I just finished a book review for my Gender Issues class. It is a fascinating book that was an eye-opener for me. The title is "Sisters in the Wilderness", by Delores S. Williams, and it discusses the need for a "womanist" theology. Womanist is the word coined by Alice Walker to describe a feminist movement for African-American women. I wondered about the necessity of a different name for the movement for African-American until I read the book. I particularly was interested in the association the African-American woman make with the Biblical figure of Hagar. I certainly enjoyed the book. It makes a lot of sense, and knowing that the Islam religion reveres Hagar as the mother of Ishmael, as Jewish people revere Sarah as the mother of Isaac, helps me to understand why African-American women, since slave days, have related to Hagar.

Hagar: a Sister in the Wilderness


Sisters in the Wilderness

Delores S. Williams

In this insightful book, Delores S. Williams has several important messages to both African-American women and to white feminists. I have chosen to discuss only three of the major ideas: the “wilderness experience”, the impact of the surrogacy roles of black women both in the time of slavery and in the more immediate past, and how feminism needs to be broadened to include the specific issues of African-American women.

Williams uses the black women’s folk phrase, “to make a way out of no way” throughout the book (page 5) to open up the discussion of the wilderness experience of both Hagar, in the Biblical story of Hagar and Sarah, and of black women from slave times to the present. She compares the dehumanizing atrocities perpetrated on the slave families to Hagar’s mistreatment and abandonment by Abraham, and points out that God, in this story, sides with the couple with the power, not the powerless slave. Whereas Sarah and Abraham were elected by God for a special covenant, Hagar and her child were banished to the wilderness, without ample sustenance, and Hagar had to “make a way out of no way”.

For Williams, God’s gift to Hagar, through her finding of the well, is this ability to “make a way out of no way”. Williams sees that as the same gift given to black women in slavery, in the harsh times after the emancipation, and in current times.

Thus Hagar becomes the story that African-American women have taken as their own. Not only does she survive, and raise Ishmael successfully, including choosing his wife, but she does this under incredibly difficult physical and cultural circumstances. The women in slavery related to Hagar's resourcefulness in face of obstacles, and black women have used this same resourcefulness during the centuries.

Another point of relationship with Hagar is her surrogate’s role. Williams writes in detail how the surrogacy of the slave women has impacted African-American women ever since. Briefly, she claims that this role has “devalued” the black women’s womanhood (page 81). The slave served as wet nurse for the white master’s children, housekeeper, sexual relief for the master, and surrogate father to her own children, who were often the result of rape by the master. In all of these cases, the woman had no power or authority or ownership; just all the responsibility. (Even in the case of rape, the “responsibility” for the incident was put on the supposed “sexuality” of the woman.) This discussion was the most eye-opening for me. I wonder if this feeling about surrogacy is one of the reasons it was difficult in my agency to interest African-American women in the child care field.

Alice Walker gave the name “Womanist” to the unique concerns of the African-American woman. Throughout Williams’ book, it is apparent that the feminist movement beginning in the 70’s has not addressed the particular needs of the African-American women. In addition to “male power” addressed by the feminist movement, black women face a multitude of other power issues that stem from a long history of being oppressed.

Williams suggests that one difference between the positions of feminist and womanist is the definition of “womanhood”. The image of the Virgin Mary as a sweet, pure, obedient, young virgin does not have the same appeal of the perfect woman for African-American women as it does for much of the North American white culture (especially male). This ideal perpetuates the idea of white being pure and innocent, and does not resonate for generations of women who were told that black is immoral, loose (page180). Williams suggests that feminists, womanists, and other groups, such as Asian women and Lesbian women, need to open the discussion of just what being a woman means. I might mention here that the holding up of Mary as the ideal has hurt Anglo-American women, also.

Another problem area between feminists and womanists is the definition of patriarchy. Williams allows that Anglo-American women live with only the illusion of power (page 185) but asks that dialog begin that deals with issues of class and women’s oppression of women. I must search my own conscience about this.

There are many more important subjects in this thought-provoking book, such as the androcentric messages given by mainline African-American churches. I found the book enlightening, especially in the issues I have chosen to discuss. As an Anglo-American woman who struggled with her own identity as the women’s movement of the 60’s tore down everything I had been taught about a “good woman”, I see the need for all women to acknowledge that everyone’s experiences, culture, and history are not the same. We must talk with each other and develop a new unity that includes and supports all women.

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