Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Motherhood, Mayhem, and Mindfulness”

An hour-long teleconference with

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

1 to 2 p.m. ET

Diann L. Neu: Good afternoon. This is Diann Neu at WATER. We welcome you to the fifth WATERtalk of 2018 on this beautiful spring day, May 9, 2018.

Mary is in Ecuador at the invitation of our very first WATER intern, Monica Maher, who came to WATER in 1985 and now works with women in Ecuador. Mary is giving a workshop on feminist theology, doing a radio show, and a panel all today, and in Spanish. Congratulations to our colleagues in Ecuador.

Like all of WATER’s efforts, our purpose is not simply theoretical. Rather, we are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction. This topic, this speaker, and her book all represent our effort to engage in activist scholarship, scholarly activism with the goal of furthering social justice.

I am delighted to welcome Rev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder. While we have never met face to face, I am grateful to have been introduced to you through your book, When Momma Speaks: The Bible and Motherhood from a Womanist Perspective. Published by Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Here is what we at WATER had to say about it in our list of recommended readings:

“Stephanie Crowder says, “Mothers, you rock!” Drawing on historical portrayals of African American mothers and womanist biblical interpretation, she develops “womanist maternal thought.” Biblical examples of motherhood, including Hagar and Bathsheba, provide jumping off points to reflect on contemporary contextual challenges to mothers, especially African Americans. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter make this book useful for anyone looking to understand motherhood in new ways.”

Rev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder is an author, speaker, and Bible and pop culture educator. She serves as Associate Professor of Theological Field Education and New Testament and Director of the ACTS DMin in Preaching Program at Chicago Theological Seminary. Dr. Crowder graduated summa cum laude from Howard University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Speech Pathology/Audiology. She received a Master of Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary. She received Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in New Testament from Vanderbilt University.

Dr. Crowder frequently blogs for Huffington Post and Inside Higher Education. She served on the Editorial Boards of ON Scripture and Feasting on the Gospels and recently published an article on New Testament themes in R&B music.

A Baptist and Disciples of Christ minister, she is married to Rev. Dr. William E. Crowder, Jr., Pastor of Park Manor Christian Church, in Chicago, IL. Their two very

active sons keep this #WomanistMomma and #SportsMomma on the move!

Congratulations on being inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel Board of Preachers and Collegium of Scholars on March 30, 2018.

Mary and I were two of a handful of participants not of African descent who were fortunate enough to be invited to the Inaugural Gathering of the Center for Womanist Leadership titled “Bearing Witness to Womanism: What Was, What Is, What Shall Be,” April 5-7, 2018 in Richmond VA. From the opening address by Alice Walker to the closing ritual when we all processed by and greeted Katie Cannon and Mercy Amba Oduyoye (with an empty chair left for Delores S. Williams), and received a blessing from them, the gathering marked a signal contribution to womanist work in religion. Womanists rock!

I am delighted to welcome you to WATER, Stephanie. I thank you for your important book which brings a new twist, a womanist perspective, to the Bible stories about women.

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder: I’m excited to have the opportunity to share my work and to open a conversation, whether we are biological mothers, community mothers, or however we define mothering, especially on this Mother’s Day weekend. I’ll begin with a quote from one of my favorite poets, authors, and suffragists Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: “We need mothers, mothers who are capable of being character builders, patient, loving, strong, and true, whose homes will be an uplifting power in the race. This is one of the greatest needs of the hour.” I tried to include quotes throughout my book to help us to begin to think about this whole work and ministry of motherhood.

On this Mother’s Day weekend, how do we honor our matriarchs and our ancestors? I think there are also ways we are called to pop cultural icons of motherhood. I thought it was fascinating all of the hoopla over Beyonce’s performance at Coachella, Beyonce herself being a mother. There’s also all this buzz over artist Cardi B who is not married but owning up to and walking in and relishing her own pregnancy. Kate Middleton gave birth to a third child not too long ago. Mother in Chief, Michelle Obama. So the idea of motherhood and maternity looms large in our society. So I thought, what does all this mean for me? Why does the idea of womanist maternal thought reflect my own sense of identity?

I’m in theological education. I’ve been teaching at various theological institutions, but have always had to be mindful of my own children. One of the first times this kind of intersectionality of the professional and the personal came to bear to me was when I was attending a gathering of Hebrew Bible professors at the Society of Biblical Literature. We were all African American women, it was the first time we had gathered. There we were about 35 of us going around introducing ourselves. Part of the introduction instructions was to tell something you wouldn’t share in the academy, so people began to talk about their families, about being mothers and grandmothers. I sat there amazed that more than half of us were mothers or grandmothers.We weren’t sure that the SBL/AAR had an affinity for that identity. What was it about the SBL that we didn’t bring that to the table? Was it out of fear? Was it that there are some things women shouldn’t talk about, motherhood and family being some of those?

I’m also a clergy person, when do lady preachers get the pulpit? Mother’s Day. So I preached about women in the Bible on Mother’s Day. Anytime I preach, I preach about women in the Bible. In my own experience as a scholar, preacher, and professor I wanted to make sure my life was arranged around my kids’ school schedule. All this conversation came to be about womanist maternal thought through these experiences.

I had read about feminist maternal thought, and I realized that there are different nuances around race and class when we talk about motherhood. So that’s where I got the idea to pursue womanist maternal thought and the book itself. The book is not meant to be all inclusive, because there is a spectrum of black mothers. It’s not meant to be all inclusive of motherhood, because black mothers exist differently than white mothers, Latina mothers, LGBTQIA mothers, jewish mothers, heterosexual mothers. I am just talking about my own experience as a black mother navigating the church and the academy.

I go back to Alice Walker’s 1983 definition of womanism from In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens that points to the importance of self identifying. I used this definition as groundwork and then looked at the unique ways black mothers navigate race, class, gender, and their stance on motherhood. How does that live out? How does that play out in society? Whether biological, adoptive, or community mothers. So I use a loose definition of motherhood.

I also look at mayhem in this book, on many different levels. I’ll start with political mayhem. During the most recent Democratic Convention there was this presentation of “mothers of the movement,” the mothers of young women and men whose lives have been snuffed out by police or gang violence. I think the agony and cry and pain of black mothers who have had to mourn publicly over the death of their children due to police or community violence is part of the mayhem. They have not been able to bury their children due to the public mourning of children. So part of this idea of mayhem is political angst that so many of these mothers had to endure. These things happen every day, from Philly to LA, Chicago to Memphis, to Baltimore. Freddy Gray’s mother attempted suicide because of the agony she was experiencing, for example. So in thinking about political mayhem, it’s in many ways related to a racial construct and racial unease around black bodies and black presence.

We can think about mayhem physically too. How are black mothers able to advocate for themselves? You may be familiar with Serena Williams’ story. She was having difficulty giving birth to her daughter, telling doctors in the labor room that something was not right, advocating for her own physical well being. On the flip side, a woman in Atlanta was a healthcare worker died giving birth because there just wasn’t this advocacy. We have to help black mothers advocate for their own medical well being. How do we talk about the challenges and ways in which we have to provide resources and education? But we also have to elect political leaders who are black mothers, Latino mothers, Jewish mothers. We need to ensure safety nets for mothers as they are trying to nurture and take care of one of the creator’s most precious gifts.

And it’s not just whether we are mothers or not. Black Lives Matter didn’t start because Michael Brown was Alicia Garza’s son, but because the founders of that movement felt that he belonged to all of us. Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, they belong to all of us. Tarana Burke started #MeToo not only out of her own experience, but to ensure that all of us have the means enough to give voice. It’s about community, that I am because you.

I also think about mindfulness, how are we taking care of ourselves? How do we make sure we have the economic means to take care of ourselves? Taking a walk outside, having time to read, taking a nap. If we don’t take care of ourselves, it makes it harder to take care of other people, we can’t nurture. It’s okay that we take some time for ourselves. Take extra long showers, extra long baths just to have some time to be mindful of our breath, feelings, anxiety, and our own bodies and selves.

I wrote this book because I wanted it to be used in groups. How are we thinking about the ways in which we can support each other? How can we create the kind of society and community where people are not afraid and where people help each other? How do we create contexts where people are not afraid to ask for help? One of the ways I create mindfulness is through writing. Even within the academy we have mothers. We can’t divorce who we are in the academy with who we are in our families, our churches, etc. We need to be mindful of how our various sources of identity intersect.

I’ll end with a quote from the book:

“Sometimes the road is rocky and replete with lions and tigers and bears. There are moments when there is a clear, maternal path. Whoever you are, wherever you are in life, it is my design that what is written in these pages will offer helpful hints and lessons learned as we mothers discover and embrace the strength that oft lies dormant. Ours is a powerful voice even in the stillest moments. It is a voice that will not give way to hatred or injustice. In a mother’s tongue it is a child’s future, a community’s rallying cry. Recall this book project came to being after I was speaking to another woman following a preaching engagement. The sacred, self, and society lend an ear and stir into action–when Momma speaks!” (xvii)


Diann L. Neu: Thank you Stephanie for your voice and your actions and your illuminating perspective on motherhood, mayhem, and mindfulness. You challenge us to look at the intersections of class, race, gender, and motherhood.

DLN: I’m aware that in your book, you raised up women from scripture and I was really struck by your womanist twist in the stories of Hagar, Bathsheba, etc. and how you each brought them into a contemporary context. You said you’ve preached on each of these women. Which story would you like to tell us today? Because I think tying the Biblical women to contemporary women from a womanist perspective is such an important thing.

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder: It’s so hard to choose, but I’ll talk about Bathsheba. The story that is often told of Bathsheba is the one who supposedly seduces David. That’s just not the story at all. David abuses his royal power and summons her, impregnates her, eventually the child dies. Eventually he marries her and they have Solomon. The story that I chose to tell about Bathsheba is the one in First Kings, decades later when David is about to die and it is Nathan the prophet who solicits the help of a woman, Bathsheba because he needs her help. Bathsheba prompts David to handle the situation about his succession. She tells him that he promised that Solomon would rule and reign, there is chaos and you need to act. She is fearless, she is not a victim, she is a strong woman navigating royalty. It made me think of women CEOs, especially African American women. What does it look like when we are at the table? When we are running multi-million dollar corporations? There is this narrative that we have to be fearless.

Q: I am a young white, privileged woman about to enter graduate school. I was wondering if you had any advice on how I can support others in my program who might not have the same privilege as me?

SBC: I always talk about a ministry of presence. Grandmother said it best, we have two ears for a reason. How do we learn to listen? Own up to your privilege, don’t let it be the elephant in the room. Own up to your limited background and experience. Use connection that we are all in this graduate program. The academy is not always kind to students or professors. Being honest and open about the difficulties of it, navigating coursework and such. Stay honest and open, don’t try to fix anything. Be honest about our privilege, even in the academy. For example, be mindful of women who clean the academy, of the privilege of getting to take children to daycare and those who care for them there. I think it’s a matter of owning and naming this privilege for what it is.

DLN: I am interested in the effect of slavery on motherhood for all of us, could you talk a bit about that?

SBC: That’s a big question, it’s multilayered. I think the immediate thing that comes to mind is that some of the women taken from Africa as slaves were part of matrilineal societies where women ran the show. So we have to think about the fact that these women were forced out of a cultural, contextual, maternal vacuum. Secondly you think about the fact that these women were forced to breed. So motherhood was forced upon them. They were not able to take care of their own children because their breasts and their bodies had to take care of the master’s children. So women navigated motherhood and slavery from many different levels. And they were mothers from sun up to sun down, even when the slaves weren’t working in the fields. I think there are residuals of this kind of maternal nurturing. Even today I think of books like The Help. That there are even expectations in the academy, students who expect black women to be the nurturer, that the black woman is supposed to be the mother of everybody. These are ways in which white folks have to be honest about the damage that has been caused. But I think like the story of Bathsheba, we have stories of black mothers who are recreating these narratives. Women who are working against these stereotypes of black mothers, woman who are standing on their own, pushing back against this nurturing identity. I think people who project these stereotypes on black women need to be held accountable as well.

WATER thanks Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder for her time and insights.