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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Blackening Of The Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship

I. Constructing a Liberated and Liberating Hermeneutic
The German scholar Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "What is the seal of liberation? —No longer to be ashamed in our own presence." [1] Surely this has been one of the central aims of African American biblical interpretation. Liberation, which means "a concrete negation of oppression," is an often elusive existential state. [2] The United States has a venerable tradition of liberatory struggle. Beginning with the rhetoric of the American Revolution, the quest for emancipation has yet to end in this still emerging democratic republic. Men and women, adults and children, heterosexual and homosexual, persons of various cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds strive to experience the reality of the dictum that all persons are created equal and by consequence can and should experience the fullness of what human life has to offer.

What has impeded much of the progress of liberation has been the myopic manner by which it has been pursued. Until recently, it appears that all liberation has been conceived rather singularly—one group or cause judging liberation by the standard of its own perceived emancipation. By contrast, some two thousand years after Paul penned the phrase "for the sake of freedom Christ has set us free," human beings are beginning to realize that the possibilities of liberation are organic, especially in the sense of being interconnected (Gal 5:1; my translation).

Blackness, the core symbol of black theology, appears to indicate a decidedly phenomenological orientation and form to the theological project. That is, blackness as a category arises from the subjective, although collective, experience of racism as a social phenomenon in the United States. It arose from the crucible of the turbulent end of the twentieth century. Unlike other forms of liberation theology at the time, which focused almost exclusively on issues of class, black theology focused on race. Blackness, however, was never meant to be reduced to skin color. Grounded in the African American experience, another way to conceptualize blackness, as its historic and formative context, black theology seeks to make this peculiar, but fundamental, datum of human experience the raw material of its theological reflection, as well as the basis for its hermeneutic of liberation. In this way, black theology has a somewhat different coordination than other theologies of liberation that elucidate the structures of oppression through concepts such as "class," "gender," and "global capitalism." Because blackness cannot be reduced to the singular element of skin color, black theologians have been able to address other forms of oppression while staying focused on the symbolic center.

Two of the most important resources for black theologians in their critical appropriation and explication of blackness are the biblical witness and tradition. Each serves its own critical role in the construction of theological claims. I use the term "biblical witness" rather than "the Bible" because black theology considers the Bible revelatory only insofar as it functions as a witness to God's ultimate liberatory self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. In this respect, black theology has been drawn repeatedly to two paradigmatic biblical events: the exodus from Egypt and the ministry of Jesus Christ. These form, as it were, "the 'objective core' of its hermeneutic and express God's concern for those in social and political bondage." [3] The other resource for black theology, tradition, can be subdivided into the main Christian tradition, the historic process of Christian self-interpretation that shaped the canonical biblical witness and gives us access to it, and the tradition of rebellion, protest, and self-affirmation that characterizes the African American experience in the United States.Black theology has made considerable use of the African American tradition as a source for constructing its theological claims (e.g., the slave narratives). It has not been nearly as effective in using the biblical witness for the same purposes. Unlike the other contextual approaches to interpretation, black theology has suffered from two somewhat related problems. The first is the traditional disinterest among American biblical scholars in theologies of liberation. Although James H. Cone, as a follower of Karl Barth, believed in the biblical grounding for his theological perspective, confirmation was not to be found in the writings of mainstream biblical scholarship. In response, Cone wrote his own biblical interpretation of black theology. Titled "Biblical Revelation and Social Existence," it emphasized the historic liberatory activity of God in the Hebrew Bible and preeminently in the ministry of Jesus Christ.[4] The second problem has been the traditional absence of African Americans in the guild of biblical studies. Although increasing now, at the time of black theology's emergence, there existed an extremely limited number of African American biblical scholars.[5] For the enterprise of black theology, this absence was critical. Because of its contextual character, it would be impossible for anyone other than an African American biblical scholar to interpret scripture through the symbol of blackness.

Despite their small number, African American biblical scholars have for the most part taken seriously the call of black and other liberation theologies for intense engagement with the Bible. Exploring ways in which they could assist the cause of liberation, many African American scholars of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament began to pursue the possibilities for a liberated and liberating reading of scripture. These biblical scholars share much in common with their colleagues in South America and Africa. For example, they agree that interpretation can and should proceed according to a liberatory model. They agree that the existential concerns of readers should play a critical role in the analysis and appropriation of texts. They agree that the Bible is not neutral. In contrast, African American biblical scholars do not always agree with their communally oriented counterparts on the particulars of textual engagement. African American biblical interpretation, like black theology itself, is a distinctive form of theological reflection situated in the North American context. In short, it is contextual.

African American biblical interpretation is an academic enterprise consisting of a set of proposals for how to approach and engage the Bible. It often explicitly, but sometimes implicitly, uses historical African American resources in its attempt to construct meaning from the biblical texts for the potential benefit of the modern community. In the scholarship of Randall C. Bailey, Vincent Wimbush, Renita Weems, Clarice Martin, and Brian Blount, among others, one can see how cultural resources are tapped for the purpose of developing a distinctive African American reading and voice on scripture.

Even in its initial phase, where corrective historiography was central to the enterprise, scholars like Charles Copher and Cain Hope Felder were tapping into a long history of African American suspicion regarding Euro-American interpretation. By challenging the historical narratives constructed by European and Euro-American biblical scholars, these authors were able to provide a counterproposal to a narrative that saw the lands and history of the Bible to be almost extensions of Europe. Likewise, scholars like Wimbush and Blount have proposed fundamental changes in the discipline of biblical studies itself. Perceiving biblical studies, as practiced at least in North America, to be captive to a pervasive Eurocentrism, these scholars have provided an exodus to those courageous enough to challenge the dominant disciplinary orientation. Promoting not only a recognition or mere acknowledgement of context's role in interpretation, they have encouraged the appropriation of a contextual orientation as a necessary ingredient to any attempt at interpretation that seeks legitimacy. Finally, scholars who are more contemporary have begun to explore the contours of liberation as a social phenomenon within and outside the community. Not always agreeing with current community practices, or with each other for that matter, they seek to expand the enterprise into one that has an influence on the lives of African Americans generally.

There is great potential in the enterprise of African American biblical hermeneutics. As one trajectory in cultural hermeneutics, it attempts to join method to context and agency. It is Afrocentric in that it embraces "an orientation to the world that privileges the position, values, and experiences of African and African American peoples."[6] Unlike that which it theoretically rejects, this mode of biblical engagement seeks to uncover the multiple truths that exist in a world almost silenced by the hegemonic forces that operate under the guise of Eurocentric tradition.

II. The Promise of a Neo-Womanist Hermeneutic
I recently read the story of Detra (not her real name), a thirty-year-old African American, born and raised in a large city called Jefferson.[7] The oldest of four children, she has one brother and two sisters. One of her earliest childhood memories was the return of her father from prison. They lived in the projects at the time, and one day her father just knocked on the door. Around the age of nine, she began to feel like she was different from other children. She couldn't quite explain what it was, but she remembers it distinctly. Around the same time Detra began to ponder her sense of identity, her father was shot coming home from work. She remembers her mother crying herself to sleep for months afterward.

Her mother was determined to keep her children's lives normal and so insisted that they play and live life. Detra would frequent the local community center, going to arts and drama classes. One day, another frequent visitor to the community center, Timmy, stopped her on her way home from arts class. He played ball with the other teenagers at the center. He was nineteen. As she describes the episode:

And he...stopped me and told me that I had to give up something. At the time I was thinking, I thought he was talking about money or something. And I told him I didn't have no money. So he said you have to give up something, and he patted me on my butt. I still didn't know what he was talking about, but I was scared to death. And then he grabbed me by my collar and took me down in the boy's bathroom. The boy's bathroom was situated where there was these steps that goes down underground, right, and he ripped my jean open and laid me down. And when he entered me, the hollering, because it was real painful, so he put his hands over my mouth, and then he did his little thing, right. When I got home I didn't tell nobody, but I took a bath. I was bleeding.[8]


She had not even reached the age of eleven. Reflecting back on this event years later, she called it "violent," "painful," and "terrorizing."[9] Timmy continued to rape her over the course of several months, until one day she ran screaming in front of the police and he was arrested.

In the next two years, Detra began to experiment sexually. She had sex with a young man named Nicky—originally on a dare, but then on a regular basis. Shortly after, she began another sexual tryst with a gang member called Duke. During this time of sexual experimentation, Detra unsuccessfully attempted suicide. The rape had a greater effect than she had imagined. She felt worthless and unimportant.[10]

When she was fourteen, her mother began a relationship with a drug user named Jeff. She called this period of her life "the Decline of the Roman Empire." [11]Her family, which had been relatively stable, was beginning to fall apart. Her mother became a drug addict. She became increasingly involved in illegal activities, and slowly they lost everything. By the time Detra was sixteen, her family was scattered across the city, and she and her mother were living in a house with no furniture or utilities.

It was also around this time that she began to take heroin like her mother. She was involved with a man who was a drug dealer. He got her high in exchange for sex. By the time he was arrested, she was hooked. She began hustling on the streets to feed her habit. She was seventeen.

At eighteen, she clipped a John for around eighteen hundred dollars. With this money, she got her first apartment. A couple years later, she met a man in a nearby town. His name was Curt. They would be a couple for the next three years. He supported their union through burglary, and she supplemented it with continued hustling. Eventually, Curt was arrested for violating probation, and the relationship ended.

Detra is a drag queen.[12] Her story and those of others (like Shontae, China, and Kesha) have been chronicled by Leon Pettiway, a criminologist, in his provocative book, Honey, Honey, Miss Thang: Being Black, Gay, and on the Streets. Pettiway wrote the book to evoke questions, to prod our common understanding of "deviants" and their value. What criminologists label "deviants," theologians have often labeled the marginalized. They are the ones whom society has rejected. Many would say they are not even human. Not physically female, not psychosocially male, they simply do not fit. As one journalist wryly observed, "If you're poor, black, feminine and gay, life is the wrong place."[13]

In truth, they challenge the core of what we mean by liberation. Cornel West once observed that the construction of Afrocentrism meets its limit here:

Afrocentrism, a contemporary species of black nationalism, is a gallant yet misguided attempt to define an African identity in a white society perceived to be hostile. It is gallant because it puts black doings and sufferings, not white anxieties and fears, at the center of discussion. It is misguided because—out of fear of cultural hybridization and through silence on the issue of class, retrograde views on black women, gay men, and lesbians, and a reluctance to link race to the common good—it reinforces the narrow discussions about race.[14]
XXXX

Womanists have challenged the "retrograde views" of many forms of Afrocentrism. Their voices challenge the mainstream, even in the African American community, to "critique all rationalizations for domination and exploitation" and to concede "that as human beings we are all mutually connected to each other and dependent upon one another for our emancipation and for our survival."[15]

I chose to tell Detra's story in the manner I did, playing on the gender ambiguity, to highlight the resonance her story has with that of many African American women in a similar context. I was struck in reading her story that her experiences often reminded me of women, gays, and lesbians I have known through the years. I know that my proposal, that the stories of transvestites like Detra could form the core of a neo-womanist hermeneutic, will offend some within and outside the womanist theological community. However, my purpose is not to offend, but to challenge and expand. I could have asserted that African American biblical hermeneutics needed to include the distinctive social location of black gays and lesbians, transvestites and the transgendered, into their interpretive program, and many scholars would nod in assent. If, however, the possibility of the actual inclusion of such a hermeneutical perspective rests entirely on the presence of these individuals in the guild, then their voices may never be heard. The discipline of biblical studies, as Cone and Gayraud Wilmore pointed out, has been reluctant until recently to include the voices of African Americans at all, much less those who are transvestites.[16] Couple this with the avoidance of frank and open discussion on sexuality in the African American community in general, and the thought of an African American transvestite expounding an Afrocentric hermeneutic is phantasmagorical.

Womanist thinkers have advocated a hermeneutical strategy of being broad in the concrete. In the lives of Detra and other marginalized African American transvestites, we see the struggles of human existence as such. As Pettiway says, "The private troubles of being black, poor, gay, transvestite, and drug using should be transformed into the public issues of homosexuality, drug addiction, sexual identity, poverty, crime control, and race relations."[17] The complexity and fecundity of the womanist hermeneutical paradigm bespeaks a human existential intricacy that can capture and elucidate the multiple and often contradictory oppressive structures that negate the authentic existence of transvestites like Detra.

A theme found in some womanist theology is an innate sense of dignity in the face of oppressive social structures. In the presence of taunts, slurs, and physical abuse, these women "are unanimous in their belief that they are human beings who deserve respect."[18] Such dignity keeps them from being alienated from God. Whether it is their "higher power" or a more traditional notion of the Christian God, individuals like Detra refuse to allow others to dictate their ultimate worth to the deity. They continually demonstrate an innate belief that they are important to God. As Pettiway says, "They insist that even His eyes can be amazed by them, amazed by what they have done with what He has given them when He created them."[19]

The most disturbing aspect of the structures of oppression arrayed against individuals like Detra is our commonplace notion of gender. What I found surprising, however, is how much their ideas of gender identification correspond to womanist notions of the "grown" African American female. As Keisha explains:

Well, when I was growing up, only person I looked up to ... was women. I was going to be a woman right. I looked in the mirror, in East Jefferson, and I said, "Ooh, I wanna be a woman...." I know God didn't make me no woman, but I wanna look like a woman." And bam! I start throwing makeup. Start looking like a woman. Arch my eyes. Hair started growing like a woman. Perm. My nails. Then I started taking female hormones. Taking pills. I started just taking them. Then I started getting more effeminate. Then people start mistaking me as a real woman in the world. See, I went in the world to test it, see. Just like I was walk into a store and they was like, "Excuse me, miss. You can go ahead." A gentleman would say that. Then I knew, right then and there, I'm on the right track, you know. Not acting. See, you gotta be yourself in order to be a woman also. You can't just act out "I'm gonna be a woman" and get and be all flaming. Yeah. You can't be all like this. 'Cause a woman is not like this. She's natural. She's unique. That's her, you know. [20]
XXXX

In many ways, Detra and Keisha are improvisers of gender who undermine the distinction between male and female. They trouble the once stable categories of "gay," "straight," "man," and "woman." Our commonplace certainty in meaning unravels and becomes blurred after we encounter them. In this and other ways, they force us to confront our ideology of gender as a natural and given "set of binarily constructed differences between human beings."[21] In short, they call us back to the critical posture that womanism embraces from the start.

As a proposal to advance the enterprise of African American biblical hermeneutics, I hope this neo-womanist perspective receives some consideration. Clearly, our constructions of gender are challenged in my overture to consider this peculiar aspect of African American existence as a cohort to the otherwise stable enterprise of womanist hermeneutics. In choosing persons like Detra, I sought to reinscribe the idea that a liberated and liberating hermeneutic involves the recognition that even the most marginalized in our society deserve the possibility of authentic human existence. The voices from the margins not only continue to speak, they also struggle to continue to eclipse the powers that would banish them back to the supposed margins where there is —in Matthean terminology—"weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt 8.12).

III. Through the Eyes of the Marginalized
Womanists have been successful in their challenge to the prevailing methods of biblical engagement, including those advanced by their male counterparts. My proposal would push this critique even further. In fact, it would assist in addressing three key issues that reside at the core of black theology's promise and problems. First, it would solidify the emerging recognition among many that existence as such is social. Looking at the narratives of these marginalized people, we recognize rather quickly that on every level life is a complex social ordering. As a consequence, this ordering affirms the presence of relationships on all existential levels. Womanists have potently asserted that oppression is interconnected: one group of human beings cannot experience the fullness of liberation unless all other human beings experience it as well. This realization must be incorporated into any approach to biblical interpretation that envisions liberation as its ultimate goal. A hermeneutic that continues to limit itself to specific groups, classes, or ethnicities will fail in its efforts to sketch a credible vision of a world of peace and justice.

If we look at the world through the eyes of those who are at the very edges of marginalization, then we can develop a hermeneutic that increases the possibility of liberty for all. At present, their existences can be deemed inauthentic insofar as their life "projects are set for [them] by others,—by social expectations or past conditioning or the hope of reward."[22] Acknowledging and enabling the agency of the marginalized and cultivating their relationships with other marginalized—and even dominant—groups appears to be the trajectory that will fulfill the project of liberation. It opens up the possibility for authentic existence because it will allow all individuals to choose their own life projects.

Of course, some will be uncomfortable with this new opportunity for radical openness because they believe it will subvert and destroy a number of existential and social categories held sacred by many. Instead of destroying the past, such an approach should be seen as an opportunity to incorporate the past in a new way. Clearly, our present understandings of liberation have led us to this point in history. We have come to recognize, although relatively, the importance and interconnectedness of all human beings. To simply reenact this orientation in the future would be inappropriate to the new situation. Greater inclusion must be the orientation that we pursue in the future. As John Cobb and David Griffin illustrate, "The power of the new is that it makes possible a greater inclusion of elements from the past that otherwise would prove incompatible and exclude each other from their potential contribution." [23]

Second, this neo-womanist approach would reinvigorate the theological premise of epistemological privilege. If, as a core conviction, interpreters in a liberatory mode believe that the oppressed have a better knowledge and perception of God's truth and that God is concerned specifically with them, then our ability to focus on the most marginalized in our society would only bring us closer to God's aim for human existence. As I understand it, the notion of epistemological privilege is meant to serve as a challenge to the dominant that their orientation toward existence is incongruent with the true aim of God that there not be a society of "haves" and "have nots," but that all "have" and that any experience of "having not" be a conscious decision to increase and cultivate the experience of all. The only opportunity for true liberation lies in a deep and thoroughgoing sensitivity to those who are excluded. Further, interpreters cannot merely be sensitive; they must privilege the perspective of those who have yet to be included in the ever diversifying social order.

Finally, this neo-womanist approach opens up the opportunity for a more sophisticated philosophical-theological method. One of the criticisms of black theology, even in its womanist manifestation, has been the absence of a thoroughgoing philosophical-theological orientation. As I indicated earlier, the primary orientation of the enterprise has been phenomenological, and this is true for several reasons. It appears, however, that a new methodological orientation is needed for the project of liberation to remain an effective voice in the future. What this neo-womanist approach highlights, among other things, is the parochial character of much of the rhetoric of liberation.

Victor Anderson and others are engaged in the development of a philosophical theology that would serve the cause of black theology. His forthcoming work, Divine Grotesquery: An African American Philosophical Theology, promises to strengthen the methodological underpinnings for the project. By using the conceptual category of the grotesque—that which repels and attracts—Anderson will seek to open up a new potential trajectory for theologians. Biblical interpreters can be pioneers on this trajectory by adopting this neo-womanist approach.

By incorporating the voices of the most marginalized into our approaches and interpretations of scripture, biblical scholars can illustrate for our theological counterparts those aspects of the Bible and of human experience that attract and challenge us. A move to a neo-womanist approach would solidify the development of African American biblical hermeneutics into a mode of cultural hermeneutics that incorporates the insights of womanist interpretation in a hyperopic and liberatory manner.

Michael Joseph Brown,Candler School of Theology,Emory University. michael.joseph.brown@emory.edu

Notes:

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Stuidenausgabe 3 (eds. Griogio Colli and Mazzino Montinari; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1980), 519.

2. Michael Joseph Brown, , The Blackening of the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship (African American Religious Thought and Life; eds. Anthony Pinn and Victor Anderson; Harrisburg: Trinity, 2004), 18.

3. Ibid., 78.

4. See James H. Cone, "Biblical Revelation and Social Existence," in Black Theology: A Documentary History (ed. James H. Cone and Gayraud Wilmore; 2 vols.; Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993), 1:159-176.

5. See Randall C. Bailey, "Academic Biblical Interpretation among African Americans in the United States," in African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures (ed. Vincent L. Wimbush; New York: Continuum, 2001), 696.

6. Karen Strother-Jordan, "On the Rhetoric of Afrocentricity," The Western Journal of Black Studies 26 (2002): 193.

7.This story is adapted from the one found in Leon E. Pettiway, Honey, Honey, Miss Thang: Being Black, Gay and on the Streets (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 111-171.

8. Ibid., 119-120.

9.Ibid., 121.

10. Ibid., 152, 153.

11. Ibid., 134.

12.Although the term transvestite is the more politically correct way to describe Detra, I have chosen to describe her with the terms she uses to describe herself. In the same way, I use feminine pronouns to reference her because she thinks of herself as a woman.

13.Anthony Tommasini, "An Honest, Funny Look at Gay Black Men," Boston Globe, July 5, 1992, 27.

14. Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon, 1993), 4.

15. Renita J. Weems, "Womanist Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics," in Black Theology: A Documentary History (ed. James H. Cone and Gayraud Wilmore; 2 vols.; Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993), 2:219, 218.

16. James H. Cone and Gayraud Wilmore, eds., Black Theology: A Documentary History, (2 vols.; Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993), 2:177.

17.Pettiway, Honey, Honey, Miss Thang, xl.

18.Ibid., xxxii.

19.Ibid.

20.Ibid., xxx.

21. Daniel Boyarin, "Gender," in Critical Terms for Religious Studies (ed. Mark C. Taylor; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 117.

22. John B. Cobb and David R. Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 81.

23. Ibid., 83.

Citation: Michael Joseph Brown, " The Blackening Of The Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=400

 
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