Literary Non-Fiction: God is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland, PhD
I have been mesmerized by the beautiful Black woman on this cover.
To me, literary work of late has been as much about the cover art as it has been about the telling inside.
So for all of 2022, so far, I was following the IG promotion of Christena Cleveland, PhD, hyping us up to get this book when it drops.
Now, all authors do that, as they should. If they don't believe in their work enough to post or Tweet about it, why should I want to plop down $26.99+tax+shipping for the imaginations of their day?
Her posting hit my Bookgram feed around the same time as I was engaging with The 1619 Project, another aesthetically pleasing offering, and Shouting' in the Fire, a cover on this slim book that draws ones eye in. So, of course I wondered what this was about.
Until encountering her on IG, I did not know about this sociologist and former professor at Duke Divinity School down in North Carolina. I went to seminary in boring old Missouri and while a budding womanist, certainly did not have images like this on the covers of books to proclaim loud and clear that God is a Black Woman.
So I could not wait for this book to arrive.
I preordered it, like I pre ordered several other 2022 releases because I believe in supporting Black writers, especially Black women writers.
These are my thoughts, some I shared already on Facebook, and as you know, I have just this year started adding the Literary Non Fiction as a further celebration of the literary works of Black women.
Key takeaways and palate-pleasing-pronouncements have included additions to the secular lexicon like whitemalegod, Sacred Black Feminine,
Clear, post worthy statements of facts like,
"Her. unapologetic Blackness is an inconvenience to white people who have long benefitted from and participated in whitemalegod's oppression of Black people."
I mean, that would have been a paragraph starter in my Black Theology or Readings in Womanist Thought Course. So, to the extent that this book is a compelling read for anyone in theological studies, I say get it.
It is not a deeply researched tome with nuggets that will make a thesis, but it does invite us into a conversation through the chokehold of conservative white evangelicalism cloaked in sometimes nice music that has strangled the near-life out of any non-denominational church kid who came-of-age post 1990, pretty much like Danté Stewart. She invites us to look fully into the face of whitemalegod, even if it is covered in well-intended but misguided vision of Black parents who think a girl's only worth is in her intact hymen to catch a good man, even fasting and praying for one from the age of five.
This is both a glimpse into her come-to-Black-Jesus moments of realizing she had ingested the internalized oppression of the conservative Christian environment where she was formed, went to school, preached, and even made her lucrative career on, and her wanting desperately to have us believe she is free and is freeing us.
There are parts of that in this book.
Just repeating the title, God is a Black Woman, is enough to send some people to the altar to repent and some others to the pews to praise.
Her book is part travelogue, chronicling her five weeks in France traipsing across the idyllic countryside to find the Black Madonnas so revered in the country.
In fact, the book opens with that action scene of her trying to outrun French police because she tripped the alarm trying to touch one of these ebony mothers of freedom.
That is was initially drew me in and made me post that one not only had to get this book but that I was going to have my daughters read it.
Like any story, there is always the lull part or the why-is-that-here part of the reading that makes you squint your eyes and wonder what she is trying to say.
It is her story.
It includes snippets of her caring for her sister who battled mental illness.
Recovering from and eventually reconciling with her father whose love was somethings at the end of fear and a belt.
Understanding her emerging sexuality and what shamed looked like in a public unveiling of a grown woman's choice.
Confrontations of the nicewhitemicroaggressions from her elite private boarding school in New Hampshire to her studies at Dartmouth to her eventual spot in front of the classroom at Duke Divinity School. None of these are HBCUs or all Black enlightening experiences that could have shaped the young mind of this older millennial, exactly like Danté Stewart. They were emerged in, gravitated to, espoused, and made their career in these white evangelical spaces.
The book includes a brief interlude of facing mediocre liberal white men and the women they run to defend even at the expense of the Black women harmed. Even a note or two about the colonizer Medical PhD who stole the life of a Black woman and the seminary celebrated his novel, think like The Help.
So, all-in-all, this was not a wasted visit after the intense February I had with The 1619 Project in preparation for Mosaic: Woodbridge Reading in Community.
My theological and ministry sisters and I commented that folks have said this for a long time - God is a Black Woman and like Dr. Cleveland pointed out, no, it was not a white dude who wrote the Shack who said it first. Dr. Mitzi Smith, the first African American woman to earn a PhD in New Testament Theology, commented on this fact to my Facebook post about the book. Her book, I Found God in Me, was a guide for me when I was in seminary and Womanist Sass and Talk Back, is definitely a tome to Black women's voices. She along with the Womanist Theologians I deeply studied in seminary are all those who said first and longest that seeing God as a white man is what continues to ensnare us and white people in an endless cycle of patriarchy-sexism-racism-classism without liberating anyone, even themselves. Other beautiful Black women covers that called me were Womanist Interpretations of the Bible by Dr. Vanessa Lovelace, noted Hebrew Bible Scholar or the revered Dr. Renita Weems, the mother of Womanist Theology, in Just a Sister Away, are must reads in conversation with finding "God in me and loving her fiercely, " as thinker and poet, the late Ntozake Shange invited us to do in for colored girls who considered suicide when the rainbow is Enuf that I read back in undergrad in the mid-1980s and was published when I was an eleven. year old not running from body image or climbing bookshelves for a sugar rush like Christena had to do to fill a void.
Dr. Cleveland is not a theologian, so one should not read her book in the same way one reads something for seminary, however, it can be a useful tome to go alongside some deeper research in women, gender, and theology.
I laughed, delighted, and smiled throughout reading the book. There were even points when I did a, "whew Chile, you needed some time in Black space." Dr. Cleveland is somewhere near the age of my older sons, so I also checked my generational bias as I read about her finding her voice and self in 2013 and 2014. Part of me wanted to chastise her and even said out loud that what took you so long to realize white folks had some deep racist thoughts about Black people. But then, I had to remind myself that she was young. My youngest son, the last of the Millennial generation, was a senior in high school, the same age actually, when Trayvon Martin was murdered. He had just finished his sophomore year in college when Mike Brown was murdered, having just turned twenty, he was forming his opinions about the world. So I had to forgive myself and her for my annoyance with some of her Millennial phraseology and self-aggrandizement.
That noted, read the book.
Not every young Black woman has a lucrative enough gig to be able to spend five months in France walking through the countryside in search of Black Madonnas.
Not every young Black or even older Black woman has a second book deal from a noted publisher to go off and write about the Sacred Black Feminine.
Not every young Black woman taught at one of the top Methodist seminaries.
Not every young Black woman survives the abusive theology of whitemalegod and marries a White man after graduating from several elite white institutions and comes out whole.
Not every young Black woman writer is hyped up and on speaking tours because her work comes at just the right time that a lot of people are calling BS on the five centuries of centered whitemalegod that they are sick and tired of being sick and tired, as proclaimed by Fannie Lou Hamer from a time before any of these Millennial or Gen Z voices were a thought.
This is not quite a self-help book, not quite a memoir, not an essay, not an anthropology or sociology writing, or even a deeply researched offering from historians like Dr. Keisha Blain's work in Four Hundred Souls,: A Community History of African America and Until I am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America, no this book is more of a coffee chat of a sister's travels to find herself. .
I have spent over a decade centering the voices of Black women in my work.
So, I finished this book with the beautiful cover and delightful stories that kept me company on my morning walks around the hardwood floors in my entryway, dining room, and living room. I will place her in the company of her sisters on my literary non-fiction shelf in my home library this afternoon as an early March snow blankets the sky in my Connecticut home.
This book is what is wanted in the heat of the day, like a cool glass of lavender lemonade sitting at the feet of the Black Madonna with your sister friends taking a moment to just breathe through all the aggressions you went through and can exhale in peace because at least you know there is a Black Mama out there, been out there, who knew that one day you would be seeking her out.
©2022 by Antona B. Smith, M. Div, MBA. All Rights Reserved. firstname.lastname@example.org,