Why should we center the voices of black women? Does “centering” mean ignoring other group’s perspectives? How can we be whole, free people—together? EbonyJanice Moore is a womanist scholar and activist doing community-organizing work, most specifically around black women’s body ownership as a justice issue, and equal access to education and pay for women of color in the U.S. and in several African countries. What is “body ownership” and how is it related to justice, theology, higher education, and mental health in the United States? How can upending the current ways we privilege voices, perspectives, and leadership change our entire civic space. In this episode, we discuss what it means to “decolonize everything,” and how this can be the life-affirming step our society needs to take to fully thrive, together.
Ways to listen to this episode:
In this episode, we discuss:
- Definitions for decolonization, feminism, womanism, privilege, and “centering”
- Why centering one group’s experience benefits everyone
- How centering one group’s experience does not mean other groups never get to share/participate
- Why systems of oppression are linked in various ways in society
- How to begin to dismantle white supremacy
- Resources for learning from perspectives that may be missing from current public discourse (on everything from homeschooling to hip hop)
- Key questions to easily surface places of privilege that block human flourishing
Speaker 1: Hi! Happy Friday.
Ebony Janice: [inaudible 00:00:23] Okay. Hey!
Speaker 1: Hey! Happy Friday.
Ebony Janice: Thank you. Every time I get on Zoom or something like that and it’s just not automatically set up, I always feel like somebody’s grandmother.
Speaker 1: Only for a split second. Only for a split second.
Ebony Janice: Yes.
Speaker 1: Okay. Oh my gosh. Do people call you Ebony or Ebony Janice?
Ebony Janice: Ebony Janice.
Speaker 1: Janice? Oh, that’s even lovelier. Okay. If I remember, when you mentioned your great-grandmother, the one who was good at education, her name was an EJ too. Was that right?
Ebony Janice: Emma Jane.
Speaker 1: Emma Jane. Okay. Since we last talked, the news cycle, God. We have to have hope and be troubled. This isn’t about that, but just thinking about your work and the strong Christian prophetic voices I’m seeing trying to … It’s not hypothetical anymore.
Ebony Janice: Never, ever. I’ve seen this many times [inaudible 00:01:52] statement posted or the people who, the day after, say it’s not really a big deal. Here we are.
Speaker 1: Right. “Why are you guys so upset? It’ll be fine. It’s just a presidency. We have checks and balances.”
Ebony Janice: For sure. One thing, though, that happened the day after the election … Actually, let me tell this story because I firmly believe in this. The day after, I was living in the Bay Area still at the time, finishing my degree, but I was cross-registered at UC Berkeley. I would be, on Wednesdays, black student union maybe for the past 50 years, they’ve had Wednesdays where they’re on the quad, like in that main part of campus. They may have music or they may have a cookout or just present.
Speaker 1: Present. Yeah.
Ebony Janice: In this predominantly white space, so that’s just their way of taking up space. It’s a Wednesday. It’s their regularly scheduled program, but Berkeley High School students had did a walkout and they marched up to Berkeley’s campus and met in that general area. You’ve got this very somber, predominantly white group of people sitting here in silence. Then you’ve got this group of black students dancing, doing the electric slide, all participating in this song called “F Donald Trump.”
Speaker 1: Oh yeah, I remember that song.
Ebony Janice: Yeah. It’s a real thing. Just almost like they choreographed a dance to … Kendrick Lamar has this song. The song just on repeat goes, “But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright. We gon’ be alright.” I go back to my school’s campus, which is right up the hill from UC Berkeley. I’m the only black student there, for the most part. The only cis black woman there in full-time high residency. Of course, I’m the voice of all black people. Students from my school that have been down there as a part of the protest were like, “Why were they doing that? It felt disrespectful.” I said, well, two things. Number one, they actually had a permit to be there for the past 50 years. That was their space and they shared it graciously with you. That’s number one. Number two, in times of trouble, look at what the young black creative people are doing. I firmly believe that.
Ebony Janice: I firmly believe that looking to what young black creatives are doing in the toughest times is the way that this country could actually learn to thrive because the ability to find joy, the ability to create something out of nothing is what Beyonce talks about. It’s actually a [inaudible 00:05:18] poem, but she talks about in Lemonade, “Grandmother, the alchemist, who created something from nothing. How are you capable of doing this?” I think that’s the heritage of young black creatives is to, in the worst of times, figure out how to create the best of times. To me, that’s ultimately what I’m always bringing up, this womanist practice is to look for the people who are the most marginalized and have historically been the most marginalized and ask, “How do you make it in the time of trouble?”
Ebony Janice: Even from a religious perspective, when you consider the history of the ways that black people have utilized religion as compared to the ways that other groups of people, particularly white people in America, have utilized religion, it’s literally when you have suffered the way that certain groups of people have suffered and your only hope is in God, it’s a completely different conversation that just, “This is my social responsibility. This is my familial responsibility.” What Moses said, if we had not hoped in God, if it were not for this hope, we know that we would have died, so I love that. I have continued to, just in my own work, when these times happen … Because it’s very frustrating that Chief Justice Kennedy chose this time. Like, you can’t just hold out a little bit longer, brother?
Ebony Janice: Even in that, how do we make sense of this? Then how do we find the joy? Then what do we create as a result of this? I have found that, in the time of trouble, look to what the young black creatives are doing. There is wisdom there and there is a … They’ve been so silent. They’re young and they’re black and they’re … You know what I’m saying? There’s all these reasons to be like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” How do they find joy in this moment? How do they? I’m saying “they” like I’m just somebody’s grandma, but …
Speaker 1: Right. Like you’re a hundred.
Ebony Janice: I’m looking at these predominantly undergraduate-aged students still figuring out how to use their experience and their language to project this hope where it seems like there is no hope.
Speaker 1: Right. Okay. I’m going to start. I’m going to start the podcast. I’m excited. I have goosebumps. I’m teary-eyed. I’m already in this close place. I feel I’m so thankful for this conversation. It’s clear to me that you’re speaking with a bell-clear voice of truth because I feel, in the Eastern Church, right, the tears are a sign of a close place. Personally, me, just Stephanie, I’m so grateful for your experience and words. I’m so happy that you’re going to share this, so thank you for that. I’m going to shift into, “Thank you for being here. We’re going to talk about Black Girl Mixtape.”
Ebony Janice: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Speaker 1: Ebony Janice, thank you so much for being here on Times Like These to talk about one of the many projects and pieces of perspective that your work engages with. Tell me about Black Girl Mixtape.
Ebony Janice: Yeah. Thank you for having me. I’m always excited to talk about Black Girl Mixtape because a lot of times, particularly for those of us that do ministry and do this organizing activism work, we talk about it as our work. But really, I feel like I had been doing this and then I just put the label on it that this was my work. I was doing this for free and I would continue to do it for free. Black Girl Mixtape is a multi-platform lecture series that I created to really celebrate and amplify the voices of black women as authority. It’s really this safe think space that is centering black women’s intellectual authority in a way that, historically, it just has not.
Ebony Janice: There’s many inspirations for Black Girl Mixtape, but very often I think about Sojourner Truth, who likely didn’t actually say these words, but history has given her credit for saying the words, “Ain’t I a woman?” I say, historically, it’s likely that she didn’t say those words because she was an educated woman and so that wouldn’t have been her language. But “ain’t I a woman,” I think about her basically saying to black men, “We suffered in these fields doing the exact same work as you. When you had the opportunity to advance, you completely acted like we weren’t in this work together, in this journey together.” Then saying to white women, “We have been doing this work for our rights equally together as women, and whenever you have felt the need to separate yourself from our blackness, like not wanting our black woman experience to be a part of this conversation, you have removed us from that discussion as well.”
Ebony Janice: At what point do black women in history, particularly of this country, get to have the opportunity to benefit what it means to be a woman, the benefits of femininity at the very least, the benefits of somebody coming to our so-called rescue? This very unique place of having both our blackness and our womanness being anti, being a thing to be against. With that, then how do you … I have just been asking this question even looking back over my life, how do you ever have your voice really heard when we’re obviously living in this hetero, patriarchal … I can throw in certainly, because this is important to me as well, able-bodied white supremacist society?
Ebony Janice: Then I think of Dolores Williams, who’s a very important woman, a scholar who talks about the black woman’s bodies being used in this country in this very unfortunate, unique way for both reproduction and for labor. What she talks about is she’s talking about earth justice. She’s talking about the way that we use the earth. We use it up until there is no more to get from it. We don’t consider it in the ways that, from this black female perspective, that humanizes it. We just consider it a thing to be used, property to own. It belongs to somebody. Who gets to say who the earth belongs to?
Speaker 1: Ours to use and ours to waste.
Ebony Janice: Right. Ours to use, ours to waste, ours to spoil, ours to delegate when it’s important, when it’s not. Again, I was just going to list this, but when you’re in a cis, hetero, patriarchal, white-supremacist, able-bodied society, then all of those, this, this, this, this, this and this get to determine whether or not the earth is a value and when the earth is a value, and whether or not this black woman’s experience is a value and is not a value. Then, on top of that, I was realizing within my seminary, I was in graduate school at the time. As the only cis-gendered black woman in full-time high residency there, I realized that my intellectual labor and my emotional labor was of value. Then when that moment was over, I was discarded. There was no actual attempt to enter into my actual experience.
Ebony Janice: Even when I would talk about this with administration in this school that has within its mission statement, not just something nice to say, in the actual mission statement of my seminary is the words “dismantling white supremacy.” On the front of the building, there’s a Black Lives Matter sign. So I would bring these issues, the aggressions, because I don’t believe in microaggressions. I would bring these experience to the administration. I realized there was no actual plan in place for what to do when a black woman says she’s being harmed on a regular basis.
Ebony Janice: Looking at statistics at the time, because I was doing a lot writing about black women’s body ownership as a justice issue, looking at statistics that show … What that means for black women, body ownership as a justice issue, is my voice has a heavier [inaudible 00:15:00]. So there is this automatic assumption that when I’m talking passionately, that I’m angry. No. This is just the way that I actually sound. If you heard my mom’s voice, you could make the same assumption like, “Oh, she’s angry all the time.” No, this is how she sounds. Or the ways that black women very often, or marginalized groups of people just in general, have to present themselves within a certain way in order to feel safe. Ultimately, I show up in this space and this isn’t actually even my body. My body doesn’t even belong to me. My body belongs to whatever the system is, whatever the standards are because I have to present my body in such a way that isn’t offensive or come across as aggressive. I’m doing quote fingers, for audio purposes.
Ebony Janice: Looking at these statistics that show that, in a room full of people, black man, white man, black woman, white woman, that the person whose intellectual contributions are least likely to be properly credited to them is overwhelmingly black women. I wanted to consider what would it look like if there was a platform that was centering the intellectual authority of black women on all kids of topics, whatever the topic is? From homeschooling to hip hop, to entrepreneurship, STEM research. Because also what I realize is there were so many people, as I started to have these conversations, there were so many people that made these claims that, “Oh, I didn’t know there was black women doing that work.” Are you kidding me? Whatever the work is, “I didn’t know there were black women doing that work.”
Ebony Janice: Black Girl Mixtape, I did a mixtape. When we were growing up, we had mixtapes. You put all your favorite songs. It’s not even necessarily one genre. It’s just your favorite songs on this one tape, which ages me. Even though I’m not old, but I feel like a mixtape ages me to say you put it on a tape and, you know. I thought about this Black Girl Mixtape. This is this conversation where we’re giving black women and black femmes a platform to speak in a way that no one else is really … How can we center the black women? There isn’t anybody else. At the same time, working on scholarships and programs and funding, and realizing even for that, every time you would ask, this is black women’s center. Well, how can we make this more inclusive?
Ebony Janice: We can’t! It’s for black women. That’s what it’s for. Even that, just continuing to prove my point that there is still, in 2017 when I launched it, in 2017, in 2018 we’re still having conversations where the value of something that is geared just specifically towards black women is being questioned, which proves to me even more why something like Black Girl Mixtape is necessary.
Speaker 1: Say a little bit more about this phrase “centered.” In academia and theology, I’m comfortable with that phrase, but for listeners out in the field, does that mean this is the primary source? Does that mean this is the only source? Talk about the justice work of centering something and why that benefits the whole, why we have to make the space to center something.
Ebony Janice: For sure. In this context, centering black women means that … Let’s say we were walking into a room and there are several different … This is a diverse group of people, but there are black people in the room, or there are black women in the room. To center black women means to put them first, to make the assumption that they have something worthy to attribute to the discussion. But centering doesn’t mean exclusively. It means that’s where we start. When we start in the center of a thing, we’re going to start with the black women. Then this is a very womanist practice, and I consider myself a hip hop womanist, womanism is this term that Alice Walker had coined years ago.
Ebony Janice: Actually, she’s given credit for it in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, but actually before that, she read this book review about two women that were living together. This woman divorced her husband. She was living with her friend and the author, the person who did the book review calls them lesbians. There is no actual context in this story other than the fact that these two women live together to make the assumption that they’re lesbians. When Alice Walker is responding to this book review she says, “At the very least, we should be able to name ourselves.” From there, she came up with this idea of womanism.
Ebony Janice: In her book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, is when she really expounds on this definition of womanism, which has several parts. In the end, the two pieces that I really point out, one, she says, “Womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender.” She’s talking about this sociopolitical explanation of what it means to be a womanist, but she’s also really breaking down this black women-centered framework of what it means to, at the very least, be able to name ourselves. The other piece of the definition that I always call out is there’s this part where she gives the example: a daughter says to her mother, “Mom, I’m going to Canada. I’m taking several slaves with me.” The mother says to her daughter, “You wouldn’t be the first.”
Ebony Janice: What’s happening with this when you center black women in conversations? You give the opportunity to learn things that you wouldn’t have learned if it weren’t for the fact that these people were being censored. They were the first place that we’re going to go to in order to have this conversation or in order to dig into the [inaudible 00:21:17] is we’re going to ask black women first because, remember what I said earlier about why I started Black Girl Mixtape, this very unique social position that black women reside in as both black and female, or black and woman, means that there is a history. From the inception of this country, there is a history of silencing black women, silencing black folk, silencing this marginalized group of people. Certainly, silencing women.
Ebony Janice: With the justice piece that comes in with that, in a lot of ways, you’re doing some reversal. This is what we have historically done. If we could walk backwards and ask black women … I’m laughing because I was going to go 10 years ago, but if we could walk backwards to two years ago and ask black women, “Who should we not vote for?” Black women have this in the high nineties percentage of across the country, across this nation of voting for not Trump. We could just walk backwards two years ago and ask black women, center black women in the discussion. We would’ve gotten a drastically different result and we would have possibly not been where we are today in this country.
Speaker 1: Right.
Ebony Janice: I say possibly because I’m being nice, but we would have not been where we are.
Speaker 1: So we’re centering not just, “Oh, it’s the right thing to do,” but because we are missing out on this perspective. We are a disjointed community and nobody is flourishing because we don’t have the whole picture. It’s like if one part of my body had been bound to me for years and years and years, and eventually … Some of you think, “Oh, let’s focus on the arm. That would be a nice thing to do.” No. It’s not a nice thing to do. It’s a necessary thing to do. I have need of this perspective my entire physical life and it has been just devalued and ignored. Now, we need to restore the tapestry, actually like the psychic reality.
Ebony Janice: With that, it’s not just … When you take that bondage off your arm, it’s not just your arm that gets free. [crosstalk 00:23:50] body.
Speaker 1: Right. My balance, the way I walk, the way I sing, the way I sleep, the way I pray.
Ebony Janice: Everything, and you don’t even realize how much untruth the rest of your existence has been living in because of the bondage of this arm.
Speaker 1: The disjointedness.
Ebony Janice: When you center this white, patriarchal … this mentality, there is a filter through which everything is taught. You’ve been taught that X, Y and Z is the truth. That’s a fact. That’s just what it is. You don’t even realize that because this other story has been silenced, this is what Dr. Emilie Townes calls the fantastic hegemonic imagination. She calls it fantastic because it’s so utterly ridiculous to other groups of people who know that that’s not the true, who know that that’s not their lived experience in this time or for their ancestors. The fantastic hegemonic imagination is telling this story and it’s not the truth. It’s framed as the truth, but it’s not the truth.
Ebony Janice: I was using the example recently of … I saw this documentary about Abraham Lincoln’s wife. They tell the story, and this is the fantastic hegemonic imagination. It’s telling this story as facts. The documentarian has done his due diligence to do research, but still the framework of it is from this white patriarchal mentality. They tell the story. They tell this part of the story where she was, his wife, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, I believe her name was Mary. Forgive me for not [crosstalk 00:25:49].
Speaker 1: Yes. It was. Yeah, it was Mary.
Ebony Janice: Okay, so Mary was … I’m doing quote fingers. Mary was good friends with a free black woman. The way that we know that Mary was friends with this free black woman is because we have written proof. “Written proof,” I’m doing quote fingers again, that Mary was friends with this free black woman. Well, the story, however, is that Mary had a seamstress, a black seamstress, that she had close relationship with. There’s a letter that they tell, they bring up this letter that this black seamstress, this free black woman, wrote to Mary during the Civil War. It seems very friendly. At some point, though, she says, “My son was killed in this war. I, at the very least, would like to get his body back in order to bury him properly.”
Ebony Janice: When you tell this story and you don’t center this black woman, she’s just a prop to prove your point. When you don’t center her, you can say, “Yeah. Mary was friends with the seamstress. Look, here’s this letter that proves that they had this cordial relationship.” The reality is this black woman needed to utilize her relationship with Mary to have certain benefit access that she would not have had otherwise. There is no actual documented proof that Mary and the seamstress were hanging out on the weekends, that Mary actually saw her as a whole free woman. Because the context is that there are still slaves. Black people are still enslaved, so even though you are a free black person in certain parts of this country, that doesn’t take away the fact that you’re living your daily existence in this terror and fear that you could be dead, that your son could be drafted into a war that doesn’t have anything to do with him, that you could lose your life. He could lose his life.
Ebony Janice: All of that context is necessary, but you don’t get that truth when you’re learning this in school. When you’re learning this history, you don’t get that truth because this black woman isn’t centered. Who’s being centered is … Whiteness is being centered in the conversation. When whiteness is being centered, the intention is to prove your theory, to prove your point. Look. These were white people, and they very well may have been. But the point is when that’s not centered. What happens then if we had centered Mary in this conversation? What would Mary’s story have been? What would Mary’s experience have been within that household, within that relationship?
Ebony Janice: To make the assumption that that doesn’t matter is what continues to silence these marginalized groups of people. To make the assumption that that doesn’t matter is what keeps us moving further and further away from the idea of being whole, free people together. Not just one group of people as a dominant group. That fantastic hegemonic imagination, though, doesn’t make that assumption. Even if it does make that assumption, it doesn’t care. That doesn’t benefit.
Speaker 1: Right, because when we don’t have the truth, when we have instead fashioned a story … I’m thinking right now of A Wrinkle in Time and I’m thinking of Screwtape Letters. The way that we craft narratives that benefit us and then we say they’re truth, and then we force others to submit to that lie. The evil that that does … As a Christian, if it’s not aligned with capital T Truth, we will not flourish. And we’re not flourishing. Look around! We’re not flourishing, I mean as a whole. Okay, so Black Girl Mixtape. You said earlier that some of the areas that you’re looking at are decolonizing education, decolonizing mental healthcare, decolonizing religion. Talk more about these lectures, these speakers, the vision for this project. It’s a lot, and they’re related.
Ebony Janice: It is a lot. Really, decolonizing everything. We could just say that. I want to start there with that decolonization because, particularly, I’ll go to religion first. What we’re doing with Black Girl Mixtape is there is a eight-city tour that’s happening right now. We go from city to city, and we find the voices or voices within the city, black women that are doing important work that we just want to celebrate them. We just want to give them this platform. Comparing it similar to like a TED talk, but specifically for black women and by black women. Other groups of people can come to these live lectures, but in order to be on that stage with that mic, you have to be a black woman doing work in whatever your particular field is.
Ebony Janice: There’s that version of it, and then there’s … It’s multi-platform because there’s this, online, we use our social media as well. Weekly, we’re generating more conversation, more content, where on Sundays, every Sunday on our Facebook page, we’re live with a woman, a black woman talking about whatever her work is. Just really giving her the opportunity to introduce a topic and [inaudible 00:31:22] walk from, walk with it through there. Then on Thursdays, we’re on our Instagram doing the same thing, just giving a black woman just the opportunity. The really exciting thing about …
Ebony Janice: That seems so simple, but there is not a woman that I have asked, no matter what level of professionalism or success that she has reached in her field, that hasn’t been like, “This is amazing! Thank you for asking me!” That has just blown my mind because that just shows you how much black women are not used to … I mean, just be at the top of your field and still not used to anybody saying, “Can you come speak as an authority on this topic?” That’s major. Starting with this decolonizing piece, decolonizing religion, because I was having a conversation on our Facebook a couple weeks ago during one of our live discussions with [Zan West 00:32:17], who is an incredible organizer and does just really important work in the Bay Area.
Ebony Janice: She’s actually going to be teaching a class in the fall at our BGM Institute. We’re doing 10-week classes, three 10-week classes, really centering this idea of decolonization in different areas. So Zan is teaching a class on decolonizing religion. In the conversation, Zan, because both of us have Christian backgrounds, that’s our story as ministers, as people doing both social justice and spiritual religious leadership work, Christianity is a major part of our conversation. It’s a major part of our language because that’s where we come from. Zan talking about decolonizing religion, as much as I have read and as much as I know, my mind, I just was mind-blown at portions of this discussion.
Ebony Janice: Two things that I would highlight is, number one, she was talking about how when we talk from this African American perspective of religion and what it would mean to decolonize Christianity as African Americans in the United States of America, that we can reclaim the term ancestors. That was just huge for me because I have been having a lot of conversations about what I call the Christian demonic filter. Ultimately, the Christian demonic filter is anything that isn’t expressly spelled out in the Bible, particularly the way that we were taught it in this Western framework of Christianity, anything that isn’t expressly spelled out, automatically is something inside of us that filters it as demonic like, “Mm-mm (negative). That’s demonic.”
Ebony Janice: Even if you don’t go as far as to use the language of demonic, there is other, like, “This is the only way and anything outside of this way is wrong and you’re going to hell.” That’s the Christian demonic filter. I have been dealing with this Christian demonic filter. When Zan said part of decolonizing religion for those of us, for African American people, Christians in America is to reclaim the term ancestors, that just blessed me so good because she said, “What we have to realize is that the religion of our ancestors for many of us, tracing back five, six generations was Christianity.” For us to just totally throw Christianity away is also throwing away the heritage an the stories of five, six, seven generations of our family here in this country.
Ebony Janice: That was important to me because for many black people who are on a journey, black Americans who are a journey to really reconcile our truth as far as our religious experience, those of us who were born and raised in the Christian faith, it’s very easy to automatically be like, “I don’t want to deal with Christianity. Period. I’m just going to journey through Islam or just African spirit religions automatically.” To make that automatic jump, but a part of decolonizing means that we can take back and reclaim the term ancestors.
Ebony Janice: The other thing that just blew my mind about this conversation as far decolonizing Christianity, decolonizing religion, particularly Christianity, Zan was using the example of Jesus bending down in the dirt when the men were calling out Mary for adultery. He bends down into the dirt and he starts writing, and then he says, “He without sin, cast the first stone.” She says, in decolonizing religion, we also have to start dealing with our filter of what these individual actions and behaviors of Jesus meant. What relationship with writing in the dirt, with indigenous African spirit religions is that writing in the dirt is … And the phrase just jumped out of my head right now in this moment.
Ebony Janice: But it’s not conjure. What is it? What is it called? Divination. Divination. Never in my life had I thought about what Jesus was writing in that dirt, and never in my life had I dealt with this framework of … Like the context of where Jesus was, the context of where Jesus spent his entire life. This particular area, the Middle East and Africa, and the idea that there are traditions that existed and behaviors that existed. When you colonize something, you whitewash all of it. You rename things. You turn things into something that it’s not. You’ve taken away the history of a thing, so people have to really, really jump outside of this basic text, our sacred text in order to really start asking questions about what do these beings mean, even the idea of the laying on [a-pans 00:37:44] and this very Eastern relationship Reiki.
Ebony Janice: There was something happening. This had a name before it was white washed and the only thing that we decided to call it was this, or this decolonization idea, the thing that I always go to when I think about decolonizing religion, particularly from this African American perspective for black Christians so that those of us that grew up in the southern black Christian experience is catching the Holy Ghost is so African. Period. Even within this charismatic, Pentecostal, or Apostolic church experience, where the band can play a certain chord and everybody, with that certain chord, everybody loses their mind. Guys, that’s conjure. We have so greatly disconnected from our … We haven’t done it. We have been disconnected from our ancestral experiences as far as spirituality and religion is concerned. There been our Christian demonic filter because of the way that [crosstalk 00:38:54].
Speaker 1: Exactly. You say divination. My mission Baptist country church immediately, “That’s of the devil.”
Ebony Janice: Yes! Yes!
Speaker 1: That’s of the devil.
Ebony Janice: Yes!
Speaker 1: You said the word divination. You said the word conjure. Immediately.
Ebony Janice: Me too! Me too! But how do we process this huge gap that exists?
Speaker 1: Right? Jesus was writing in the dirt!
Ebony Janice: What was he writing?
Speaker 1: We don’t do that in Germany, in the white Protestant male experience. So what was he doing?
Ebony Janice: What was he doing? The best way to just graze past the fact that something was happening there is to demonize it, so we don’t even have to process that something was happening there. We don’t even have to deal with it.
Speaker 1: We don’t want the whole picture, or we can’t handle the whole picture, or the whole picture doesn’t benefit some of us.
Ebony Janice: You said the word benefit now about three times in this conversation. That’s a major part of what it would look like for us to be decolonizing really everything. But in this conversation, in decolonizing religion, is just keep coming back to … This is a part of this conversation that I was having with Zan West. Who does it benefit? Any question that we have, if we stopped and asked, “Who does it benefit for me to believe this?” If it benefits mostly, going back to the list of cis, white, patriarchal white supremacy, hetero, patriarchal white supremacy, if that is who it mostly benefits, if straight white men mostly benefit from our belief of this, then at the very least, I’m not saying we throw it away completely, but at the very least, can we trouble it? At the very least, can we have a conversation about this?
Speaker 1: Right, and we talked about this. We talked about education. When I’m teaching and seeing those public schools, the way the desk is designed, the way the lockdown drill is designed, the way the lineup at the yard is designed, it benefits me, the person with power. Does not benefit my children, does not benefit their families, does not benefit their neighborhood. Maybe, having students line up and walk a certain way would benefit them, but can we at least query that before we handcuff a child for not walking the way I want them to walk, can we at least query that?
Ebony Janice: Yes. Yes. Even with that, and that could just become a whole different conversation, but I just need to say this right now. Even when we think about authority, and this is a conversation that you and I had offline. Even when we think about authority, this assumption that students, children have to just do whatever you tell them to do really dehumanizes them, because they are people.
Speaker 1: And it trains them up in a system of dehumanizing.
Ebony Janice: Absolutely, so you get used to giving your power away from a very small age. You get used to 24 hours a day, or at the very least, while you’re in school for those, whatever, eight hours, you get used to giving your power away. You can’t have an opinion. You can’t have a say-so. You can’t have a thought. Possibly, if you’re having a different experience at home, if you’re raised a different way, to be opinionated, to share your thoughts, to disagree if something doesn’t feel safe or comfortable for you, but not here. These systems that ultimately say, “Give me all your power, do what I tell you to do,” I’m talking about school right now, but I’m thinking about church at the same time.
Speaker 1: Yes, and higher education. Yes.
Ebony Janice: Give me all your power. [crosstalk 00:42:40] exactly like this, or else. Who does that benefit? I’m glad that you said the word benefit so many times because it brought that back to me. Yeah, if at the very least, we could ask some questions. Once we realize, once we ask that first question, “Who does this benefit? Who does this mostly benefit?” If they’re this whole group of people that aren’t even being seen in the text, aren’t even being heard in the text, there’s this whole group of people that aren’t being seen in the policies, aren’t being heard in the policies, then maybe at the very least we could trouble.
Speaker 1: At the very least. And this is a posture. We could get better as a society, as religious and ethical leaders, as higher education leaders, as professionals. We could get better at at least the lens of “who does this benefit? Huh, I wonder what if.” No saying it might be that knowing Hebrew, Greek and Latin is a good thing for everybody. Maybe, but can we not assume that those are the languages? Can we not assume that German ethics is a requirement for every seminary MDiv? Maybe let’s just trouble it a little bit. Let’s just query it.
Ebony Janice: With this, I’m thinking about earlier, when I was talking about womanism. One of the things that I fully and full-heartedly believe about centering black women is that, if you center black women, black women will take care of everybody else. That isn’t just this thing that I’m arbitrarily saying. We could look to history. Black women have been historically, and literally, and figuratively, and spiritually taken care of everybody else. I won’t even go to a white system. Let’s think about the black church where, despite the fact that black women are what make up like 80% of most congregations, black women still are least likely to be in leadership positions that allow them in pulpit. This is still a hurdle that we’re crossing in 2018, the year of our Lord.
Ebony Janice: Even with that, even despite the fact that at some point in my life, my greatest hope was to be maybe the superintendent of Sunday school, that’s what I could aspire to at some point within this church system. Still, you have black women in these roles doing all this emotional labor, doing all this intellectual labor because who’s behind the scenes creating within these church systems, and yet still not being centered in a way that allows them to speak with a voice of authority [inaudible 00:45:28] from the pulpit, from this [inaudible 00:45:31]. To that point, even in this system where it’s predominantly black, because we’re talking about the black church, even within this system, black women still playing their roles, still doing this work, still showing up and creating in a way that has benefited the black church in such a major way.
Ebony Janice: You see megachurches and the pastor or the bishop, the lead elder may still be a man, but you still have all of these women doing all of this work in all these other lower office. Black women have historically had, no matter what the system is, black women have historically still taken care of everybody else. The assumption that giving black women power or centering their emotional or intellectual or physical, spiritual needs means that now you have something less. No. This is possibly, and we don’t know because historically, we wouldn’t have seen it, but this is possibly the first time that all of us have what we need. All of us show up in and there are other ideas about the way that we could run this or the way that we can maneuver through this that you’ve never known [inaudible 00:46:48] been in charge.
Ebony Janice: I heard a white woman, who was a major part of the Bay Area disability movement, talking about within the disability community, she had gotten to the point after years of being a part of this community, she had gotten to the point where she decided that, even if she agreed … Because there’s this split at points, where it’s what the black people in this disability movement are saying and what the white people in the disability movement are saying. She decided that no matter what, even if she agreed more likely with the white group that she was going to err on the side of supporting what the black group was saying because we have a history of doing whatever the larger percentage of us, or not the larger percentage, but the larger represented or in leadership positions a percentage of us says to do. And we haven’t gotten where we need to get, so maybe we should consider what somebody else thinks about it.
Ebony Janice: Not just one time and then, “Oh, that didn’t work, now we’re going to go back to this,” because we keep failing doing it this way, so we can, at the very least … And this is again, another one of those at the very least might we give this a chance, give this a good [crosstalk 00:48:05]?
Speaker 1: Right, and that’s a radical alignment that she’s banking, but it’s also super pragmatic because you look around. You’re right. We haven’t tried. Why would we not? Right?
Ebony Janice: Yes. We’ve been doing this. This, what Black Girl Mixtape also has given us the ability to do is to force a lot of these conversations to the forefront. Again, I gave that example, “Mom, I’m going to Canada. I’m taking several slaves with me.” Just bringing that up gave Momma the opportunity to say, “You wouldn’t be the first.” What womanism is ultimately saying, what I get out of that part of the definition is that, oftentimes, just conversations is the radical … I use the phrase radical worship very often just because from my context, what is sacred to me, I consider worship everything. Everything that I do can be a worship, depending on my frame, depending on the way that I’m doing it.
Ebony Janice: What if conversation was just radical worship? Because we have found, I mean, this isn’t just my opinion. We know that conversation brings us closer. We know that discourse brings us into community. We get to know each other better when we talk, and not talking with the assumption that I’m right and you’re wrong, or you’re right and I’m wrong. Just saying something out loud gives us language even for how do we replicate this conversation? Just this conversation gave us so much language that we hadn’t entered into this one conversation with. Now, we can leave this one conversation and be more enlarged and more whole and more inclusive of certain ideas that we didn’t necessarily have before this discussion, and/or we could leave this conversation and be very clear, “I don’t want to do it like that. I didn’t know I didn’t want to do it like that, but I know for sure I don’t want to do it like that.”
Ebony Janice: This discussion, at the very least, is happening with Black Girl Mixtape. Even just saying out loud that there is no platform that’s centering black women’s intellectual authority is a radical worship because, wait a minute, you’re right! There is no platform that centers black women’s intellectual authority. How can this be?
Speaker 1: Now that I know that, every piece of media I consume that’s in my mind, now I see a little bit clearer. I see a little bit clearer now that I know just that.
Ebony Janice: Right. Right. That’s huge. Yeah. That’s huge, yeah.
Speaker 1: This is a huge invitation. This conversation could be a mini-course. You are inviting us to continue to act and learn from the portals and the voices that you’re lifting up because I’m thinking of Galileo. The story is that he figured out a way to see the moons of Jupiter, and he was telling all the theologians, “Look! We can see the moons of Jupiter. Look. All you have to do is look right here.” And some of the theologians said, “No. What you’re doing is sinful. I don’t want to see that.” Can you imagine being given access to something that God made that you’ve never seen before on this earth and saying, “No, thank you?” I mean, I’m sure they were anxious. I’m sure they felt anxious in that their knowledge was being made vulnerable, but where’s the curiosity to say, “Yeah. I want to see this creation a little bit more clearly.”
Ebony Janice: That’s so good. Ugh, that’s [crosstalk 00:51:47].
Speaker 1: Who would say no to that invitation? It’s okay that you’re anxious, but don’t you want to take a peek and see the universe more completely?
Ebony Janice: Here’s to that piece, because this is a platform that this is appropriate. I love talking about the universe, from a spiritual, religious perspective. I love talking about the universe. I know that there are a lot of Christians, or people that identify as Christian, that feel uncomfortable talking about the universe and even this idea even of identifying God and the universe as the same existence. I love talking about the universe because science, it’s very fascinating what we can prove, what we can’t prove. The thing that I love about science also is how willing scientists are to say how much they don’t have a clue.
Speaker 1: It’s just a practice for them. When I’m defending my dissertation, please don’t … No. That’s rude. Don’t bring up what I don’t know at an academic conference. But it’s part of their practice.
Ebony Janice: It’s a part of their practice to say how much they don’t know, to be able to say that for as many years as astronomy has existed that we still only know maybe 5% of what exists, maybe 5% of what exists in the universe, in the multiverse. Maybe 5%. We can come up with that number because gravity, we know that at the very least, there has to be some 95% of some mass that’s holding this little piece of vastness that we do know of together. To be able to say that out loud, “We don’t even have a clue what that other stuff is, so we’re just going to call it dark matter,” for me, as a believer, and for me as someone who is just in awe of the God of wonder beyond our galaxy, that I would never try to put everything that is the Most High into this mind, no matter how brilliant I may think I am. I want a God that knows a lot more than more.
Ebony Janice: This assumption that I have all the answers, so what you just said about that comparison to Galileo giving access, just this little peek, that’s so beautiful to me because when I think about the minds of black women that haven’t even had the opportunity … I have conversations sometimes with my elders. My grandmother, brilliant woman, and I talked to you just a little bit about this offline about my grandmother’s the only one of her siblings that got to go to school. Her parents were sharecroppers. All of her other siblings had to pick cotton to help their family. My grandmother is the only one that got to go to school just simply because they said she was smart, so she could go to school.
Ebony Janice: What happened to my family, this one branch on the family tree as a result of my grandmother getting to go to school is that education is now a major part of our church system. It’s just like to the point that graduating from high school is almost like a shrug, like, “Okay. That’s what you were going to do anyways.” We celebrate it still very largely, but not in the way that other people might celebrate it because we get that that’s just what you were going to do. That’s what we do in this family. I bring up my grandmother and her, she raised six girls by herself after my grandfather transitioned when my mother was a little girl. My grandmother has these six girls. This is why I’m a womanist.
Ebony Janice: I’m raised in this family of basically seven moms, and these very capable, intelligent black women who are doing amazing things in our city that’s outside of even gender norms. My grandmother, outside of gender norms, what’s happening at the time. I have conversations with them sometimes, and from this womanist framework of me saying, “Auntie, or Momma, or Grandma, I’m going to Canada and I’m taking several slaves with me,” giving me the opportunity for them to say, “Okay. You wouldn’t be the first.” Some of the stories that they tell me just blow up my mind. That’s what I think about when I hear you say Galileo giving them a peek at the moons of Jupiter. For anybody to say that they didn’t want a moment to have access my grandmother’s thoughts, access to my mother’s thoughts, access to my Aunt Denise’s thoughts, it’s like you don’t even have any clue the brilliance that you’re missing out on. You don’t even have any clue.
Ebony Janice: So what would it look like, and this is, I think, what Dr. Emilie Townes with the fantastic hegemonic imagination and her works, like thinking about Tony Morrison who talks about flights of memory. Like just the conversation … What’s the beautiful thing that happens for us when we get to reimagine who we hear first, or who we look to first, or who we consider first? What if flipping that, the norm, upside down and hearing the least of these, come on Christianity, that’s in your Bible anyways, but hearing the least of these, centering the least of these, centering the least of these, considering the least of these, Jesus Christ was a least of these. What if we wouldn’t hear Jesus out? I just think that’s so beautiful to consider, the wonders. Thinking about black women’s minds as the moons of Jupiter. Who was really out here like, “I don’t want to see Jupiter’s moon.”
Speaker 1: I’m good with one moon. I’ve got one moon. All I need. Done and done.
Ebony Janice: And my moon, and I don’t mean this in a terrible way, but our moon compared to Jupiter’s moons?
Speaker 1: Jupiter’s moons are like a diamond necklace lying in the sky. We got an old cratery gray one that we’re fixated on.
Ebony Janice: Who can’t function without the sun.
Speaker 1: Right? There’s a lot there. We could do a lot with this metaphor. I love that you brought up how little scientists know and how comfortable they are with that because with the little bit that we know, we’re not discarding it. We’re not saying we don’t need that, we don’t value that. We’re just saying, “Don’t you want to know?” What else? What else? A fuller picture. A fully picture.
Ebony Janice: Yes, yes, yes. Yes. I don’t want to throw anybody away. I don’t want to throw anybody away and I don’t want to throw anybody’s wisdom away, and I don’t want to throw anybody’s contribution away. The thing about it is, additionally, when I think about black women in particular, and all of the innovation and all of the creation and all of the magic that has come as a result of black women being able to … And all of this under pressure. Imagine if you shut that off.
Speaker 1: No, that’s even beyond. That’s beyond. Yeah.
Ebony Janice: Imagine if you could shut that off. From that, all of the ways that other groups of people have benefited as a result of black women’s creation under pressure, how much more do you … Because if you’ve got to see it as, “How does this benefit me?” How much more does it benefit you when black women really can create from a free, whole space? How [inaudible 00:59:37]?
Speaker 1: It boggles the mind. What you’re saying is we are clinging to this tiny percentage. The invitation is to just open our scope of focus a little bit. That’s what you’re doing. That’s why we’re going to share this and we’re going to enter it. Not from a place of vulnerability or scarcity, but knowing that this is an expansive, abundant viewpoint.
Ebony Janice: I love the words “this is an invitation.” That is absolutely what it is. This is not exclusion. This is an invitation to experience something that, unfortunately, you’ve not been privy to in the past.
Speaker 1: Thank you.
Ebony Janice: Thank you.
Speaker 1: I took all kind of notes. That, I think, is one of the longest ones I’ve done. I might have to do two episodes, Ebony Janice. Two because usually they’re around 30 minutes. We’ll do a two-parter. We could keep going. This is so human. This is humane. I mean, this is humane. You’re right. The centering of black women and their agency and experience and wisdom, it is humanizing for the entire human community.
Ebony Janice: For all of us. Yes.
Speaker 1: Yeah. Not that I need to be greedy like that, but the reality is that we are trying to thrive in a disjointed way and it’s just not going to work.
Ebony Janice: What this goes back to, what you just said, not that you need to be greedy. What if even that is how colonizers language? That you want too much? That you just wanting this very basic thing is wanting too much. And you [inaudible 01:01:36] even what you have right now, that that is a standard. That’s simply going back to the conversation we were having the other day, that’s such a low bar.
Speaker 1: Right. Like saying, “Thank you. Let me not complain. Let me not complain.”
Ebony Janice: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). There’s so much more. The God that we love is literally like, “Stop. I have so much more for you.”
Speaker 1: Yes.
Ebony Janice: We don’t see it. We think about blessings as these tangible things, and we don’t even realize that it is a blessing. Freedom is a blessing. Freedom for all people is a blessing to all of us, not just to the person that got free. It is a blessing to all of us because look at how we benefit. Look at how we each benefit. We’re not on an island by ourselves. We need each other so much. It’s literally essential to my existence that you survive, that you succeed. I can’t even be the highest version of myself if you don’t get to … The Bible says the earth is groaning out with labor pains, waiting for the revealing of the Son of God. If the earth is in pain, waiting for me to be revealed, you can’t even get out of pain until I’m revealed. Come on, so that’s not greedy. That’s basic.
Speaker 1: Ah. Yeah, no. I need to sit with that for a while. I need to sit with that. I think there’s this beautiful C.S. Lewis analogy where he talks about, like we pray for what we want and we’re like a child making mud pies in the alley, and we love our mud pies. We’re like, “Please, God. This is my mud pie. I love this mud pie! Give me more mud pies,” but God intends for us a vacation by the sea, in the fresh ocean air. We can’t even imagine it. We’ve never been out of the alley. We cling to, “No, no, no. This is what I want is this little mud pie,” and what God intends for us is an entire ocean day. We just can’t until we can shift our focus just a little bit, a little bit of openness.
Ebony Janice: That’s good.
Speaker 1: A little bit of openness. Okay. Ebony Janice, thank you so much. I have another meeting. I’m so grateful. I think I need to give you a consent and release form. I’m going to put together … I’ll do some research and get all the links that I think go along with this, but if there are particular things you want us to highlight in the show notes and also for CLU social media to push out, send those along if there are certain dates that are coming up in the summer or fall, or certain pushes that you’re doing. Send those to me so they can be sure to high light those.
Ebony Janice: Okay. I have been working on it, but I’ll send those. I’m writing the-
Speaker 1: Okay. Okay. Thank you. Yeah.
Ebony Janice: [crosstalk 01:04:40] my application and my resume.
Speaker 1: Okay. Thank you. Alright. Well, have a wonderful, blessed weekend and get rest and get some joy and know how much many, many, many of us appreciate the work that you’re doing.
Ebony Janice: Thank you so much for [crosstalk 01:04:58].
Speaker 1: Okay.
Ebony Janice: We’ll speak soon.
Speaker 1: Thank you. Talk to you soon.
Top 3 takeaways from this week’s episode:
- “What if conversation is radical worship?”
Truly hearing others, and letting their world experiences expand your own reality, can be transformative. If we can learn to listen with a posture of openness and seek to understand, the possibilities for learning more about the world are endless. If we surround ourselves with those that have the same perspectives, we miss valuable opportunities to expand our minds, and spirits. What would conversation look like if you sought to hear, instead of insisting on speaking?What if conversation is radical worship?. Listen now: Click To Tweet
2. “It’s not the nice thing to do, it’s the necessary thing to do.”
Why should we center the voices of those who continue to be marginalized? One idea is that we do it because it’s kind, or to be nice to people we know. But this isn’t the whole story—leaving out some people’s narratives depletes the full experience of everyone. We do not live wholly if only some perspectives are heard. While being inclusive may feel good, don’t just do it because it feels right: do it because robust community is not possible until we decenter the voices of power and start paying attention to those who have not yet been fully heard.It’s not the nice thing to do, it’s the necessary thing to do.” Listen now: Click To Tweet
3. “If you don’t center someone, they’re just a prop.”
Most Americans are aware that diversity is positive, and most sectors (education, politics, health care) are working to attempt to be “inclusive.” But just adding participants or changing mission statements isn’t enough. To successfully dismantle white supremacy, we must center the voices of people of color, particularly black women. Until we do that, including them in our groups and systems merely continues to use their work, images, labor, and wisdom for our own purposes. Inviting someone to an event is not enough. Including someone in a photograph is not enough. Having one guest speaker for MLK Day is not enough. We must center previously discredited voices in order to inform real change.If you don’t center someone, they’re just a prop. Listen now: Click To Tweet
Mentioned on the episode:
- Black Girl Mixtape: https://www.blackgirlmixtape.com/
- “Ain’t I a Woman,” credited to Sojourner Truth: http://sojournertruthmemorial.org/sojourner-truth/her-words/
- A contemporary treatment of “Ain’t I a Woman” and its influence: https://qz.com/1291608/sojourner-truth-said-aint-i-a-woman-in-1851-black-women-today-are-asking-the-same-thing/
- More resources on Delores Williams: https://www.religion-online.org/author/delores-s-williams/
- “Womanist Theology,” by Emilie M. Townes
- Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Search_of_Our_Mothers%27_Gardens
- “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South (1974),” by Alice Walker: http://www.msmagazine.com/spring2002/walker.asp
- More information on voting by women and black women in the 2018 presidential election: https://qz.com/833003/election-2016-all-women-voted-overwhelmingly-for-clinton-except-the-white-one
- More on the “fantastic hegemonic imagination”: http://religiondispatches.org/tag/fantastic-hegemonic-imagination
- The Life & Times of Elizabeth Keckly, the story of the dressmaker and designer who served Mary Lincoln: https://umc.tv/film/tim-reids-legacy-documentary-series-life-times-elizabeth-keckley/
- Definition of “decolonization”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decolonization
- More on the idea of the “Christian demonic filter”: https://www.thefreepeopleproject.com/blog/2018/1/10/a-word-on-astrology-and-the-christian-demonic-filter
- Toni Morrison’s “The Site of Memory”: https://public.wsu.edu/~hughesc/morrison_memory.htm
How to connect with us:
EbonyJanice of The Free People Project: https://www.thefreepeopleproject.com/
You can connect with me on Twitter here: @SVarnonHughes.
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About the Podcast
In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. We talk to voices from the field, in law, activism, civil rights, and from places of struggle and places of deep learning. In Times Like These, we unpack the most troubling issues of politics and faith we face, together.
In Times Like These is hosted by Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes and is a CLU Live production by Claremont Lincoln University.
Claremont Lincoln University offers a social entrepreneurship master’s degree program called Social Impac