by Khalia J. Williams
On June 5, 2015, fifteen-year-old Dejarria Becton was a victim of the brutal excessive force of a Texas police officer who asserted his power over her bikini-clad body by grabbing her hair, slamming her to the ground, pushing her face into the ground, dragging her body, and pressing his knee into the center of her back with all of his weight to restrain her. On June 7, 2015, the body of sixteen-year-old Arnesha Bowers was found in a house fire in Baltimore, Maryland. She had been raped, strangled, and then burned by three young men robbing her home. On the evening of June 17, 2015, a five-year-old girl learned the way to survive the mass shooting in her church bible study was to play dead; and as she listened to the nine lives being taken at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina she taught her body and her spirit to live by appearing to be dead. Their bodies will never forget.
In a matter of 12 days, I was reminded of the four-hundred-year legacy of physical, psychological, and emotional trauma against marginalized bodies that has pervaded this country’s history; over four centuries of brutality, aggression, and forced survival upon black female bodies. I am reminded that to be black and female in this country carries a burden that only those who are black and female can truly understand. It is a burden of objectification, pain, invisibility; a legacy that black female bodies will never forget.
While this violence inflicted upon the bodies of African American women and girls are not isolated to these three events, they are a microcosm of such violence and a clear indication that the United States is still a country plagued with social injustice, racism, and sexism all manifested through acts of violence against bodies of color. Since black women’s involuntary arrival in the West, their bodies have been a site of powerful and painful contention. This contention has been the center of historic subversion and destruction of communal relations within the African American community, and created a compound-complex objectification of African American women, rooted in the prejudice against their bodies. These are the bodies that enter into worship, and have a history of a powerful oppressed presence within the black church tradition.
Watching these scenes on television, engaging in discussions, and reading about them have been reminders that our bodies are most exposed to physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual violence; in fact, our bodies are at the center of all things. There is no experience in our lives that escapes our bodies, for it is in and through our bodies that we are fully present in the world. We live, engage one another, and experience the Divine in our bodies; and our bodies are a primary factor in developing and maintaining human relationships. While I did not personally know Dejarria Becton, Arnesha Bowers, or the five year old who survived by playing dead in South Carolina, the empathy that I experience comes not from my mind but from my entire being – from my body.
Understanding the centrality of our bodies in life, I draw the conclusion that bodies are also a central part of worship; consequently, worship is a fully embodied act. So what does this mean for African American women who have been marginalized in American culture? How do the marginalized bodies of African American women experience God in worship?
With certainty, it is imperative to accept the fact that the bodies in which we worship bring a multitude of historical, physical and emotional experiences into worship. It is from the reality of the lived experiences of African American women’s bodies in worship that I look for a greater understanding of embodiment in worship. This query of embodiment in worship is not new; however, there is a lack of significant inquiry on the embodied experiences of marginalized cultural communities.
Therefore, I pose questions of theology that engage and articulate the liturgical understanding and experiences of African American women. How can these experiences serve as a source for alternative worship practice? If bodies are indeed a critical factor in relationships within church and society; and if bodies are the locus of our experiences of the holy; and because African American women are an integral part of the black worship tradition, how can a theological focus on black female bodies in worship construct new ways of imagining and participating in worship? These questions will not get answered today, but form the basis of posts to come, in which I will ponder what happens to the way we experience God when we consider the worship experiences of marginalized bodies.
Khalia is an ordained minister and adjunct professor at Columbia Theological Seminary