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'Womanist': Saying Who We Are

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Black History Month is that time of year when the achievements and courage of people of African descent are acknowledged and celebrated. However, for decades now, Black History Month has not once acknowledged or celebrated the contributions of its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities.

Our omission from the annals of black history would lead you to believe that the only shakers and movers in the history of people of African descent in the U.S. were and still are heterosexuals. And because of this heterosexist bias, the sheroes and heroes of LGBTQ people of African descent -- like Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and Bayard Rustin, to name a few -- are most known and lauded within a subculture of black life.

Along with the pantheon of noted black heterosexual leaders who will be lauded this month, I want to personally celebrate one of my queer and crossover sheroes, renowned writer and poet Alice Walker for giving black women everywhere on the globe a new name we all can embrace -- "womanist."

While "sistah girl" is my favorite term to depict black women, no word captures the totality of women of the African Diaspora in popular culture today better than Pulitzer Prize author Alice Walker's term "womanist." Alice Walker coined the term in her 1983 collection of prose writings, In Search of our Mothers' Gardens.

The term "womanist" derives from African-American women's folk expression "You are acting womanish." The phrase illustrates little African-American girls' precociousness as they attempt to comprehend and overcome the challenges adult African-American women face in their strategies for survival in an oppressive society.

Walker defines a "womanist" as a black feminist who continues the legacy of "outrageous, audacious, courageous, and willful, responsible, in charge, serious" African-American women as agents of social change for the wholeness and liberation of their entire people, and by extension, the rest of humanity. A womanist can be a lesbian, a heterosexual, a bisexual, or a transgender woman. She celebrates and affirms African-American women's culture and physical beauty. A womanist "loves herself. Regardless."

"Womanist" was coined as a term that is both culture specific and encompasses a variety of ways in which women of the African Diaspora support each other and relate to the world.

Walker specifically devised the term in response to literary historian Jean Humez's introductory statement in Gifts of Power: The Writing of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress. Humez suggested that Rebecca Jackson and Rebecca Perot, who were part of an African-American Shaker settlement in Philadelphia in the 1870s and lived with each other for more than thirty years, would be labeled lesbians in today's climate of acknowledging female relationships. Humez supported her speculations of the Jackson-Perot relationship by pointing to the homoerotic dreams the women had of each other. Walker disputed Humez's right -- as a white woman from a different cultural context -- to define the intimacy between two African-American women. "Womanist" was coined as a term that was both culture specific and encompassed a variety of ways in which African-American women support each other and relate to the world.

Although the words "religion" and "Christian" do not appear in Walker's definition, there are both religious and secular usages for the term "womanist." Because Walker emphasizes African-American women's love for the Spirit, African-American Christian women have used "womanist" to articulate their witness to and participation in God's power and presence in the world. "Womanist" in the religious sense is often used by African-American women who are Christian ministers and seminarians, as well as by feminist scholars in the field of religion.

"Womanist" Christian thought and practices began to flourish in the mid1980s as a way to challenge racist, sexist, and white feminists' religious practices and discourses that excluded African-American women's participation and which ignored their experiences in church and society.

For "womanist" Christian ministers and seminarians, Walker's definition serves as a springboard for their preaching style, liturgy, and pastoral ministry. For "womanist" Christian academicians, the definition shapes and frames their analytical and theoretical approaches. By using African-American women's experiences of struggle and survival as their starting point of inquiry, these clergywomen and scholars examine the simultaneous forces of race, class, and gender oppressions in African-American women's lives. A "womanist" approach also celebrates African-American women's religious history and validates their theological beliefs.

Although Walker's definition includes lesbians as "womanist," lesbian voices in the "womanist" Christian discourse as well as their contributions to African-American women's religious histories have been suppressed. Proponents for the exclusion of lesbians in the discourse argue that a lesbian sexual orientation is antithetical to the tenets and survival of the Black Church and black family. As a result, many Christian lesbians in the "womanist" Christian discourse have responded either by engaging in the debate without disclosing their sexual identities or by opting not to engage in it at all.

The secular use of "womanist" is by African-American women who have either left the Black Church because of its gender bias and homophobia, or who do not come from the Black Church religious experience. These women use the term to identify a culturally specific form of women-centered politics and theory. They claim that the term "feminist" is inappropriate because of its history of identification with a predominantly white movement that has often excluded and alienated African-American women. In addition, because the term "feminist" has been used to identify women as lesbians regardless of their sexual orientation, "womanist" provides a way to affirm one's identity without being associated with lesbianism. Because of this, however, some women have challenged the term "womanist" because of its homophobic implications.