In 1983, Alice Walker contrasted Afrocentrism, black feminism, and white feminism using the term womanist to render a critique of possibilities for women and men who felt ostracized by the mainstream women’s movement in the United States. Walker’s much cited phrase, ‘‘Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,’’ reflects this comparison. Walker derived the term womanist from the Southern black folk expression of mothers to female children, ‘‘You acting womanish.’’ Womanish girls and women ‘‘act out in outrageous, courageous, and willful ways.’’ They are free from traditional conventions that limit white women’s experience and relating. Walker stated that womanish girls and women want to know more and in greater depth than what was considered good for them. They are ‘‘responsible, in charge, and serious’’ when relating to themselves and the world.
In her classic essay ‘‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,’’ Walker describes womanism as being rooted in black women’s particular history of racial and gender oppression in the United States. Yet, womanists are ‘‘traditionally universalists.’’ Womanism is a gender progressive worldview that emerges from black women’s unique history, is accessible primarily to black women yet also extends beyond women of African descent, as evidenced in the works of other multi ethnic feminists. Therefore, womanism is a pluralist vision of black empowerment and consciousness. Because it is a pluralist vision, womanism requires both women and men to be aware of the nature of gendered inequalities and to share a commitment to work toward social change.
Walker (1983) describes a womanist as many things. A womanist ‘‘loves herself . . . regardless.’’ She is a black feminist or feminist of color who is ‘‘committed to the survival and whole ness of an entire people, both male and female.’’ A womanist prefers women’s culture and has an appreciation for women’s flexibility and the strengths to negotiate adversity. Yet, a critique of womanism is that it does not address interracial cooperation among women. She loves the spirit of black women and the struggle to confront and to overcome. Walker (1983: xi) also describes a womanist as ‘‘a woman who loves women, sexually and/or nonsexually.’’ The writings of many womanists are rather silent about this aspect of Walker’s womanism. As black feminist Barbara Smith suspects, this omission may speak to either ambivalence or homophobia in black communities.
Other scholars have described womanism similarly. Geneva Smitherman defined a womanist as an African American woman who is rooted in the black community and committed to the development of herself and the entire community. Jannette Taylor stated that the word ‘‘womanist’’ incorporates the complexity of experience for black women and that the framework allows the experiences to be shared through the language and principles of black communities. Delores Williams believed that womanism reflects Afrocentric cultural codes. These codes are female centered and relate to the conditions, meanings, and values that have emerged from black women’s activities in their communities. In ‘‘Some Implications of Womanist Theory,’’ Sherley Anne Williams (1986) argued that womanist theory is especially accessible to black men because, while it calls for feminist discussions of black women’s texts and for critiques of black androcentrism, womanism places black psychic health as a primary objective. In 1994, Layli Phillips and Barbara McCaskill created the scholarly journal The Womanist: Womanist Theory and Research to demonstrate the interdisciplinary, intercultural, and international nature of womanist perspectives in the academy and to feature womanist grounded pedagogical and theoretical articles, creative writing, and art of black women.
In the late 1980s, black female theologians began to incorporate race and gender critiques into theology. Walker’s definition of womanism has played a significant role in raising consciousness among female seminarians regarding the moral agency of black women scholars, particularly and initially active members in the Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature who sought to create analytical frameworks to advance theoretically black women’s religious discourse. Womanism has been used by black women theologians to challenge and critique religious traditions and ecclesiastical political processes. Womanist theologians also have sought to clarify women centered aspects of biblical studies, church history, systematic theology, and social ethics. Katie Cannon’s Black Womanist Ethics (1988), Jacquelyn Grant’s White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus (1989), Delores S. Williams’s Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God Talk (1993), Emilie Townes’s A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering (1993), and Cheryl Kirk Duggan’s Exorcizing Evil: A Womanist Perspective on the Spirituals (1997) are significant Christian womanist texts that center the essence of black feminism in Protestant theology. Even Christian womanist self-help books such as Renita Weems’s Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationship in the Bible and I Asked for Intimacy: Stories of Blessings, Betrayals, and Birthings (1993) have been published to extend womanism’s reach beyond the academy and seminary.
Some womanists like Clenora Hudson Weems (1993) argue that the feminist–womanist tie should be separated by locating womanism in the words of Sojourner Truth (i.e., Ain’t I A Woman) and Afrocentric cultural values. Africana womanism is this theoretical framework. Hudson Weems identified the characteristics of Africana womanism as self-naming, self-defining, role flexibility, family centeredness, struggling alongside men against multiple oppressions, adaptability, black sisterhood, wholeness, authenticity, strength, male compatibility, respect for self, others, and elders, recognition, ambition, mothering, nurturing, and spirituality. Hudson Weems believes that mainstream white feminism was too self-centered or female centered with its focus on self-realization and personal gratification. Africana womanists, on the other hand, are family centered and community centered, interested in collective outcomes and group achievement. It should be noted that although Africana womanists see sexism as an important problem, some do not see sexism as an objective more important than fighting racism. This perspective on sexism reflects the nationalist roots of womanism and is another critique of womanism.
- Cannon, K. (1995) Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community. Continuum, New York.
- Hudson-Weems, C. (1993) Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves. Bedford, Troy, MI.
- Walker, A. (1983) In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York.
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