I recently had the privilege of having a long conversation with Yolanda Pierce, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. I wanted to talk to her about her recent book, “In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit.” I was incredibly interested in how she blends theology and literature and narratives of Black women into her scholarship. I had heard a little about womanist theology, the study of religion through the lens of gender, race and class, and wanted to know more about this field of study which is now roughly 50 years old.
First things first, many of us know of the long illustrious history of Howard University and the prominent alums ranging from first Black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall who attended the law school to Vice President Kamala Harris who attended as an undergraduate. I was somewhat surprised to find out that Dr. Pierce is the first woman to lead the predominantly Black theological school in its 150-year history.
“In My Grandmother’s House” uses what Pierce calls “grandmother theology” as a way to explore the stories of the grandmothers, aunties, mothers and other nonbiological women or “church mothers” who helped raise her in the church. Much of the theology being done in the academy oftentimes excludes communities of color and much of the early Black theology excluded the voices of women. In writing this new book, Pierce offers a course correction, a way to explore the importance of these women who serve as the backbone not just of religious institutions, but our communities as well.
Black women make up the majority of church memberships, sometimes as much as 80, 90% of the church. Pierce felt like the discipline theology was not reflecting the experiences of the people who are its most dedicated members and loyal witnesses, Black women.
What is so powerful about this new book is its universal feel. Anyone who has ever been loved by an older Black woman—a grandmother, an auntie, a mother, a sister, or a Black woman in their community—will feel an instant connection to Pierce’s analysis of Black women. Pierce asks difficult and sometimes taboo questions such as, “Who do I believe God is?” and “Why does God allow for the suffering of Black women?” For some, this book may feel like someone is finally asking the hard questions that need to be answered. For others, the questions raised may elicit some discomfort as Pierce intricately lays out how Black women deserve to be centered in theological understanding.
I am looking forward to discussing “In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit” with my mother and aunties and hearing even more diverse stories of Black women and their faith.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC and also What’s in It for Us podcast.