By Renita J. Weems,
Years before I had a daughter of my own I had the opportunity to spend an evening listening to the iconic jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson perform live at a supper club. With characteristic poise and elegance, Wilson used her distinctively beautiful voice to cast a spell on her audience, choosing songs from her songbook meant to enchant and connect with those of us in the room (songs like “I Never Been To Me” and “Guess Who I Saw Today”). One song, in particular, stuck with me. Wilson sang the little-known title tune from her mid70s album, “This Mother’s Daughter.” (I’ve always been a sucker for mother-daughter stories, songs, photos, books for reasons I can’t go into here). The song, “This Mother’s Daughter” haunted me for years. I would later buy the album so that I could hear Wilson sing it as many times as I wanted. Time passed and I’ve since downloaded the song onto my playlist and play it from time to time for my now adult daughter to listen to when there’s tension in the air between us.
Wise beyond her years
This mother’s daughter is gonna bring tears
Tears to her family
Tears to the men who hold her tenderly
Wise beyond her days
This mother’s daughter is gonna make waves
Waves like a stormy sea
Waves in the man who wants her desperately
Wise beyond the rain
This mother’s daughter is gonna know pain
Pain in her gentle soul
Pain in the eyes of the man she will control
This mother’s daughter
Will ride the wind
This mother’s daughter
Will see the end
Of time go by
With time to cry…oh, oh.
If hypervigilant womanist readers of this platform can bring themselves to forgive the song’s heteronormative signification, I think they may be able to appreciate why Nancy Wilson’s “This Mother’s Daughter” bubbles up in this first-generation womanist’s heart when she thinks about this new, arguably the third, generation of womanist activists, born between 1980-2000. Braids off to genius visionaries, Liz Alexander and Melanie Jones, for seizing this e-zine platform, to curate powerful testimonials by Black millennial women (and a few good men) about what it means to do the work of faith and justice drawing upon the unique lens of womanist epistemology and methodology. Just a brief glance at the material curated shows that millennial womanists have learned well from their womanist foremothers and embraced with relish the foremost principle of womanist praxis and methodology which is to take seriously the lived experiences of struggle and survival of Black women against multiple forces of oppression in the academy, Church, and world.
As first generation womanists both in the church and the religious academy move into our sixties and seventies, it is encouraging to witness a new generation of black women intellectuals emerging and doing the work of tilling their soil. It is heartening to see millennial womanists doing their own work, first by drawing and building on the works of first generation womanist academics like Townes, Cannon, Grant, Williams, Sanders, Martin, Brown-Douglas, Gilkes, and myself, and a second generation of womanists in religious studies, e.g., Floyd-Thomas, Harris, Byron, Coleman, Gafney, Thomas. It is gratifying to see the nascent texts we worked on as womanist ingenues, sermonizing, theologizing, and pedagogizing about the intersection of race, gender, and faith, become the soil and the inspiration for new generations of black women academics and faith leaders. The brilliance and precision with which these young women approach groundbreaking work is humbling. Like daughters who took the lessons of their mothers to heart more seriously than the mothers expected perhaps, the testimonials found here attest that millennials womanists are prepared to go deeper, harder, and more critically into issues than their mothers did at the same age and are eager to branch out into discursive spaces their mothers could never have imagined. Their generation has the hard task of having to understand and piece together a very complicated world in its entirety. That world, in order for it to be deconstructed and reconstituted into a future that belongs to them, necessitates them drawing on a richer vein of resources than their foremothers, resources that resonate from within their own generation – e.g., movies, memes, film, movements, celebrity artists—and resources that sometimes makes sense, speaking as a Boomer, to no one other than their generation.
We all set our hands with our books, dissertations, sermons, and lecture notes to tilling, digging, planting, watering, and chopping away at the weeds so that future generations would not have to search for unmarked sites.
I was concerned for a moment about framing this piece with the words from Nancy Wilson’s song, “This Mother’s Daughter.” The times they are different from when I was growing up. The signifier “daughter” may come off as condescending to some and appear as an attempt to infantilize young adult women and trivialize their voices and contributions. Nothing can be further from my intention. The lyrics to Nancy Wilson’s song, “This Mother’s Daughter” is a reminder, certainly to me, about the complexities of belonging and the inherent tensions in the mother-daughter bond, the work of dis-assemblage and letting go, and the importance of knowing where one generation ends and another generation begins. First generation womanists wrestled with figuring out on our own what daughterhood, motherhood, and ancestry entailed when time came for us to trust white male and female academic advisors to supervise our work, and when opportunities came to apprentice and hire ourselves out to churches (especially black churches) to be assistants and youth ministers. We were in search of safe spaces and sane people to align ourselves with. There was lots of pain along the way. We understood perfectly what made novelist Alice Walker, who by all accounts enjoyed a warm loving relationship with her own biological mother, travel to Florida in 1973 and risk being bitten by snakes and mosquitoes to find the unmarked grave site of someone whose books she loved and considered a literary foremother, Zora Neale Hurston. We longed for mentors and role models and went searching for them in grave sites and gardens, wherever we could. Some of us were lucky. Others of us never gave up hope. We all set our hands with our books, dissertations, sermons, and lecture notes to tilling, digging, planting, watering, and chopping away at the weeds so that future generations would not have to search for unmarked sites.
The work paid off.
With all the brashness, sassiness, exuberance, and cockiness typical of the young — and with the full weight of their spirit, intellect, wit, and wisdom — with this e-zine it is obvious that a new generation of womanish acting activists are stepping up to claim their right to speak (up) and act for themselves. Many commentators argue that the digital universe itself has accelerated a shift from one generation of activists to the next. What is certain is that the internet, social media, and the digital world has created a ‘call-out’ culture, in which empire politics, racial injustices, state sanctioned killings, sexual violence, economic wrongs, can be ‘called out’ and challenged. This culture is indicative of the continuing influence of previous waves/generations of fire-breathing, justice loving workers, with their focus on macro- and micro-politics and challenging heteronormativity wherever it appears in everyday rhetoric, advertising, film, television and literature, the media, and so on. These womanish-acting millennial daughters are not waiting for permission to be heard. They are snatching the mic and dropping the mic, pulling back the covers and boldly naming the wrongs they see and the future they demand to live in. Maya Angela asked in her poem “Still I Rise”, “Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom ‘cause I act like I got oil wells pumping in my living room?” No, daughter, your sassiness does not upset me, but it does worry me sometimes. I think to myself recalling Nancy Wilson’s song, “This Mother’s daughter is gonna know pain.” The pain of hard work, rejection, failure, betrayal by those she trusted, and discovering just how intransigent evil and injustice are patriarchy, white supremacy, misogyny, militarism, how seductive it is to give in and how easy it is to lose one’s way.
I wonder why a new urbane, generation that thinks lettuce grows in the supermarket produce department would be drawn to language such as “tilling the soil.” Are black women (and men) thought leaders still having to till soil?!?! Didn’t Sojourner, Anna Julia Cooper, Pauli Murray, Prathia Hall-Wynn, and then earlier generations of womanist thought leaders do the work for them already? Yes and no. Every generation, it seems, has to do its own back breaking, groundbreaking work (there it goes again). The Apostle Paul’s statement in I Cor. 3:6 is correct as far as it goes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the [harvest].” Tilling. Planting. Watering. Weeding. Harvesting are ongoing tasks. If you are lucky, you live long enough to see and enjoy the fruit of your labor. Maybe. Maybe not. But the labor continues. No generation is exempt from having to till. For every generation has it Edmund Pettus Bridge to confront, denounce. It’s Jericho Wall. Its Arab Spring. Its (murdered) Trayvon Martin. It’s Russiagate.
[… evil does not die, just as history does not end. Like a weed, evil can be cut back but almost never entirely uprooted. It waits for its chance to spread through the cracks in our vigilance. It takes root in the fertile soil of our complacency. Like the dragon of Greek myth, whose teethsprouted from the ground as soldiers, the Berlin Wall fell to pieces, and many of those pieces contained the seeds of evil.]
In other words, the work of a womanist never ends.
Finally, like many of my generation, I have spent the greater part of my life being torn asunder by and trying to reconcile two great passions of mine: justice and faith, or put differently, womanism/feminism and Christianity. Both are demanding, all consuming, jealous lovers. I have sought to find and do work that promised me the chance to do the greatest amount of good with the least amount of damage to the soul. Most days, I was defeated. Pure and simple. But on those few occasions when I thought I heard something, felt something, sensed something Larger, Luminous, Loving, Greater than myself, pulling me and drawing me on – those moments were enough to keep me going on until I felt the hand of God-ness again, however long that took. Reading the testimonials of these fire-breathing, justice-loving, sassy millennial womanists should make us hopeful. Seminaries and theological spaces have now had several generations of womanists to move through their halls. Indeed most, if not all, of the young millennial womanists publishing on this platform were minority women students taught just a few years ago in many cases by first and second wave generation minority faculty members like myself and others. Together, we share a powerful legacy of success pushing the boundaries of our institutions on issues, women, people, color, curriculum, family housing, second-career students, etc. There remains lots more progress to be made like tearing down. Like trying to get both church and theological schools to understand that the single most reason for their decline is not ennui of a younger generation: but most theological schools are training leaders for a church and world that no longer exists and most churches are going about doing what they do as though the world and the way it operates has not changed. The testimonies of the women on this platform make it clear that both church and its theological schools are wrong and possibly doomed if they don’t wakeup!
When someone tells you that they theirs is generation that is perfectly happy attending Bible Study over Brunch with mimosas, it probably makes sense to sit-up and pay attention. That most millennial womanists have not walked completely away from the black church, but still believe in the importance of the church (with lots of transformations in places) and are still willing and interested in conversations with the black church. Heck, that millennial womanists still even believe in their Mother’s god (for the most part) says a lot about them—as daughters of this institution, this faith, and of their mothers. There is hope. A hope that the present has brought us. A hope that fits the future of this generation and not the past of a previous generation. They are our daughters, but they do not belong to us. They belong to their future. Not our past.
I began this piece with a quote from Nancy Wilson. I close with a portion of Kahlil Gibran’s poem which many of us know from its adaptation by the black women’s a capella group, Sweet Honey and the Rock, “They come from us…but they do not belong to us….”
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you
 Garry Kasparov – Atlas Foundation Freedom Dinner Keynote Address, November 13, 2014 – New York City
 Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred Knopf Publishers, 1923).
REVEREND DR. RENITA J. WEEMS, Ph.D. Reverend Dr. Renita J. Weems is a biblical scholar, a writer, an ordained minister, and a public intellectual whose scholarly insights into modern faith, biblical texts, and the role of spirituality in everyday lives make her a highly sought-after writer and speaker. She has numerous books, commentaries and articles on the Bible and prophetic religion to her credit. Among these are “Just A Sister Away” (1987 & 2005); “Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Prophets” (1995); and her 1999 book, “Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt” (Simon & Schuster) which won the Religious Communicators’ Council’s prestigious 1999 Wilbur Award for “excellence in communicating spiritual values to the secular media”.
Ordained in the AME church, Dr. Weems is a former member of the faculty of Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and more recently served as Vice President of Academic Affairs at American Baptist College in Nashville. Dr. Weems is the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Old Testament (Princeton Theological Seminary, 1989). Dr. Weems is featured in “Black Stars: African American Religious Leaders” (2008), a collection of biographies of some of the most important Black Religious Leaders over the last 200 hundred years, including such impressive figures as Adam Clayton Powell, Elijah Muhammad, Sojourner Truth, Howard Thurman, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Reverend Dr. Renita Weems lives with her family in Nashville, TN. She spends her time these days writing full-time, preaching, teaching, and serving as administrative pastor at her Nashville home church, and consulting on online educational projects in religion and theology. In her spare time, Dr. Weems bikes and quilts.
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