Dr. Channon S. Miller
10 May 2023
“Red Lip Theology” Blog
I went to Copley Library on February 27th, 2023 to hear author Candice Marie Benbow discuss her book, Red Lip Theology. Candice Marie Benbow is an essayist and theologian. In her writing, she examines universal topics like heartbreak, grief, forgiveness, and sexuality. She also gives women who have trouble feeling supported and loved by church culture a voice. “We can talk all day about Martin Luther King, but yet very few people know about Dr. Prathia Hall who Dr. King borrows her saying “ I have a dream.” She is the architect of that dream. People do not know black women of faith because they are always often pushed out of discourse around where they create a community that thrives with a spiritual foundation. And yet Black women remain the most religious demographic in America” (Benbow 2023). Benbow’s core narrative is that the influences of African American women in the black Christain church community have been overlooked. She states that even though women are major contributors to maintaining and running the churches because they are expected to be submissive and this subordinate positioning denies them a voice. It is important to include voices like hers to paint a true picture of African American history, which needs to be accurate because “…history was often used to justify the mistreatment of African Americans: the history of Africans was used to justify slavery, and the history of slavery was used to justify the subsequent disfranchisement, discrimination, rape, and lynching of African Americans” (White, Bay & Martin 2021). Benbow voices her message with stories of her personal experiences growing up in African American church culture in the 90s to becoming a theologian with degrees from Tennessee State University, North Carolina Central University, and Duke Divinity School. It is important to have an accurate accounting of African American History, and the voices of black women within the African American Christain church community need to be heard because they are ignored, but influential and need an example of powerful black women like Benbow.
According to Brewer & Williams (2019), “the Black Church is the longstanding institutional backbone of the African American community and represents the collectivistic culture interwoven into the fabric of the lives of African Americans”. In fact, the African American Christian experience is a major part of African American history. According to a study done by Taylor, Chatters, and Brown, “…(37.9 %) attend services at least once a week…” (2014). Black religious institutions have maintained their traditions as important pillars of support for people, families, and communities while adapting to their environment (Taylor, Chatters & Brown 2014). Black women, however, are expected to play a subservient role in the Christian community. Benbow begins her talk by stating, “Black women are often left out of the conversation when we are thinking about what it looks like to honor the contribution of faith and leaders… they are doing something: praying, going to church, they are doing all these things and it deserves our attention, honesty, and a narrative that paints a true picture for them.” (Benbow 2023). This is confirmed by White, Bay, and Martin (2021) “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. They were also prominent in domestic and foreign missionary activities. One grateful minister consistently offered “great praise” to the church sisters for all their hard work” (White, Bay & Martin 2021). According to a study by Taylor, Chatters, and Brown (2014) “…women reported significantly higher levels of religious involvement than men.”
Benbow reports that her mother was supposed to stand in front of the church and apologize for being pregnant with her. That was the custom of their church. Her father was in the choir of the church, he was not expected to make the same apology. Her mother refused to apologize, but her mother had no idea what she was going to do about being pregnant out of wedlock, so she prayed for a sign and the first time she felt Candice kick was in a church, so her mother took this as a sign from God that “If I keep my daughter’s hand and my hand with God we will be ok” (Benbow 2023).
Candice was raised in a mixture of faith and feminism. Her mother was a strong, independent black woman who believed that it was necessary to push against the very sexiest notion that suggested that she apologize for being pregnant, her sin was visible, never mind what other people were doing, and never mind that her father wouldn’t have to apologize. “Her mother refused and stood proud in the full power of her agency,” but her mother still believed that the church was the safest place that a single mother could raise a little black girl in the ’90s. The church “…has been a locus of hope, spiritual guidance, and social support for African Americans” (Brewer & Williams 2019).
Candice’s mother tried to ensure that Candice would grow up to become a young woman with respect and high moral characteristics. Her mother never lit a fire in her to ask uncomfortable questions to anyone except her mother, but her mother took the responsibility to like all of the questions that Candice would ask. This made Benbow wonder what it meant for her mother to give her room to ask these questions of her. Even if Benbow could not ask these questions publicly, sometimes her mother would make her write them down, and then try to find the answer in the bible. Candice was not allowed to scream the questions in bible study like she wanted to, instead, she had to run all of her questions by her mother first. Benbow believes that it was the idea that even if everyone could not understand her, Candice’s mother did. Today, Benbow’s faith is grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ, the wisdom of her ancestry, and the power of black womanhood.
According to Benbow, there is something very powerful about black womanhood. She says that there is something spiritual about getting their hair done and something spiritual about them calling their girl and seeing what they have to say in the group chat, where they can unravel the mask that they have to wear publicly. Some black women were even told that they had to wear these masks in the church proudly. “The idea of fake it ‘til we make it.” The idea that black women are too blessed to be stressed. Benbow believes that all of these fake masks become the weights that black women have to continue to bear and to carry over and over again. Benbow demands “What does it mean as a black woman to be honest about the fact that joy didn’t come in the morning after a long night of crying?”
Benbow states that her “ Book is about a moment when the mask came off of her in the safety of friendship.” She had a relationship that she expected to last but ended up breaking, to a point that her best friend had to come over to her house to tell Benbow that she was a “hot mess” (Benbow 2023). “Only the people who truly love you can see what you are going through” (Benbow 2023). Benbow points out that faith and religious institutions, for a lot of African Americans, are formational spaces where they learn about their spirituality and how to behave like good forgiving Christians. Benbow believes that part of the journey in faith is for us to deconstruct or decolonize our faith. Benbow feels that all of the journeys that we are on are full of questions that are trying to dismantle the power that seeks to destroy us. Her questions are just really for someone to see black women and that the world we live in or the idea that we have about how life should be are not that far-fetched. For the people that hurt black women or harm black women or who try to block black women away from that power, black women have to impact the world for the ones that want them, that’s what they are looking for. Black women need to be seen and the voice of black women needs to be heard. This is what Benbow is working for, a future where black women have larger leadership roles and more influence in the black church culture.
Benbow, C. M. (2023, February 27). Red Lip Theology with Candice Marie Benbow [Speech & Book Signing]. Copley Library, Mother Hill Reading Room, University of San Diego, California.
Brewer, L. C., & Williams, D. R. (2019). We’ve Come This Far by Faith: The Role of the Black Church in Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 109(3), 385-386. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304939
Taylor, R. J., Chatters, L. M., & Brown, R. K. (2014). African American religious participation. Review of Religious Research, 56, 513-538. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-013-0144-z
White, D. G., Bay, M., & Martin, W. E. (2021). Freedom on My Mind, Third Edition: A History of African Americans, with Documents (Third Edition). Bedford/St Martins.