By Candice Marie Benbow,
My mother loved to tell the story of how she first felt me kick during an afternoon service at Mercy Seat Holy Church. Unmarried and pregnant, she took that as a sign that whatever I did in life would be grounded in God as long as she kept me connected to the church. And that is exactly what she did. I have not known myself without God or the Black Church and I appreciate such a formation. My relationship, however, with God and the church has not been without its challenges. As a child, I grew up hearing sermons that demonized people like my mother for having premarital sex and children like me for being the product of sin. While I loved church, I did not always feel like church loved me. Most recently, my mother’s unexpected passing and other challenges have made my relationship with God tenuous at best. Simply put: there are times when I’m not feeling God and have no desire to talk to someone so mean. Of course, I was not raised to be mad at God, to say that God is mean or to be absent from church for over a year. In fact, I grew up understanding these to be sins. However, it has been my relationship with womanist theology that helped to give me a much more liberating vision of God. It is one that allows me to understand that God is big enough to hold my complaints and frustrations and I am no less beloved for those thoughts and feelings. For me, to be a millennial womanist theologian is to create opportunities for other young Black women to come into and remain in that awareness.
Before I knew I was womanist, I knew I was a writer. Whether it was in my diary, church newsletter, high school or city newspaper, I was always writing about the worlds I knew and hoped to know one day. As I wrote for myself, I also knew I was writing for other young women who were searching for words to articulate their own experiences. I still do that. I am a writer consistently writing my way towards freedom and an abiding love of God and God’s creation, which includes me. Womanism saved my life in that regard. I was given a language and a hope that I would not have otherwise had. For so long, I believed I had to apologize and overcompensate for being the product of a single parent home. I felt like if I excelled in certain areas, the shame would be lifted and God, my father and the rest of the world would love me. Womanism helped me realize the shame was never mine to ingest. While I still struggle at times with that truth, it was womanism that helped me affirm myself as beloved of God.
Committed to theological education, I am interested in how womanist theological and Black feminist theoretical frameworks can influence each other with doctrinal implications.
I think about how the words of womanists like Alice Walker, Renita Weems and Monica Coleman have changed my life and I am called to pay it forward. I am to write for my sisters so that they are reminded that God loves them deeply despite what the world may say. I hope that I am able within my public work to build upon womanist notions of hope to continue creating practical and healthy ways to move from survival to sustained flourishing. As a scholar, womanists like Delores Williams, emilie townes, Eboni Marshall Turman and Keri Day have inspired to think even more critically about the impact womanism can have on theological education and Black Studies. These and so many other sisters prove that our scholarship can and does have intellectual rigor. I desire to be a part of that trajectory, honoring and expanding it. Committed to theological education, I am interested in how womanist theological and Black feminist theoretical frameworks can influence each other with doctrinal implications. Whether it has been in public work or academic research, I have been affirmed by and benefited from the womanist community in ways that will remain with me.
Like many within my generation, I am committed to the social space and believe in its ability to transform. Additionally, it is important for me to be sensitive to the ways many sisters have become detached from the church yet still desire spiritual formation. Consequently, I am always thinking about the ways my work can be accessed. It has to be inclusive in that it must be able to be consumed outside of traditional religious and academic spaces and it must be sensitive to the experiences and needs of those who love God but have been deeply hurt by people in God’s name. I know what it means to be disconnected from the church and I know what it means to heal and reconnect. Whatever work I do, however it is accessed, it must embody that transparency and have humility and grace. We are all works in progress who need to be gentle with ourselves and others.
Millennial womanism will speak to the powers and principalities that create intersectional oppression for Black women. Of that much, I am sure. Yet, there is so much more for us to do. Our cousins, homegirls and linesisters are trying to make sense of the religious messages they’ve heard that turned out to be untrue. They’re trying to work through heartbreak, grief, loneliness and depression with few roadmaps that make sense or seem loving. If we are honest, many of us -our generation’s preachers and teachers- are doing the same. Millennial womanist theology is needed because we need relevant resources to journey towards holistic understandings of life and love. In a way our foremothers are not, we are able to speak to our generation from transparent spaces that will cultivate healing and transformation. If I can be a part of that, then I believe my mother was right. That kick in Mercy Seat really was a sign. Something tells me she and my womanist foremothers have been waiting on me to realize it.
Candice Marie Benbow is a native of Winston-Salem, NC. She holds degrees from Tennessee State University, North Carolina Central University and Duke Divinity School. Currently, she is a doctoral student in Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary and teaches in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. She has written for publications including Ebony.com, Urban Cusp, For Harriet and Patheos.
In 2015, she created “Red Lip Theology”, a movement to encourage young Black Christian women to embrace their whole selves as good creation. In May 2016, following the release of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, Candice created the “Lemonade Syllabus”. With contributions from over 70 Black women, the syllabus is a free downloadable resource of over 250 works centered around the lives of Black women. It has been downloaded over 300,000 times. In February 2017, Candice collaborated with The Elle.com Media Scholars to create the A Seat at the Table Syllabus in response to Solange Knowles’ powerful album of the same name
Candice considers herself a displaced Southerner living in New Jersey with her dog, Langston.
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