Womanist theology is a religious conceptual framework which reconsiders and revises the traditions, practices, scriptures, and biblical interpretation with a special lens to empower and liberate African-American women in America. Womanist theology associates with and departs from Feminist theology and Black theology specifically because it integrates the perspectives and experiences of African American and other women of color. The former's lack of attention to the everyday realities of women of color and the latter's lack of understanding of the full dimension of liberation from the unique oppressions of black women require bringing them together in Womanist Theology. The goals of womanist theology include interrogating the social construction of black womanhood in relation to the black community and to assume a liberatory perspective so African American women can live emboldened lives within the African American community and within the larger society. Some of its tasks are excavating the life stories of poor women of African descent in the church and to understanding the "languages" of black women.
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The term womanish was commonly used in Black daily language by mothers to describe adolescent daughters who act outrageous and grown-up, in contrast to girlish. Womanist was then developed in 1983 by black writer and activist Alice Walker in her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. In this text, she makes the point that "A Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender." Hence, while womanist referred primarily to African American women, it was also for women in general. Walker's works would have significant impact on later womanist theologians.
The roots of modern womanist theology grew out of the theology of James Hal Cone, Katie G. Cannon, Jacquelyn Grant, and Delores Williams. Cone developed black theology which sought to make sense out of theology from black experience in America. In his book A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone argued that "God is black" in an effort to demonstrate that God identifies with oppressed black Americans. Then, Grant, a first-generation womanist theologian, argued that Cone did not attend to the fullness of black experience – specifically that of black women. She argued that the oppression of black women is different from that of black men. Grant pointed out that lower-class black women must navigate between the threefold oppression of racism, sexism, and classism in her books Womanist Theology and White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response. For her, Jesus is a "divine co-sufferer" who suffered in his time like black women today. Grant concludes that black women are more oppressed and in need of further liberation than black men and especially white women. Delores Williams took the work of theologians such as Cone and Grant and expanded upon them. She suggested that womanist theologians need to "search for the voices, actions, opinions, experience, and faith" of black women in order to experience the God who "makes a way out of no way." She defines womanist in the following way:
Womanist theology is a prophetic voice concerned about the well-being of the entire African-American community, male and female, adults and children. Womanist theology attempts to help black women see, affirm, and have confidence in the importance of their experience and faith for determining the character of the Christian religion in the African-American community. Womanist theology challenges all oppressive forces impeding black women's struggle for survival and for the development of a positive, productive quality of life conducive to women's and the family's freedom and well-being. Womanist theology opposes all oppression based on race, sex, class, sexual preference, physical ability, and caste.
Approaches to the Bible
Womanist theologians use a variety of methods to approach the scripture. Some attempt to find black women within the biblical narrative so as to reclaim the role and identity of black people in general, and black women specifically, within the Bible. Examples include the social ethicist Cheryl Sanders and the womanist theologian Karen Baker-Fletcher. Some approach the Bible "objectively" to critically evaluate text that degrades women and people of color and to offer an African-centered form, to resist male domination and bias, or what could be termed anti-women or androcentric attitudes and forms. Others draw on resources outside the Bible to enhance the plurality and cohesion of the texts along with our life experiences and reject scripture as a whole or part which is seen to serve male interest only. These methods are not separated and can be endorsed together.
Patricia-Anne Johnson writes that "Renita J. Weems, a womanist professor and scholar of the Hebrew Bible, examines scripture as a world filled with women of color. Through the use of womanist imagination, Weems helps students to understand female roles, personalities, and woman-to-woman relationships during the time when the biblical texts were written." Johnson, quoting further from Weems, also shows how Hagar and Esther can be seen as models of resistance for black women: "Womanism may be envisioned as a post-colonial discourse that allows African-American women to embrace a Jesus and a God free of the imperialism of white supremacy."
- Johnson, Patricia-Anne (2002). "Womanist Theology as Counter-Narrative". In Ruether, Rosemary Radford (ed.). Gender, Ethnicity, and Religion: Views from the Other Side. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Fortress. pp. 197ff. ISBN 978-0-8006-3569-5.
- Mitchem, Stephanie Y. (2002). Introducing Womanist Theology. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books (published 2014). ISBN 978-1-60833-199-4.
- Walker, Alice (1983). In Search of our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 978-0-15-144525-7.
- Williams, Delores S. (1995). Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-talk. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
- Willis, Gladys J. (2016). Alice Walker's Influence on Womanist Theology. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 978-1-4257-2061-2.
- Sweeney, Hyacinth (2000). "The Bible as a Tool For Growth for Black Women". Black Theology in Britain: A Journal of Contextual Praxis. 3 (5): 21–32. ISSN 1462-3161.
- Thomas, Linda E. (1998). "Womanist Theology, Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm". Cross Currents. Vol. 48 no. 4. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- John, Joby. Probing Womanist Existentialism: A Reading of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
- Riggs, Marcia, ed. (1997). Can I Get a Witness?: Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women: An Anthology. New York: Orbis Books. ISBN 9781570751134.