They require Herculean stamina, the patience of Job, the rigor of elite marathon runners hitting the wall in a fiery sweat pit at high altitude, primed for God’s finish line. In many small storefront Pentecostal churches these “pray-a-thons” are women’s spaces; hubs of music, food, caregiving, and intense witnessing.
My student Stacy Castro* is a bass player in her Pentecostal church’s band. She is also the pastor’s daughter and a regular participant in the pray-a-thons, a mainstay in some evangelical congregations. Much of her weekends are focused on church activities. And though she is an intelligent and gifted speaker, up until her participation in the Women’s Leadership Project she thought little about pursuing college and wanted to go to cosmetology school.
Stacy’s aspirations are not atypical of students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles. In a community that is dominated by churches of every stripe only a small minority go on to four year colleges and universities.
Over the past decade, Pentecostal congregations have burgeoned in urban communities nationwide, as Pentecostalism has exploded amongst American Latinos disgruntled by rigid Catholic hierarchies, alienating racial politics, and sexual abuse scandals. The gendered appeal of Pentecostalism is highlighted in a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey which concludes that,
“Latino religious polarization may be influenced by a gender effect, as in the general U.S. population, with men moving toward no religion and women toward more conservative religious traditions and practices. Two traditions at opposite poles of the religious spectrum exhibit the largest gender imbalance: the None population is heavily male (61%) while the Pentecostal is heavily female (58%). Italics added.”[i]
In my book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I argued that the literature on secularism and gender does not capture the experiences of women of color negotiating racism, sexism, and poverty in historically religious communities. The relative dearth of secular humanist and freethought traditions amongst women of color cannot be separated from the broader context of white supremacy, gender politics, and racial segregation.
Harlem Renaissance-era writers Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston are generally acknowledged as pioneering twentieth century black women freethinkers. Yet what few women’s freethought histories there are celebrate the political influence of prominent nineteenth century white women non-believers, many of whom were suffragists and abolitionists. None contextualize these women’s influence vis-à-vis the race and gender politics that shaped both the feminist and freethought movements.
For example, I have yet to see an appraisal that seriously addresses the racism and xenophobia of forerunning 19th century freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who touted the cultural and intellectual superiority of white women over immigrants and people of color in her vehement opposition to the 15th amendment granting black men the vote) or the “curious” absence of women of color from freethought movements.
Historically African American women did not have the luxury to be freethinkers because they were constructed as the racialized sexual other. Their bodies were the backdrop to European American notions of individual liberty, humanity, and natural rights. Their labor was the raw material for European American intellectualism. European American freethought traditions were predicated on the enslavement of the racialized sexual other.
Within the context of slavery and, later, Jim Crow, women like Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and other first and second wave white feminist freethinkers would not have had the license to be secular were it not for the dialectic between the civilized white Western subject and the degraded amoral racialized sexual other. Alice Walker powerfully evokes this theme in her essayIn Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, which contemplates the contradictions of black female creativity and “genius” within the holocaust conditions of slavery. She asks:
Did you have a genius of a great-great-grandmother who died under some ignorant and depraved white overseer’s lash? Or was she required to bake biscuits for a lazy backwater tramp, when she cried out in her soul to paint watercolors of sunsets, or the rain falling on the green and peaceful pasturelands? Or was her body broken and forced to bear children (who were more often than not sold away from her)—eight, ten, fifteen, twenty children—when her one joy was the thought of modeling heroic figures of rebellion, in stone or clay?
Black working women were not supposed to be geniuses. In the West, genius and Godliness are intimately bound to each other. Black women’s lives were too “cluttered” with the debris of the everyday—the cooking, cleaning, minding, managing, and tending that comes with the earthly terrain of caregiving—to soar to the heavens with geniuses. Small wonder then that the spaces they did find themselves in, that were available to them, became wellsprings for expressions of Godliness, both subversive and conforming.
That the vast majority of black women were only afforded access to the worlds of work, the family, and church meant that their “genius” would by necessity be a reflection of those worlds. In the turbulence of antebellum America “God” became ordinary black women’s medium for expressing genius, creativity, artistry, mastery, and invention. Hence, secularism was a dangerous and untenable position because of the way black dehumanization was institutionalized. Where would black women go to be affirmed as persons?
The courts, where their rights were not recognized? The Constitution, where their bodies were vessels? The education system, where their culture was demeaned as savage, primitive, and un-Christian? Government, where their bodies were deep profit for some of the nation’s most esteemed legislators and moral philosophers? White churches, where they were debased as Jezebels and amoral Children of Ham?
For Latinas coming from Catholic traditions, the ubiquitous image of the pure as the driven snow self-sacrificing Virgin Mary is the traditional model for femininity. But the Virgin’s white purity is only validated by the fallen dark whore; the black, Asian, Latina or Native American woman whose body, in the words of bell hooks, is “the sign of sexual experience.” As writer Yasmin Davidds Garrido notes, “It often seemed to me that unless I behaved just like the Virgin Mary I wouldn’t be good enough to win God’s approval. In order to be considered a good girl, I had to be quiet, submissive, and obedient…This is one way Catholicism coerces young girls to mute their voices.”
This is the backdrop against which women of color struggle with religious and secular belief systems. Even as the moral weight of their communities—reinforced by the dominant culture—is placed on them, many continue to seek refuge in faith and faith traditions because they provide a sense of purpose, direction, and meaning.
Responding to a survey I conducted on high school aged young women and faith, twelfth grader Vanessa Linares* agreed that African American and Latina women are packing the pews because many of them “believe that women of color need faith/religion to be moral.” Thus, popular reality shows like the Bad Girls Club and platinum-selling pop artists like wannabe Barbie doll rapper Nicki Minaj show young women of color that hyper-sexuality is a quick and dirty form of “validation” for a select few.
These women may appear to be flouting conventional sexual mores with “fuck you” alpha female sexuality but they are still rigidly bound by them. And by the same token the goddess cult that so many women of color flock to is also a cul-de-sac. Goddesses, queens, princesses, and other icons of so-called spiritual authority are by definition floating above the “sorry” muck of mere mortals.
As Women’s Leadership Project program coordinator Diane Arellano comments:
Somewhere in college, I felt the need to proactively counter the general assumption that as a Mexican woman, I must be a Catholic or Christian. This conscious shift in my identity was informed by my interests and participation in activism. When I searched for models of Latino activists, I was very disappointed to see or read about “seeking strength” from ‘La Virgen’ or claiming their work is the work of ‘God.’ I thought about how oppression functions in communities of color and asked myself, isn’t there a good argument that can be made about the Church’s role in institutionalizing the oppressive gender, race, class, and sexuality paradigms that these activists are fighting so hard against?
Posted: Monday, 19 November 2012