(This is part 2 of a 3-part series on black women and dating in Madison)
In 1851, abolitionist and feminist icon Sojourner Truth spit one of the most iconic freestyles in American history with her address, “Ain’t I a Woman.” Her speech, delivered to The Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, spoke truth to power, challenging prevailing ideas about the status of women during the antebellum era.
Onlookers reported that Truth pointed out a clergyman and declared: “That little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”
About 165 years later, Black women, particularly women of faith, still grapple with Sojourner Truth’s conundrum: How do you reconcile womanist politics with the inherent patriarchy of the church? Is it possible to simultaneously profess your faith and affirm your personhood within the confines of your religion?
Although Sojourner Truth gave her speech within the context of the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, Black women are still held to many of the antiquated expectations of dating and relationships within the confines of their religious beliefs. Madison-based socialpreneur and resident relationship expert, Sabrina “Heymiss Progress” Madison, routinely hears stories from Black women who express frustration about romance and faith. “Women who are committed to the church are very much burdened by the expectations of the church. You are burdened just as a woman by society, by what patriarchy says a woman is supposed to be in a relationship and then burdened by the church.”
My great-grandparents met at a church in Heidelberg, Mississippi in the 1930s. According to family lore, during a brief visit to his hometown from Chicago, my great-grandfather saw my great-grandmother at a service and proposed to her two weeks later. They were married for over 60 years. The generation gap is evident as our grandmothers, aunts, and mothers of the church uphold these examples and ideals as beacons of hope for their millennial descendants as we navigate a vastly different dating scene. Kira Stewart recalls older women in her family suggesting that she look to the left and the right in the pews on Sunday for a partner. However, Stewart prefers to keep her spiritual and romantic lives separate.
“The thought of going to church and treating it like [a club?’] I don’t want to,” she says. “My spiritual and my Christian life are sacred. I am not in that mindset when I go to church. It’s almost insulting as a single Black woman that I am looking for a man everywhere that I go.”
Jokingly, she adds, “If I do happen to find a man [at church], I will throw a little extra in the collection plate that Sunday.”
When Britney Sinclair, a Madison native who grew up in a Christian household, came of age, she thought the church would be a great place to find a partner.
Britney Sinclair says “The person that I meet in church they are not going to fit the morals and values that I agree with; [Morals and values like] you have to be the woman of the house…that’s not me.”[/caption]
“Traditionally I thought that church would be the best fit for finding a man, turns out it’s not. Those are the most condescending men I’ve met,” she says. “Maybe it’s my personal situation dealing with men in church, but I am just not with it … church is judgmental itself and that is not the lifestyle I live. The person that I meet in church, they are not going to fit the morals and values that I agree with. [Morals and values like] you have to be the woman of the house … that’s not me.”
Angela Fitzgerald is active in her faith, and although she does not feel like her church home in Madison explicitly expounds patriarchal views, she does see how women can feel subjugated by Christianity.
“I saw a video on Facebook, it was a guy speaking at a women’s conference and he was talking about the verse ‘when a man finds a wife he finds a good thing,’ Fitzgerald recalls. “He was asking women, ‘Are you a wife? Will he find you as a wife, not as a girlfriend?’ That’s cool, but are you talking to men saying ‘Are you a husband or a boyfriend?’ To me, it’s that Steve Harvey theology of just talking to women, assuming men are straight and women need to get themselves together.”
Sarah Ishmael, who moved to Madison recently to pursue her doctorate, brings the same level of analysis to her interpretation of the Bible as she does to her graduate studies. “Personally, the way I read the Bible is very different. I am also very aware that it is a human male construction of the word … it makes me very ill to have a man’s interpretation of Proverbs 31 without an interpretation that I know is through a feminist lens.”
Despite acute awareness of patriarchy, some women still feel compelled to pander to these social constructs for the sake of finding a partner. Some women even go as far as tempering their tongues for the sake of protecting the black male ego. The women that I interviewed shared several stories about everything from feigning interest in mundane topics to playing into the “damsel in distress” role in order to make Black men they’ve dated feel more secure in their patriarchy.
“I’m feeding the patriarchy,” one sista admits. “I am feeding his ego. I am sitting here because he is a black man in Madison and because I want his interest, so I am going to sit here and play like I can’t make 2 plus 2 equal 4.”
Another sista nods in agreement, “I don’t want to give him this impression that I don’t need him. I don’t want this black man to think that strong black women don’t need him. I realized I was doing it and I was so mad at myself.”
Perhaps the answer to Truth’s call for ladies to turn this world right side up again lies in our ability to connect spiritually within ourselves and one another. As sista scholar Ntozake Shange reminds us, “Find God in yourself … and love her fiercely.”