Grown-Woman Theology

Lessons of race, blackness and power from a self-described nerdy Black girl.

Brittney Cooper | Eloquent Rage | St. Martin’s Press | February 2018 | 15 minutes (3,982 words)

The summer before I left home for graduate school, I drove down to the rural Louisiana countryside to sit on the porch with my grandma. As I took the four steps up to the house, face scowling at the hot Louisiana sun beating down on my brow, my Gram squinted at me, called me by my nickname, and declared, “It’s time for you to start having sex!”

I’m sure my eyes bugged out of my head, as the horror dawned on me that this wasn’t going to be any old regular visit to the country. There was an accusation in her words, as though this was something my 22-year-old self should have been doing forever. For the record, I had, in fact, had a bit of sex by age 22. For my 22nd birthday, my homegirl, horrified at my post-college near-virginal status, took me to a sex shop and purchased a vibrator for me. There was a classic Black woman read in my grandmother’s words, an unspoken “If that’s true, I can’t tell.” Of course she couldn’t! I was steeped in all kinds of Christian guilt about the little bit of sex that I had had and the copious amounts of vibrating I had done. That, coupled with the asshole I chose for a first partner, meant that I wasn’t having particularly joyful or enthusiastic sex, and most times I was in sanctified denial about my desire to be sexual in the first place.

I made it onto the porch and sat down to listen to my good Christian 75-year-old grandmother, a lady given to elaborate hats and bejeweled suits on the Sundays she didn’t usher at church, extol the virtues of sex to unmarried me. “Back in my day, we did it,” she said. I squirmed. Whoever wants to know this about their grandma? “Don’t ever let anybody tell you we didn’t. We went up in the woods and did it, but we did it.” By the time I was born, Grandmama had been a widow for 10 years. She and my grandfather got married and then had their children. In the way that none of us is ever inclined to think about the sex lives of our grandparents, it never even occurred to me to ask about whether my grandmother had waited until marriage to have sex, or to consider the sexual practices of young Black folks in the 1940s.

For my Gram, access to birth control mattered greatly. She told me that she would have opted for only two children rather than the six she’d had (and raised and loved) if birth control had been widely available to Black women in the 1950s and 1960s in rural Louisiana. “But we couldn’t get the stuff,” she told me. In her own way, I think my grandmama let me know that the women’s movement was a win for Black women, too, because in the 21st century, it meant her granddaughter could have a wonderful sex life without bearing children until she chose to.

My grandmother had already developed a pragmatic blend of both feminism and Christianity that worked in the context of her life as a rural poor Southern Black woman born two years before the Great Depression. I was still far too much of a Christian zealot to be either pragmatic or feminist. My grandmother didn’t have all the language for these differing ideological positions, but she had good sense. She looked at me with those laser eyes that Black mamas use to see right through you, and commanded me to “Start having sex.” She meant real good sex. Sex that left you with telltale signs that you had been touched right and handled with care. I didn’t exude sexuality. I didn’t exude grown womanhood. I did not look like a Black girl comfortable in my own skin. Because I wasn’t.

I was trapped in a raging battle between my spirit and my flesh. The evangelical teachings of the Baptist churches in which I grew up insisted that our flesh — our bodies and their longings and impulses — were sinful, dangerous, and unhealthy. We were admonished each week to bring our unruly flesh in submission to our “spirit man.” Having heard this every Sunday of my life I did not understand how my grandmother, our beloved family matriarch, could dare advocate that I let my flesh win. Clearly, I wasn’t ready for the grown woman theology that this holy woman offered to me that day. Frankly, I thought she had gotten ahold of some terrible theology, and I was determined to live my life as a good evangelical should. I had life goals and desires for success that my provincial grandmother, who once told me to go to the local college and then “get a good clerical job,” clearly did not understand. Sex messed with your head, boys were fun, but trouble, and a baby before you wanted one, could ruin your life. This was my credo in triplicate.

Dismissing grandmother’s words was easy. I felt that my theology, informed indirectly by the advent of the “True Love Waits” purity campaigns of the 1990s, and my ability to recite by rote all the Bible verses condemning sex before marriage made my spiritual perspective more sophisticated, more informed, more correct. I had imbibed a set of social ideas about Black girlhood and womanhood rooted in the fear of being a failure and the social shame of becoming a statistic. I nearly worshipped my mother, but I didn’t want to be a teen mother as she had been. I wanted to finish college, something my birth had prevented her from doing. By the time grandmother sat me down for the talk, I was twenty-two, had completed two college degrees, and was on my way to a Ph.D. program. By local standards, I had already made it.

White privilege works by making the advantages white people have invisible while making the supposedly “poor” choices of people of color hypervisible.

There were no mission trips or classes devoted to sex ed. What my community also had was a teen pregnancy problem — it was not uncommon for Black girls to get pregnant in my middle school or my high school. I can remember only one white teen mom in high school (although I am sure there were a few others), and absolutely none in middle school. For me, the equation was simple. In communities where they talked about sexual abstinence and “waiting,” they didn’t have a teen pregnancy problem. In my community, where no such conversations were had, teen pregnancy was rampant.

These messages about success, whiteness, abstinence, and Christianity converged for me. Black kids accused me of acting white, but the white kids I knew loved Jesus (like I did), did well in school (like me), and got to have interesting discussions and experiences at church (which I didn’t). I have already mentioned the particular challenges of growing up a nerdy Black girl in a predominantly white school system. One way that I internalized white supremacy in my honors classes, which were 95 percent white and in which the kids were overwhelmingly Christian, was to associate the success I sought with the kind of whiteness and morality that shaped my classmates’ lives. White privilege works by making the advantages white people have invisible while making the supposedly “poor” choices of people of color hypervisible. For instance, on the surface, it simply looks like white people have better access to education, jobs, and housing because they make better choices or because they work harder. And, conversely, it looks like Black people have less access to these same things because they are lazy. In fact, in most opinion polls, white people believe that Black people don’t work as hard as they do. And what is perhaps most interesting is that white people believe this myth as much today as they believed it in the racially volatile 1960s.

Held up as an exceptional Black student, I was conditioned to believe in the myth of my own exceptionalism, to see other Black students’ struggles to succeed as a result of their own terrible choices. But white children in my school district weren’t inherently smarter. They were reared in homes where their parents had been college educated and where they had access to enrichment programs and private tutors. My close proximity to middle-class white youth put me in a position to culturally eavesdrop on my white friends, even though I didn’t have the experiences they had. I knew the possibilities of those experiences existed. What I learned from watching white kids who were set up to succeed while Black kids were set up to fail, even in matters of intimacy, was that sexual self-regulation was critical to my success. It took me being a grown woman to recognize all the ways that systems of white supremacy regulate our intimate lives, too.

Black girls and Black women, particularly those who have had any sustained encounter with Christianity, are often immobilized by the hyperregulation of their sexuality from both the church and the state. These messages about excessive and unregulated Black flesh that converge from both the nation-state and the church, form a double helix of sexual ideas that form the core of cultural ideas about Black sexuality. These messages constitute a critical strand in a sticky social web that immobilizes Black women caught at the intersections of race, class, gender, and lack of access to normative modes of sexual behavior. Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins refers to this sticky web as a matrix of domination, a sociological term for the way social systems of power converge to impede Black women’s agency and structural well-being. Far too often the result of trying to extract ourselves from these webs, which immobilize us until all of the life is drained from us, is that we leave critical pieces of ourselves behind. Black women are often robbed of our agency to build healthy intimate lives. These systems don’t crush every Black woman, but they do retain pieces of flesh, bone, and spirit.

When you are free enough to run away, you run. It makes no earthly sense to go back and do battle with the system for the fragments of yourself that remain. We are taught to be grateful that we “made it,” no matter what we had to leave behind.

This is why Black women’s self-help literature is obsessed with the question of “how to be whole again.”

For my grandmother, my very successful regulation of my sexual desires read like a wholly unhealthy inhabitation of my own Black woman body. I was a fully grown woman, but my theology and thought process around sex was adolescent and retrograde. Grandmama pushed me to articulate a version of my selfhood that would force me to bring my whole self to the table and prioritize my pleasure.

“Girl,” Grandmother said while gesturing mischievously toward her nether regions, “I had good stuff.” (I repeat: No one ever wants to know this about their grandmother.) She wanted me to own the fact that my “stuff” was “good stuff,” too. Grandmother’s indecent proposal constituted a critical and intimate dissent from the wholesale American demonization of Black women’s sexuality. To justify enslaving, raping, and breeding Black women and girls, white Americans created a mythos around Black women’s sexuality. They cast us as sexually insatiable, unrapeable, licentious, and dirty. Today, Black women still experience much handwringing around owning our sexuality. Calling her sexuality and her sexual body parts good in the face of these unrelenting social messages suggests that my grandmother had wrested her own sexual subjectivity from the fearsome clutches of Christianity and white supremacy. Or maybe she simply didn’t buy in all the way.

The problem is that I still inherently saw my “stuff” as bad, as the source of a temptation so mighty that it could derail my relationship with God and my life goals all at the same time. This is no way to teach sex education to teens, and it is a completely absurd way for grown-ass women to think about sex.

The politics of fear and endless rules that we use to (try to) control teenagers is unhealthy but understandable. For teens, advocating that they delay sex is ultimately about maximizing their life chances by helping them make choices that will benefit them and the future families they hope to build. We could, of course, do a better job of telling teens to do something other than wait. It turns out that my “simple equation” that abstinence would solve teen pregnancy was totally wrong. In places where abstinence is the only form of sex education, teen pregnancy rates are alarming. In places where access to contraception and proper information about birth control is available, teen pregnancy rates have decreased astronomically. What the poor Black girls in my school needed was not the True Love Waits campaign, but rather good information about sex, emotional maturity, and birth control.

Telling grown-ass women that all sex outside of marriage is an affront to God is absolutely ludicrous. Healthy consensual touch is nothing short of holy. But the indoctrination is real, especially if you are invested in being a “good girl,” especially if your goal in life is to not “repeat the cycle,” to not “become a statistic.” These are the kinds of social messages that Black women and girls get about their bodies and the potentially enormous public and personal costs of their sexuality. My mother once mentioned that when she found herself pregnant with me at age 18, at her grandmother’s insistence she had to go up in front of the church and ask for the congregation’s forgiveness for getting pregnant out of wedlock.

My grandmother had wrested her own sexual subjectivity from the fearsome clutches of Christianity and white supremacy.

Widowed at the age of 42, my grandmother chose to never remarry. She told me that same day, “I would never want to marry again, because I don’t ever want some man telling me what groceries I can and can’t buy.” That was all she said about marriage — that she understood it as men being able to dictate to women how to spend money and how to run a household. Living her own life and being able to raise at least some of her children independent of my grandfather’s influence had shown my grandmother that having a male head of household was not, in fact, desirable. In her forthright rejection of conservative evangelicalism on the matter of sex, she modeled for me that Black women had the right to dissent from theologies that didn’t serve them well. Black women had the right to a say about their finances, their bodies, the number of children they bore, and the kind of sex they wanted to have. What she offered to me that day was permission to choose for myself.

I wish I could say that I stepped off my grandmother’s porch a new woman, ready to own and explore her sexuality. But all her fussing about what I needed to be doing proved no match for the years of shaming and moral panic about sex that I experienced both inside and outside of my community. Four years after that conversation, I came home from church after a particularly guilt-compelling sermon, bagged up all my romance novels, astrology books and manuals, and my vibrator, and threw them in the dumpster. The presence of these items in my apartment were tacit licenses for me to engage and indulge in sinful living, and surely God was not pleased with that. These days, I’m sure that between peels of laughter, God is sitting somewhere, saying, “Girl, bye. I didn’t tell you to throw away all those books and that perfectly good vibrator.” Live. Learn.

What does it mean when our spiritual and theological systems impede healthy living? This is a question that Black women should begin to ask forthrightly. They should insist fervently on answers among themselves and from their spiritual leaders. We do a kind of violence to ourselves when we shut down our sexuality. It’s not so much that I should have had more sex, although I wish I had in my twenties. It’s that there are things we come to know about our bodies, our impulses, our likes, our dislikes and desires, when we fully engage the sexual part of ourselves. We go around missing critical knowledge about who we are, or might be, when we act as though sex isn’t foundational to who we are.

Also, what does it mean when our theological systems impede our access to a healthy and robust set of spiritual and political practices — practices that should give us life?

My grandmother tried to empower me to fight for my happiness by helping me to not be limited by script and convention. She modeled the ways that Black women can build a life for themselves. And sometimes that comes with a willingness to cast aside fear and say no to what others think is best for you so you can find the courage to say yes to yourself.

There are so many ways that Black women need to free themselves from the strictures of conservative Christian theology. Notice that I didn’t say to abandon Jesus and the Church if it’s important to you. I haven’t. But I’m no longer checking my thinking cap at the door.

Many Black Christian girls are seduced by white evangelicalism, because, hell, it seems to be working out so well for white people. I mean, white Jesus helps white people to win a lot. But when my grandmother showed me that I could take a different approach to my theology, that it could be a push and pull, a debate, and even an ongoing set of arguments with God, she freed me up from my investment in being a Christian Goody Two-shoes. I don’t even believe God wants that. The God of Christianity seems to love people who are engaged in all manner of scandals, affairs, and murders. But I digress. We also have an absurd theology of discrimination against LGBTQ people. And far too many churches still believe that women can’t be preachers or pastors. The thing we would all do well to remember is that conservative Christian theology was used to enslave Black people. We can use our theology to oppress people or to liberate them. That’s our choice.

We can use our theology to oppress people or to liberate them. That’s our choice.

Sometimes this means that we have to reject the kind of Christian teaching that sets up a false binary between flesh and spirit, mind and body, and sacred and secular. To be Black in the United States is to be taught our flesh is dirty and evil. A liberatory theology for us cannot set us at war with our very bodies. A liberatory theology for women cannot set us at war with the desires for touch, companionship, and connection that well up like deep springs in our spirits. When we hear about how the “heart is deceitful above all things,” which is an actual verse, it teaches us to suppress our deepest longings, to not trust our own thoughts and our own counsel. For people who have been enslaved and oppressed because of their race, or gender, or sexuality, such interpretations are dangerous.

The Bible isn’t any old regular text. It is a text endued with thousands of years of political, social, and cultural power. That means that to wrest a theology for my grown Black woman life from it, I had to bring my fully embodied, unapologetic self to it. My grandmother didn’t teach me anything about how to understand the biblical text more critically. She offered to me a fully embodied theology of grown Black womanhood that day, one with its compass set toward freedom. One in which I should embrace the fundamental goodness of all my stuff, both sexual and otherwise. I had to become a fully grown Black woman to receive it though. In my holy hubris, I had dismissed her as provincial and out-of-pocket. How did she know, in her sanctified country-ness, that sexual pleasure and the freedom to pursue it would be critical to a healthy sense of self? She modeled for me one of the core things Black church girls would do well to remember about Jesus: He fully embodies both the divine and the human. If we spent as much time thinking about how he lived as we do worshipping how he died, our faith would demand that we prioritize a better integration of flesh and spirit, of humanity and divinity, than we do.

The second thing we need to remember is this: The primarily white male theologians who created the systematic theology of evangelical Christianity were trying to make sense of a theology that fit their own lives and their own worldview. This is why so many white Christians can read the Bible and still vote Republican. Because for them, nothing about the Bible challenges the fundamental principles of white supremacy or male domination.

Interpreting the biblical text conservatively has a political function. This political function differs depending on if you’re white or Black. Conservative biblical interpretation became the hallmark of the rise of the religious right, a political force that rose in response to desegregation in the South, and Lyndon Johnson’s perceived betrayal of Southern Democrats. Conservative biblical interpretation in Black churches has conversely risen in response to the political evils engineered by the white religious right. White male Christian conservatives used conservative biblical interpretation to pioneer a religious right wing to shore up the machinations of white supremacy in government policy. Black religious conservatives adopted conservative biblical interpretation to inoculate themselves against the massive devastation of these same social policies. Although the social desires (or political goals) of these religious communities are wholly oppositional, the biblical interpretation methods are the same. Obviously, that can’t work. If Black women are honest, it hasn’t been working for us for a long time.

Perhaps it’s time for us to read some other sacred texts alongside the Bible. My grandmother’s words are a sacred text to me — a sacred text of country Black girlhood. My mother’s words are a sacred text to me — a sacred text of grown Black womanhood. The words of Sojourner Truth, and Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston, and Audre Lorde, and Patricia Hill Collins, and Anna Julia Cooper, and Beyoncé and my homegirls are all sacred texts to me. Black feminism has been a liberatory theology for me in its own right. It has made space for me to bring my spiritual self into the academy and my academic, intellectual self into the spiritual parts of my life. What Black feminism and my Grandmother have taught me is that Black women are experts on their own lives and their own well-being. Grandmama taught me that all the sacrifices I was making for middle-class aspirations weren’t entirely worth it. That if I made it but I was lonely and miserable, then that was a failure, not a win.

What I call Black feminist theology is something that can help sisters who are damn near ready to leave the church just so they can act like grown women with full sex lives in peace. My Black feminist theology is not just focused on what happens in the church, but rather is a call to those of us who are Black feminists to remember that lots of Black women are still quite religious. We need a way to reconcile our feminist politics and our spiritual lives, not only at church or mosque, but at the office, too. Even when Black people were enslaved and it was illegal for them to “read the word for themselves,” (as Black Christians love to say), they knew that God was nothing if not freedom. I believe that because of all the oppressions that we’ve experienced, Black girls have unique visions of freedom. I believe those visions are God-given, however you understand God, even if you simply worship, to paraphrase Alice Walker, the “God you found in yourself.” Freedom is my theological compass, and it never steers me wrong.

* * *

From Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper. Copyright 2018 by the author. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press.