The following article on Spirituality and African American Women was published in the 2018 National Coalition on Black Civic Participation’s (NCBCP) Black Women’s Roundtable (BWR) Fifth Annual Black Women in the U.S. Report.
African American women today, facing escalating racism, sexism, misogyny, and civil rights reversals, must rely on both liberating religious values and heightened spirituality, to survive and thrive. While Americans today increasingly identify themselves as spiritual and not connected to organized religion, studies show that African Americans women make only a subtle distinction. (1) Religion involves beliefs about right and wrong as defined by a Higher Power or Supreme Being. It includes organized bodies actively engaged in the proclamation of eternal values and worship, whether through a church, temple, synagogue or mosque. In contrast, spirituality encompasses our relationship to ourselves, others, nature, and, for most Black women, our connection to God. Religion focuses on activities. Spirituality concerns relationships. Both involve reverence for something bigger than oneself. While African American women are more religious than any other group in society, today many seek greater self-expression, self-love, self-care, emotional and physical well-being, especially among younger women, that inspires their search for spirituality outside of organized religion. (2)
Spirituality - Breath of Life
Celebrated author, Stephen Covey said, "we are not human beings having a spiritual experience.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” (3) The word “spirituality,” derived from the Latin word spiritus, means "the breath of life." (4) The first book of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible speaks powerfully to the "breath of life" from our Creator. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them...The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (4) The challenge for Black women, still faced with centuries-old systemic racism, is to embrace the
remarkable beauty, magnificence, and excellence in which the Almighty “breath of life” created them. Black women, even when enslaved and forbidden from participating in organized communal worship, found a life-sustaining connection to God as the active divine presence in their lives and harsh circumstances. (5) Christianity was brought to the enslaved to control and oppress. Black women rejected that brand of white Christianity and found their way to Christ, the Liberator of the oppressed and the disinherited. As the Black church developed, typically with majority female members, Black women fostered their spirituality through nurturing community, supportive relationships, and other expressions of wonder and reverence, outside of organized religion. Even in my journey from agnosticism to faith in Jesus, during my darkest days, I never lost the sense that the God of my mother and grandmother was watching over me, and boosting my spirit. Today, Black church women, encountering the oppressive nature of many male-dominated Black churches, still find spiritual power in their relationship with a loving God, who strengthens and empowers them. (6)
Still I Rise
In her iconic poem, “Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou brilliantly captures the unwavering spirit and fierce determination of Black women to rise above historical and current barriers to reaching
their highest potential. "You may write me down in history, With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt, But still, like dust, I'll rise." (7) Transplanted from advanced African
civilizations into American enslavement followed by systemic racism, Black women struggle consistently for emotional and spiritual wholeness, to define themselves, and to carry out hopes
and dreams for themselves and their communities. They have had to depend on both spirituality and religion to rise above the double weight of systemic racism, gender inequality, while remaining the primary breadwinner in 70% Black families compared to 24.7% of White women as the primary breadwinner. (8) Beyond these burdens, Black women, bearing society's cruel definition of them as, "angry," "man-hating, "b-----s", must continually seek a myriad of ways to nourish their souls.
Ain’t I A Woman
In the "Ain’t I A Woman" spirit of Sojourner Truth, Black women fight persistently to make sure society's focus on women’s equality, also includes women of color, who must forever carry the burden of race and gender. (9) From highly publicized sexual harassment charges brought by Anita Hill 29 years ago, to Congresswoman Maxine Waters, April Ryan, the historic Women’s March and todays #MeToo movement, Black women still experience the pain of being ignored, marginalized, or demeaned, and must lean on both spiritual and religious values for inner strength.
Following are just a few ways that we as African American women can nurture our spirits and fortify ourselves in spirit, mind and body for the challenging days ahead.
Nurture a Personal Relationship with the Creator
Participate in Religious Activities
Pray and participate in a Prayer Group
Maintain Family Connection
Retain a Strong Support Circle
Stay Focused on Who You Are
Stay Focused on Your Core Values
Experience the Awesomeness and Wonder of Nature
Engage in Art, Poetry, Music, and other Creative Expressions
Remain ‘Other-Centered’ and Support Others
Cultivate Self-love and Self-Care
Whether through religion or spirituality, Black women are learning that loving God with reverence and awe, inspires self-love, love, and support of other Black women, and the capacity for building stronger communities.
Sharita Forrest, Study: “Spirituality, not Religion, is critical to Black women’s well-being,” Illinois News.
Candice Benbow, Essay: “Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Black Christian Women’s Spirituality,” Religion & Politics, 2016.
Stephen Covey, Living the 7 Habits : Stories of Courage and Inspiration (New York - Simon & Shuster, 1999).
Gen. 1:1, 27; 2:7, NIV.
Fred Holmquist, “The Roots of Spirituality,” (Center City -Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation, 2012), email@example.com.
Albert J. Raboteau, “The Secret Religion of the Slaves,” Christianity Today, Issue 33: (March 1992), 1-6.
Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise,” (New York - Random House, 1978), PoetryFoundation.org
Sarah Jane Glynn, “Breadwinning Mothers Are Increasingly the U.S. Norm,” Center for American Progress, (December 2016), americanprogress.org
Evette Dionne, “Women's Suffrage Leaders Left Out Black Women,” Teen Vogue, (August 2017) teenvogue.com