This article appears in our 2017 Winter issue, Devotion. Subscribe today!
Playing with God
In her 1976 choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange wrote, “I found God in myself, and I loved her. I loved her fiercely.” Shange likens God to an entity akin to herself—not necessarily a woman, but a feminine presence—from whom she wishes for “not a laying on of bosom and womb, [but] a laying on of hands, the holiness of myself released.” Her words offer a spiritual alternative, a God that lives within her.
It is an audacious assertion that complements the political and artistic reclamation that Shange is known for; her plays and poems constantly reimagined the relationship between Blackness, womanhood, spirituality, and language. Through her decidedly Black feminist work, she brought attention to those who Sudanese poet Safia Elhillo would refer to as “us who falls into the gap we leave in the world.” Her chosen name, Ntozake, translates to “she who has her own things” in the South African language Xhosa, a nod to the “somethin’ promised…somethin’ free” she had been missing.
Decades after Shange’s poem, the image of a Black female God has become a cultural fixation. In 2015, Dylan Chenfeld, a self-described agnostic Jew, began selling “I Met God, She’s Black” t-shirts online. The shirts inspired praise and backlash, enjoying widespread social-media virality, celebrity shout-outs, and “a massive sales and press spike” because they questioned the culturally ingrained acceptance of God as a white man. When interviewed by the Huffington Post about his controversial shirt, Chenfeld said that he “like[d] poking fun at sacred cows” by “taking the idea that God is a white male and doing the opposite of that, which is a Black woman.” Though his motivation was partly monetary and antagonistic, he, like many Black theologians and feminists, was investigating the discomfort people feel when they are forced to question their preconceptions about God.
It’s a phenomenon that’s embedded in white supremacy and patriarchy: an insistence on expanding privilege to the realm of divinity. Within this context, the suggestion of a Black female God becomes a radical push against what Black theologian William R. Jones called “divine racism” in Is God a White Racist? “Divine racism” asserts that God is an active participant in the maintenance of racial inequality and further implies that God is the “founding father” of a society’s racially superior group. Similarly, the cultural inflexibility toward the supposed gender presentation of God could be a divine sexism of sorts. Embedded in Western culture, this phenomenon manifests itself in the depictions of God, Adam, and Jesus as white and male in mass media and religious spaces. Our cultural investment in this understanding of God speaks volumes about our refusal to disavow both patriarchy and white supremacy. In their own way, Chenfeld’s shirts attempt to address this very issue. He used fashion to challenge and disrupt social mores, but the young entrepreneur’s most contentious question—“Why can’t God be a Black woman?”—remains largely unanswered.
Grappling with this question and others, Beyoncé released Lemonade, an intimate but unapologetic meditation on the relationship between Black womanhood and American society. The 2016 album depicts the unique social conditions Black women endure: state violence, emotional and physical abuse, and relationships absent of true reciprocity. Buried under these issues, many Black women are taught to find respite in God, to bare their souls to the one who will always listen. And despite making up the primary demographic in Christian, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches in the United States, faithful Black women find themselves having to fight for full support and recognition from the spaces and communities to which they belong and offer themselves. They must negotiate the lack of Black female representation in church leadership positions and the continued depiction of God as an entity opposite to Black femininity, all while attempting to build a spiritual relationship with God. Effectively, both divinity and ministry are made inaccessible to those on the margins.
On “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé reckons with her frustrations and firmly plants herself in righteous anger and the pains of unrequited loyalty. Taking to her chosen pulpit, she orders us to “love God herself.” Her words are more cautionary than suggestion: “Love God herself” is the album’s call for reverence, and “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a warning to all those—her husband included—who take Black women for granted. In the video for “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” the words “God is God and I am not” are emblazoned on a wall behind Beyoncé. With these words, Beyoncé, a Black woman who has been deified in popular culture, makes a clear distinction between herself and God. Beyoncé is constantly engaged as superior or superhuman: She’s affectionately referred to as “Beysus”; has been bestowed with the title of king or queen; and is fervently praised for her awe-inspiring talent and constant artistic evolution. It’s a framing that she reclaims through self-celebratory moments such as her maternity shoots and then sheds when she reflects on her vulnerability.
Lemonade is a glimpse into her healing process after her trust is broken and systemic violence takes more Black lives, but it’s also her rejection of being a deity. She purposefully places herself among other Black women and weaves her story into the tapestry of Black womanhood in order to remind the world of her humanity. Beyoncé demands the emotional freedoms and respect often denied to Black women. Her continued intertwining of Black womanhood and godliness through the context of motherhood and feminine rage offers a womanist take on the matter of God. Lemonade’s journey from intuition to redemption is a guide for healing after personal and societal tragedy. The album asserts God’s distinct connection to the inner workings of Black women’s lives, and doubles as a formal rejection of the pedestal Beyoncé has been offered.
In Her Image
In the New York Times’ bestselling novel The Shack, protagonist Mack Phillips embarks on a journey to heal from the grief of losing his daughter and the memory of an abusive father. Phillips turns to God, who manifests as a Black woman. In the film adaptation, God is played by Octavia Spencer, a decision that received intense backlash. California pastor Joe Schimmel described the casting as “pretentious” and said the film’s depiction of God as a “heavyset, cushy, nonjudgmental, African American woman” and the Holy Spirit (Sumire Matsubara) as a “frail Asian woman with the Hindu name Sarayu” promoted a “dangerous and false image of God.” Schimmel deemed their casting a blasphemous example of what he refers to as “Hollywood’s war on God.”
Our (preferential) depictions of a God often say much more about us than they do about God. If Schimmel were a true essentialist who believed in the most accurate depictions of “the one true God revealed through the Lord Jesus Christ,” he would have to then also take issue with the characterizations of Jesus as a white man since he is described in the Bible as a man born in the Middle East to a Jewish mother. Schimmel only has a problem when the distortion of Jesus’s image is made into anyone who isn’t a white man. His issue with the casting is a product of personal discomfort and centuries of white-supremacist and patriarchal renderings of both God and Jesus. Unwilling to let go of his white male deity, the reimagining of God as anything other is received as a kind of blasphemy. Instead of a “war on God,” he’s fighting to preserve his own position in society and therefore upholding a history in which God, too, is a weapon to wield.
On May 5, 2017, Afro-Cuban artist Harmonia Rosales posted her painting “Creation of God,” which reimagined Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” on Instagram, through which she revealed once more the power in depicting God as anything other than white male. The painting went viral, and was ultimately placed in the Simard Bilodeau Contemporary art gallery in Los Angeles. In Rosales’s rendition of the Renaissance painting, Black women are cast as both Adam and God. Just as in Michelangelo’s original painting, Rosales’s Black female Adam and God are bridged together by their nearly touching fingertips, as close as they can be without grazing the other, but this time it feels different. By portraying Adam as neither white nor male, the question is not simply about the racialization and gendering of God, but of humanity as well. The continued depiction of Adam—a biblical figure understood as the original human—as a white man reinforces white-supremacist and patriarchal ideas about what it means to be a person. It is a reminder of our supposed distance from holiness and humanity, and an affirmation of white men’s social positioning and implied proximity to God. For this reason, Rosales’s race and gender bending of both God and Adam was a welcome subversion for those of us who are often excluded from the narrative of full personhood and godliness. “Creation of God” is a radical reminder of the ways in which both divinity and humanity have been tainted in the interest of maintaining power.
According to Christian tradition, the biblical figure whose story best reveals this human problem is Jesus. Jesus is considered the human embodiment of God, and is frequently depicted as a white man despite his geographic origins in the Middle East. Even though Jesus is not in Rosales’s painting, by portraying God as a Black woman, it implies that Jesus, known in Christian tradition as the son of God, would also be born of a Black woman. In this sense, the suggestion of a Black female deity disrupts our adherence to whitewashed and heavily gendered religious iconography. Casting a Black woman as the creator places all that She would bring about into question. Made in Her image, the blueprint for the divine and the human would have to be reimagined.
The characterization of Black women as God or godlike is often rooted in Black women’s supposed similarity to Jesus because, in many ways, our cultural relationship to Black women in the United States is akin to that with Jesus, a man sent to Earth to bridge the gap between humankind and their creator. Jesus spent his life serving the very people who would later forsake him. He is a symbol of great sacrifice and endurance—after all, Jesus is said to have resurrected after his own crucifixion. Jesus endured pain, betrayal, and a brutal death during his time on Earth. In an interview with the Paris Review, author Claudia Rankine stated, “Black women are nothing if not pragmatic, because their whole existence in this country has been about negotiating a life without the fantasy of external support.” As of 2013, the Center for American Progress reported that African American women are more likely to be their families’ sole providers; experience higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, low wages, and domestic violence; and are drastically underrepresented in all levels of government. Black women must survive despite these obstacles, sacrificing ourselves because our communities depend upon it.
Like Black women, Jesus was forced to negotiate a life in which his companions and community consistently doubted and failed him. In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde explains that “[Black women] have cared for whites because we had to for pay or survival; we have cared for our children and our fathers and our brothers and our lovers” and that “our scarred, broken, battered, and dead daughters and sisters are a mute testament to that reality.” Lorde’s indictment of this phenomenon draws a parallel between Black women’s suffering and the crucifixion of Jesus, a figure whose pain is diminished by his resurrection. Our continued resilience in the face of adversity is the reason society paints Black women as symbols of saviordom and principled righteousness, a coded expectation of godliness placed upon us in exchange for sacrifice.
When global grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter are founded by queer Black women and a Black woman is shown on national television taking down a Confederate flag while the rest of the country is still discussing its meaning, it is no wonder we’re regarded as a distinct or even a divine presence in the often indistinguishable mess of the world. As our visibility grows, the efforts, experiences, and cultural contributions of Black women have become harder to ignore. But there is a cost to reverence and that reverence also must be analyzed.
Calling Out to God
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, catchphrases such as “Black women will save us” and “You should have listened to Black women” were born of yet another inequitable exchange between Black women and the rest of the United States. According to Edison’s election poll data, 95 percent of Black women voted against Donald Trump, a percentage higher than that of any other gender-race category. Suddenly, everyone wanted to understand the staggering political differences between Black women and white women, the latter of whom—53 percent to be exact—voted for Trump.
“Black women will save us” became a progressive mantra that sought to highlight Black women’s continued fight against oppressive systems. The sentiment grew legs when media began entertaining the possibility of a Michelle Obama presidency. “Michelle 2020” became the light at the end of the tunnel, the former first lady cast as America’s savior, despite her continued rejection of the informal nomination. Her grace in the face of great scrutiny during her husband’s presidency was a campaign of its own in the eyes of the people, a nod to her ability to rise above and endure. Forced to reclaim her image from both admirers and enemies, Michelle repeatedly expressed a disinterest in taking on the burdens of such a life once more. Even as a card-carrying member of the former first lady’s fan club, I was disheartened by the relentless nature of the nation’s request. She refused and yet her emphatic “no” went unheard.
Statements like “Black women will save us” leave a bitter aftertaste because these expressions forget Black women’s social vulnerability. There is little consideration for the obstacles Black women face to survive and save ourselves in an oppressive society. In the end, the projection of superhumanity onto a marginalized person becomes another form of dehumanization. In the process of being exalted, the superhuman is othered rather than protected or supported. Black women are asked to save people and political systems that do not center or consider us. My question in response to these requests is, “Who will rescue the saviors?”
“Black women will save us” fails to hold all those who aren’t Black women accountable for themselves, their actions, and their impact. Stripped of our humanity and agency, the refrain does not ask that Black women save, but expects it of us, as if we each were God herself. It is a disturbing testament to the world’s continued failure to love us properly.
Actor and comedian Jessica Williams put it best in 2015 when responding to fans who were pushing her to “lean in” and become the host of the The Daily Show—a position she had already declined. She tweeted, “I am a Black woman and I am a feminist and I am so many things. I am truly honored that people love my work. But I am not yours.” It was an assertion many Black women, famous or otherwise, have had to make, a demand that we be granted our long-denied personhood. In this way, Beyoncé’s aforementioned clarification, “God is God and I am not,” can be understood as a response to this long-standing sentiment that regards Black women solely for their capacity to sacrifice, endure, and bend to the will of others. Reminiscent of the “Mammy” archetype, a slavery-era caricature that defined Black womanhood as perpetual thankless servitude, the cultural instinct to demand too much of Black women, as a child would their mother, is not without its origins. Beyoncé’s distinction is a deliberate distancing from both the superhuman and subhuman expectations of Black women. It’s a declaration that contended with these expectations and professed that Black women owe nothing to anyone.
We belong to ourselves. We are not yours to deify. God can do the saving.