The Prophetic Witness of Black Women

By Langley Hoyt

This March, I attended the Beyoncé Mass created by Rev. Yolanda Norton. The mass uses Beyoncé’s music as a tool to have empowering conversations about Black women and God and to lament the violence against Black women. The most impactful part of Beyoncé Mass, for me, was when the choir sang Beyoncé’s “I was here.” During the song, people read aloud the names of cis and transgender Black women who have been murdered in hate crimes. When the women’s faces flashed across the screen, and their names were called, I felt a swell of emotion. I thought of the friends and family members that loved them. I thought of the Black women I care about and the world where violence against them is so common. I felt anger at the justice system’s failures to protect them. The choir sang out as if they were carrying the voices of the women themselves to us. It was as if the slain women were saying: “My life mattered. Say my name. Shake the world.”

Beyoncé Mass was a powerful worship service based on the Womanist theology pioneered by the Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon, the first Black woman ordained in the PC(U.S.A.). “Black women serve as contemporary prophets, calling other women forth so that they can break away from the oppressive ideologies and belief systems that presume to define their reality,” writes the Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon in “The Emergence of Black Feminist Conscience.” Cannon was a leading scholar in Womanist theology, which views God through the lens of the unique experiences of Black women.

Cannon argued that to create a more righteous world, following the leadership of Black women is essential. Because Black women and women of color experience multiple layers of overlapping oppressions, they are the most uniquely qualified to understand what is necessary to liberate themselves and others, wrote Cannon. Women of color in Congress, among others, have been providing solutions that lift the most marginalized first in response to COVID-19. The Black, queer women who founded Black Lives Matter have been prophesying policy changes for years that could bring an end to the unjust killings of Black people. We must follow the lead of such women.

Unfortunately, the country has not heeded this call. Instead, we have ignored the suffering of Black women and silenced their pain. This is obvious in the current uprisings against police brutality, in which the tragic deaths of Black women receive far less attention than their male counterparts. Black Lives Matter protests across the world continue to gain traction calling for justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death. However, Breonna Taylor’s killers still have not been arrested or charged. Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Pamela Turner, and many others were all victims of police brutality and anti-Black racism.

Additionally, Black trans women like Dominique Rem’mie Fells and Riah Milton are victims of an epidemic of Black trans women being murdered in horrifying numbers. Black girls like Oluwatoyin Salau are being assaulted and killed while they call us to change our world so that they can survive. The “Say Her Name” movement was created to draw attention to the overlooked deaths of Black women and girls. As Presbyterians, we must join in this fight and stand up for Black women and girls.

God has been calling the church to end the sin of anti-Blackness and misogynoir for hundreds of years. Why won’t we listen? At this year’s 224th General Assembly, commissioners voted down a statement addressing the unique plight of Black Women and Girls multiple times. In a webinar produced by Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice, Rev. Kerri Allen, and Rev. Ashley Detar Birt reminded viewers that the church body needs to do a deep dive into how, both individually and institutionally, apathy and aggression is used to uphold patriarchy and white supremacy within our denomination. We cannot continue to ignore and discount Black women’s voices and treat their lives as disposable. It’s time to make tangible internal and systemic changes and redistribute hoarded power.

Our creator speaks to us through the prophetic voices of Black women. How will you answer this call?

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