Series: Exchanging Vows: 19th Century Marriage Theology and Black Women’s Freedom Theology
Part 1: "My Own Vineyards I Have Not Kept!"
Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
but my own vineyard I have not kept! -Song of Solomon 1:6
What is it to be a black woman, preparing for a lifetime of married life? What physical changes must occur? What spiritual adjustments must take place? Must the black woman become larger, large enough to keep a home, to keep another’s home and to work in a world that has not yet learned to love her? What are the theological presuppositions, if any, that she brings to her pending union? What are the thoughts and imaginings that trouble her soul during her time of preparation? What are the thoughts and imaginations that make her soul light during her time of preparation? What does her relationship to her pre-married life become? What is the black woman’s process of “becoming married”? To which new vineyards must she tend? Who aids her in attending to her own vineyards?
In the next few posts, I will talk about nineteenth-century marriage theology. Several months ago, my primary source readings of black activist-preacher women led me to the conclusion that freedom from marriage (usually gained by these women through becoming widows) allowed black women a sort of theological, and by extension, political power. In the nineteenth-century, the black freedom movement (and the feminist movement) was dependent upon the labor and voices of unmarried black women. These black women forced societal evolution. And they could push for change because husband and household did not manage them. This freedom, from what I can tell through my primary source work, was afforded only to black women who were widows. It was not a freedom given to divorced or simply unmarried women. This freedom does invite alternative possibilities for what black womanhood in the nineteenth-century could be. These women could operate without the restrictions placed on married and even on never-married women.
In June, while shopping at a local bookstore, I stumbled upon journalist Rebecca Traister’s recent book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of the Independent Nation. Traister explains in the opening pages of her book that “Throughout America’s history, the start of adult life for women . . . had typically been marked by marriage . . . Since the late nineteenth-century, the median age of first marriage for women had fluctuated between twenty and twenty-two. This had been the shape, pattern, and definition of female life.” (4) It is bold to claim that the institution of marriage defined nineteenth-century female life, but Traister’s claim is a fair one. That reality is a double-edged sword for two reasons. Married as a defining institution is problematic first because marriage becomes a new site of oppression for women. This concern is by no means unique to American women. Wherever marriage contracts exist, the carefully defined terms it sets have been oppressive. It is oppressive second because being unmarried becomes taboo or dangerous. The unmarried woman is someone to be feared because she has found a way to thrive on her own terms.
As I read Traister’s book, the question that lingered in my mind was: where is theology in this story? What did theology have to say about marriage in the nineteenth-century? How much were women conforming to the social norm called the institution of marriage because of theological teaching that taught women that they must either be married to God/the Church and thereby live lives of celibacy or that they must be married to Christian men and bear and raise Christian children? In other words, what burden of blame ought does theology blame for making traditional marriage the only model for family building in postbellum black communities? What decisions were made merely based on theology? What decisions based on social or economic pressures? Can the two be neatly removed from one another in a time when Christian revivals were prominent social pastimes?
In nineteenth-century America, women were married, often by their twenty-second birthdays. The concept of the “Cult of Domesticity” made this (married) life a comfortable one for white women with money as long as they held no ambitions for public life. (In her book, Word Like Fire, theologian Valerie Cooper explains that the “Cult of Domesticity” was a Victorian ideal of femininity which made women slaves to their households and men their protectors. Black women were not members of this domestic inner-circle because of the economic realities of nineteenth-century black family life.)
In the contexts of enslavement and even Reconstruction, the black family was disrespected by white society. Children were often separated from parents and siblings; wives were often separated from husbands. The irony was that while Pauline theology was often impressed upon slaves, that theology did not extend to Household Codes seeing as black people would have enjoyed no concept of a “household.” (Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 2:23-25 both implore enslaved persons to obey their earthly masters as they obey Christ. Meanwhile, all women were taught to abide by 1 Peter 3:1-7 which told women to accept the authority even of husbands who were not yet Christians because a wife’s humility might help them come to believe and which also taught men that their wives needed honor as the weaker sex.)
Black female life in the nineteenth-century must be understood through the lens of the gender norms of the time. There were strict expectations of masculinity and femininity. Scholars like Adriane Lentz-Smith, Tera Hunter, and Glenda Gilmore use their work to explain the ways manhood was constructed in the nineteenth-century. The definitions of manhood were traditionally bound to agrarian life, but Lentz-Smith explains that as the Reconstruction period brought more people into urban centers, definitions of manhood had to shift. However, the male body was paramount. To compete with white manhood, black men improved themselves educationally (in the model of W.E.B. DuBois) and physically (as many newly free black men fought in foreign wars) to compete with white masculinity.
What does black masculinity have to do with black womanhood? Well, everything. A black man could not interact with his black female counterparts in the ways that white men engaged with their white female counterparts. The difference came down to labor practices. Black women labored publicly. Through their public labor, they developed their voices. These women became political; they formed unions; they became feminists. They were not “ladies” in the eyes of black men, white men, or even their own eyes. None of the qualities that black women developed through their work were necessarily bad, but they were a problem at the intersection of black masculinity and marriage. A wife who worked just as much if not more than her husband, often taking care of the household needs of white women, could not be a “submissive” wife at home according to the traditional definitions of “submission”. In this way, she was a less attractive mate, perhaps in this way she was rendered less womanly. This woman was a slave to racist economic practices and sexist home practices. So, how could she be or become the free agent married black woman?
Simply put, being the free agent married black woman of the nineteenth-century was not impossible, but it was challenging. Women like Amanda Smith and Maria W. Stewart, both born in the first half of the nineteenth-century found their voices after the death of their husbands, or perhaps, more accurately, they were free to live into their agency as public speakers after their husbands were dead. So, widowhood could make a nineteenth-century black woman a free agent. Then, there was the adamant anti-lynching crusader, Ida B. Wells-Barnett who, although born in 1862 did not marry until 1898 and continued her social activism even while married. So, delaying marriage for her career could make a nineteenth-century black woman a free agent. Throughout much of Wells-Barnett’s life and all of her career, black people were free from the bonds of the system in slavery and yet, by no means had they gained their citizenship. Because of her status as a black woman, her citizenship status was doubly dubious. Also, because of her advocacy on behalf of black body, she faced ridicule even in the black community, for a lady would not advocate for bodies! Like the woman in Song of Solomon, her brothers left her out in the hot sun keeping their vineyards, but her own vineyard, she had not kept.
Where can we locate agency in the lives of black women, sent outdoors even by their brothers to tend vineyards, leaving their own vineyards unkept? How can we through our contemporary practices honor their legacies and break racist and sexist patterns to theologically and socially transform the possibilities for the black family?