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.
11 thoughts on “GOD IS A BLACK WOMAN by Christena Cleveland, PhD – Book Review by Carolyn Lee Boyd”
I think the Black Madonna resonates with the experiences of ALL women that seek her out – regardless of race….
I was forcibly struck by a thought regarding the white male god while reading this post.
In ‘Bewilderment’ (Richard Powers) nine year old Robin remarks and queries in disbelief something to the effect that not only is the Eartth full of (non – human) sentient beings but this little planet is just one of so many billions and we have a god that looks just like us? In a larger context we really have to wonder…
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This is a wonderful and even important review Carolyn. Thank you so much for bringing this book to my attention. I look forward to reading it.
“Christena challenges us all to be transformed and take action” – this line really stood out for me. Amen to that!
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actually no , god is neither , but it is the very thing that cultivated life on this planet . man has made this his /her own, by placing human qualities and giving it moral campus, when it is neither .
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Right: actually “god” is not a “black woman.” Gods and goddesses are not people. Our ancestors made them look like people because a god or goddess that looks human is easier to deal with. And easier to make up myths about.
If we read the works of Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum https://web.archive.org/web/20020425233855/http://darkmother.net/ (a brilliant, generous woman who is an old friend of mine), we learn that the Black Madonna originated in East Africa around 50,000 BCE. The people who lived there learned to worship their foremothers and made images of them. When the migrations began, the people walked north (carrying their images of their formothers) along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. When they reached what is today Ukraine, some of them turned right and went to India, Tibet, and beyond. The others turned left and entered Europe. They brought their foremothers, too, and all those East African foremothers are now our dark-skinned goddesses and Black Madonnas around the world. Read dark mother! https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Mother-African-Origins-Godmothers/dp/059520841X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2QIX0NKIQK6V5&keywords=dark+mother&qid=1649951537&sprefix=dark+mother%2Caps%2C192&sr=8-1
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YES! I remember reading about the origin of the Black Madonna – 50,000 years ago – I loved that by the way – but didn’t remember where I read it… I think it’s natural that we have the tendency to ‘humanize’ these forces of nature -and that it’s important too to understand what we are doing – and not get stuck in concretizing. I am NOT saying that the Black Madonna isn’t important – I personally love her but also see her as a tree, or flowing water, or birds in spring.
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I think this discussion has turned quite theoretical. Yes, I agree with all that divinity in its purest form transcends human characteristics. But I also think that the way we view divinity through our human lens is a mirror of our culture and our beliefs. And the news isn’t particularly good. I think this essay (and I imagine the book although I haven’t read it yet) reminds us that for 1000s of years “god” has been envisioned as a white man. This has imprinted a value on ourselves, our lives and our culture – to the great detriment of so many. The Black Madonna reminds us of the value of who She is and how we need to listen.
Here is a quote from Cristena’s blogpost from March 31:
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.
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Janet, don’t you think that as long as we continue to pit one kind of woman against another we are perpetuating a system we need to let go of? There’s such a thing as black patriarchy too. And right now I am dealing with white female patriarchy against me. What we need desperately is to begin to heal divisions – or that’s my opinion anyway.
Sara I am so sorry that you are experiencing while female patriarchy against you. I think listening to other communities is not “pitting” one against other. I think that is an ugly power dynamic that is driven by entrenched powers that I don’t buy into and was designed as a function of repression. I think that taking into ourselves those experiences of different races and religions, allows us to see with different eyes and deepens our respect and knowledge of each other.
I know this for example, as a white mother I have never spent one second of my life fearing that my children will be killed by police because of their skin color. Black mothers fear that intensely and with good reason. I see Christena’s voice as speaking to the roots of issues I may not have to deal with personally but still affect us all and don’t “pit” me against anyone but rather educate me. I hope I can amplify and be an ally in that mission.
Janet, you make important points…Perhaps it’s because of my Indigenous roots that I see the use of the words black and white as extremes on a spectrum – just don’t know.
Sara, my experience and perception reading the book is not divisiveness but rather Christena’s honesty in expressing her personal transformation in finding an image of deity that was like her, that reflected her life experience and that of other Black women. Reading the book reminded me of how many of us at FAR have found it transformative to see female images of the Divine, even though we know the Divinity is not anthropomorphic, male or female, Black or white. It is very much a personal memoir. Reading it, I felt as if I were sitting with a good friend listening to her tell of her deepest wounds and joys. To me, that is what brings us together, when we speak of how we truly feel and witness for one another, even when we can’t fully understand what the other person has experienced. If my review gave the impression that Christena’s book is divisive, that’s my fault. I found it deeply moving and, rather than making me feel as if the Divine was being boxed in, I found my understanding and perception of the Divine greatly expanded by hearing a different viewpoint that I had not heard before.
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Oh Carolyn I thought your review was excellent and I did understand your point. I neglected to make that clear. It’s the patriarchal splitting that I have trouble with – nothing that you said, simply the nature of the beast that is patriarchy – healing those splits is what seems important to me.