The History of Black Fatherhood and Motherhood In Light of the Slave-Trade and How It Effects the Black Church Today

black church women

Any social or theological critique of gender roles in African American homes and churches, or any discussion of the “break-down” of the black family, must not begin with our contemporary context. The present problem roots in past pain.

Millions of black bodies were wrenched from their homeland and forcibly transported to the Americas in the transatlantic Middle Passage. In all, just under 400,000 slaves were brought to what would become known as the United States. And while this first migration constituted the initial devastating disruption of the familial bond, it would be followed by what historian Ira Berlin refers to as the Second Middle Passage—the internal slave trade whereby a million blacks were relocated to the southern American interior via auction blocks and chains. It was during this period in between the American Revolution and abolition that the separation of black families became common. These migrations, coupled with the violent realities of plantation life, eventuated in the emasculation and disenfranchisement of black males. Thus, historic black matriarchy is not so much a myth as it is the result of generations of father figures rendered impotent and absentee not by choice, but by force.

In God’s providence, just beyond the visibility of the slave master, an “invisible institution” came into being. The first sizeable wave of black conversions to Christianity took place during the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century. Still, as African American scholar Albert Raboteau explains, the Christian faith was not only adopted by slaves, but adapted to the slave experience:

In the secrecy of the quarters or the seclusion of the brush arbors (‘hush harbors’) the slaves made Christianity truly their own. The religion of the slaves was both institutional and noninstitutional, visible and invisible, formally organized and spontaneously adapted. Regular Sunday worship in the local church was paralleled by illicit, or at least informal, prayer meetings on weeknights in the slave cabins.

Thus, the black church was birthed in protest. Given the privileging of Pauline “slave texts” and the overall oppressive tones of their “Christian” catechism, black slaves quickly discerned the hypocrisy inherent in the teaching they received from their slave masters.

With the subsequent rise of independent black congregations, the church meeting became a site of slave agency—a space where slaves could exert a degree, albeit limited, of self-sovereignty and rebellion. And the pulpit became a place where the black male could lay claim to dignifying leadership.

The Ecclesial and Familial Efforts of Black Women

In the decades following emancipation, the black church began to take a distinct shape: the overwhelming majority of church pews became filled with women. They got heavily involved within their congregations, and they began to create various auxiliary organizations and missionary societies. In all this, these black women expressed their “righteous discontent” at injustices identified both inside and outside of the church. Such efforts were most clearly seen among black Baptist women. Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham writes,

The leadership of the women’s convention movement formed part of an emergent class of school administrators, journalists, businesswomen, and reformers who served an all-black community. This educated female elite, frequently consisting of teachers or wives of ministers associated with educational institutions, promoted middle-class ideals among the masses of blacks in the belief that such ideals ensured the dual goal of racial self-help and respect from white America. Especially in the roles of missionary and teacher, black church women were conveyers of culture and vital contributors to the fostering of middle-class ideals and the aspirations in the black community.

During the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, a distinctly black feminist theology would begin to emerge from a segment of the black church. Drawing on the liberation and resistance themes that served and solaced Christian slaves, and reminiscent of Sojourner Truth’s extemporaneously delivered “Ain’t I A Woman?,” black female theologians gave voice to their distinct grievances, and at the same time connected their causes to the waves of the broader feminist movement. Specifically, these women gave a liberal theological perspective to what one feminist activist would identify as the triply oppressed and exploited reality of black women at the interstices of race, gender, and class. As black men in the church were increasingly enjoying spaces of leadership and social recognition, an increasingly pressing question emerged from black women: “When will our season of affirmation begin?”

Moving to the mid-twentieth century, aside from a few noteworthy exemplars, the Civil Rights Movement originating within the black church was mostly male-led, with black women relegated to positions of administration with little-to-no recognition. That said, the twentieth century did bequeath something immensely useful to black women bent on laying claim to what they regarded as rightfully theirs: liberation theology. Though bereft of any gendered analysis in its initial articulations, liberation theology provided a vernacular that was easily adaptable to egalitarian aims.

In turning attention to the home, space does not allow for rendering proper praise to the indefatigable efforts of black women. It is no exaggeration to say that, ever since the days of slavery, black women have, in myriad ways, served as the glue that has held together the familial bond threatened by forces external to the family itself. Yet all too often, black women have also had to face the reality of managing single-parent homes due to the willful absence of black fathers. Through these challenges, black women present and past—particularly black Christian women—have modeled an enduring hope and an inimitable faith.

Understandably, such realities progressively led to the formation of a female characteristic that, energized by the ongoing waves of feminism, persists today: the independent black woman. In light of the unique history of oppression and exploitation experienced by black women, progress and often times outright survival meant that they had to cultivate a persona marked by self-sufficiency, independence (even and especially from black men), and a determined drive for upward mobility, success, and social equality. To be sure, determination and a “go-getter” spirit is not all bad. Such qualities have marked the trail of progress in African American history. An imbalance of such qualities, however, can prove unhealthy for the home and the church. Unfortunately, such self-sufficiency and independence can become outright unbiblical.

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SOURCE: 9 Marks
Steven Harris

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