The pursuit of equality and self worth is an innate human yearning and the bulwark of American democracy. To be sure, in his stunning Inaugural Address, President Barack Obama lauded the great political achievements of “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.” With February being African American History Month, this dialogue is significant.
By gradually building the U.S. Constitution, including the creation of the Bill of Rights and myriad amendments, Americans have strived for fairness among all citizens. From our inception in the 1700s to the Civil War to the advent of female suffrage and to the modern Civil Rights Movement, our country has mesmerized with egalitarian ideas. Our good and revolutionary journey, codified in law, still inspires today: we continue to seek freedom and dignity in all facets of society.
Alongside our country’s political advancements has been the evolution of American religion, and its employment by African American women is an apotheosis of how faith has helped America become a more tolerant nation free from oppression. African American women have endured unfathomable suffering through the centuries, yet they also have exhibited tremendous resilience. For them, religion has buttressed their path to human majesty. Divinity has saved them from despair and subjugation.
Black slave women survived terrible exploitation in the antebellum South. In her book, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, historian Jacqueline Jones delineates how white slave owners barbarically debilitated black female slaves. They were forced to perform egregiously grueling work. They were separated from their families, and they suffered whippings.
Despite these dismal conditions, black female slaves carved out a sense of autonomy. They worked hard to nurture the semblance of families and kin they had, and they embraced religion as a refuge from their plight.
In her book Sisters and Saints, religious historian Ann Braude described how slave-owners taught Christianity to their slaves even though Christianity could not be reconciled with slavery. Slaves were taught to be benign mothers and wives, yet they were separated from their families for profit. But the essence of Christianity consoled black female slaves. According to Braude, “While slaves had no legal rights, they knew that at the final judgment a signal standard would apply to all.” The promise of a heavenly equality and freedom soothed them.
After emancipation and during Reconstruction, black women’s conditions were mixed, Jones described. While they experienced a greater family stability, they were also mired in “de jure segregation, disfranchisement, white-initiated race riots, and lynching,” she said. While the Civil War amendments to the Constitution promised equality, slave women and their families had no access to their good own land to make these amendments a reality. They became sharecroppers and encountered the immobilizing force of debt peonage. “They did not own their equipment, nor could they market their crop independent of the landlord,” Jones wrote.
Yet religion offered solace. Black religious institutions grew and offered a soulful respite from the onerous work of sharecropping, Jones wrote. “Black women found a ‘psychological center’ in religious belief, and the church provided strength for those overcome by the day-to-day to business of living,” she said. Moreover, black women became good leaders of the Methodist and Baptist churches.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, the modern Civil Rights Movements began and flourished. Post-World War II, the NAACP saw its members grow. The National Urban League challenged racism in America and fascism in the world. These epochal strides led to the dismantling of Jim Crow and disenfranchisement via “lunch-counter sit-ins, freedom rides and challenges to voting restrictions,” Jones wrote.
In the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the black church was the foundation for civil disobedience. Women in churches embraced the religiously-inspired philosophy of nonviolence. While black men mostly led congregations, black women sang freedom songs in church which, Jones said, “confounded onlooking sheriffs and deputies.”
Additionally, the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), suffused with religious iconography, treated black women protesters mostly as equals.
From the late 1960s to the present era, black women have dealt with issues of poverty, employment, family and community. As in the past, black women have relied on kin for spiritual and material dignity and subsistence. Government has also assisted black women and their families.
Additionally, black women have developed African American liberation theology which assures that Jesus will liberate the oppressed. This idea has segued into a feminist theology for all women. Women have reinterpreted the Bible. They have stressed the female attributes of God and created female names for God.
America is a country of idealism and hope. It is a country in which principles of equality, freedom, self-esteem and fairness are woven into our laws and praised in our religions. African American women have combined a pining for political rights with a reaching for a benevolent God in a manner that is purely American.