Off the Cuff: Kelly Brown Douglas, priest and “womanist” scholar

Kate Gill, News Editor

Kelly Brown Douglas is a priest and a professor of religion at Goucher College.  She specializes in womanist theology and the black church. She spoke with the Review about her faith, Alice Walker, and communities of support. 

How did you first become acquainted with theology, sexuality and the black church? What specifically attracted you to this field of study? 

There are two sort of prongs [to] that. One, being aware, even [while] growing up, of who I was as a black person in a society that was very racist [and] segregated, in which being a black body meant that you were a marginalized, oppressed body. Having that sensibility of what it meant to be different, what it meant to be marginalized. I didn’t grow up as meeting certain gender stereotypes –– that is, I liked sports and all of that, which of course then [said] to me that I never wanted to treat anyone else in such a way that they felt like an outsider … just having this notion that God loves everybody. As I grew up [I asked myself], how do you reconcile this notion of a God that loves everybody with one’s own understanding of what it feels like to be on the outside? Just bringing all those things together.

You wrote a book entitled Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective. How would you classify or distinguish a “womanist” perspective? How does that differ from a feminist perspective?

Yes, it does differ. The term “womanist” was coined by Alice Walker, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist of The Color Purple. She did a book of prose and she called it a womanist prose, and in 1982-83 this book came out, called In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: A Womanist Prose … and on the inside flap of this book she has this four-part definition of womanist, and she says that a womanist is a feminist of color. She coins it from the term in the African-American community, you’re acting womanish –– which is serious, in charge, not girlish, not frivolous. When that definition emerged, it took off. Black women began to pick that definition up, relate to that definition. It says [that] a womanist is for survival … And so it provided black women with this space to be black and female –– for our entire community, for our own freedom as well as the freedom of our sons and our husbands and our brothers to have both this sort of feminist analysis as well as this race analysis. Early feminist movements –– and some feminist movements still do –– ignored issues of race. It helps to identify black women’s struggle.

You are both a priest and an academic. Has this been a complicated or difficult balance? How does your faith complicate your work as an academic and vice versa, if at all?

 It’s not been a complicated balance for me, maybe because I’m in the Episcopal Church. Theology is about faith and understanding; how we understand the faith claims that we make. If we say that God is love, we say that God is justice, we say that God is all of this, how do we understand the meaning of that in a world that is unjust, unloving etc., etc.? Those questions emerged from the Church. So for me, as a theologian, you always have to be a part of a community of faith. And so, I see no other place to be but in the Church. Now what you’re getting at is that sometimes people say — particularly in the black faith tradition –– all of that study and intellectual stuff, you take my Jesus and you take my God. There’s this conflict. In my own personal church I have not had to experience this conflict. One thing I always say is that any faith worth having is a faith worth examining. And I often say to people, if [the bible] is so sacred as you say it is then you need to study it as you would a text that is not so sacred. If what I’m saying doesn’t ring true to the people who sit in the pews, then I will say things that challenge them, but at least I have to be raising questions that make sense to the life they live. The harder issue for me is trying to raise the issue of sexuality in the black church.

How can the Church be more inclusive? How can the highly institutionalized, traditionalist nature of religion accommodate the more unconventional? More specifically, queer-identifying persons?

 It needs to be called back to its own center. And that’s the job of the theologian. The job of the theologian is a self-test of the church. Are you living into your faith? And for the Christian church, that’s a critical question because who is this center of your church? This incarnate, this sensuous, sexual God. For me, it’s about calling the church back to its radical center.

On a more personal level, how do you maintain your faith in religion during times of frustration? As in, how do you tolerate churchgoers and members who want to deny religious access to queer people?

 Good question. They don’t shape my belief. I don’t want to say this in a dogmatic way, because there’s always room to learn, but I always say to myself: [if] I’m going to err, then I want to err on the side of inclusion, not exclusion. Maybe I don’t have all the answers –– I don’t. Maybe I’m wrong on this. So here’s what we’re going to do, I say. We’re going to include. Everybody, until I can be shown otherwise, that has breath is a child of God. Period. When people act otherwise, that doesn’t shake the foundation of my faith. What it does is it challenges me. Yes, sometimes I’m dispirited. But what it does is it energizes me. What is the window into the black church? How can I break open this discourse? How can I help them to see? But it doesn’t shake my faith that God is a God of the oppressed and of justice.

 How can women –– and people of all identifications, orientations and genders –– sustain or wield their sexuality in the Church and still garner respect from their peers, male or otherwise?

 You have to just claim your voice. I’ve never known a lived reality –– as a black person [and] as a back woman –– where I’ve not had to claim who I am in a society that opposes who I am, so you just have to find a way to claim your voice. And claim who you are and affirm who you are in a society or institution that says otherwise.

You are very vocal, strong minded and explicit in your papers. How would you a  dvise young women who are struggling with identity politics and their faith to proceed?

 Find a community of support; it’s hard to do it alone. In short, that’s what I would say.