A Reflection on Black Womanhood Throughout History – Megan Underbrink

A Reflection on Black Womanhood Throughout History

Red Lip Theology Author Candice Mary Benbow Engages, Inspires - University of San Diego

Throughout my time learning about African American History in America, I have had the opportunity to deeply explore the area surrounding the history of black women, specifically black women in Christianity. I was graciously able to attend a talk led by author Candice Marie Benbow about her book, Red Lip Theology, in which I learned on a personal level about black Christian womanhood in today’s society. In addition to this, I was able to learn about the history of this topic through our text, Freedom On My Mind, as well as the novels We are Your Sisters, written by Dorothy Sterling and The Cross and the Lynching Tree, written by James H. Cone. I have come to the conclusion through these resources that there is power in black Christian womanhood which extends back through history and has become a source of unwavering community, empathetic understanding, and compassionate love for black women today. 

To give a brief introduction to our speaker, Candice Marie Benbow is a multi-generational theologian whose main focuses include black beauty, faith, feminism, and culture. Benbow says that “faith can be a tool of liberation and transformation for women and girls.” She also shared with us a piece of advice that her mother gave her: “Have a library card and a voter registration card because then you can change your life and the lives of those around you.”

Women, especially black women, are often left out of conversations regarding faith and leadership in the church. They are seldom mentioned and even more seldom honored. This is quite surprising as black women are the most spiritual demographic in the United States. James Cone shares that “every black male minister knows that he would have no church without the women who make up more than 80 percent of the membership” (Cone, 143).

Christianity made its debut in the African American community during the time of slavery, in the early 1800’s. While slave owners encouraged their enslaved people to adopt the religion of Christianity, the black community decided to do so in their own way. They created Invisible Churches in which they “stressed the equality of all men under God, drawing on the Bible as inspiration for spirituals that expressed slaves’ own humanity, capacity for freedom, and hope of justice for an oppressed people” (Freedom On My Mind: “Slave Religion”, 369). As these churches developed into the later 1800’s,  “men dominated church leadership, but women constituted most of the members and regular attendees and did most of what was called church work. Women gave and raised money, taught Sunday school, ran women’s auxiliaries, welcomed visitors, and led social welfare programs for the needy, sick, and elderly.” (Freedom On My Mind: “Church and Community,” 529). 

These practices hold true into modern times. People don’t know black women of faith and they have often been pushed out of the discourse of what it means to create spiritually thriving communities. Black women are resilient: Sterling shares that her “white neighbors, caught up in the feminine mystique, were decorating cakes and hooking rugs to conceal their longing for meaningful occupations, while these black women were juggling work, family, and community responsibilities with extraordinary grace and self-possession.” Black women have been faced with immense responsibility, yet have handled it with elegance. In the church, “women formed organizations where they were leaders.” In the public, “While men talked, women walked and got things done. Although the civil rights movement was headed primarily by male leaders…, there never would have been a black freedom movement without the courageous work of  women” (Cone, 173-174).

Beginning by giving a background into her childhood, Benbow told us all how she was raised in the church by a mother who gave birth to her out of wedlock. Her mother was expected to go up in front of the church and apologize for this sin, but she refused to do so. Her mother believed that it was necessary to push against sexist notions to apologize because her sin was visible. The father was not expected to apologize although he committed the same sin.  For centuries, black women have been seen as “belonging to the ‘inferior’ sex of an ‘inferior’ race” (Sterling, xiii). As a black woman, Benbow’s mom showed her that she can push against the social norms and did not have to live as an inferior group although characterized that way. 

Another of the sexist notions imposed upon black Christian women is that they are expected to be prim and proper. However, Benbow loved the “hip hop” type culture and enjoyed listening and dancing to this music. In antislavery societies during the slavery times, “no one’s curtains were as starched, gloves as white, or behavior as correct as black women’s” (Sterling, xvii). To be a black woman in the church is similar. These women are expected to be perfect representations of “what a woman should be,” when they are really just humans with interests and hobbies and imperfections. 

Benbow had a fire behind her and a curiosity to learn everything, but often the questions that she wanted to ask did not fit into this proper standard that was placed on black women by the church. However, her mother did not want the church to restrain her from exploring and learning all that she had questions about. Rather than placing a restriction on her daughter, her mother would make her write her questions down before asking them in public and if they were not appropriate for the situation, she would answer it later in private. The way that Benbow’s mother encouraged exploration rather than forcing her daughter to conform to the expectations of black women in the church seems to be one of the things that created confidence and high spirit in her daughter. Benbow reveals that she came to this work of being an author and sharing her stories because of a mother who gave her the space to ask questions. 

“There is something powerful about black womanhood,” Benbow says. For many years, black women have bore a heavy weight in society and have had to wear a mask. Benbow says that Red Lip Theology is about the moment when the mask came off for her and she realized that she had a community of women who loved her and could really feel her. The book is Benbow’s truth about women who deeply love God and are deeply faithful. Sterling reflects on her relationship with black women in her life when she says: “I had always accepted the liberal shibboleth of the day: black women were just like whites, except that their skins were darker. Later I realized that this was untrue. The strengths and skills that black women were forced to develop had been transmitted to their descendants. My black friends were different because their history and culture were different” (Sterling, xix). Black women have a strong faith because of their history and culture. 

Benbow addresses those who are non-black and consider themselves to be allies. She encourages people to seriously interrogate their faith systems and to reflect on what they believe and why. What people believe for themselves should leave room for others to be their freest selves, not restrict them to fitting into a mold made by those who have oppressed them. “While white women were hampered by the bonds of ‘true womanhood’ and told that their sphere was the home, the black woman was enslaved” (Sterling, xiv). This is true in a literal and metaphorical sense. During the times of slavery, white women were working in the home while black women were enslaved. Now, white women have their place in society whether it is in their homes or in the workplace, but black women still have a stigma that enslaves them. 

To end her talk, Benbow says that we owe it to the future generations to keep making demands of our faith and our god and our church, to keep asking questions, and to keep journeying to hard answers.

One question that really stood out to me after Benbow finished her talk was about when she prays and how she addresses God. Benbow said that she removes pronouns for God for restored faith because “he/him” or “she/her” is too common for God. This to me is a profound display of faith because it shows that Benbow’s conception of God is greater than the human sphere. She says that tears are prayers and a laugh is the most beautiful form of prayer in a moment. This has stuck with me since the talk. Benbow’s display of faith has affirmed to me the claim that she made earlier, that black women are amongst the most faithful demographic in America.

This program is significant to our understanding of African American History because it shows the amazing faith of the black community and helped us to dive deep into the struggles and successes of black women. Through this talk, I learned about the extensive sense of community that resides between black women that resulted from their history and their roots. As Benbow preaches: “Quest for knowledge is its own reward.”


Works Cited

Benbow, Candice Marie. Lecture on her book, Red Lip Theology. February 27, 2023.

Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Orbis Books, 2022. 

Sterling, Dorothy. “Introduction.” We Are Your Sisters, W.W. Norton, New York, New York, 1984, pp. ix-xix. 

White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2021. 


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