Preaching as an outsider

February 17th, 2022
Available from MinistryMatters

The experiences of being black, woman, and preacher establishes a particular persona. In addition, there are the expectations of the listener. In other words, the content and style of black women’s preaching are extensions of both their social location and the high expectations of their preaching.

Social location and religious practices often relegate black women to an outsider-within position, not only in life at-large but also in their communities of faith. If we are to engage the preaching of black women on its own terms, we cannot adequately do so without considering how their lived experiences are shaped by the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and gender. The experiences of present-day black women in North America are connected to a history that differentiates their experiences of racism from those of black men and their experiences of sexism from those of other women.

One aspect of black women’s history in North America is the experience of being a captured—or caged—group for the social and economic gain of other individuals. The most recognizable aspects of this captivity are in the transatlantic slave trade. The less visible, but no less stigmatizing, aspects of being caged are the domestic servitude that followed the era of slavery and its ongoing mutations; their offspring yield income gaps, healthcare disparities, and higher death rates for these women in the twenty-first century. The realities of slavery and servitude are portraits of the social, and conversely economic, categories to which others have assigned black women based on race and gender. Indeed, both institutions were concrete realities and continue to loom as metaphors for the system of social control that still mitigate black women’s struggles for social equality.[1] Black women’s assigned social locations have often led to their erasure, invisibility, and a controlled narrative surrounding the significance of their presence in history.[2]

The limited power given to black women to record and document their own herstory perpetuates ideologies about them as opposed to promoting their writing and inscribing their own identities. We see this limited power in the sparse historical documents of black women’s preaching and sermons that predate the twentieth century.[3] The result is the perpetuation of descriptors placed upon black women, or none at all, as opposed to descriptions and documentation of the lives of black women written by black women. Historically, black women, as both black and woman, remain(ed) as outsiders-within[4] movements that have been classified as either black or woman, as their voices are not directly engaged in conversations that pertain to their existence. Our understandings of preaching are not excluded from this critique, yet these understandings are further shaped by the gendered dynamics in communities of faith.

As communities of faith adopt theological ideas and explications of suffering from early Christian traditions, they simultaneously solidify troublesome gender relations and the injustices perpetuated by such understandings of gender and power. The early Christian traditions rely on themes of male dominance, righteousness versus unrighteousness, and sanctified suffering. The acceptance and adoption of theological ideals and explications of suffering inherent in the Christian tradition have yet to be fully interrogated by faith communities on the ground under the guise of liberation and its implications on the lives and status of black women. This lack of robust interrogation of the tradition by some faith communities results in ongoing gendered power imbalances within these same communities. Many churches continue to relegate the position of black women to a subordinate status.

The symptomatic issues of the intra-group tension between black women and men are demonstrated through the struggles of women who preach, pastor, serve, and attend predominantly black Protestant churches in the United States.[5] Women account for the largest base in black church congregations yet are disproportionately represented in roles of pastoral leadership. While women are often excluded from positions of primary leadership along with ministries of teaching and preaching at senior levels, women are “allowed” to pursue the positions of administrative assistants, teachers of children and of some adult Sunday school classes, and leaders of women’s auxiliaries; they are also expected to fully support if not undergird the financial vitality of the churches. Both men and women restrict the participation of women within churches, yet their participation is vital within these churches for the institution’s flourishing and continued existence. These politics of power have led to conceptualizing the black preacher as black and male in rather robust narratives and images. The robust depiction of the black preacher as specifically male sharply contrasts with an underdeveloped, if not lacking, image of the-black-preaching-woman. This underdeveloped image of the-black-preaching-woman leads to underdeveloped understandings of black women’s preaching ministries.

Evidence of these underdeveloped aspects of both the black-preaching-woman and her preaching is found within their absorption into conversations about black and women’s preaching traditions via limited distinction from their preaching peers in a way that accounts for their experiences as both black and woman.[6] The-black-preaching-woman becomes invisible within discourses about black preaching, as often these discourses have focused historically on black men; likewise, the-black-preaching-woman becomes invisible within discourses about women’s preaching, as these discourses have focused historically on white women. All the women are white; all the preachers are men.[7]

Even as race, class, and gender are common contributing factors in the lives of black women, thus requiring the categories of black and woman to be interrogated more fully, we cannot assume a common experience amongst black women. All black women do not respond to and experience the meeting of race, sexuality, class, and gender in the same manner.[8] There are a variety of black women’s experiences, and with these different experiences comes different forms of outsider-within privileges. For instance, the distinctives between women from different socioeconomic backgrounds is palpable. The ongoing iterations of race, class, and gendered discrimination in the lives of black women, as opposed to symmetry in experience, allow us to retain social location as an important starting point in understanding their lives, religious practices, and preaching.

Every black woman does not struggle with trusting her judgment or preaching voice. But to be sure, we live in a world that has violently contested the presence of black women’s voices and bodies. These contestations are not disconnected from racist, sexist, and classist frameworks. And these frameworks are connected to the invisibility and erasure of a complex portrait of black-preaching-women, especially within communities of faith.

The image of the black preacher presents a male with rhetorical prowess, a voice of thunder, and the ability to move the community to ecstasy highs while weaving together the life of the text and life in the world.[12] Similarly, black preaching is etched as holding in tension the experience of the community with an all-powerful God; it is emotive, keeping with a particular rhythm and cadence, and includes aspects of celebration that intentionally bring the heart, body, and mind together in the preaching moment. Whether individuals actively resist or adopt this practice of preaching, it functions as a narrative that links black preaching to a particular performance of masculinity in pulpit space and rhetoric. Thus, it links the practice of preaching to masculinity, privileging the bodily productions of a particular type of a heterosexual black cisgender male over the hopes of an encounter with proclamation.

There has not been “one conductor” or “wizard” behind the image’s perpetuation; to the contrary, the image has been “collectively orchestrated” by various facets of history.[13] Black women also engage and participate in this understanding when they preach, both by force and choice. Women, who preach within these traditions, constantly imagine and invent their sermons in conversation with and in juxtaposition to the tradition and its inherent power in a community; this requires both creativity and ingenuity[14] for the sake of (re)imagining both the sermon and preaching. The result is a spectrum of approaches to preaching by black women, who are aware of the elusive yet overt parameters that mark “legitimate” preaching.

When expectations centered on performances of masculinity determine what is and is not valid preaching, these expectations render black women as bodies of difference or bodies desired to be unseen in the pulpit (desired invisible). Black women are displaced from the pulpit and their citizenship status within the community is that of outsider. As these women continue to participate within these communities and around these understandings of preaching, they are inextricably a part of a system. However, as they are embedded within the structures of these communal expectations, they also creatively engage the power postulated by the tradition and its guardians. Their preaching is the tactical expression of their own creativity and ingenuity.[15] Black preaching women riff off of the expectations of preaching and its ephemeral scaffolding, for the sake of the hope and ethics preaching espouses—a word from God that fosters life abundant. As they do this, preaching becomes the means by which synthetic practices of preaching are disrupted in both more hushed and resounding ways; in turn, the community generates new possibilities and means of understanding preaching as its members are able to say, “This ‘too’ is preaching!”[16]

Womanist practical theologians and homileticians intentionally work to name the resounding ways of disrupting synthetic faith practices that are overwhelmingly male preferential. Evelyn Parker notes that one of the concerns germane to womanist practical theology is the consideration for how “pastoral and ecclesial praxis bring about life-giving ministries for the flourishing of black women and girls, the black community, and the entire world.”[17] To these ends, homiletician Teresa Fry Brown describes black women’s preaching as a practice that can directly confront injustices and transform religious spaces and traditions. She specifically describes black women’s preaching as having the potential to “renovate sorrow’s kitchen” (her metaphor for the black church) through using the “tools of renovation.”[18] The tools of renovation involve the preacher using “a fresh reading of the text” and “relentlessly engaging injustices,” as she articulates her standard of justice and carves out her own space.[19] Fry Brown makes clear that the presence of a black woman in the pulpit creates new visions for both the image of preacher and the image of justice; and it is equally clear that the work of the womanist preacher does not stop at pulpit presence. In a similar trajectory, Donna E. Allen pushes for a trans-rationale understanding of womanist preaching, which explicitly attends to the linguistic, ethical, and embodied dimensions of liberationist preaching by black women.[20] The emphasis in these intentional modes of disruption is the assumption that black women have the capacity to act and their actions have moral dimensions that affect their lives and the lives of their communities.


[1] In White Women’s Christ, Black Women’s Jesus, Grant argues that the historical realities of slavery and black women in domestic service most adequately demonstrate the intersectionality of realities of race, gender, and class in the lives of black women (see Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response, American Academy of Religion Academy Series [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989], 6). Black feminist criticism has also noted the systematic social control over the lives and imaging of black women based on economic, political, and ideological dimensions. Such social control has consisted of assigning black women a subordinate place in the world, defining stereotypes, and showing their erasure from the body politic. This includes their imagining as mammy, Jezebel, mother, breeder, and outright invisibility (see Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, rev. 10th ed. [New York: Routledge, 2000], 4–5; and Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” chap. 8 in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003]).

[2] Hortense J. Spillers explains African American women exist as a different female gendered being than women of the dominant culture as it relates to their presence in American discourse and history. This is primarily due to the influences of oppression as it relates to their race, placing them outside of traditional symbols of female gender, making them a “different social subject” (see Spillers, “Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe”).

[3] See Bettye Collier-Thomas, Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons, 1850–1979, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1998).

[4] In her 1984 book Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde discusses how “in a patriarchal power system, where white-skinned privilege is a major prop, the entrapments used to neutralize black women and white women are not the same.” Also, she continues to explain the mislabeling of black women as “anti-Black” when they are expressing “anti-sexist” sentiments in the battle against “racial erasure” that both black women and men face (see Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches [Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007], 118–20).

[5] See Cheryl Gilkes, If It Wasn’t for the Women: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001); Marcia Riggs, Plenty Good Room: Women Versus Male Power in the Black Church (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2003); Cheryl Gilkes, “There Is a Work for Each One of Us: The Socio-Theology of the Rev. Florence Spearing Randolph,” chap. 9 in How Long This Road: Race, Religion, and the Legacy of C. Eric Lincoln, ed. Alton B. Pollard and L. H. Whelchel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 131–34; and Delores C. Carpenter, “A Time to Honor: A Portrait of African American Clergywomen,” chap. 10 in How Long This Road.

[6] For more on black women, preaching, and religious life, see Teresa L. Fry Brown, Weary Throats and New Songs: Black Women Proclaiming God’s Word (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003); Bettye Collier-Thomas, "Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons, 1850– 1979"; Chanta M. Haywood, "Prophesying Daughters: Black Women Preachers and the Word, 1823–1913"; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, "Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920" (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); and Marcia Riggs, Can I Get a Witness? Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women: An Anthology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997).

[7] This is a play on the title of the edited volume by Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith entitled All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1982).

[8] See Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 25.

[9] Roxanne Mountford discusses the contested rhetorical spaces of the pulpit in American Protestantism and the conceptualization of preaching and its rhetoric as a “manly art” (see Mountford, The Gendered Pulpit: Preaching in American Protestant Spaces, Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003]).

[10] Preaching as a historical practice shapes the structures of its continuation and those structures postulate power. Preaching is both a product of environments and their histories and a tool by which bodies of difference engage their environments. For more on practices, their questioned adoption, and the role of the body in that adoption, see Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2007), 71, 94.

[11] Every performance of masculinity does not count and is not recognized within the historical image of the black preacher. One has to note the intersection of sexuality and the performance of masculinity as they relate to the male bodies who are historically allowed to occupy pulpit space in black worship spaces and those who are restricted from pulpit space but readily accepted as ministers of worship or music. Alisha L. Jones attends to the perceived performance of masculinity and sexuality as it takes shape within black worship spaces, specifically that of music ministries, and the limits of such performativity in perceived spaces of authority such as the pulpit (see Alisha L. Jones, “Are All the Choir Directors Gay? Black Men’s Sexuality and Identity in Gospel Performance” in Issues in African American Music: Power, Gender, Race, & Representation, ed. Portia K. Maultsby and Mellonee V. Burnim [New York: Routledge, 2017], 216–35).

[12]The image of the black preacher has some continuity with the “slave preacher”; likewise, the slave preacher’s notable characteristics have continuity with characteristics of prominent black preachers during the twentieth-century civil rights era. The ability to both control and incite resistance was rooted in the preacher’s rhetorical prowess often alongside his illiteracy. The marks of leadership, communication, and rhetorical prowess exhibited by the slave preacher can be identified with prominent public preacher figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, whose ministries sparked larger societal interest in black preaching and homiletical discourse. We also see etchings of the image of the black preacher in film and art, which further solidify this image of a cultural product that is continually signified on and reinscribed. For more on the image of the black preacher, see Benjamin Albert Botkin, Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989); H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., Images of the Black Preacher: The Man Nobody Knows (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1977); and James Weldon Johnson and Henry Louis Gates, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2008).

[13] Pierre Bourdieu proposes that environments produce systems and durable strategies that are collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrated actions of a conductor (see Bourdieu, Outline

[14] Katie Cannon argues that through ingenuity black women create a set of values that are more than those imposed on them; as moral agents, they discern genuine choices on their own terms for living in the here and now, and these possibilities are sources of hope (see Katie Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006], 44, 161).

[15] Practice theories distinguish between those actions that are strategies and those that are tactics. Michel de Certeau describes a strategy as the postulation of power; whereas a tactic is the absence of strategic power and specifically the “art” of the system’s weak and the means by which individuals “make do.” The system’s weak is Certeau’s descriptor of those with less power. Preaching itself is made up of strategies that have been established over time. As preaching is engaged by minoritized bodies, it has potential as a tactical means of asserting one’s agency and personhood over and against the same systems that have excluded them from preaching (see Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984], xix, 37–38).

[16] I have written elsewhere about the expansion of communal preaching practices as a result of the tactical expression of individual agency through preaching. See Lisa Thompson, “‘Now That’s Preaching!’: Disruptive and Generative Preaching Practices,” Practical Matters 8 (March 2015), -thats-preaching/.

[17] Evelyn Parker, “Womanist Theory,” in The Wiley Companion to Practical Theology, ed. Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, 1st ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 2012), 204–5.

[18] Teresa Fry Brown, “An African American Woman’s Perspective: Renovating Sorrow’s Kitchen,” in Preaching Justice, Christine Smith, ed. (Minneapolis: Wipf & Stock, 1998).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Donna E. Allen, Toward a Womanist Homiletic: Katie Cannon, Alice Walker, and Emancipatory Proclamation (New York: Peter Lang, 2013).

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