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.