mama's God never was no white man. her MY Jesus, Sweet Jesus never was neither. The color they had was the color of her aches and trials, the tribulation of her heart mama never had no savior that would turn his back on her because she was black when mama prayed, she knew who she was praying to and who she was praying to didn't and ain't got no color. (Carolyn Rodgers 1975, 62)
I open this paper with the poem "mama's God" by the Black Arts poet Carolyn Rodgers. I wish I had remembered it as I prepared to teach a course titled "Alice Walker's Womanist Thought" in the spring of 2018. Unfortunately, I did not. Instead, in my dedicated attempt to trace the development of Walker's Womanist vision using only her oeuvre, I focused on what she said in interviews and wrote in her novels, poetry and essays. Although exhilarating, my journey through Walker's work led me, an English professor and newly ordained minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to a paradox. I was perplexed and, if only for a moment, I questioned how the first self-identified, Christian, Womanist theologians could adopt a name coined by a sister who did not view Jesus as the second person of a tripartite God. Instead, Walker's female protagonists, who love him, view him as "really the coolest" (Walker 2004, 115). But the coolest what, I ask? This paper traces my journey towards the answer to that question and explains why I ended it with the voice of Carolyn Rodgers echoing in my ear.
Works like The Color Purple (1982), In Search of Our Mother's Gardens (1983), The Temple of My Familiar (1989) and Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart (2004) offer the most dynamic progressions of Walker's Womanist philosophy and Christology. (1) In these texts Walker moves from discussions of God and allusions to "the Spirit" into descriptions of an expansive and sentient God force. Scattered moments of God talk presented in earlier works coalesce in her Womanist magnum opus, Now Is the Time, which contemplates teachings of Christianity, Gnosticism and Buddhism while transforming them into a figuration of God Walker identifies as the Grandmother Creator. In this text, humanity's God doffs the robes of masculinity to don the red clay of Grandmother Earth and self-salvation. The Christian Savior, the Jesus of faith, is a constant figure in each text, but present as an historical figure--a "prophet and human being" not unlike the Buddha or the Islamic prophet, Muhammed (Walker 1989, 146).
Walker begins with a gentle questioning of the creator's gender in The Color Purple and an allusion to the Divine in her 1983 definition of womanist, which proclaims a womanist "Loves the Spirit" (Walker 1983, xiii). Layli Maparyan identifies this three-word definitional fragment as the "animating impulse of womanism," which she calls Luxocracy or "rule by Light." According to her, Luxocracy exists as an "Inner Light, the Higher Self, the Soul, the God Within.. .Innate Divinity--as described by mystics and others across cultures, across faiths, and across the centuries, if not millennia" (Maparyan 2012, 3). Evoking notions of "Divine Light" and the "Higher Self," this spiritual energy functions as the telos, or creative center, enlivening the "potential of human spirituality to constitute a highly illumined form of social organization that does not require external mechanisms of control" (Maparyan 2012, xv). By this, Maparyan infers any ideology that circumscribes a particular way of thinking, acting or being in the world, including the ideologies defining Christianity or any other religion. The Womanist idea Maparyan promotes is truer to Walker's development of Womanist thought in her later works than the mothers of Womanist Theology articulated when reading The Color Purple as a Womanist text.
This novel focuses on Celie, a woman who is abused and discarded as a worthwhile human being, broken in spirit and hope. Following a mandate given by her abusive stepfather, "You better not never tell nobody but God. It'd kill your mammy," the sexually abused Celie finds herself silenced to any other ear, her spirit suppressed within her and her access to the Divine Light and a Higher Self dimmed (Walker 1982, 1). In search of rescue and comfort, the character writes to the only god she knows--the god of an alienating form of Christianity, a false and crippling ideology handed to Black people from enslavement, "a God designed to guide and further the desires of another people, a God who thought of blackness as a curse" (Walker 1982, 1992, location 14). Celie addresses her epistolary prayers to a white, male god whom she does not know and who does not exist in history nor within Black women's self-defined principles of faith. Because this god is an ideological counterfeit, a lie of white supremacy, he cannot answer. Instead of comfort he leaves Celie alienated within cries for help going nowhere to no one. Celie ends this communication when she meets a woman named Shug Avery.
Speaking from her own experience, her own theology, Shug redirects Celie's understanding of the divine. "God is inside you and inside everybody else," she says. "You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it ... God ain't a he or a she, but an It" (Walker 1982, 195). (2) For Shug, everyone shares a universal spirit and origin. In every birth a god-light, or god-spirit, extending from a divine being who is neither male nor female, but an "It," enters the human realm of existence. With this text, Walker joins other women of the period in questioning the gender of God as well as male-scripted faith and Christology.
Jacqueline Grant summarizes much of this discourse in her 1989 book White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus. She documents three...