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.

Ịhụnanya, the price of vision

Of course after years of having absolutely no interest in romance novels, Akwaeke Emezi would be the one to reel me into page-turning devotion of their chaotic yet indisputably alluring protagonist Feyi. You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty begins with a sex scene *eye roll*. Personally, sex scenes are my least favorite parts of books, and not even necessarily because of the explicitness, but mainly because reading through one, no matter how relevant and integral it is to the storyline, always makes me wrestle with the urge to shriek “ooh girl, that is not my business!” and close the book. But again, Emezi worked their magic and had me hella uncomfy but undeniably intrigued by Feyi and the rando she was hooking up with. But the true magic of Fool of Death and its genius author is the ability to start off with a bang (pun intended) and still convey that though the forthcoming story plays with vanity, it is most assuredly a serious matter of the heart and soul.

Feyi, the bearer and creator of the beauty the title refers to, is the ultimate protagonist. Throughout the book, the reader is enthralled to follow her down a path that at times seems just messy and at others seems downright unforgivable. Yet the intimacy with which Emezi bears Feyi to the reader ensures no other reaction to her chaos than complete loving support. Feyi is a character we all want to win, and that desire caused me to sincerely interrogate myself as to what I believe love is really worth.

The Igbo word for love is ịhụnanya. A literal translation of ịhụnanya is to see in the eye. I love you: a hụrụ m gị n’anya. Literally: I see you in the eye. What a pure interpretation of what it means to love, to truly see someone… the eye: a window to the soul. Is that what a soulmate is? Someone who sees you in the eye, who sees your soul? If so, what is this vision really worth? Feyi compromises friendship, work, societal opinion, maybe even morals for a chance at this sort of love, this sight into the soul. Would I do the same?

To be honest, I’m really not sure. But the fact that Akwaeke Emezi conjured this whimsical depiction from fiction makes my imagination of the real thing all the more invaluable and worthy of sacrifice.

I came away from Fool of Death feeling enlivened, for death truly is a fool in the face of this kine beauty.

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.

Searching for Treasure

He understood this, perhaps: that a child can long for a parent in a way that a parent can never long for a child. He was fully formed when I was born, while I have always been missing a father.

Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

From the first page of Sankofa, I was immediately concerned with perspective. Though the book is a novel, I quickly became skeptical about the level of authenticity with which such a young author could write from the viewpoint of a middle aged woman. But, as I became acquainted with Anna (the protagonist), I realized her imminent journey required her to contend with the needs, desires, and deficiencies not of her current self, but of her inner child. And that is a journey familiar to many.

Throughout Sankofa, Anna searches for her father, first literally, then for a ghost of his past self, before finally arriving at a nuanced reality. This is her primary search, and it is deserving of its own independent reflection. But it is not just a father she finds, in fact she finds another piece of herself to be missing: an entire culture.

A culture that she will never fit into, for the time has passed and her ship has sailed. But also a culture that may not have ever been hers, even with all the should haves and would haves and could haves regret has to offer. Some things are simply not meant to be. True as that may be though, I applaud Anna for wanting and searching anyway, for taking what she could get, and for having no shame in her desperation.

I am planning, or perhaps have already embarked on a journey of this sort. A journey in which I already know that what I want is too much, what I’m searching for I may never find, and what I get will simply have to suffice. A journey in which the Cartesian me will not be made up of wholes and voluntary contributions, but rather of bits and pieces and castaway scraps.

As the saying goes: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Treasure I will do and treasure I will be.

Signed,

N.A.

Beauty and Beast: On Grief and Care

There is the Turkish word hüzün, which cannot be translated into English. Instead of meaning a simple sadness or suffering it denotes a collective, Istanbul-wide phenomenon that some call spiritual, some call nostalgic, but the one thing we know for sure is that the word exists because it is pridefully shared with others. The ideal is not to escape this suffering, but to carry this suffering.

The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin

For my eighth birthday – the one that occurred just weeks after my father’s untimely death – one of my aunts gifted me a special copy of Beauty and the Beast. At first glance it appeared to be a run of the mill Disney picture book, but further inspection revealed that I, along with my brother and cousins, were included in the story as Belle’s friends and helpers. Despite my indifference to princesses at the time, and my growing recognition of and annoyance with Disney’s portrayal of princesses as I got older, this gift is the sole reason that, to this day, I have an answer to the terribly unoriginal question Who is your favorite Disney princess? I still take this 30-page knock-off book – containing a story that I now consider highly problematic – with me everywhere I live because it is one of very few bright spots in what I remember as a very dark time.

I want to say that grief is ugly, or horrid, or awful. But grief is also two-faced in that it manages to be both beauty and beast simultaneously. Grief has an incredible talent for warping perception. Sibel, the protagonist in The Four Humors, is buckling under the weight of grief after the death of her father. She is losing herself while also indulging her wonder by searching for a new self. She exhibits impressive fortitude, or stubbornness, by expressly ignoring the concerns of others and continuing her off beat path through grief.

Sibel eats. Sibel gains weight. Sibel smokes. Sibel is sometimes mean. Sibel walks, but is actually marching due to the sheer tiredness of life. Sibel lies, to everyone, at different times. Sibel is ill, and Sibel is selfish. And in all these ways, Sibel grieves.

But Sibel also cares, immensely. Sibel cares for the comfort of her lover in a strange land. Sibel cares for her grandmother and Sibel cares for her baby sister, both of whom are dying in different ways. Sibel cares to know her great aunt despite her unforgivable past. And in all these ways, Sibel grieves.

The next time I find I must reacquaint with grief, I hope I allow myself to do so with as much poetry and shamelessness and collective melancholy as Sibel; if even just for one day.

Sibel embarks on her summer in Istanbul with a directive to care and a need to grieve. One might wonder if the two can be done simultaneously, but from Sibel it’s learned they are one in the same: beauty and beast.

Signed,

N.A.