FAR recently published an excerpt and lively discussion of Christena Cleveland, PhD’s new book God Is a Black Woman. We thought the FAR community might enjoy learning more about this memoir of her moving journey from the terror and control of “whitemalegod” to the unconditional love and healing of the Sacred Black Feminine. Her recounting of her 400-mile walking pilgrimage to see eighteen French Black Madonnas is especially fascinating and poignant.
Christena is a social psychologist, former professor at Duke University’s Divinity School, public theologian, researcher, author, and speaker. She 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.” She blends all these areas of expertise to offer theological, sociological, psychological, and historical insights into her stories of her spiritual quest. The book offered me many “aha!” moments about my own beliefs and assumptions regarding spirituality, feminism, and the ubiquitous effects of racism.
Among the great gifts of God Is a Black Woman is Christena’s courage and honesty in revealing highly traumatic physical and emotional abuse leading to constant fear, feelings of unworthiness, and bulimia. She puts this maltreatment into the context of their relationship to living as a Black woman in a world dominated by what she calls “whitemalegod.” She says it best:
“The patron of white patriarchy, whitemalegod is designed to dwell among, identify with, and protect the power of white people and cisgender men. However, people of color, women, trans, and non-binary people who have been conditioned to believe in whitemalegod find ourselves wondering where God is as we face ongoing humiliation, dehumanization, oppression, and disillusionment” (42).
Christena explores the ramifications of whitemalegod, which is not simply the image of divinity as white and male. It comes complete with resulting attitudes, beliefs, and power held by white men, and infects all of us as individuals and as a society. Both harrowing and enlightening!
Christena comes to understand that whitemalegod will never be “with” her, as she has been taught. She describes how she comes to the realization that she has been ruled by and given up control of her life in response to the influence of whitemalegod, especially after the murders of Trayvon Martin and other unarmed Black people. This inspired her pursuit of the Black Sacred Feminine through mindfulness meditation, trauma therapy, contemplative walking, and research.
The Sacred Black Feminine that eventually embraces and blesses all aspects of Christena’s life, in contrast to the “detached, off-planet” “fatherskygod” (27), is glorious:
“Though She can rock with the best of the intellectuals, She exists beyond the edges, beyond the orthodox ways of knowing, and beyond traditional logic. She beckons us in dreams and speaks to us through our embodied experiences. As I continued to journey toward the Sacred Black Feminine, I could see that She was guiding me away from my obsession to prove Her and instead inviting me to simply experience Her” (56).
The Sacred Black Feminine “welcomes us all with open arms” but requires that “we must get into formation around Her unapologetic Blackness” (219) to fully experience Her.
Her search eventually leads her to the Black Madonnas. “My unapologetically Black-and-female body longed to be near this Black Madonna, whom people of diverse races, religions, and eras have recognized as a Black and female image of God” (1-2). Over 450 Black Madonnas, statues and icons of Mary and Jesus with Black skin, are revered all over the world. Why is She Black? “She is Black because She is Black,” says one priest to a scholar (232).
Christena reveals how the Black Madonnas resonate deeply with the experiences of Black women. The Black Madonnas understand suffering, having been battered and burned, stolen and brought home. They have lost their children. They have welcomed, inspired, and comforted the oppressed, the sick, the hungry, the unhoused, and all marginalized people. They have a diversity of body types and features. They have the indomitable, cherishing spirit of Black enslaved women who held “hush harbor” meetings combining the best of Christianity and traditional African religion and of womanism which prizes Black women’s “experiences, truth, strength, and wisdom” (59).
Christena challenges us all to be transformed and take action. In the Sacred Black Feminine, “the nurturing wholeness of Black Mothering, and the fury of Black women’s drive for excellence come together in a supremely loving insistence that we all do better…She requires full-bodied change” (231). This means all of us, especially those who benefit in some way from whitemalegod. “The liberation of all Black women requires the dismantling of all systems of oppression — white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, Islamaphobia, homophobia, transphobia, and more. These systems harm all of us. So if Black women are thriving and free, it also means that the oppressive systems have been eradicated and we are all thriving and free” (223).
I am grateful to Christena for opening my own understanding and perception with her book’s expansive knowledge and analysis, kindness, compassion, and humor. As a white woman, I know that I will never be able to fully comprehend the depth of her insights into the experiences of Black women and the Sacred Black Feminine, but I can learn from, appreciate, and be inspired by her words. Like the Sacred Black Feminine and the Black Madonnas, Christena’s book helps and encourages us to “do better” to turn our world away from whitemalegod and work towards a society where “we are all thriving and free.”
Carolyn Lee Boyd’s essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in a variety of print magazines, internet sites, and book anthologies. She explores goddess-centered spirituality in everyday life and how we can all better live in local and global community. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com,where you can find her writings and music and some of her free e-books to download.