Week 3: African American Women and Religion

  • Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Weisenfeld, Judith. African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

This week’s readings continue our discussion of gender and religion but expand to include both race and class. Evelyn Higginbotham’s text, Righteous Discontentexamines women’s role in “broadening the public arm of the church and making it the most powerful institution of racial self-help in the African American community” [1]. She accomplishes thy by focusing on the Women’s Convention and the National Baptist Convention during ht years of 1880-1920. Following  a few years later, Judith Weisenfeld also explores the connection between religious belief and black women’s collective action but on a more local scale. She focuses her study on the African American YWCA of New York from its beginnings in 1905 to the desegregation of the YWCA in the 1940s. Both narratives offer intriguing insights and probing questions.

One of the overarching arguments throughout both of these texts is the role the black church/religious organization played as a public space. As such, the larger theme of the texts are racial uplift and self determination.They both acknowledge the theoretical framework of Jurgen Habermas’s “public sphere,” and yet challenge his position when it comes to other competing public spheres. The historical actors of interest to both Higginbotham and Wiesenfeld operated within a restricted public sphere and even a “counter-publics” to the other spheres. These texts, then, expand the narrative of public space to include groups whose true public space was limited enough that the black church fostered an “arena” of dialogue, engagement, and activity. With this framework, both texts treat the religious elements of the black churches as supportive to the overall narrative of racial and gender equality and uplift. Tweed would state that these religious organizations are in fact “enhancing joy and confronting suffering” in a very temporal and physical way.

Perhaps most surprising in these texts on African American women is the prevalence of white women in the narrative. In large part, the white women represent racial structures of power both to be utilized and in conflict with. Higganbotham sees the relationship between African American women and white women in a mutually beneficial relationship. White women exhibited their influence and power in an uplifting manner as philanthropists, missionaries, religious organizations, and otherwise. Her describing of this relationship as an “unlikely sisterhood” is compelling. She sees this interracial cooperation as challenging “the representations and assumptions articulated by a racist society” [89]. Yet, Higginbotham questions their motives for such humanitarian work and cites the possibility for anxiety over their own social location as a contributing factor in fostering a positive relationship with African American women. Was the racial power being “distributed” or was it merely being reinforced. Wiesenfeld’s narrative offers a much more conflicted view of power between white women and African American women. Specifically, the conflict between the white YWCA of 15th street and the affiliate African American YWCA in New York. Power is continually held within the 15th street YWCA as they “oversaw” the African American YWCA and rarely was it conceded. However, in both the African American YWCA of New York and the Women’s Convention in the National Baptist Convention, women operated within and expanded their spheres of influence and control.

Both of these works are supremely important to religious and gender history. Higginbotham is concerned with rescuing “these women from invisibility as historical actors” [2]. The discussion of race and religion has dwelled upon the ministers and religious leadership, which is overwhelmingly male. However, this perspective masks the role that gender played in racial-uplift and the politics of respectability. These two texts taken together offer a broad sweeping discussion of a national organization and its contributions during the “nadir” of race relations. Higginbotham is able to illustrate a more complete representation of African American women’s work and their sense of community in a national organization. In contrast, Wiesenfeld offers a more local perspective that illustrates the difficulties of operating within a growing metropole and the racial divides that existed within a city’s framework. She is able to address the specifics of the city and its changing dynamics over the time span of her analysis. Both these texts offer differing perspectives on an important avenue of scholarship for race and religion during the beginning decades of the 20th century.


Week 3: African American Women and Religion

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