orcival now appears to be a white woman.

Nevertheless, in the end I decided to walk to Her because I wanted to see for myself what they had done to Her. Besides, as one of the most famous Black Madonnas in the world, I knew that since the 900s, thousands of socially oppressed pilgrims have walked along an ancient Roman road in order to pray to Her and find comfort in their distress. I wanted to walk that same Roman road in concert with the multitudes who had gone before me.

So, one crisp November morning, I set out for Orcival. The once mighty Roman thoroughfare is now simply a scenic trail that weaves and winds its way across a stunted volcanic mountain range. As I made my way along the forest floor covered in orange, red, and yellow leaves, I tried to imagine what the Black Madonna of Orcival had looked like before She was whitened. She must have been something special.

Though there are numerous Black Madonnas in the Auvergne region of France, few are as famous as the Black Madonna of Orcival. Even more so, though the Auvergne is known for its bounty of Black Madonnas, there are many, many more white Madonnas in the region. In fact, the white Madonnas are still the norm, even in a region that is known for its centuries-long devotion to the Black Madonna. Yet during the Middle Ages, the Black Madonna of Orcival—when Her skin was still Black—was one of the most visited Madonnas in the region. There must have been something about Her that drew people to Her.

I mean, let’s face it. In France, ancient Madonnas are a dime a dozen. It’s easier to find a church that boasts an ancient Madonna statute than it is to find a Starbucks. So, there must have been something about Her that inspired pilgrims to journey on past the numerous other Black and white Madonnas in search of Her. For this reason, I longed to see Her original skin, yet I knew my longing would go unfulfilled. Her Black skin, the Black skin that had beckoned and nourished thousands of pilgrims, had been stolen from me. But I looked forward to examining Her facial features, Her posture, and Her expression. They may have stolen Her Black skin, but they can never steal Her Blackness.

After walking all morning, I finally approached the idyllic village of Orcival in the early afternoon. The entire village was closed for the tourist off-season, so I made my way straight to the stone cathedral. As I entered the church, I braced myself. I had heard that the Black Madonna of Orcival was the most heavily guarded Madonna of the region. But nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle I encountered. When I visited the Black Madonna of Mauriac, I had encountered a velvet rope blocking the altar and a sign forbidding anyone from crossing the rope. But this was something else. Instead of a rope and a flimsy sign, I saw a massive defense system surrounding the whitened Black Madonna of Orcival. A wooden barricade surrounded Her altar, a seemingly bulletproof fortress encased Her body, and massive, blinding floodlights invaded every yard within throwing distance of Her.

She was more than heavily guarded; Her security system seemed on par with the most valuable crown jewels in the Tower of London. And there was no way I was getting near Her to gaze into Her eyes, mimic Her posture, and start to understand why so many pilgrims had been drawn to Her. Her fortress of defense, which kept me out, felt violent to my Black female body, which longed to draw near to Her. Disappointed, I slumped in a pew and contemplated the fact that She, the whitewashed Black Madonna, was the most heavily guarded of all the Black Madonnas. She is even more heavily guarded than the Black Madonnas who have actually been stolen before. As I stared at Her from the enforced distance, I reflected on the fact that it is the whitened Black Madonna, not the most vulnerable Black Madonnas, who have been stolen, who is most heavily guarded.

I’ll say that again: the whitened Black Madonna is more protected than the most vulnerable Black Madonnas. If that ain’t that a metaphor for how white femininity is valued over Black femininity, I don’t know what is.

White femininity is one of whitemalegod’s best disguises. Since the days of ol’ Thomas Jefferson, white femininity has been an enemy of Black femininity and a way for whitemalegod to continue to exert his racial/gender hierarchy on the world. As Chanequa Walker-Barnes teaches us, white femininity has always been the “pure” femininity. As a result, it has always been more valuable and legitimate than “impure” Black femininity. For this reason, a white woman’s “I’m uncomfortable” is always going to be valued over a Black woman’s “I can’t breathe.” White patriarchy will always circle the wagons around white femininity, especially if it means it can continue to uphold the social pecking order by keeping Black women in their place at the bottom. As long as white women use their femininity to silence Black women’s pain, whitemalegod lives on.

Nevertheless, the Black Madonna welcomes us all with open arms. Unlike whitemalegod, She doesn’t exclude anyone; Her circle is wide and all are welcome. But just because all are welcome doesn’t mean all are ready. For though She is the Mother of all, She is especially the Mother of Black women. And though She is the protector of all, She is unapologetically Black and unapologetically concerned with the flourishing of Black women. Regardless of our racial identity, in order to experience the fullness of Her transformative love, we must get into formation around Her unapologetic Blackness. But we do not have to do this healing work on our own. She Who is Unapologetically Black empowers us all beyond mere beliefs and into transformative action. She is Love-in-Action and She is simply waiting for us to say YES.

Edited excerpt from God Is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland, published with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.

BIO: Christena Cleveland, Ph.D. is a social psychologist, public theologian, author, and activist. An award-winning researcher and a former professor at Duke University’s Divinity School, Cleveland is the founder and director of the Center for Justice + Renewal as well as its sister organization, Sacred Folk, which creates resources to stimulate people’s spiritual imaginations and support their journeys toward liberation.



Categories: Black Feminism, Black Madonna, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, white femininity

Tags: , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. OMG, Yes. I have your book Christina but have not gotten a chance to start reading it. Shame on me. I will start today. I have always believed strongly that you do not balance divine femininity and masculinity without also balancing creed, color and gender. And far too often these conversations that need to happen do not because they are too ‘uncomfortable’ for privileged white spiritual women. Thank you for this post. I have shared on the divine feminine app and linked here.

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  2. Sorry for misspelling your name Christena. Too early. Need more coffee. :)

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  3. There is something so divisive about white and black – in Madonnas and everything else associated with splitting splitting splitting – I remember when I first saw white versions of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She was an Indian red brown skin – what happened? I was outraged. It took me a long time to get beyond the is she brown, black or white renditioning. These figures represent and symbolize the powers of woman and the comfort of that which we call divine . It’s time I think to put down our politics of separation and turn to these figures to pray for grace.

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  4. Thank you for your essay. I am sorry you didn’t have the transformative experience you wanted. It’s so important for people to have a deity/symbol that resembles them. Without it, they are basically dismissed nad not included in the conversation. I had no clue Madonnas were being white washed, but I’m not surprised. In the United States, they might include a GOP symbol on her robes, somewhere, too.

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  5. Blessings to you Christena Cleveland. It is my understanding that the Black Madonnas of Europe are black because they ARE the pre-Christian Earth Goddesses… many legends tell of how a farmer with a plowing animal un-earthed a Black Madonna statuette from the soil… the Church often explained her blackness as the result of candle smoke…her white-washing is probably not racial as much as it is to white-wash over her ancient pre-Christian ancestry… like the Hindu Goddess, Kali, her blackness is symbolic… Black is the color in which all colors are absorbed… therefore her blackness is INCLUSIVE… of other goddesses… and it may be this inclusiveness of the divine feminine that the church is trying to obliterate… we all need a god who looks like us… and while my skin is white, I revere the Black Madonna because of her pagan ancestry that aligns her with the Sacred Earth… and it is a sacrilege to lighten her earthy skin for whatever dubious reason.

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  6. A Poem to The Black Madonna

    she is black
    because her heart is as old as the mountains
    the bones of her body are older than our being
    and thought and speculation and worship and
    supplication — long before a voice could sing a praise song
    she was there, waiting, knowing, her wisdom
    primordially determined

    she is black
    like the night — impenetrable an indigo stain — unfathomable
    deep in her darkness beneath ages and layers of prayer,
    pleadings and offerings deep beneath her ground
    the bubbling earth’s blood-red innards boil
    pitch black coal and glistening gold
    hang from her ovaries like bunches of grapes
    juicy, enticing, glittering in the dark

    she is black
    since the beginning — since before the beginning
    she was the beginning
    the black hole in the universe that absorbs everything
    and from which all comes
    she is the beginning and the end

    humankind roll out of her womb and plow
    themselves back into her earth after their
    futile quest for the light — jumping
    ever higher and higher only to succumb to her gravity
    and end up sitting, flat bottomed, on her back

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In Costa Rica we have the Black Madonna, the Black Virgin or also known as the Negrita. She is the patron saint of Costa Rica and is kept inside a shrine in Basilica de Nuestra Señor de Los Angeles in Cartago, Costa Rica. On August 2, there is a grand pilgrimage to her and all the Los Angeles barrios of CR also celebrate with parades and blessings. She is definitely very black and I have always seen her this way.
    Christena, I hope your book comes in digital form….

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  8. Wow. This whole page is incredible. Today at chapters I opened a book called Encyclopedia of Spirits. I have been asking my guide and protector who she is and what her name is for years. Today I continued that quest and asked her to show me. I opened the book where and on the spot I felt so drawn to. It said Black Madonna of orcival. Having never heard of this as a white Canadian I took to Google. I am so glad I found this page and Christena Cleveland’s story here. Thank you for starting me on the correct path to learn more about her. My heart breaks for the people that continue to live in this colonized whitewashed world. It is not right. I will continue to find ways i can lift up the black community and POC peoples. Thankbyou for sharing Christena you’re journey and for sharing the Black Madonna’s truth. I look forward to learning more about Her.

    I’m excited to explore and learn more about this site too, looks really great. Thanks again!

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  1. GOD IS A BLACK WOMAN by Christena Cleveland, PhD – Book Review by Carolyn Lee Boyd - Local Cincinnati News

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