My Journey to the Sacred Black Feminine

One year ago today I wrote my first Signed, N.A. blog post. The creation of this blog is in large part owed to Transcendant Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, a book that taught me that books I can relate to actually exist. Since I read Transcendent Kingdom in January 2021, I’ve continued to find books that make me feel truly seen. And now, at the one year milestone of this blogging endeavor, one book stands out among the rest: Dr. Christena Cleveland’s God Is a Black Woman.

In my first Signed, N.A. post a year ago, I mused on my identification with the title Nwanyị Akwụkwọ and set an intention to write and share “reflections on what I’ve learned about myself and the world around me through literature.” When I read God Is a Black Woman I learned things about myself in a deeper way than I ever have before. I felt connection, not only to the author and her story, but also to my ancestors, and maybe even to my chi (s/o to the Signed, N.A. readers who know what I’m talking about). The things I learned and felt from this book were of such a personal nature that I wasn’t sure I wanted to share, and I went back and forth quite a bit on the decision. But, as we arrive at a year of Signed, N.A., and I reflect on the intentions I set at the beginning of this so called pilgrimage, I could only come to one conclusion: to share with you all My Journey to the Sacred Black Feminine

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In the church I grew up in, the most frequently used image of Christ is a painting of Jesus as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered, phenotypically white man wearing a bold red robe. Several times over the course of my life, and particularly during my time as an active member of this church, I have paused to think about the implications of this image, or similar ones, being the one I most easily associate with God or the Divine. In recent years, I have taken a furtive and concerted look inward to unpack how what Dr. Christena Cleveland refers to as white male god has influenced how I see myself and how I move through the world.

My journey away from the church I was raised in and toward a more personal divine experience has raised many questions from others, and I often find myself without what I would consider adequate answers. And while I have always and continue to assert that my experience needs no explanation as its depths defy the bounds of human language, I would also like to thank Dr. Cleveland for her book, God Is a Black Woman, which, for the first time, has provided me with some language that I feel comes close to explaining the transformative journey I am on.

Throughout the book, Dr. Cleveland introduces the readers to a Sacred Black Feminine who displays characteristics of a Divine Mother and who descends from on high to wallow in humanity with their child. The Sacred Black Feminine is not perfect and does not look down on me, rather, She shares my experiences, intimately knows my trials, and struggles alongside me. Dr. Cleveland also writes about the importance of valuing and giving credence to Black women’s lived experiences with divinity even when they contradict religious theory or doctrine. Personally, this is a principle I appreciate in all aspects of life. I truly believe that  just because something hasn’t been dissected and extrapolated using scientific theory doesn’t mean that what I or anyone else feels and/or experiences is not true and real. 

It was this distinct cognitive dissonance that caused me to leave behind white male god and seek out the Sacred Black Feminine. As a womanist and human rights advocate, I have a deep conviction for the ideals that we are not free until we are all free, and that the most marginalized hold the key to liberation. These are ideals I try my best to exemplify in my work for justice and equity. Yet, when I stepped back and examined the manner in which I was approaching my personal spiritual liberation, I realized the god I was acquainted with was very distant from my pain, was not familiar with my life experiences, and often made me feel as though I was sprinting in the sand to catch up with someone who started before me, ahead of me, and on solid ground.

It was about four years ago that I first began to more consciously and consistently notice this dissonance in how I saw the world and how I believed god saw me. But as I look back on the expanse of my short life, I do see that the Sacred Black Feminine was whispering in my ear all along.

The first time I heard Joan Osborne’s “One of Us ” in my early teens, I was enamored. It was the first time I remember considering a god like me rather than one whom I was trying to be like. And though I was raised to believe in a loving god, the kind of god Joan Osborne sang about seemed capable of a level of empathy I had never before attributed to the Divine.

This was one of my first whispers. Since then, I’ve become better acquainted with this sort of divine empathy. I’ve known and felt it from the Divine, as well as from the divinity I’ve encountered in others, and manifested in myself. And through a series of gentle whispers and words of encouragement I arrived at an undeniable fork in the road with white male god on high on one hand, and Sacred Black Feminine beside on the other. So, I chose the path of understanding and empathy, the path whose love was designed specifically for me, and was immense enough to be designed distinctly for each individual.

A large part of my journey since then has been arriving at the recognition and acknowledgment that the Divinity within me is just as important as the Divinity outside of me. I’m proud to say that I now exist in “the world of the Sacred Black Feminine in which [I can trust] my experience and embodied wisdom more than reason and tradition. “

So, to others who may be in my shoes, I would like to suggest that you may already know what you’re looking for and where to find it. Just trust yourself, and know that there is indeed a Divine Being who knows you and your experiences so well that she might just be you.

Signed,

N.A.

Black Women’s Exile

Exile. I’ve been pondering the concept quite a bit of late. Merriam-Webster has two definitions of the word: (1) the state or a period of forced absence from one’s country or home; and (2) the state or a period of voluntary absence from one’s country or home.

There is only one word of difference between the two definitions: “forced” versus “voluntary.” And I ask myself, who has ever voluntarily been in exile?? Is an exit voluntary simply because no one is physically pushing you out?

Tiffanie Drayton’s Black American Refugee elucidates how the United States’ relationship to Black people is abusive. Her book follows her journey of leaving two abusive relationships, one with her partner, and one with America, and returning to her home in Trinidad. Did Tiffanie choose exile?

In the autobiography of Assata Shakur, she details the witch hunt carried out by the US government and its security forces, that came very close to taking her life on more than one occasion, which led to her fleeing to Cuba. Did Assata choose exile?

Blue by Emmelie Prophète details the lives of (fictional) Black women who are trying to escape life in a country with the misfortune of being a former colony and not a former colonizer. But she laments that all that is truly achieved are lonely funerals that loved ones on both sides are too distant and too poor to attend. Do they too choose exile?

So what exactly is a “voluntary” exile? Maybe it is choosing personal liberation over hollow promises of opportunity; choosing a hard life over no life at all.

But are these really choices at all?

Another interesting detail of Merriam-Webster’s definitions is the use of the phrase “country or home.” While the dichotomy of “forced” versus “voluntary” exile leaves me disconcerted, I am at the same time affirmed by the explicit distinction between “country” and “home.” The type of exile I am most intrigued by is the type that afflicts those for whom country and home are not synonymous.

What makes a country a possession if not a feeling of home? What allows for ease of tongue in the utterance of the phrase “my country”? Is it the seal and color of a passport? Is it the culmination of one’s life experiences within a particular border? And what makes a home if there is no country on which it stands? Is it the language of one’s dreams? Is it the smell of a favorite dish ?

Maybe exile is the empty space in the Venn diagram of country and home. Maybe exile is the absence of the privilege, bestowed on so few, to see no delineation between country and home, between passport and pass the plate, between mother tongue and motherland.

It seems to me that there is no choice when it comes to exile. It seems to me that there is only a force, from within or without, but usually both, yearning for a reality in which home and country, and liberation and dignity can all coincide.

Ụmụ Nwanyị Akwụkwọ: Crossing the Diaspora

everyman by M Shelly Conner

In my very first signed, N.A. blog post, I wrote that “I have found books to be an incredibly candid mirror upon which to self reflect.” This still rings true, but perhaps in a different sense than I originally intended. The book that catalysed my now voracious reading habit, and hence is the seed that sprouted this blog, was Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (read my lit musing of it here). Now that was a book in which I truly felt reflected! The commonalities between myself and the protagonist really blew me away. However, as I’ve continued on this bibliophilic journey, I’ve found books can also be a mirror in a “pot calling the kettle black” kind of way: We’re both black – many times we’re even both Black – but we’re definitely different shapes, we have different backgrounds and different experiences, yet it seems there’s something to this shared color and shared fire under our asses that can lead us down a pathway of connection and insight.

I’m aware that this may come off vague, and maybe even like a metaphor gone too far, but I’ll elaborate. Reading everyman by M Shelly Conner was like following a secret pathway I never knew existed, convincing myself I was lost, then ending up at my own front door, home. Everyman’s protagonist Eve is a woman on a mission to discover herself. An orphan and a product of the Great Migration, Eve feels lost, and hopes retracing her family tree will also give some shape to her own identity.

Eve and I have very different stories and very different histories. As a Black person in the United States whose ancestors do not trace back to the western portion of the Atlantic slave trade, I often find myself pushing against the confines of a perceived monolithic Black America. I sometimes feel as if variations of this erroneous perception follow me around, even as I’ve left the US to live in other parts of the Americas. Furthermore, I am well aware that my disdain for being mischaracterized as “the wrong kind of Black” has nothing to do with these other cultures, and everything to do with what I perceive as a deficit in my own Igbo-ness.

All of this to say, I don’t read a book like everyman, about a character like Eve, expecting anything other than a great story; but, everyman gave me so much more! I see so many parts of myself in Eve; we share a visceral and intimate sense of a great unknown and an insatiable impulse to search and find. I found myself buoyed and comforted by everyman‘s numerous depictions of influential and integral Black women who assisted Eve on her journey of self-discovery; and, I recognized in them so many of those who have and continue to help me on my own journey. I often marvel at the African diaspora for its multitude of iterations around the world, but this time around, I was awed by the ties that bind.

Signed,

N.A.


p.s. I would also like to recognize all of the extraordinary Black women characters in everyman whom I left unnamed, Eve is definitely a product of her invaluable community and heredity. If you’d like to read more stories about real-life extraordinary Black women, take a look at my 3-part series for The Conflicted Womanist entitled An Ode to Black Women who Resist: Revolution, Activism, & Rest.