The day after the 2016 presidential election, I visited New Orleans, one of the most politically progressive cities in the South. While wandering the art studios in the Bourbon Street area, I encountered a white sculptor who, upon hearing that I taught at Duke Divinity School, burst into zealous tears. Her collar soggy with snot and runny mascara, she articulated the disillusionment that many New Orleanians felt in the aftermath of Trump’s election.
“This election is so devastating,” she lamented. “Is there any hope? Where is God in the midst of this?”
Her sorrow didn’t surprise me; after all, over 80% of New Orleans’ voters had opted for Hillary Clinton. Moreover, I understood her sense of abandonment in the political realm and her earnest questioning of God’s reliability in the midst of her pain. She wasn’t just experiencing a finite terror, like “this particular person or situation is unsafe.” Rather, she was experiencing a comprehensive terror, like “the world is completely unsafe, and I now know I cannot trust the people and institutions I’ve trusted in the past.” This type of terror is incredibly destabilizing, and her spiritual belief system crumbled under its weight.
Is there any hope? This is a question Black people have been collectively asking for centuries as we have been traumatized by one bogus elected official after another. It’s a question that Black LGBTQ+ people have been asking as they encounter condemnation and rejection in many Black church spaces. It’s a question that more and more white women, like the New Orleanian sculptor, have been asking since Donald Trump was elected and Justice Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court despite being accused of sexually assaulting Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a white woman. It’s a question many American citizens have asked of a government supposedly founded on “Christian” values, yet that systematically terrorizes, imprisons, and divides the families of undocumented immigrants. It’s a question that people are asking as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to collaborate with social inequality to ravage the most vulnerable.
All over the world, the belief in a God who is with us and for us is cracking.
The question reverberates in our souls during times of terror, because spirituality, in part, is about relying on a Power greater than ourselves. During times of fear, uncertainty, and distress, many spiritual people look to the Divine for protection, clarity, and guidance.
What happens when you can’t trust the Power you’re supposed to rely on? What happens when that Power is so closely linked to human greed, political power, patriarchy, and white supremacy that it is no longer recognizable? Being both Black and female in the aftermath of Trump’s election in 2016, I began to connect the dots between the cultural idea of a white male God and my incessant fear as a Black woman. There was just one problem. I had no idea where to turn. Imagination is theology; we can only believe what we can imagine. And our cultural landscape hasn’t given us many tools to imagine a non-white, non-male God.
My desire to be transformed by the Sacred Black Feminine sent me deep into the dark forests of my trauma, so I could be healed.
My whole life, I had been indoctrinated into American society’s worship of a white male God; my spiritual imagination didn’t know how to venture beyond that. This is exactly where patriarchy wants us—without an adventurous spiritual imagination, without the audacity to ask boundary-pushing questions about God, and without a connection to our true, uncontrollable power.
In early 2017, I mustered all of the courage I could find and took one trembling step away from all I had known. I began searching for images of what I call the Sacred Black Feminine, a divine being who stands with and for Black women because She Herself is a Black woman. I didn’t have to search far. Just beyond the Protestantism of my origins and from the mystical depths of rogue Catholicism rose the Black Madonna, a Black female image of the divine who draws seekers of all religions and spiritualities.
Within seconds of viewing photos of Black Madonnas, my gut shifted from terror to hope. My soul immediately recognized that these photos and drawings declared a truth about my own sacredness and gave birth to a new understanding of God.
The Sacred Black Feminine is the God who is with and for Black women because She is a Black woman. She is the God who declares that Black women—who exist below Black men and white women at the bottom of the white male God’s social pecking order—not only matter but are sacred. And, in doing so, She declares that all living beings are sacred. She is the God who smashes the white patriarchy and empowers us all to join in Her liberating work. She is the God who has a special love for the most marginalized because She, too, has known marginalization.
She is the God in whom we can find hope.
The Black Madonna images depicting the fiercely kind Sacred Black Feminine showed me that my terror was not only valid but is echoed around the world across the racial, gender, religious, and class spectrums, and across time. Indeed, the Black Madonna is simply one manifestation of the interfaith Sacred Black Feminine. Within a matter of minutes, I went from a Black woman woefully unconscious of the Sacred Black Feminine to one deeply devoted to the Black Madonna and now connected to a global lineage of marginalized people who have found hope in Her. My devotion was not short-lived; over the following months, I devoured every book I could find on Her and the people who have loved Her.
I learned that there are over 450 Black Madonnas around the world, most of whom are over a thousand years old, with names as illustrious as “Our Lady of the Good Death,” “Slave Mama,” and “Dear Dark One.” My soul longed for more than book knowledge; I needed to come face-to-face with the Sacred Black Feminine. So, in the fall of 2018, I embarked on a 400-mile walking pilgrimage across the Auvergne, a mountainous region in central France that hosts over 40 ancient Black Madonna statues.
My desire to be transformed by the Sacred Black Feminine sent me walking over a mountain range in winter to visit 18 Black Madonnas. My desire to be transformed by the Sacred Black Feminine sent me deep into the dark forests of my trauma, so I could be healed. My desire to be transformed by the Sacred Black Feminine sent me away from the harmful spiritual communities of my origins so I could find true Love.
Edited excerpt from God Is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland, published with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.
Christena Cleveland, Ph.D. is a social psychologist, public theologian, author, and activist. An award-winning researcher and a former professor at Duke University’s Divinity School, Cleveland is the founder and director of the Center for Justice + Renewal as well as its sister organization, Sacred Folk, which creates resources to stimulate people’s spiritual imaginations and support their journeys toward liberation.