Oluwatomisin Oredein on Traci West
As a Nigerian-American woman my identity is liminal. I am often reminded that I am a Black woman, but not really Black American; I am an African woman but not quite African enough. Interestingly enough my liminal plights intersect in some of the same places as African American and continental African women: my race is a problem for some; my audacity to live outside of my culture’s gender assignments insult the sensibilities of others. Problems I encounter are the common song of many Black women of African descent; but although Black women may have problems in common, the stories around them are distinct.
This curious intersection of similitude and distinction or particularity captures the difficulty of a work like Traci West’s: is it possible to speak about African descended women’s experiences of oppression if they are so palpably shaped by different contexts?
African American experiences are not the same as Afro-Latina, African, Caribbean, or Afro-Asiatic experiences because of from whence they grow. The context of experience, matters. Women of African descent spend significant time disentangling their actual desires from those that their culture or religion, or often religious-influenced culture, have told them they should have. They devote energy to dismantling the images and narratives colonialism or patriarchy has assigned them. The violence done to Black women because of their race and gender foregrounds the importance of the work Traci West introduces.
In Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence West tries to counter faulty historicizing by giving Black women their stories back, by letting them tell themselves. She journeys the world in order to authentically narrate how “gender-based violence” infiltrates the lives of women of African descent. “The term,” West writes, “draws attention to the ways in which gender expression is a key aspect in the targeting of women and girls. It highlights how violence thrives on widespread cultural assumptions about appropriate gender behavior that often reflect[s] constricted binary and heteronormative criteria.” West intentionally investigates “the role of culture in addressing gender-based violence, particularly on religious and racial dynamics.” How it manifests towards Black women integrates the question of race and colonial history; for these women, gender cannot be thought apart from the social implications of skin tone. Race and gender cannot be accurately fleshed out until it is understood that issues towards both are generated externally and pressed onto Africana women. Black women must be the primary ones to name this discrepancy: the problems others have with their bodies are not their own. Gender-based violence towards Africana women is born from the failed purview of another.
West, then, journeys towards Black women’s stories and accounts to prove gender-based violence a horrifying, universal, external reality. How Africana women know gender-based violence turns on both colonial and patriarchal cultural values, often grounded in or connected to religion. Yet the solution to religious justifications of racism and sexism is both sourced by women of color and must be affirmed by the larger community and governing systems in which they live. When it gets down to it, Black women cannot protect nor free themselves alone, but their communities must desire and participate in their liberation. This dynamic is previewed in part.
West as Storyteller
Throughout her career Traci West has interrogated the terror meted out upon women of African descent by communities close to as well as distant from them. Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality is no different. Africana spaces, West asserts, contain key wisdoms to identifying where gender-based violence is at work and to begin dismantling its grip on Black women’s lives. She peers through the portals of culture, colonialism, and religion to see if there might be a way through for Black women towards a liberated end.
Throughout, West heeds Africana women’s voices. She amplifies “activist leaders in other nations” including Ghana, Brazil, and South Africa in order to provide an objective critique of “tolerance for intimate violence against women and girls” through a methodology she calls “transnational, black feminist praxis.” But can this methodology fully take?
Though gender-based violence is common across cultures, I wonder: is it too ambitious to attempt to connect the cultural and religious threads of Black women’s stories across three continents? West is willing to try. She dedicates two chapters each to her narrative research in Ghana, Brazil, and South Africa in an attempt to do so. She notates how Black women’s wellness is generated through political advocacy and religious interrogation. But what’s more, she personally wrestles with the subject matter through her positionality to the project. West is not immune from the conversation of Black women’s wellness. Her experiences of race and gender in the U.S., contexts in themselves, tether her to the subject matter in more ways than one.
It bears stating, Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality is not West’s attempt to pretend she is an objective observing-expert, but it is a written documentary in which she names herself an outsider looking in, wondering towards solutions alongside other Black women she encounters. West does not hide her Black Americanness but names it as the purview from which she attempts to weave the stories and experiences of Africana women into one. She actively gathers information in her traveling between contexts: originating in the U.S. where Black persons are a minority in a Euro-American governed country, traveling into an African-majority, African governed country (Ghana), an Afro-Latino majority, Euro-Latino governed country (Brazil), and an African-majority, African-governed country with a recent colonial past (South Africa). I imagine the colonial legacy of race in each country is not lost on West; it is deeply connected to how she is conceiving what gender-based violence towards Black women looks like.
While context is mentioned, its implications could have had a more prominent role in examining the shape of gender-based violence within each location.
Created in Context
West continuously points to a connective thread between Africana women outside of gender-based violence I wanted her to bring out more as I think it foundational to her entire study: context. Gender-based violence is a significant detail in the grander narrative of differentiated contexts.
Within Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality, the reader is able to peer behind the curtain of West’s research to glimpse this. They witness firsthand the force of context, how contextuality burrows itself deeper and deeper into the project, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Though West works hard to keep gender-based violence against Africana women in front of the reader, I think it is ultimately the question of context that overwhelms the narrative and steals the spotlight. It forces itself into the lead role.
That African American women are not able to escape the narratives of U.S. racism and Black religious cultural sexism, Ghanaian women are fighting against cultural logics tied to a religion colonialism introduced, Brazilian women find agency and solace in religious ties within a cultural society reliant on racial caste systems, and South Africans still wrestle with barriers in conceiving sexuality outside the bounds of harmful religious categories not only illumine religion’s hold on how women of African descent may conduct or even have a life, but also how dependent their cultures have become on the tools once used to oppress them. Gender-based violence is a through-line only because each cultural context has chosen to create and conduct the rules of living in alignment with particular, often injurious, values.
Context cannot be escaped. Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality takes the reader into four different cultural worlds. Events that have shaped each community bubbles to the surface. I would venture to say this text is not primarily a resource in exploring the ethics of religion’s role in gender-based violence in various cultures as much as it is a resource about varying cultures, about contexts – what connects them, what makes them, how they are made under the weight of oppressive histories and self-determined futures. Africana women, West’s text most vividly reveals, wrestle with how their communities are trying to tell them(selves). Colonial oppressive history was not a choice for these communities; their life afterwards, however – towards either preservation, liberation, or a strange combination of both – has calcified Black women’s possibilities into racialized and sexualized molds.
The reader feels it throughout – West brings gender-based violence to the fore to create dialogue towards a solution, but how does one resolve the traumatic effects of colonialism on a culture’s identity, infrastructure, sense of kinship, understanding of personhood in racial and gendered registers, and potential to create and name itself? The questions surrounding cultural context spill everywhere.
It is clear that women’s oppression is a larger symptom of contextual depression. The racial and sexual stories Africana women have worked hard to undo in their lives – assumed licentiousness, being valued only when domestic, seen as only good for sex in trafficked or enslaved conditions, required to perform womanhood within hetero-patriarchal bounds, dealing with the psychological and physical effects of rape, and other traumas – are made manifest from the history of their environments.
The Role of the Religious
Many women are fighting for ways out from under oppressed histories. West tries to hone in on where the religious fits into this possibility. She lets religion be complicated. In Brazil, she notes instances where Candomblé has helped liberate women. In South Africa, she learned from some women that African Traditional Religion has helped them live with a sense of freedom and communal support. (206) Many leaders West encountered “intentionally drew upon their Christian, Islamic, Candomblé, or African Traditional religious beliefs as a wellspring for their antiviolence work.”
Unfortunately, the inverse is also true and arguably the stronger variable. The activists West spoke with repeatedly noted that religion as a whole was used as a tool to restrict women, especially Christianity. Many men (and women) in Ghana, Brazil, South Africa, and the U.S. have become tragic converts to a colonial, patriarchal Christianity that devalues women, especially Africana women, as one of its core practices. A community’s religious commitments, West helps the reader see, are demonstrated in how they treat their women, how they create meaning for them.
West too, the reader may also pick up on, may also be involved in religious meaning-making, hence her commitment to “defiant spirituality.” “[D]efiant spirituality” she states, “can undergird activist responses that demand the freeing of gender in social practices for the sake of enabling human thriving.” Through this work’s research method, it can be argued that West inadvertently participates in defiant spirituality, in doing some religious rearranging. She is not only primarily collecting data through stories, but also sourcing and authoring a different experience of Christianity for these women. In listening to and sharing the stories of Africana women (with their permission) West demonstrates that Christianity can be claimed and used as a liberating tool for Africana women’s thriving. It can prioritize women’s wellness by defying how religion has been used as a barrier.
West takes these women seriously. Activists in Brazil and South Africa especially name the need for victimized Africana women to have access to multifaceted emotions and affect; they need space to have an internal life. In some ways West is letting this be so through (the existence of) Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality. To allow women of African descent significant textual space to tell their stories in their own words is a nod to the complexity of these women’s lives and stories. West quietly advocates for Africana women by giving them a platform.
There are, however, many more dynamics to dissect within West’s work that continue to allow her project and its focus some complexity.
Accounting for Power
Outside of gender-based violence as a symptom of contextual trauma, West briefly mentions but does not fully deconstruct the steps required for Africana women’s liberation, especially as supporting such steps might crystalize how other Africana women might offer one another solidarity. The women in every context in which West writes – the U.S. Ghana, Brazil, and South Africa – all push for legislative reform. West notes this much but pauses instead of interrogating further how such reform might come about. What requires further investigation is from whom is such reform made possible.
Policy changes seem the most effective way to reform cultural society for Africana women, but the elephant in the room around legislative desire is gendered support or support from the opposite sex. Women need men to agree to women’s liberation and wellness. Lawmakers and policymakers must be influenced by these women’s stories in order to put reform in process. It seems a major hurdle to convince those who benefit most from the current structures of their cultural society to grant women equal voice and status within it.
Of course, women have sought justice for themselves on their own terms – the women’s police in Brazil for example illumines these women’s perseverance to obtain justice and protection (127-129). But overall, it seems that justice is not only a matter of women convincing men to want to protect them, but it is primarily a male-determining matter. Men have the power to end or continue women’s suffering – unfortunately, many have chosen its continuation.
If they wanted to protect women, men would have already done it. But again, undoing systems that sustain one’s current social and cultural status is a difficult ask, not because of moral reasons but because of systematic advantages. This dynamic is not lost on these women at all; powering through despite this disheartening reality has been their only recourse. Africana women’s consistent grassroots organizing over the years has been the only true way to budge the needle.
Black women have had to deal with the traumas of their contextual histories as well as others’; this is not a new phenomenon. With Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality, readers are at least able to see how their experiences have points in common with other women around the world and witness their efforts to fight for equal footing to their male and Euro counterparts. These women are not alone.
Africana women fight for their agency. Traci West acts as a griot for this Africana revolutionary becoming, documenting their journeys to freedom. She carefully recovers women’s voices lost to or drowned out by racist and sexist structures and creates a platform on and through which they can tell themselves. In ensuring their visibility Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality makes room for Africana women’s possibility and power.
Culture and religion do not have the final say about who Africana women are; these women do. And however they are able, they continue to fight to tell themselves – narrate their own stories – and call it history, tradition, and culture.
Dr. Oluwatomisin Oredein is a graduate of The University of Virginia (BA) and Duke Divinity School (MDiv). She completed her ThD at Duke in Theology and Ethics in May 2017. Her dissertation examined the theology and ethics of Mercy Oduyoye, which is the first time someone has focused this kind of attention on this theologian. In order to follow up on this work, she is in the process of completing a book which is tentatively titled, Mercy, Me: The Theo-Feminism of Mercy Amba Oduyoye. In addition, Dr. Oredein has contributed several articles to academic and professional journals, chapters and essays in edited volumes, and has published several pieces of poetry. She is an Assistant Professor in Black Religious Traditions, Constructive Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity, and she is Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church, USA.