16 July 2013

Notes on Teleconference with Monica A. Coleman

"Third Wave Womanist Religious Thought"
June 12, 2013

WATER thanks Professor Monica Coleman for her spirited presentation on her new book, AIN’T I A WOMANIST TOO? THIRD WAVE WOMANIST RELIGIOUS THOUGHT. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. We highly recommend the book and offer the following summary of the conversation to augment the audio. 

The underlying question, or “story behind the story,” in Monica Coleman’s book was why people call themselves feminist, others black feminist, and others womanist. She described being able to feel the differences between/among these terms but had been unable to name them clearly. Monica also was interested in the question of “Must I Be a Womanist” (the title of a roundtable article that set the foundations for her book) in order to examine questions of naming and self-naming within academic institutions and publishing companies. In this process of that project, the term “Third Wave Womanism” arose. With the encouragement of colleagues in the field, her book Ain’t I a Womanist Too? Third Wave Womanist Religious Thought emerged.

One major consideration of her book was to examine the terms of “third,” “wave,” and “womanism.” She raises the question about what womanism would look like if womanists held to other definitions coined independently of Alice Walker’s definition such as other branches of U.S. womanism, Africana womanism, etc. Dr. Coleman also explained how she was drawn to third wave feminism with its edginess, iconoclasm, and hybridity and was interested in the ways in which it relied (often unacknowledged) on strands of women of color feminisms, Chicana feminism, womanist, and the black arts movement, etc.

Monica was fond of term “wave” to describe some of the new work being done. She liked how it evokes waves crashing, making noise, and coming one after another. She explained that wave implies a notion of generations but does not necessarily require it. There are still many first waves occurring across disciplines where womanist thought only just entered the field while second and third waves are “troubling the waters” across the same and other fields.

Dr. Coleman laid out four components that make up third wave womanism:

1. Expounds upon terminology.
While womanism traditionally placed the religious lives of black women in the center, a third wave womanist might begin to trouble each of these terms. What does black mean? What does woman mean in light of gender identity, intersex, and transgender persons? What does religion mean in a world of religious diversity and for people who are not Christian?

2. Maintains the goals of justice, survival and quality of life
Like previous waves of womanism, a third wave womanist may still hold to womanism’s goals of justice, survival, and freedom.

3. Affirms an ideology politic rather than an identity politic.
There are authors in Monica Coleman’s volume who do not identify as women or as black, but they work closely with womanism. That is, her anthology includes articles by men and white and Asian scholars. The naming of “womanist” is about the work that is done – its subject matter and ethics – more than the person who is doing said work.

4. Relies on earlier womanist thought but departs from it.
Draws from wider circles, especially from areas that black feminists often engaged.
Third wave womanism often engages with religious plurality, pop culture, and politics.

One participant raised expressing concern with Monica’s description of third wave womanism as “more about ideology than identity,” especially concern for how white feminists want to coopt the term.

Dr. Coleman explained that she uses this expression to be able to acknowledge that people who are not black women are able to do work that fits into womanism and that black women do not always do womanist work. She agreed that coopting identities is a challenge that all people must be aware of, especially with respect to racial power dynamics. She suggested that we need to acknowledge our roots and where we get our knowledge.

Another participant asked if there is space in theology for the “sassy” and “womanish” parts of Alice Walker’s definition?

Monica has observed that this kind of work was present, especially in the boldness of first wave womanist scholars. She agreed that there is still room to be bold or “sassy” in our work and that much of Alice Walker’s definition remains to be explored.

A woman who identified herself as an Asian American woman raised concern about the racialization of feminism as white and related how she has been asked, “If black women have womanism and latinas have mujerista then what is your feminism?”

Dr. Coleman emphasized the importance of self-naming, which is what womanism is about. Terminology becomes problematic when names are placed upon us. Monica explained that she prefers to use the term womanist to describe what she does rather than her identity. This allows her to identify what she is doing in her work rather than allowing someone to place her identity in a box.

A seminarian asked about the risks of departing from a classical position within womanism, especially when those circles provide personal support and professional mobility.

One suggestion Monica offered was to recognize that there is diversity within womanism, even within more traditional positions and across generations. Secondly, she suggested a recognition that the politics of the academy will be particularly challenging for black women because of its white male dominant structure. She explained that we have to negotiate these realms of power and politics in our work, whether in the church, academy, or our homes. She emphasized that it is important for a rising scholar to do work s/he stands by and enjoys. Lastly, she suggested that scholars draw from their own traditions ways to treat themselves and others with grace and compassion, especially when their work may be controversial.

Another woman discussed how she wanted to apply Monica’s work to preaching, specifically how she encourages people who are not black women to use womanist thought their own preaching.

Acknowledging that preaching is not her area of expertise, Dr. Coleman explained that she learned her preaching from Renita Weems. When looking at a text, Dr. Weems encouraged people to look for what is not there and what is not said. Monica asserted that you don’t have to be a black woman to notice these things and to call them out. Monica believes that everyone should put this emphasis in their work.

The final question raised was about how academics can become practitioners of transformation that Monica describes and about how they can embody a “politics of creativity” within their own communities?

Dr. Coleman offered a couple of suggestions. First, she explained that who you are is going to come out in your work. Second, she brought up the importance of self-care and care of loved ones. Monica also suggested recognizing that you must take things in turn and season, while being as creative and transformative as possible. For example, blogging, writing church resources, volunteer work, bible studies, and preaching are ways to do work outside of academy. She stressed that there are a variety of ways to embody a politics of creativity, and this will be different for each person.

WATER is grateful to Monica A. Coleman for her insightful and thought-provoking presentation and looks forward to following her future work.

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