Being “Womanish” by Carol Welter & Taryn Strauss

Homily#1 by Carol Welter

There is magic in the air.  This morning we call it Black Girl Magic. Womanism.  This place here, this space, being UU challenges us.  I am challenged to look inward today, to do some inner work.  You Taryn and my sisters have asked me a question and I thank you.

Many of you will remember the sweet little rag dolls Raggedy Ann and Andy.  In the UK we called this doll Andy Pandy. There was also another such doll called a Golliwog, made of black cloth, with big red lips and lots of white teeth, big white eyes and huge bulging pupils, and the signature woolly hair made of black wiry yarn.  This doll was called a Golliwog.  Most English children grew up with a Golliwog in their playrooms and nurseries.  I was horrified by the doll.  It was a mockery to the only brown people I knew in 1966.  My mother, father, my sister Bev and Mr. Oliwateah, a Nigerian student and boarder in our home.  At school the children picketed my person calling me a Golliwog; “Wogs go home!”; they would surround me “Wogs go home!”

I was allowed at age 11 to travel unsupervised on the bus with my sister Bev. I remember the day even now.  Here we were on our very best behavior, told not to bring attention to yourself by behaving in anyway untoward… Keep in mind we were the only colored people in that part of the Southeast region of England. Back then we were Colored.  Two little brown girls on a Saturday afternoon ride

And there were two women, two English women, who sat across from us… and somehow, they were of the idea that we could not speak or understand English… and they proceeded to describe our hair, the spongy feel of our hair, and our sorry sad feet unaccustomed to shoes, as we were made to walk miles barefooted where we came from. And I can hear her in her southern Cockney voice now: ” ‘ave you ever touched their ‘air? It’s spongy!”

The other woman says “no!”

“Yes, it’s ever so spongy!… and those feet! The poor little mites, having to shove their feet in those Buster Brown shoes!  You know where they’re from, they have to run for miles barefooted! Poor little mites, they must be so uncomfortable!”

I could feel myself burning with anger and shame.  I’ve always been the radical one, the one tending to behave badly, my sister Bev on the other hand, was more tactful and she patted me reassuringly on the leg.  It was at that moment that Womanism was born in me.  What came out of my sister’s mouth was magic in its purest form. , she looked at me and said something in a made-up contrived language.

And she bugged her eyes and turned her lips in full gollywog regalia. And she looked at me and said… ALLAY MONGALEH. So you know, I had one of those “What the…?” kind of looks.  So I looked at her and she goes allay mongaleh and she patted me again reassuringly like…”play along”  So, I responded in kind… allay mongaleh? and then she says nom nadi tu wahleh mongaleh and I repeated nom nadi tu wahleh mongaleh?” And she says tu dash allay mongaleh and I said – I got creative now, I said – hassim siulah mongaleh! and she goes nom nadi tu wahleh mongaleh.

Well, we silenced the whole damn bus. Everybody turned around and they were looking at these two little brown girls.  And I’ve got it going on, let me tell you. I’ve always kind of had a cornbread voice, but my sister has, to this day, a beautiful soprano voice, and she opened her mouth, and she says Allehhhh-ehhhh-EHHHH-hhaaay and her breath and the sound was as long as the bus! And she carried that note and when she was out of breath, she started again, Allehhhh-ehhhh-EHHHH.  Well then, I got on my legs and started beating.  Yes! I’m an African now! I started beating Allay allay mongaleh! Allay allay mongaleh! Allay ALLAY mongaleh! And she’s harmonizing with me, nom nadi tu wahleh mongalehtu dash allay mongalehhassim siulah mongaleh! And we’re just going on like two damn fools, you know, enjoying ourselves on the bus.

So then it came to our stop, and we had to stand up and ring the bell, but I walked off of the bus that day embracing my blackness, proud to wear the badge of Wog, struttin’ my womanism.  Thank you!

Homily #2 by Taryn Strauss

Is there a way to hold all the devastation and triumph of this past week?  It’s hard to know how to hold it all.  Even if you are single, or widowed, or regularly erased by our hetero-normative culture, even if you are struggling with heartbreak, were you not looking forward to Feb. 14, a day devoted to love?

God, we needed Valentine’s Day this year.  On Ash Wednesday, too. The day when Christians are reminded of their mortality and humility and as a UU I could joyfully declare, ‘we have come from Love, and to Love we shall return.”

It’s been a long cold lonely winter of illness, anxiety and scarcity, and I for one was ready to witness and participate in a cultural expression of friendship and love.  For once, I reveled in the mass-market romance of it all, because it was something better than the hate, fear and corruption marking this moment in time, colonizing our thoughts.

And then.

My heart-shaped smile cracked and fell into a million little pieces when I heard about yet another shooting at a school, and a scenario where kids and teachers had to live through hell or die as a result of it.  I searched for a place to take my devastation, anger and confusion.  I turned toward the Olympic games, to stories of perseverance and single-minded ambition and what the body can create at its strongest and most elegant.  Have you, like me, found yourself tearing up with the athletes when you least expected it?  Or maybe you’ve been watching the frenzy around the new Black Panther film.  So many of my friends, people of color, have been planning their costumes, gathering their crew, and reveling in this moment where the whole country can share in a vision of collective liberation, black power and the breathtaking imagination of a land unsullied by colonization.

Y’all, there is so much going on right now, I feel like I almost need a new language to describe it.  Listening to Carol’s story, I realized that my community of women and I have been scraping and searching, yearning for an entirely new language.  The old binaries are no longer serving us.  Democrat, Republican, straight, gay, male, female, black, white, crazy, sane, rich, poor, single, partnered, able-bodied, disabled.  These terms no longer describe who we are, where we are going, and what is becoming.

Here’s how Womanism can infiltrate our souls and transform us.  To me, womanism is about making a way out of no way.  The audacity of surviving and even blooming, when both the powerful people and the powerful system want to see you dead, or totally dominated, or withered on the vine.   Womanism is also about escaping the gaze of your oppressor, and not letting anyone else define you.  Creative transformation in the face of destructive transformation.

Now although you don’t fully know me, you can see I am a white woman, and I grew up middle class, so some of my current experience of marginalization, the fear and anxiety of feeling powerless, are new to me.  As I sit with my shock and my horror these days, I am fully aware that my experience of this is not special, and is not new for many Americans, and it’s not new for many of the people in this sanctuary. So even as I incorporate Womanism into my theological perspective and my life path, I am humbly aware that a lot of people have been in this struggle for a very, very long time.

So I study Womanists to learn how they creatively transformed that which tried to destroy them.

In her 1990 seminal text, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Patricia Hill Collins lays it out for us:

The black feminist:

  • Refuses to reinforce the social relations of domination. Her work is accessible to all.
  • Does not privilege elites, but rather recognizes that everyone has a privileged view from their own vantage point
  • Encourages people to examine their location, share their location, and pay attention to other people’s locations.
  • Places Black women’s experiences and ideas at the center of analysis.
  • Does not try to accommodate the dominant or traditional discourse by using its language to fit in.
  • Incorporates the everyday unapologetically.
  • Rejects dualism and objectivity in favor of both/and perspectives.
  • Is actively challenging the existing notions of intellect as well as traditions of knowledge production and validation.

You know who has been inspiring me lately in the spirit of Womanism?

[Slide of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama presidential Portraits]

Barack and Michelle Obama and their choices for their portrait artists, the great Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.  Did you see that breathtaking portrait reveal, the one where you were challenged to change your gaze?

If you looked at those portraits and thought, “that doesn’t look like her, or that’s not presidential,” I want to challenge you to push through that voice because it is presidential because he was our president!   And painter Amy Sherald’s artistic interpretation captured in Michelle a full history of survival with style and an expansive, beautiful future that challenges the dimensions of white supremacist institutional thought.  I saw a photo of all the presidential portraits all together, and I just sat back in wonderment, thinking:  nothing will ever be the same.

You see, there is NO going back to when America was __fill in the blank_______ again. We can create a totally new language, just like Carol did, just like the Obamas did, right in plain sight, right in front of the systems and people who are oppressing us.  We can innovate a holistic theology that liberates us, like Shug Avery in The Color Purple.   We can be both/and.  We are children of Love.  We are more powerful than we know, but we are going to need each other in the hard work for our collective liberation.  Womanists have taught me that this innovation of language, and a world within worlds is the hardest, most vital work of all.  But we need not do this work alone.  In religious community, We can do this.  If we understand that our destinies are intertwined, that all of our children are each of our responsibility, then we will know it’s time to use our power to make our schools safer.  We are people called by faith, reaching out towards personal redemption and communal reconciliation, we are lovers of authentic diverse beautiful expression, and believers in a world where each of us can be truly seen and fully understood, on our own terms.