by Nyasha Junior
Westminster John Knox Press, 2015
Paperback, 180 pages
Reviewed by Leslie Harrison
Nyasha Junior’s An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation is a mile marker for individuals who seek to have a deeper understanding of the controversy over the feminist and womanist movements and their relationship to each other. Among the issues Junior notes are such questions as these: Can a majority female consider herself a womanist? And should all women of color see themselves as womanist only?
Alice Walker is honored for coining the term womanist, but Junior explains that the concept is not necessarily or exclusively a “black thing.” She writes that although it is true that “Walker’s definition includes the understanding of a womanist as ‘a black feminist or feminist of color,’ . . . to interpret womanism as simply a racial designation is to misconstrue Walker’s understanding of the concept” (p.xvi) Junior quotes the lengthy explanation of the term Walker provided in her opening page of In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, including the oft-referenced statement, “Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender”(p. xiii).
Junior dispels the myths around the topic by giving concrete historical evidence that, while separate, both feminist and womanist perspectives can be one, coexisting in one body. She emphasizes that perspective is important, particularly a perspective of interaction with biblical texts. She also takes time to make a clear distinction between biblical studies (an academic discipline that includes the application of critical methods for ascertaining the meaning of the text) and biblical interpretation in a broader sense. This distinction has yielded diverse writings due to the diversity of perspectives. This distinction can also be found within feminist and womanist biblical interpretation.
Junior writes that while feminist biblical interpretation looks mainly at gender and power relationships, womanist biblical interpretation looks at the personal experiences of African American women and their engagement with the text in light of those experiences, particularly as women of color. She states that womanist biblical interpretation is not merely a “derivative element of feminist biblical interpretation” (p. xiii). Thus, Junior includes the experiences and interactions with biblical texts that have marked the thinking, writing, speaking, and activism of many African American women from both past and present (e.g., Sojourner Truth, Renita Weems, and Raquel St. Clair Lettsome, to mention only a few).
Although Junior’s book offers a basic introduction to womanist biblical interpretation, it is extensive in the amount of material it covers. One aspect of the author’s intent is to show how feminist biblical interpretation relates to African American women’s interpretation. Womanist interpretation is often developed by including the experiences and writings of women who are not considered professionally trained, or who have come from a variety of disciplines other than biblical studies, as well as through the contributions of scholars specializing in biblical studies.
This book contains two parts which give insight and depth to both feminist and womanist perspectives. It was difficult for me to remember I was reading a textbook, as the flow was as comfortable as a novel chosen for summer beach reading. Part I brings focus to historical issues and the intertwining of feminist and womanist threads in biblical interpretation. Discussing the “waves” of feminism helps to show the interwoven aspects of African American women’s experiences that are brought to the feminist movement regarding race and gender.
Part II looks at contemporary issues and the usage of biblical interpretation in secular situations for the development of womanist biblical interpretation. This part also gives historical accounts which compare and contrast the work of both feminist and womanist scholars of the 20th Century and into the 21st.
Junior does an outstanding job in bringing insight to historical issues with profound background information. She tackles contemporary issues with grace, provoking readers to move forward in their quest, whether they identify as feminist or womanist or even a conglomeration of the two, armed with history necessary for continued conversations concerning race, class, gender and the importance of the African American woman’s voice.
© 2016 by Christian Feminism Today