I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation by Chanequa Walker Barnes

I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation cover imageSummary: Centering Black women’s experience as a model for racial reconciliation. 

Over the nearly 2 years since I Bring the Voice of My People, it has been consistently recommended by a range of people as one of the most important books in the field of Christian racial reconciliation. It has taken me too long to read it, but now that I have, I join my voice and agree, this is not only a book that should be read widely, I think it becomes one of the primary books that I will recommend early in White people’s grappling with issues of race in the church.

Part of the book’s strength is clear definitions and lots of examples and stories, like the definition of racial reconciliation and womanism early in the book.

A working definition that can guide readers in the first half of the book is this: Racial reconciliation is part of God’s ongoing and eschatological mission to restore wholeness and peace to a world broken by systemic injustice. Racial reconciliation focuses its efforts upon dismantling White supremacy, the systemic evil that denies and distorts the image of God inherent in all humans based upon the heretical belief that White aesthetics, values, and cultural norms bear the fullest representation of the imago Dei. White supremacy thus maintains that White people are superior to all other peoples, and it orders creation, identities, relationships, and social structures in ways that support this distortion and denial. p32

and

Taking its name from the word coined by Alice Walker, womanist theology can be defined as . . . the systematic, faith-based exploration of the many facets of African American women’s religiosity. Womanist theology is based on the complex realities of [B]lack women’s lives. Womanist scholars recognize and name the imagination and initiative that African American women have utilized in developing sophisticated religious responses to their lives. p32

The two main purposes of this being a Womanist view of racial reconciliation, according to Walker-Barnes, is a focus on Intersectionality and a focus on the wholistic view of healing and liberation. One of the best books I have read to introduce the reader to the concept of intersectionality is So You Want to Talk About Race. Still, I Bring the Voice of My People, not only does as good of a job introducing the concept of intersectionality, but it also brings many practical examples of why intersectionality is essential to racial reconciliation in the church and any discussion about race in the US. Again, many people have a poor understanding of what Intersectionality is. And Walker-Barnes, I think, frames it well.

Identity is not just additive; it is multiplicative. If I were writing it as an algebraic equation, I would write it like this: RacialGenderIdentity = Race + Gender + (Race*Gender) In other words, African American women will share some experiences with African American men by virtue of their race, and they will share some experiences with all women by virtue of their femaleness. But their location at the intersection of race and gender predisposes them to experiences of gendered racism that are qualitatively and quantitatively different from those of African American men (and certainly from White men), White women, and sometimes even other women of color. p33

So much of the book is framed in ways that many that oppose CRT would agree with. But Critical Race Theory is important in looking at structures of how the reality of Race came to be so powerful in the US. Much of the book’s first half is either laying out the history and reality of race or the history and weaknesses of the Christian (especially Evangelical) racial reconciliation movement. That background cannot really be skipped because the shared understanding is essential to the constructive theological model of racial reconciliation at the end of the book. The framing of the modern conception of race requires a discussion of color-blind racism. This matters both for social understanding outside the church but also for a theological understanding inside the church, as this passage lays out:

Symmetrical treatment is the dominant Christian approach to racial reconciliation. The argument follows along these lines: Race is socially constructed, that is, a human rather than divine creation. Race obscures God’s intentions for humanity; therefore, it is sinful. All racial categories are equally sinful, that is, blackness is as problematic as whiteness. The solution is for Black people to stop seeing themselves as Black, for White people to stop seeing themselves as White, and for all of us to see ourselves as Christians. p62

Again, intersectionality is essential to the discussion because Womanist vision is to resist single-axis thinking:

Multiplicity recognizes that we are always raced and gendered, but also acknowledges that, in varying contexts, different aspects of our identity will be more salient. For example, in a predominantly White environment, my blackness may stand out and be the primary lens through which I interpret my experience. If I am in France, my Americanness may be the most salient factor. This approach to multiplicity is similar to the tendency in antiracist and antisexist organizing to treat race and gender as mutually exclusive domains that can be engaged separately from one another. When women of color are engaged in antiracist work with our male colleagues, we are often expected to assume a “race first, gender second” mentality, that is, to effectually relegate the non-raced layers of our identity to the background. When we are engaged in antisexist work with our White female peers, we are expected to do the same thing with respect to gender, focusing upon the universal experience of womanhood (as if such a thing exists). Both represent single-axis frameworks. And both are highly problematic for women of color. p91

I have appreciated Womanist perspectives as I have been reading through Dr. Wil Gafney’s biblical work and Walker-Barnes on racial reconciliation because different people ask different questions, which matters to how issues are framed. No other book I have read on Christian racial reconciliation has had extended sections on colorism, beauty, and patriarchy. It is exactly this point that Brenda Salter McNeil points to when she discusses resistance to church involvement among the more recent racial justice movements. Because the church often has been patriarchal and/or primarily approaching justice with single-axis thinking, newer justice movements that Black women in decentralized power structures heavily organize are reluctant for church involvement because of the historic prioritization of male hierarchical leadership.

I could easily make this into an even more quote-focused post. I primarily listened to the audiobook but kept going back to the kindle edition to make highlights. (The kindle and audio are not synced, and there are several places where the audio has minor word errors or differences). If you want to look at my Goodreads pages, I have nearly 40 highlights and notes.

The second half of the book is an extended discussion of the book Color Purple by Alice Walker to give shared language and imagery from which Walker-Barnes builds a model of racial reconciliation. I have passed on my recommendation of the book to several, and I hope to have some good discussions with friends about the constructive model. I plan on rereading the book in a couple of months and think about some of the implications of her model. I am not going to try to describe the model in full, but present this long quote from the end of the book as a summary:

In this chapter, I have offered a model of racial reconciliation consistent with what Thurman calls “the discipline of reconciliation . . . [which] applies not only to ruptured human relations but also to disharmony within oneself created by inner conflict. The quality of reconciliation is that of wholeness; it seems to effect and further harmonious relations in a totally comprehensive climate.”78 Alice Walker’s The Color Purple exemplifies the wholistic nature of reconciliation that Thurman describes. It demonstrates how the lives and the narratives of women of color contain tremendous power to reveal the intersectional nature of oppression, the complicated legacy that it leaves, and the incredibly complex work that is required for liberation, healing, and transformation. It reveals that, more often than not, genuine racial reconciliation does not begin with an invitation to bridge building; neither does it require forgiveness of behaviors, attitudes, and social systems whose evil is of such a magnitude that they could be forgiven only by God. Instead, true racial reconciliation often begins with a curse. “Until you do right by me” is the cry that must be uttered by the oppressed, and it is the challenge that must be met by the oppressor. To revisit and expand the definition that I offered in the introduction to this volume, racial reconciliation is part of God’s ongoing and eschatological mission to restore wholeness and peace to a world broken by systemic injustice. Racial reconciliation is a social justice movement that focuses upon dismantling White supremacy, the systemic evil that denies and distorts the image of God inherent in all humans based upon the heretical belief that White aesthetics, values, and cultural norms bear the fullest representation of the Imago Dei. p229

Walker-Barnes is modeling a deep reconciliation, not just visual diversity or casual friendship. The depth of her vision exceeds what an older model of racial reconciliation has as its image. At the same time, the depth of reconciliation modeled answers the critique of many anti-CRT Christians that suggest that CRT or anti-racism is incapable of being part of a Christian vision of wholeness.

I need to reread this to absorb the nuance and think through some of the implications for areas with different choices than what I have considered before. Still, I think this is among the most important books I have read on Christian racial reconciliation. Right now, the kindle edition is on sale for $3.99, so I highly recommend picking it up. The audiobook is not connected, so there is not a discount.

I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation by Chanequa Walker Barnes Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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