Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

An hour-long Zoom conference with

Traci C. West

on her book, Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

1 PM – 2 PM ET

Listen to the recording here.

Mary E. Hunt:

Welcome. Like all of WATER’s efforts, this session is not simply an academic seminar or a spiritual uplift. It is instead a discussion of an important, may I say moving, book which sheds a great deal of light on contemporary articulations of violence, race, gender, religion, and hope. We focus on these issues not as an abstract intellectual exercise, but with the firm intention of taking what we learn to the front lines of struggles for justice. Two and a half weeks before deeply consequential elections and with the background noise of a conservative potential Supreme Court justice’s hearing playing out, we need this conversation more than we know.

I am thrilled to welcome my friend and colleague the Reverend Doctor Traci C. West. She is an activist-scholar who serves as the James W. Pearsall Professor of Christian Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School (NJ). Her teaching, research, and activism have focused on gender, racial, and sexuality justice, especially related to gender violence. This book is a powerful record of that work.

Traci is not new to WATER, indeed she is a strong supporter of our efforts.  She has been at meetings and spoke at the Feminist Liberation Theology Network meeting in 2014 on anti-violence work. She has also been involved with one of our sister groups, the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, WA.

Traci has taught in community settings ranging from churches to the NJ women’s prison. She is a United Methodist ordained minister as well as a scholar, pastor and activist in the United Methodist Church where she works for full LGBTQIA+ inclusion and equality in that denomination.

Her major publications include Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics (1999) and Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (2006).

Welcome, Traci. We look forward to hearing from you and discussing with you this important book Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence.

Traci C. West:

I am delighted to be here in conversation with you.

This is a text where I am focusing on what it means to take seriously a transnational, intercultural goal of ending gender violence, and to do that in a way that is very attentive to the geo-political location of the US in issues of gender violence, and the role of race and religion.

As a US person, writing primarily to a US audience, I wanted to think especially about anti-black racism and its role, as well as the role of religion and spirituality in addressing violence. What does it mean for those of us who reside in the US to listen to Africana activists and leaders in Ghana, Brazil, and South Africa?

In Ghana, mostly in Accra, for example, my focus was particularly on marital rape and activist leadership experiences in a campaign to end marital rape in heterosexual marriage. I spoke with activists and scholars who worked on a major piece of national legislation to comprehensively address domestic violence and the struggles they encountered over including marital rape in the passage of that bill.

In Brazil, in Salvador-Bahia, they also succeeded in passing a massive bill addressing gender violence several years prior to my visit with leaders there. But my focus in Brazil remained on the ways they institutionally, governmentally, addressed gender violence through the implementation of the law they had passed. They were fundamentally more advanced in their strategic, systemic responses than the ways in which we take seriously gender violence in the United States. I also spent time listening to activists talk about their work on stopping sex trafficking and sex tourism. I write about the transnational relationships in which tourists – US tourists and others – often play a role in perpetuating sexual exploitation.

In my research trips to South Africa, particularly in Cape Town, I met with activist leaders who worked on stopping the targeting of black lesbians for rape and murder. I was especially influenced by the organization Free Gender.

Today, I want to emphasize some of my most important goals in doing this project and how I grappled with them.

One of them had to do with challenging myself to move beyond and expand the ideas in my previous work where I really emphasized the experience of intimate violence for black women. I had wanted to expand our ability to recognize how racism, heteropatriarchy, and Christianity compound and exacerbate the experience of intimate violence and what’s distinctive for black women’s experience and how black women have a wide range of resistance tactics and strategies. I wanted to go beyond experience and ask what it means to address the problem. I wanted to give enough of an understanding of the nature of the problem, related to gender violence, but more specifically, what strategies and approaches do we need? How do we not just create ways to better serve people who have experienced the violence and respond – which we need, but too often I think the Church in particular is very focused on crisis intervention – but what does it mean to think, “No, we could actually choose to end this problem, so what kind of strategies and approaches do we need?”

I have to think about this problem as transnational – looking at the ways we are impacted by and influencing, generating, feeding this monster of gender violence across borders, and how we might listen across borders as we address this problem.

I have been looking specifically at intimate violence and the ways in which women experience physical, sexual assault, and the intimate, spiritual, and emotional experience of that assault. I wanted to think of violence as this broader understanding of gender violence. I felt challenged to see how the targeting of women, the individual, and how much gender, gender fluidity, and nonbinary gender understandings were key and crucial to the ways in which this violence was occurring. And I also wanted to include hate violence, and there was a way in which intimate violence was not taking into account the targeting of LGBTQIA folks, and so I wanted to say, “What does it mean to broaden?”

I’m talking about expanding; the challenge is to broaden and expand and include these multiple and complex interlayered ways in which gender is functioning both in cis-heterosexual intimate relationships and within broader communal relationships, e.g. sex trafficking targeting transgender people in Brazil and the targeting of black lesbians in South Africa who had a masculine gender expression. I had to understand more broadly how to think about gender violence in a way I had not been before.

Previously, I had been very focused on Christianity, as I was raised Protestant. But addressing the violence required a recognition, particularly in Africana conversations, of non-Christian forms of spirituality. The ways I had been thinking about black Christian women were insufficient and inadequate as I started to think of these issues interculturally and transnationally. I began to think about indigenous African expressions of spirituality and have this broader understanding of spirituality as a crucial resource, along with nonreligious activists and scholars. But clearly there is this crucial, spiritual way in which they are connecting, their drive to transform violence and violence-supporting forms of gender violence.

What does it mean to conceptualize this kind of intersectional message? How do I go about that? It was very difficult and energizing and also a call that I felt that to end violence, one needed to think about transnational anti-black racism in all of its varied forms related to colonialism and its forms related back to the United States. How to conceptualize transnational learning from Africana activists and scholars abroad that connect to my US audience?

I find that US audience members get bored pretty quickly with things that don’t have to do with the US, so how to go back and forth, recognizing that US audiences tend to say, “Racism is one thing,” based on their narrow US perspective. There is listening that first must occur. What does it mean for US people to listen and try to break through certain kinds of deeply paternalistic lenses? For most – not only but especially – white audiences and publishers, it seems absurd for me to say that we in the US context, can, must, and should learn from Africana leaders and activists on how to address gender-based violence. For most, Africa is not a place of ideas – some version of that crude narrative that Trump has given voice to, of US imperialism and Christian paternalism. What does it mean to take that on and say, “No, my method is about learning from.” That first step, of listening, the second step of translating, and the third step of creating solidarity – I’m not talking about allyship, I’m talking about solidarity – and to confront US exceptionalism. How to break through that is part of the challenge.

I would also like to add how to do theory practice. Teaching for me is a place where I am trained in theory practice; my students challenge me and ask, “What does your teaching have to do with actual practices?” In this project, I wanted to interview leaders but understand them as knowledge bearers, not as examples of some theory, but as texts I was consulting. But to go beyond that, I didn’t want to tell their stories; I was not there to report back about what they do over there but to literally describe the encounter. What does it mean to describe those encounters and, in some cases, the mistakes that I made? One reviewer of my book wrote, “She describes mistakes, and so people don’t trust her as an authoritative source,” and I said, “You know, I don’t know how you learn if you don’t make mistakes.” The key to this work and this method is to have those encounters and represent this theory practice in a way that engages our conceptualization of how we address this violence and the kinds of practices that are needed.

Lastly, narrative. I decided I wanted to use narrative, which I had never done before. I took many classes in New York to improve my ability to be able to write narrative because I felt like it was so crucial to invite my reader to literally journey with me and the ways in which I wanted to describe, for example, embodiment. I just want to say, I am a repressed New Englander; I am not a tell-all person, so it was very challenging to invite readers to journey personally with me and to talk about my feelings as I was experiencing those encounters. But narrative allowed me to show those experiences as the ways in which we are learning to conceptualize and think about those practices.

I have an example of how I get dehydrated in Ghana, and I describe physically how I get sick, and then I can connect that to a kind of hungering and thirsting for knowledge and how much I needed and wanted that in my encounters. I use that embodiment and those narratives to illustrate and further the arguments I am making.

I also wanted to talk about vulnerability, and I’ll read a couple little snippets to show the ways in which I was trying to employ narrative to talk about vulnerability.

So, in Brazil, I’m with my translators, a point in the afternoon after we did interviews. I describe how the folks invite me to go out and visit with them to hear a band, and I don’t want to go with them at the time, so instead I go out to the ocean:

“I was glad I’d made the last-minute decision to wear a swimsuit under my shorts and shirt. The ocean felt like heaven. I was reminded how spirituality can inhabit sensuality and that tactile spirituality had the potential to help counter the impact of violence. From the bondage of the humiliation of sexual assault, spirituality offers a mind-freeing, body-affirming counter-sensation.

“The waves washed over my body rhythmically, gently, one after another. I didn’t care that I was the only adult shrieking playfully as the water sprayed and crashed against the shore around me. A small, thin girl of about eight with caramel-brown skin was playing nearby in the water. She came over and began talking to me. As I explained to her that I did not speak Portuguese, her eyes widened and she grinned at the sound of my funny accent poorly pronouncing Portuguese words.

“All at once she scooped up a big splash of ocean water and pushed it toward me and laughed…

“I soon wanted to swim on my own and used sign language to indicate to my little friend that she and her brother were not to follow me into the deeper water. I was not sure she understood. She looked like she was going to try to follow me. I paused to figure out how to communicate nonverbally the real danger of serious harm. I needed to find a way to coney her vulnerability to harm by something that looked and felt so nurturing and could be so pleasurable and fun. Of course, even for confident swimmers there are still times when raging waves powered by strong currents can render one helpless.” (123)

Then I talk about going to the police there in Brazil…

“Taped to the office wall in the police station were small Polaroid squares showing women’s bodies photographed at varied camera angles. For the women in these photographs, the danger they faced might have resembled the unforeseeable danger that resided in the depths of the nurturing pleasurable ocean.” (124)

That’s an example of my trying to describe this kind of embodiment, going back and forth, back and forth.

And in South Africa, I especially spent time with a group called Free Gender in Capetown, and this kind of space involved a unique form of defiant spirituality for black lesbians living under the conditions of being terrorized with the threat of gang-rape and murder.

I describe entering their meeting space, and there’s this big red cloth hanging up front, and it says “rape” and “rape” and “murder” and “suicide” and “assault” and “murder” and “rape” with dates next to each:

“An ominously empty red space of fabric was left below the last notation on the list. As the possibility entered my mind that more cases might be inserted in that space, I guiltily rushed it away, as if my thoughts could invite such tragedies.

“The cloth linked differing types of violence together as it bore witness to the community’s costs and losses. Acknowledgement of the suicides, assaults, murders, and rapes on the red cloth seemed to constitute a spirituality of politicized collective grieving. It claimed the space to grieve and the impetus to pursue justice in the courts. The cloth marked the group’s timeless allegiance to the lives of the victimized black lesbians, confirming a spiritual and political tether that defied the final ending their torturers had sought. The spirituality generated a defiant continuity, that is, a refusal to accept neither the final breach in the mystery of death by murder or suicide, not the perpetrator’s last word to survivors…” (200-201)

There was a unique sound to the way they sang:

“‘We glor-rifyy.’ ‘We glo-rrrrrify.’ ‘Your name.’ They sang in English, then in Xhousa and then in English again.

“With a slow and steady tempo, the tune slid up and down the scale in heart-wrenching choral invocation of sacred spirit. The naked beauty of their voices enveloped the room, gripped me, held me. The comfort their voices offered coexisted alongside my captivity to that red cloth hanging with its black handwritten numbers and letter. I swayed to the music, tried to sing with them, and swallow tears before they were seen…” (201-202)

Those are just some examples of the ways in which these kind of embodiment stories and narratives I’m trying to use them as a way to develop the terms for which we create what I call a blackening solidarity.

Mary E. Hunt:

Thank you for leading off our conversation. The book is available from NYU Press, as well as on Amazon.

I am deeply impressed by both method and content in this book – the weaving of stories and the fruit of interviews with analysis and humble recognition of the complexity of all that is involved. Thanks, Traci, this is an important book that bears close reading and sustained conversation. It is the rare theological book that I don’t want to end, that I feel exhausted and exhilarated after reading, and that I want to read again and again to learn from your many challenging insights. Thank you.


Q: I’m caught in these thresholds to do exactly what we’re assigned to do. There are these obstacles within the Christian community; I’ve had conversations with well-meaning Christians who say, “Jesus wasn’t political.” How do we engage these ideologies?

A: One of the things that I have to emphasize is that there is so much inspiration from these conversations with activist leaders that are taking on these phenomenally entrenched, embedded, internationally-supported, economically-fed evils. One of the things that matters to me is to say, “Of course we share the same commitments.” Now, what that struggle looks like is going to be different in our different contexts. But are there strategies and ways in which, through our encounters and the ways in which we’re challenged and feel uncomfortable, we actually get more ideas and motivation to transform some of those huge challenges? I don’t find it enervating to realize how pervasive some of these issues, like the targeting of LGBTQIA folks which are rooted in deeply racist violent cultures, because that kind of struggle is one that, in different forms, activists in other places share, too.

Does anyone remember when the Supreme Court voted for marriage equality in 2015? There was tremendous celebration on behalf of equality, but the exact same day, they gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. We were stunned at the lack of solidarity from those who were celebrating this Supreme Court that was “recognizing equality.” Fast-forward to 2020, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act turns out to be quite significant! We have to have this anti-racist view, too, and if we don’t, then we fail at even the first step to creating solidarity.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the difference between allyship and solidarity that you mentioned?

A: For me, allyship has to do with deferring to the leadership and experience of those who are targeted for hate/violence/discrimination/exploitation, and if I am not the one who is targeted, I offer myself as an ally in terms of my network and privileges.

Solidarity is not about deferring. It’s about the ways in which we exchange and are interdependent to create the kind of transformation that is needed. We assume that neither one of us has a model that needs to be standard or primary, so solidarity is the ways in which we enter into struggle together and depend on each other but don’t define each other’s struggles.

Comment: Your distinction between solidarity and allyship is completely new to me, as is the term “Africana,” so thank you for your work as a good teacher, introducing new concepts. I want to share two projects we work on in Kingston, Jamaica: we empower women lawyers, and there is a women’s media-watch because of the images projected in the media. They fit into the distinction of relationships which are truly fruitful.

Traci’s Response: Yes, it is a struggle for us especially in the US to recognize the inadequacy of our strategies and approaches, and other parts of the world are way ahead of us in terms of their imagination and the ways in which spirituality is a resource in much broader ways.

Q: I’m thinking of allyship as more passive and solidarity as more active – is that accurate?

A: I think allyship absolutely is active. It is about using the power/privilege/connections/ networks that you have in support of those who are targeted. The question is, how do we conceive of change? In allyship, those who are targeted take the lead in conceiving of change. In solidarity, the conceptualization of change occurs both contextually and through recognizing that ideas and strategies come from dialogues and encounters.

Q: Will there be a translation into Spanish or Portuguese?

A: Not yet, sadly.

Comment: I want to highlight the struggle for those that, when you’re not in an English-speaking, Eurocentric world, there’s this large gap of solidarity where you don’t get the valuable resources or people capable of articulating to us in the Eurocentric/American world. You bring up the questions of how those of us in faith-based contexts work in true solidarity and across borders. We have to look at ways we become more active rather than acquiescent.



WATER thanks Traci West and highly recommends Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence. It makes a great volume for a seminar or reading group where many views on the issues can be exchanged, and the pain and pathos of the issues at hand can be shared.