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Womanist theology, epistemology, and a new anthropological paradigm

By Linda E. Thomas, in Cross Currents, Vol.48, issue 4, Winter 1998-1999

LINDA E. THOMAS is Assistant Professor of Theology and Anthropology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Womanist theology is an emergent voice of African American Christian women in the United States. Employing Alice Walker's definition of womanism in her text In Search of Our Mothers' Garden, black women in America are calling into question their suppressed role in the African American church, the community, the family, and the larger society. But womanist religious reflection is more than mere deconstruction. It is, more importantly, the empowering assertion of the black woman's voice. To examine that voice, this essay divides into three parts. First, I look at the overall state of womanist theology. Its development denotes a novel reconstruction of knowledge, drawing on the abundant resources of African American women since their arrival to the "New World," as well as a creative critique of deleterious forces seeking to keep black women in "their place." Next, I sort through a womanist reconstruction of knowledge. In an intentional manner, I unpack the contours of the knowledge-formation claims which undergird womanist theology. And last, based on womanist theology as an instance of new knowledge and based on a conceptual investigation of some epistemological presuppositions, I advance a new anthropology of religion paradigm for the continued development of womanist theology.

Womanist Theology in the USA

Womanist theology is critical reflection upon black women's place in the world that God has created and takes seriously black women's experience as human beings who are made in the image of God. The categories of life which black women deal with daily (that is, race, womanhood, and political economy) are intricately woven into the religious space that African American women occupy. Therefore the harmful and empowering dimensions of the institutional church, culture, and society impact the social construction of black womanhood. Womanist theology affirms and critiques the positive and negative attributes of the church, the African American community, and the larger society.

Womanist theology's goals are to interrogate the social construction of black womanhood in relation to the African American community. The normative discourse among African American women creates the space for an energetic claiming of the life stories of African American women and their contribution to the history of the United States and the African diaspora. An additional way of achieving this goal is to engage in a critical conversation with black (male) theology so that a full theology for the African American community can emerge from that dialogue. Likewise the pursuance of the black family's sanctity ranks high on the womanist's theological agenda. Another the goal of womanist theology is to unearth the ethnographic sources within the African American community in order to reconstruct knowledge and overcome subordination. And, finally, womanist theology seeks to decolonize the African mind and to affirm our African heritage.

Womanist theology engages the macro-structural and the micro-structural issues that affect black women's lives and, since it is a theology of complete inclusivity, the lives of all black people. The freedom of black women entails the liberation of all peoples, since womanist theology concerns notions of gender, race, class, heterosexism, and ecology. Furthermore, it takes seriously the historical and current contributions of our African forebears and women in the African diaspora today. It advances a bold leadership style that creates fresh discursive and practical paradigms and "talks back" (hooks 1988) to structures, white feminists, and black male liberation theologians. Moreover, womanist theology asserts what black women's unique experiences mean in relation to God and creation and survival in the world. Thus the tasks of womanist theology are to claim history, to declare authority for ourselves, our men, and our children, to learn from the experience of our forebears, to admit shortcomings and errors, and to improve our quality of life.

Womanist theology assumes a liberatory perspective so that African American women can live emboldened lives within the African American community and within the larger society. Such a new social relationship includes adequate food, shelter, clothing -- and minds which are free from worries so that there can be space for creative modalities.

Womanist theology draws on sources that range from traditional church doctrines, African American fiction and poetry, nineteenth-century black women leaders, poor and working class black women in holiness churches, and African American women under slavery. In addition, other vital sources include the personal narratives of black women suffering domestic violence and psychological trauma, the empowering dimensions of conjuring and syncretic black religiosity, and womanist ethnographic approaches to excavating the life stories of poor women of African descent in the church.

Womanist theology, moreover, grasps the crucial connection between African American women and the plight, survival, and struggle of women of color throughout the world. Womanist theology intentionally pursues and engages the cultural contexts of women who are part of the African diaspora, for instance. To enhance the dialogical networking among women of color all over the globe, the methodology of anthropology, a key discipline within the social sciences, aids womanist theology in this engagement. Anthropological methodology encourages womanist religious scholars to embrace the cultural, symbolic, and ritual diversity dispersed throughout the religious lives of women of color on this earth.

Womanist theology takes seriously the importance of understanding the "languages" of black women. There are a variety of discourses deployed by African American women based on their social location within the black community. Some black women are economically disadvantaged and suppressed by macro-structures in society. Other African American women are workers whose voices are ignored by the production needs of the capitalist world order. Some other voices are dramatically presented in the faith speech of black women preachers. And still other articulations are penned in the annals of the academy. Womanist theology showcases the overlooked styles and contributions of all black women whether they are poor, and perhaps illiterate, or economically advantaged and "Ph.D.'ed." Womanists bring forth the legacy of our grandmamas and great grandmamas and carry their notions in the embodiment of life that we create daily. This language of black women is understood by black women; it accentuates intra-group talk. It is a language of compassion, and yet it is no-nonsense. The words and actions of this language oppose sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and abuse to any of God's creation. It is a language that respects the natural environment in the fullness of creation.

The method of womanist theology validates the past lives of enslaved African women by remembering, affirming, and glorifying their contributions. After excavating analytically and reflecting critically on the life stories of our foremothers, the methodology entails a construction and creation of a novel paradigm. We who are womanists concoct something new that makes sense for how we are living in complex gender, racial, and class social configurations. We use our foremothers' rituals and survival tools to live in hostile environments. Moreover, we gather data from a reservoir of bold ideas and actions from past centuries to reconstruct knowledge for an enhanced and liberating quality of life for black women today. The weaving of the past into present knowledge construction produces a polyvalent self-constituting folk-culture of African American women. In other words, the past, present, and future fuse to create a dynamic multi-vocal tapestry of black women's experience inter-generationally.

In addition to unearthing the sources of the past in order to discover fragments to create a narrative for the present and the future, womanist methodology comprises active engagement with marginalized African American women alive today. Ethnographic methodology necessitates our entering the communities of these women, constituting focus groups and utilizing their life experiences as the primary sources for the development of questions which establish a knowledge base from everyday people. These questions are then refined by the womanist scholar as she reflects on the initial conversations with her focus groups. Further refining takes place when the womanist scholar conducts a pilot study in which she ascertains whether the questions asked fit the context of poor black women and where she also learns the nuances needed for the sensibilities of the culture in which she is operating. Employing the context and knowledge base derived from the focus and pilot groups, she launches a larger and more comprehensive ethnographic research study by living among the people, thereby encountering their symbolic cosmology. In this living and learning process, these women evolve into the womanist scholar's teachers. The task thus becomes the production with integrity of the story of these poor people's lives and the reflection of their polyvalent voices. They have created space for the scholar in their communities, and now she creates space for their stories in their own words reflected in her publications. The womanist ethnographer entrusts to the reader these narratives for interpretation, assuming that many truths will emerge, transformation will occur, and readers will learn from those not usually given voice. Furthermore, the African American female scholar risks becoming emotionally connected to these people's lives as she reenters the community on a regular basis, and understands that she has familial obligations to the people about whom she writes. Thus womanist theology is a longitudinal theology.

Names associated with the emergence of womanist theology in the U.S.A. are Katie Cannon, Emilie Townes, Jacqueline Grant, Delores Williams, Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Kelly Brown Douglas, Renita Weems, Shawn Copeland, Clarice Martin, Francis Wood, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Jamie Phelps, Marcia Riggs, and Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. We are university, seminary, and divinity school professors. We are ordained and lay women in all the Christian denominations. Some of us are full-time pastors; some are both pastor and professor. We are preachers and prayer warriors. We are mothers, partners, lovers, wives, sisters, daughters, aunts, nieces -- and we comprise two-thirds of the black church in America. We are the black church. The church would be bankrupt without us and the church would shut down without us. We are from working-class as well as middle-class backgrounds. We are charcoal black to high yellow women. We love our bodies; we touch our bodies; we like to be touched; we claim our created beauty. And we know that what our minds forget our bodies remember. The body is central to our being. The history of the African American ordeal of pain and pleasure is inscribed in our bodies.

Womanist theology associates with and disassociates itself from black (male) theology and (white) feminist theology. The point of departure for black theology is white racism. Since white supremacy is a structure that denies humanity to African American people, black liberation theology examines the gospel in relationship to the situation of black people in a society that discriminates on the basis of skin color. Within black theology, the exodus story is a hermeneutical device used to draw a parallel between the oppressed Israelites and the oppressed African American community. Consequently, the liberation of the Israelites represents symbolically God's freeing of black people. First generation black (male) theologians did not understand the full dimension of liberation for the special oppression of black women; this was its shortcoming. To foster the visibility of African American women in black God-talk, womanist theology has emerged.

Unlike black theology with its emphasis on race, feminist theology addresses the oppression of women, though primarily white women. The project of feminist theology did not deal with the categories of race and economics in the development of its theological discourse. As important as the work of feminist theology has been, its shortcoming is its lack of attention to the everyday realities of African American and other women of color. It is therefore not a universal women's theology and does not speak to the issue of all women. In a related fashion, too often white feminist theology creates a paradigm over against men; it is an oppositional theological discourse between females and males. In contrast, womanist theology recognizes patriarchal systems as problematic for the entire black community -- women, men, and children. Moreover certain feminist theological trends regard the institutional church as a patriarchal space anathema to women, thus advising women to abandon the ecclesiastical mainstream. For African American women however, the black church has been the central historical institution which has helped their families survive. Womanist theology, at the same time, would critique the black church, particularly black male pastors' inappropriate relations with black female members.

Womanist theology concurs with black theology and feminist theology on the necessity of engaging race and gender in theological conversation. But womanist theology demands a God talk and God walk which is holistic, seeking to address the survival and liberation issues of women, men, children, workers, gays and lesbians, as these relate to local and global economies and the environment.

A Womanist Perspective on Reconstructing Knowledge

Womanist theology is in the midst of reconstructing knowledge, not only for the broad "mainstream" parameters of knowing but even for black male and feminist theologies. Thus, as womanist scholars of religion advance a new epistemology of holistic survival and liberation, a more intentional understanding of reconstructed knowledge processes is warranted.

Admittedly, reconstructing knowledge is like tearing down a formidable edifice that has been built over an extensive number of years. The structure was designed by architects who had a clear vision of what the end product would be like and used only the most advanced technical devices for its erection. The architects guaranteed that the materials used would be permanent and indestructible. The building is, of course, our minds and the architects are those who historically have represented patriarchal, white European cultures. A womanist, in her reconstruction of knowledge, must not only be a diligent craft person, she must develop an approach that utilizes the kind of technology that can dismantle the seeming indestructibility of the original building materials.

Human beings acquire knowledge through culture, most often obtaining it through the culture into which we are born. We procure knowledge in the same manner that our lungs receive oxygen. It is a conscious and unconscious process that systematically and deliberately pervades our minds and senses. Amassing knowledge is the process of becoming persons who "know." Who know what? It is knowing the things that are essential for living. For white patriarchal culture in the North American context, it is knowing how to dominate. In an adverse manner, for most people of color in the United States, it is knowing how to survive in white culture.

The people with whom we interact and the environment in which we mature, especially during our formative years, determine the kind of knowledge we acquire. Hence, to get a sense of the attitudes and assumptions that were and are the bricks of the building which houses our knowledge, we have to revisit whom and what has impacted our lives from the earliest days. I call this foundational period our encounter with our "culture of origin." Therefore the culture of origin of excluded voices becomes an important aspect of reconstructing knowledge.

As Andersen and Collins suggest, the primary question that must be asked in considering the reconstruction of knowledge is: "Who has been excluded from what is known and how might we see the world differently if we acknowledge and value the experiences and thoughts of those who have been excluded?" (1992:1). The knowledge we acquire from formal institutions derives from the ideas, philosophies, and histories of the privileged; more specifically, it is information about people who wrote down their histories and their ideas. Chroniclers of the human historical record did not consider people with oral traditions to be essential for cultivating the Western mind set. Even when non-western people had written texts, such as the Aztecs, they were ignored. Thus, the knowledge that we have gained is knowledge by and about the privileged. How do we know this is the case? Let us turn once again to Andersen and Collins, who ask:

How else can we explain the idea that democracy and egalitarianism were defined as central cultural beliefs in the nineteenth century while millions of African-Americans were enslaved? Why have social science studies been generalized to the whole population while being based only on samples of men? The exclusion of women, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, and other groups from formal scholarship has resulted in distortions and incomplete information not only about the experiences of excluded groups but also about the experience of more privileged groups. (1992:1)

Our knowledge base has been exclusionary and now the building that houses our knowledge is being meticulously dismantled, a dynamic which will eventually fashion a more diversified and inclusive edifice, even if it takes several generations. For instance, there are scholars of all persuasions and backgrounds who are committed to adding diversity to the way that knowledge is constructed. Thus, scholars adhering to a transformation and reconstruction of knowledge paradigm are discovering and accenting those marginalized ways of knowing which have been suppressed and dominated by the discourses which govern our societies.

What are the dominant cultural themes with which we are living? We may believe that the culture with which we are most familiar is the dominant one, but that is not always nor necessarily the case. Renato Rosaldo in Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis examines a university in California that was reviewing its first-year core curriculum.(1) There was an assumption on the part of many faculty, who had been teaching for several years, that the course, "Introduction to Western Civilization," would naturally be continued without any revisions. When faculty members with alternative pedagogical perspectives began to raise questions about whether this was the best course to undergird first year students living in a rapidly changing world, many who sought to maintain the status quo were surprised. The latter posed adamantly the following query: Why shouldn't that which had worked over many years be continued? In response, those who proposed a revamped curriculum argued: Mainly, because what was assumed to work may have worked for some, but not for all.

From such a highly charged intellectual debate, we can discern how marginalized and locked-out voices are speaking up in a forceful manner. Consequently a radical shift must take place in our thinking because monovocal myth is being dislodged and a truth of inclusivity is being restored. Reconstructing knowledge means tearing down myths that have paralyzed communities, and recreating truths which have been buried in annals that contain vast sources of knowledge. In brief, I am talking about knowledge construction that is inclusive. Inclusive construction of knowledge denotes exploring sources that culturally may be vastly different from our own epistemological points of departure. It may be knowledge based on human experience as well as theory; and it decidedly involves inclusion of the ideas, theories, orientations, experiences, and worldviews of persons and groups who have previously been excluded. When such views are included, we infuse the Eurocentric and male construction of knowledge with other vitally important constructions. The normative Eurocentric male construction of knowledge, while construed to be universal, is but one perspective now undergoing supplementation and correction.

Womanist theologians bring to the center the experience and knowledge of those marginalized by a complex layering and overlapping by race, gender, and class experiences of all groups, inclusive of those with privilege and power. Thus, as we explore this multiple effect dynamic, we pose the question: If historically suppressed voices were central to our thought processes, would our conception of the world and analytical sensibilities be any different? If we pursue such epistemological dynamics as the personal/experiential or theoretical/scholarly, what influence would this endeavor have on the reconstruction of knowledge? (See Andersen and Collins 1992:2). Womanist theologians, in a word, retrieve sources from the past, sort and evaluate materials, and thereby construct new epistemologies that effect change in the space and time occupied by black women.

A New Paradigm for Womanist Theology

The overwhelming majority of contemporary womanist religious scholars rely primarily on written texts, such as, fiction, biography, and autobiography. I agree with the value of these crucial sources and methodological approaches; however, I urge that we examine further our procedural tools of analysis. Not only should womanist scholars include historical texts and literature in our theological constructs and reconstruction of knowledge, but we should also embrace a research process which engages poor black women who are living human documents. This is a very appropriate way to access the direct speech (e.g., the primary textual narrative) of subordinated African American women who are in our midst. That is to say, we must view books written about poor black women as secondary sources and employ anthropological techniques to collect stories and publish ethnographies of women who are still alive. The direct speech of marginalized black women invites a community of readers to participate in the interpretive process. For instance, by providing the unedited testimonies of poor African American women, readers can thereby glean for themselves that which is important for them. Such a hermeneutical undertaking removes the monopolizing interpretive power of the ethnographer.

Moreover, such an approach would utilize what Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau called in the title of his book A Return to the Source (Cabral 1973), which positions culture as an integral component of the history of a people and which also explores the dynamic between culture and its material base (e.g., its class position). The level and mode of production determine dominant cultural forms. Thus, he asserted that: "A people who free themselves from foreign domination will not be free unless they return to the upwards paths of their own culture" (142-43). From this perspective, culture is a historically contested resource struggled over by those working for or against social change to justify their respective standpoints (Thornton 1988:24). This definition supports the earlier notion of knowledge being distributed and controlled. Therefore, if womanist scholars would collect data out of the context of the poor and working-class culture of black women who are living, womanists would act as intentional agents in the control and distribution of knowledge. Such a project would be greatly enhanced by a critical interchange of and solidarity with the narratives of similar women on the African continent as well as others in the third world or "two-thirds world."

A womanist anthropology of survival and liberation is a new paradigm for the twenty-first century. This novel model deploys a self-reflective sensitivity about the historical factors giving rise to oppressed voices, specifically for my purposes, the production of political economy and its impact on marginalized African American women. An interpretive anthropological approach (e.g., the intentional assertion of poor and working-class black women's voices) therefore augments an analytical methodology for the womanist scholar that invokes the African American woman's perspective and clarifies how diverse cultural productions of everyday life influence the decisions and practices which womanists make and implement in their lives.(2)

For womanist scholars who wish to employ the ethno-historical approach, there are anthropological theories that may be applied to the historical text which conveys knowledge about the womanist subject. The histories of poor and working class black women arise out of specific contextual locations. Interpretive anthropological conceptual frameworks, therefore, guard against ahistorical methods and magnify the particular textures of these women's social and cultural locations. This process of theoretical application to primary data will enable the womanist religious scholar to access the subject's systems of cultural meaning in order to let as much of the subject's life story in historical context emerge as possible.(3)

In addition to the interpretive anthropological approach, with its accent on specificity of cultural location, an anthropological concern for political economy is warranted. Within the historical contexts of poor and black women, the womanist religious scholar must interrogate the nature of the power and resource configurations present; that is, who has influence derived from ownership and distribution of wealth? At the same time, we must not be provincial in our analysis, for local economies themselves are contextualized and implicated in global political economies. It is imperative for womanist scholars to "find effective ways to describe how [marginalized African American women] are implicated in broader processes of historical political economy" (Marcus and Fisher 1986:44).(4)

Ideally the womanist religious scholar is an indigenous anthropologist -- that is, one who reflects critically upon her own community of origin and brings a sensitivity to the political, economic, and cultural systems which impact poor and working class black women being studied. At the same time, she gives priority to the life story of the subject in a way that underscores the narratives of a long line of subjugated voices from the past to the present.


Womanist theology is the positive affirmation of the gifts which God has given black women in the U.S.A. It is, within theological discourse, an emergent voice which advocates a holistic God-talk for all the oppressed. Though centered in the African American woman's reality and story, it also embraces and stands in solidarity with all suppressed subjects. In a word, womanist theology is a theory and practice of inclusivity, accenting gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and ecology. Because of its inclusive methodology and conceptual framework, womanist theology exemplifies reconstructed knowledge beyond the monovocal concerns of black (male) and (white) feminist theologies.

Such a reconstructed knowledge (e.g., an epistemology of holistic inclusivity, survival, and liberation) serves as a heuristic for the broader notion of recreating knowledge and thereby offers some elements for a theoretical conversation. Womanist epistemological insights suggest the importance of commencing with all who have been left out of reflection upon a society, both its past and present.

The current state of womanist theology and its implications for larger reconstructed knowledge conversations are advanced further with an imaginative womanist anthropological paradigm. Here we note the importance of secondary materials about African American women, but underscore the decisive role of fieldwork among poor and working-class black women living today. Out of an emphasis on their historical and cultural specificities and the impact of political economy, a creative model emerges where the voices and meaning of the anthropological subjects themselves move to the foreground. And simultaneously the power of the womanist religious scholar, as researcher, does not impede the presentation of data which invites the reader of ethnographic work to enter the interpretive dialogue with the voices of marginalized black women.


  • Andersen, Margaret L., and Patricia Hill Collins, eds. Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing, 1992.
  • Cabral, Amilcar. Return to the Source. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973.
  • hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press, 1988.
  • Marcus, George E., and M. Fischer. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Rosaldo, Renato. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
  • Thornton, R. "Culture." In South African Keywords, ed. E. Boonzaier and E. Sharp. Cape Town: David Philip, 1988, pp. 17-28.
  • Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.


1. [Back to text]  See Rosaldo 1989:x for details about Stanford University's "Western Culture Controversy."

2. [Back to text]  See Marcus and Fischer 1986:25 for an analysis of interpretative anthropology.

3. [Back to text]  For an explanation for how anthropological theory has accented the subject's own life story, see Marcus and Fischer's discussion of the "native point of view" (1986:25).

4. [Back to text]  Marcus and Fischer (1986:25-44) summarize two approaches to anthropological methodology. One deals with interpretation which accents culture (i.e., values) and the other underscores the relationship between particular ethnographies and global economies.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 4.