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I remember encountering Juanita Bynum for the first time as a college student at a Church of God in Christ (COGIC) Jurisdictional Meeting in Memphis, Tennessee. Wearing a black dress that covered her from neck to toe (quite literally), Bynum preached from the pulpit, a pulpit rarely given to most COGIC women who are said to “teach” and not “preach” as a matter of doctrinal policy. I sat near the front, leaning forward, ready to see with my own eyes a woman I had only watched on video preaching “No More Sheets.” I remember her intensity. Her youth. Her theatrical acumen. I recall her unapologetic way of startling entire congregations – bishops, missionaries, mothers, elders, young people – by invoking her experience of and conversion from sexual sin. While I was never drawn to her style of preaching, I was taken by her ability to have a conversation about sexuality that was merely whispered among the saints when something had “gone wrong” – a sexual scandal involving a pastor or elder, a woman pregnant out of wedlock, two teenagers found in the church basement having sex, a church leader’s son found out to be gay, the list goes on. Identifying herself in her past life as a “ho,” Bynum was now an evangelist of “ho-liness” who knew the inner workings of sexual impurity, which was lodged and located in black women’s flesh. This was my first encounter of Bynum. She was a young woman who uncovered and exposed the interiority of sexual sin, which was a deeply gendered conversation for her.
While listening to Bynum in that Memphis church, I remember thinking to myself that there was something about her message that resonated with so many black charismatic and Pentecostal women who felt used, discarded, and uncared for in relation to black men and broader white society. So many of these women were part of what black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins and black sociologist William Julius Wilson refer to as a “black underclass,” who encounter daily forms of psychic, social, political, and economic death. Many of these women are often under-employed or unemployed, the primary caretakers of their children, and without comprehensive support (healthcare, childcare, etc.) to ensure their families flourish. In fact, the emergence of Pentecostal and charismatic movements at the dawn of the 20th century were led by such economically disadvantaged black women, who found refuge away from the cultural representations broader white society (re)produced: black women as lusty, lascivious, and personally responsible for any sexual, social, or economic harms they experienced. Unfortunately, within black churches today, these kinds of sexist logics persist, as black women fight forms of ecclesial apartheid and sexual abuse at the hands of black male clergy and their supporters. So then, in the 1990s, Bynum’s emergence gave so many of these black women a vocabulary of self worth, a religio-cultural grammar that allowed them to be reclaimed and redeemed as worthy and pure in a white society (and in many black church spaces) that defined them as fundamentally impure.
But the problem is that this grammar of “worthiness” is grounded in the sexist institutional control of their very bodies – holiness is what black women wear, who they decide to love, how they obey and/or disobey male authority and more. The intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class are particularly pronounced as many black women locked in intergenerational cycles of an underclass system continue to suffer in silence, attempting to figure out how to address the trauma of their lives in ways that do not reinforce erroneous and uncompassionate interpretations of their very beings. Bynum therefore represents a paradox: as her message has been interpreted as liberative among many charismatic and neo-Pentecostal black women, her message has equally reinforced the very conditions of these women’s subordination.
So when I watched Bynum’s video castigating black church women/leaders as “hos” or representing a “ho-ish lifestyle” because they dress in a particular way, I wasn’t particularly shocked. I wasn’t shocked at the vulgar hetero-patriarchal gesturing. I wasn’t shocked at the complete disregard of these supposedly “ho-ish” women’s humanity. I also was not shocked at the vigorous, unrelenting defense of Bynum by some black church women commenting on the video. Bynum is a symptom and grand instantiation of where black churches have gone wrong. Bynum’s thinking doesn’t sit from without black church ideology but from within this ideology. She is the the ultimate manifestation of why traditional ideas of holiness, grounded in patriarchal assumptions of black women’s sexual promiscuity and the disgust of black women’s bodily agency, reflect our deepest pathology and psychosis within black communal spaces.
Black churches often tend to police black women’s bodies, black women’s agency and their sense of self-determination. One of my youngest recollections of how the black Pentecostal church policed black women’s flesh was my mother. One early memory I have of my mother was her complete disregard of Pentecostal rules concerning women’s bodies, which included (but not limited to): no dresses above the knee, no pants, little to no makeup (and especially no lipstick), no “loud” colors, and no big earrings. I was about six years old, and I remember my mother coming up the church steps before service. It was a sunny summer day. I climbed the steps and turned around to wait for her. I turned around and remember being utterly speechless. Climbing those steps, she was pure beauty. She wore a classy custom fitted dress right above the knee, a dress that was a mixture of bright red, yellow, and black. Her hair was flowing with light brown highlights. She wore gorgeous red lipstick to complement her dress. And her nails were painted with a royal red polish. She was magnificent. I also intuitively knew that this was outside of the prescribed rules of what constituted “saved and sanctified” women for COGIC churches at that time (1980s). I knew they would despise her for exercising her right to bodily self-determination and for her refusal to be institutionally controlled. At six years old, I registered that my mother was performing something much bigger than what I could grasp or articulate at the time. While my mother might not name it in this way, her refusal to be controlled through her aesthetic presentation was a profound subversive act, an act that liberated my imagination as a little girl to critique and think beyond sexist rules and orders that deny women their agency, creativity, and humanity. But as the years passed, my mother paid hell for her way of being, for refusing to equate holiness with the policing of her body.
For me, Bynum’s conversation misrepresents what is truly at stake – how we invite black women into a sense of communion, creativity and belonging so that they may be able to discern how the Divine moves in and though their lives, how they can affirm their bodies, their very flesh, as God’s good creation without encountering forms of symbolic and physical violence. Many women who affirmed Bynum’s message on the video often like to cite how the old Pentecostal church mothers “told the truth” and without reservation “kept young women in line.” However, I reject this narrative because it is a false narrative. It paints a universal picture of how black church mothers have functioned – as women who valued “principles” over people. And this was not my experience growing up. There is a diverse history of Pentecostal church mothers, many of whose methods and approaches represented profound and radical compassion, church mothers who issued forth an invitation for women to find their agency and identity in communion with the saints. My grandmother, Rose Day, a mother in COGIC who preached across ecumenical lines and served as an advisor for people from all walks of life, offered invitations to women to discover their agency and creativity and to give back in ways that lifted up the entire community. I am literally who I am because of her. And I am certain, that if she were alive today, and watched Bynum’s video, she would be horrified. In fact, my grandmother was no stranger to sexist logics. While I am not painting my grandmother as a radical black womanist or black feminist as myself, I do want to suggest that she knew the importance of refusing logics and practices that assault the humanity of women.
So, to Juanita Bynum and black churches more broadly: black women are not hos. They continue to embody resilience and beauty, discerning and learning more about themselves (and their bodies) as God’s good creation. I have learned so much about true holiness from black women, not by how they dress but by how they live with and for others, witnessing to a God that is love and invites us into new patterns of loving intimacy and radical embrace.
Keri Day is an Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics & Director of Black Church Studies Program at Brite Divinity School. She is the author of two books, Unfinished Business: Black Women, The Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America (Orbis Books 2012) and Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan 2015). She is a fourth-generation Church of God in Christ (COGIC) preacher.
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