By Ahmad Greene-Hayes,
When Liz Alexander and Melanie Jones asked me to contribute to this forum, I was admittedly hesitant for two reasons. One, I do not identify as a womanist, nor do I think it appropriate for Black men to do so, even as we can be and should be shaped and transformed by womanist thought. Indeed, “Black male feminist” or “Black male womanist” as monikers, have been used by Black men who often utilize proximity to radical feminist circles to prey on women, accrue sexual partners, and remain sexually and physically violent. On a similarly cautious note, as of late, I cringe at the word “millennial,” because of the ways it is often used and manipulated by elders, elites, and the church to reinforce ageist politics and demonize Black youth and young adults.
Yet, I think my hesitancy, or my desire to be slow to speak on this topic and instead quick to hear, is instructive. My sensibilities are rooted in my commitment to taking seriously Black feminist and womanist critiques, which historically and historiographically de-center Black male dominance, hegemony, and patriarchy, and centers the livelihoods and crises of Black women and girls.
As a recovering church boy, I am the product of Holy Ghost filled church mothers and deaconesses, anointed, unlicensed and unordained prophetesses, and Black women who cook in church kitchens, and clean and usher in sanctuaries. I am also the intellectual progeny of my grandmother and mother who theologize daily without ever having gone to seminary, and I am the descendent of womanist theologians, Black feminist theorists, and Black women historians of Africana and African American histories and herstories in the academy, whose scholarship has made me a better thinker and human being. At its crux, my work in church and academy is deeply connected to and informed by Black women’s emotional, intellectual, theological, and spiritual genius and labor on the behalf of whole villages and communities.
As I reflect on these things, I am reminded of why Liz and Melanie’s invitation to contribute to this forum is an embodied form of womanist praxis. I am thankful for their millennial call to action, even as I remember the words of Black women who came before them. In her 1986 essay, “Some Implications of Womanist Theory,” Sherley Anne Williams wrote, “Womanist inquiry […] assumes that it can talk both effectively and productively about men. This is a necessary assumption because the negative, stereotyped images of Black women are only a part of the problem of phallocentric writings by Black males. In order to understand that problem more fully, we must turn to what Black men have written about themselves.”i Similarly, bell hooks writes in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, “We need to hear from Black men who are interrogating sexism, who are striving to create different and oppositional visions of masculinity.”ii
To these things I must acknowledge that as a Black cisgender man I have not always been where I am. There was a time when I sinfully longed to be a Black male ecclesial patriarch. Thanks be to God, that day has long passed. Taking courses during my undergraduate years with the likes of Joy James and LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant began this journey. Sitting with dear sisters and beloved friends like Sevonna Brown, Candace Simpson, Whitney Bond, Arielle Steele and so many others, while also organizing with Black Women’s Blueprint against sexual violence and Black Lives Matter against anti-black state violence, radicalized me to cast out the patriarchal demon within.
Without question, Black feminism and womanism saved me. It wouldn’t be until I started engaging Black women’s stories of sexual violence, for instance, that I found the language to articulate my own survivorship, which in many ways was tied to my investments in misogyny and internalized heterosexism.
Their body of work—written and spoken—enabled me to step into my power and found Children of Combahee, a project funded by the Just Beginnings Collaborative, that mobilizes against child sexual abuse in Black church communities using womanist pastoral and theological methods. To date, my advisory board consists of several womanist theologians and pastors, including but not limited to the Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson, the Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan, the Rev. Dr. Valerie Bridgeman and the Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall-Turman. This work against sexual violence, and child sexual abuse specifically, is a testament to the salvific and soul-stirring power of womanist thought, and I feel privileged as a Black man to be able to do this work in conversation with Black women whose trees bear good fruit and whose witness goes before them.
It is also important to name that my work emerges at a time where Black youth and young adults, or millennials, many of which are children of church, have taken to the streets to denounce Black church communal commitments to homo- and transphobia, sexism, rape culture, and the capitalistic and neoliberal impulses embedded in the prosperity gospel movement. My work is a part of this womanist millennial shift. Never before has there been a town hall in a Black church where survivors of child sexual abuse could share their stories publically and unashamedly. And yet, that is some of the work we are doing. Never before have clergy gathered together in a room to critically think about what it means to preach and teach about sexual violence. But that is work we are doing this year, in collaboration with elder comrades at WomanPreach!, Inc. It is for these efforts and the womanist community that holds me accountable, that I give thanks.
i Sherley Anne Williams, “Some Implications of Womanist Theory” (1986) In The Womanist Reader, edited by Layli Phillips (Taylor & Francis, 2006), 161. ii hooks, bell, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (New York, NY : Routledge, 2015), 78.
Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a doctoral student in the Department of Religion at Princeton University, and an interdisciplinary scholar pursuing graduate certificates in African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include Black religion(s), Black Pentecostalism, Gender and Sexuality in Black churches, and 19th-20th century Africana and African American religious histories. The past recipient of fellowships and apprenticeships from the Mellon Mays Foundation and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, he was most recently awarded the Princeton University Dean’s and President’s Fellowships, and also the Just Beginnings Collaborative (JBC) Fellowship. His project, “Children of Combahee,” which emerged out of JBC works to eradicate child sexual abuse in Black church communities using womanist pastoral and theological methods. In 2017, he became a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow. In addition, he is an essayist and his public commentary has appeared in Ebony, The Root, The Feminist Wire, the Huffington Post, Open Democracy and NewsOne. He is also the creator of #BlackChurchSex on Twitter, and he helped plan the #BlackChurchSex convening—“Love Thyself: Black Bodies and Religious Space”—co-sponsored by Princeton Theological Seminary’s Office of Black Church Studies and Columbia University’s Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice.
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