By Toya Richards Hill
The black church must be a place that gives witness to God’s compassionate solidarity with the most oppressed of society, The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas told a group gathered March 29 at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Her statement about the “closed mindedness” of the black church toward issues of sexuality was one of the cornerstones of her lecture, “A Blues Slant: God Talk/Sex Talk for the Black Church,” and the foundation for her presentation as the guest speaker for the Fourth-Annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lectureship and Consultation, which took place March 29-30.
A program of The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, the lecture is named in honor of The Rev. Dr. Cannon, the first African American woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian denomination and a “mother” of womanist theology. The lecture presents a woman scholar who belongs to a racial ethnic minority in the United States and who raises a critical voice against the dominant oppressive structures and ideologies of the era.
“Even in 2009, there are not very many intentional spaces where the voices … of women who are racial and ethnic minorities in this country are intentionally sought and honored,” said Dr. Debra J. Mumford, Frank H. Caldwell Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Louisville Seminary. “However, with this lectureship, The Women’s Center refutes that tendency.”
Douglas, professor and chair of philosophy and religion at Goucher College in Maryland, was the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in the Southern Ohio Diocese. She also taught theology at the Divinity School of Howard University for 14 years. Like Cannon, whom Douglas considers a mentor, Douglas also is a leading voice of womanist theology.
Douglas, the author of What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls, argues that “sexuality is inexplicably linked to Christianity, and that the positive evaluation of sexuality is essential to one’s relationship … with God.”
“Sexuality, and all of its mystery, is about who we are as relational beings,” she said. “A person’s ability to enter into right relationship with God corresponds to one’s ability to affirm who he or she is as a sexual being.”
“Is it possible to move the black church community toward more progressive, and even equitable, views on matters of sexuality? Is a body positive/sex positive perspective … possible for the black church?” Douglas asked.
For a closer examination of how sexuality has been addressed in the black church, Douglas borrowed from the literature of Ann Petry, author of The Street, to explore how societal stereotypes about black men’s and women’s sexuality contributed to the black church’s exaggerated standard of acceptable sexual decorum.
Delving even deeper, Douglas showed how the black church’s perceptions about the blues, and specifically blues-singing women, further highlighted the black church’s negative sexual attitudes. And, she revealed how the blues itself could be the catalyst for turning the church around.
“Blues women sang unapologetically about their sexuality,” she said. And in doing so, these women were “actually subverting the stereotypes” about black women’s sexuality. It was a form of “signifying protest,” she said.
The black church rejected these women for singing the “Devil’s music,” Douglas said. Yet in truth, it is the blues that “rescues sexuality from its sinful state.”
The blues women were calling the black church back to its religious tradition, which attested that it is only through the body flesh that human beings can reach out to God, and God can reach out to them, she said.
It is from the vantage point of a blues people – those who are most oppressed, exploited, and vulnerable – that an incarnate God can best be understood, Douglas said.
When the black church rejects certain people, “it is essentially alienating itself from the very God to which it gives testimony,” she said. “An essential step toward the black faith community moving beyond its views on sexuality is its ability to see the blues not as the Devil’s music, but as sacred discourse.”