Monday, February 01, 2021

5 scholars articulation of what womanist biblical interpretation entails

Pictured in the top row from left to right are Rev. Yolanda Norton and Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney.
On the bottom row from left to right are Rev. Dr. Renita Weems, Rev. Dr. Mitzi J. Smith, and Rev. Dr. Vanessa Lovelace

So what exactly does womanist biblical interpretation entail? Dr. Nyasha Junior states, “I wish that I could provide a definition of womanist biblical interpretation, but I confess that I cannot offer a clear definition because one does not exist” (Loc 2639). Junior says the lack of consensus about what womanist biblical interpretation is “is somewhat masked by the generalizations made by some womanist scholars in describing womanist biblical interpretation in terms that may give the mistaken impression that a consensus position exists” (Loc 3000). She criticizes the lack of consistency and says their “loose usage” of Alice Walker’s definition means that the word itself ends up being the main thing their interpretations have in common. But I’m not sure I agree with her assessment. It seems to me that each of the five womanist bible scholars pictured and listed above is not only informed by Alice Walker’s definition of “womanist” but doing similarly inspired things in their womanist interpretation. First, they emphasize "talking back to the text" and "interrogating the text" and other interpretations of the text that have harmed people. Secondly, they each emphasize an intersectional approach that prioritizes the experiences of Black women and oppressed people in their interpretation. I will highlight these points for each of these five scholars below.

1. The first part of Alice Walker's definition describes a womanist as a “black feminist or feminist of color” and explains how the term came from a “black folk expression” when an adult would say a girl was acting “womanish” (like a woman), “acting grown-up” or “trying to be grown” (xi). I see each of these scholars using that as a point of emphasis for "talking back to the text" and "interrogating the text".

Gafney: “Above all, this work is womanist because it is womanish. That is, I am talking back to the text, challenging it, questioning it, interrogating it, unafraid of the power and authority of the text, just as a girl-growing-into-a-woman talks back to her elders, questioning the world around her in order to learn how to understand and navigate it” (9).

Smith: She says she writes "as an act of womanist resistance, an act of sass and talk-back to (con)texts that disturbingly re-inscribe structures of oppression and are oppressive, that invite us to be complicit in oppression, that primarily depict God as a violent male, that subordinate the other, and that embody and sacralize (the secular is elevated to the level of the sacred) androcentrism, patriarchalism, and misogyny" (3).

Lovelace: In the introduction to Womanist Interpretations of the Bible, she co-wrote with Gay L. Byron, "all interpreters of sacred texts are responsible for exposing and analyzing the power dynamics in both the ancient texts and the interpretations of the texts that have been used to further injustices and global systemic challenges" (15). Exposing and analyzing power dynamics in the texts themselves and the interpretations is the work of "talking back to the text" and "interrogating the text."

Weems: "The Bible cannot go unchallenged in so far as the role it has played in legitimating the dehumanization of people of African ancestry in general and the sexual exploitation of women of African ancestry in particular. It cannot be understood as some universal, transcendent, timeless force to which world readers—in the name of being pious and faithful followers—must meekly submit. It must be understood as a politically and socially drenched text invested in ordering relations between people, legitimating some viewpoints, and delegitimizing other viewpoints." (46) 

Norton: The power of womanism is its refusal to try to “explain away elements of biblical literature that modern sensibilities might find problematic or objectionable in order to produce a more congenial text,” and its willingness to expose those elements and look at the implications for today (266). (In other words, the power of womanism for Norton is its willingness to talk back to the text.)

2. The second part of Walker's definition of womanist says, “a woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility...  and women’s strength….  Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female." (xi). And part four of Walker's definition says “Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender” (xii.). 

I see these five scholars using these parts of Walker's definition as related to their intersectional emphasis which prioritizes Black women's experiences in their interpretation and keeps them concerned with the oppressions that happen at the intersections of race/gender/sex/class etc. All of them emphasize intersectionality and the way multiple oppressions compound each other. 

Gafney lists the primary womanist principles that shape her book, Womanist Midrash, as: "(1) the legitimacy of black women’s biblical interpretation as normative and authoritative, (2) the inherent value of each member of a community in the text and interpreting the text, (3) talking back to the text, and (4) making it plain, the work of exegesis from translation to interpretation”(8). Gafney also talks about "privileging the crossroads between our Afro-diasporic identity (embodiment and experience) and our gender (performance and identity)" in the process of interpretation (7).

Smith says her reading perspective is "a womanist intersectional approach that privileges or prioritizes the experiences, voices, traditions, and artifacts of African American women (and their communities) as sources of knowledge production, critical reflection, and ethical conduct" (2). 

Lovelace writes that she hopes their work "will lead to even more collaboration and conversations that will help keep the interests of black women and other women of color "at the forefront of interpretations of biblical and extrabiblical sources" (16).

Weems says womanist hermeneutics of liberation starts with African American women’s "will to survive and thrive as human beings and as the female half of a race of people who live a threatened existence within North American borders" (46). The interests and experiences of Black women are privileged over theory and harmful interpretations of ancient texts, even sacred ancient texts (46).

Norton: In her essay, “Silenced Struggles for Survival: Finding Life in Death in the Book of Ruth”  Norton argues that the book of Ruth is a more complicated narrative than traditional interpretations have permitted. Norton says “the text masquerades as a treatise on the inclusion of the other” when it actually seems to be “a commentary on the assumed virtue of membership and participation in the Israelite community” (265). Norton is criticizing the implication that it is a good and honorable thing to sacrifice everything - one’s land, people, god, even one’s own self, “for the supposed privilege of participating in what the text depicts as the most desirable community,” in this case, Israel (265). Her entire essay is concerned with an intersectional approach to interpretation that is prioritizing the experience of the character who is most marginalized in this story.


Works Cited

Byron, Gay L. and Vanessa Lovelace. Womanist Interpretations of the Bible : Expanding the Discourse. SBL Press, 2016.

Gafney, Wilda C. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

Junior, Nyasha. An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015.

Norton, Yolanda. “Silenced Struggles for Survival: Finding Life in Death in the Book of Ruth,” in  I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader, edited by Mitzi J. Smith, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. 2015.

Smith, Mitzi J. Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (In)Justice, Intersectionality. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 1983.

Weems, Renita. “Re-reading for liberation: African American women and the Bible,” in I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader, edited by Mitzi J. Smith, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. 2015.

This is part of my final project for my class on Womanist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. You can see the intro post here which is a linked table of contents.

Get new posts in your email:

No comments: