by Princess O’Nika Auguste
This article is dedicated to Dr. Margaret Aymer, who encourages me and reminds me that I am a strong, womanish, Caribbean woman. It was inspired by my memories of Caribbean culture and by Dr. Aymer’s article, “Outrageous, Audacious, Courageous, Willful: Reading the Enslaved Girl of Acts 12.”
In Caribbean and African-American cultures, girls perceived as mature for their age are often labeled womanish. The term can refer to emotional maturity, but it can also refer to girls believed to be promiscuous or inappropriately willful and rebellious. The term’s positive and negative connotations are difficult to separate and have deep cultural significance rooted in systems of oppression.
Some years ago, during my stay in a city with a large Caribbean minority, I met a young girl with a Caribbean father and African-American mother. She was listening to music when the song “Hips Don’t Lie,” by the Colombian singer Shakira and Haitian American rapper Wyclef Jean, came on. A group of us danced and laughed together, and the little girl tried to imitate Shakira’s dance moves from the music video. Because Shakira and Wyclef Jean are of Caribbean and Latin American origin, most us, including the girl’s father, saw nothing sexual about the cultural dance moves. But the mother called her four-year-old “womanish,” meaning she was acting too grown-up for her age. The little girl was very observant and always asking questions, and I believe she was more mature-acting than her mother was comfortable with.
During my childhood growing up in the Caribbean, people called me womanish, as well. They would add the phrase after saying things like, “Luk at de ti jament” (look at the little whore), “Yuh too fast, Yuh mus keep out-ta big people business,” or “Yuh too fresh, Ou Fou” (you are crazy). Girls labeled womanish are often seen as mentally instable, bossy, or promiscuous.
Womanish girls are called fast or jaments—two common Caribbean terms referring to promiscuity. The labels sexualize girls regardless of whether or not they are sexually active and shame the ones who are. This shaming is meant to discourage young women from sexual behavior; however, it also reinforces an oppressive stereotype of black girls and women. This stereotype stems from slavery, when black men and women were viewed as breeders and sex objects, and slave masters used the stereotype that black women were promiscuous to justify sexual assault.
The stereotype is also reinforced by the early development of black girls’ bodies. Some of us develop much faster than children of other ethnicities. Young women, especially those with larger figures, are shamed and sexualized for their bodies and how quickly they develop.
The term reveals a double standard among black boys and girls in the Caribbean. While girls labeled womanish are most often laughed at or ignored, and boys are not punished for assuming adult behaviors and attitudes. They are not shamed for being sexually active; they can stay out late, voice their opinions and otherwise act in an adult manner without being called “mannish.”
Womanish girls rebel against the patriarchal standard imposed on them to be silent and invisible. By being themselves, they challenge patriarchal child-rearing structures that stifle young black girls. It should be a positive thing to rebel against the societal norms of slut-shaming, sexism, classism, misogyny, and racism. Being womanish can mean young women are innovative and independent.
In the New Testament, we have three characters who could be considered womanish: Rhoda, found in Acts 12, and two unnamed slave girls, in Acts 16 and Luke 22. Rhoda is a slave in the house of Mary, mother of the apostle Mark. In the story, Peter has been imprisoned by Herod, who is going to kill him, but Peter is freed by an angel and heads to Mary’s house. When Rhoda hears Peter’s voice at the door, she is overjoyed and, instead of letting him in, she runs to tell the household who is there. “You are out of your mind!” they tell Rhoda, who insists that their guest is who she believes he is.
Biblical scholar Margaret Aymer writes about Rhoda in her commentary on Acts, as well as in her article, “Outrageous, Audacious, Courageous, Willful: Reading the Enslaved Girl of Acts 12.” Aymer suggests that Rhoda might not be the girl’s actual name but a moniker and points out that Rhoda is never allowed to speak in her own words (Aymer 2016, p. 265). Rhoda is a slave girl acting outside of the Roman Jewish Christian society’s way of how women, slaves, and children are supposed to act. Because of this, like many black girls who act womanish, Rhoda is made fun of and considered “crazy” even though she is right. In her commentary, Aymer writes that the author of Luke and Acts is more concerned with portraying Rhoda as comedic relief than addressing how she was oppressed by a rich woman through the institution of slavery (p. 543). According to the text, Peter does nothing to correct the idea that Rhoda was right about his appearance, and Rhoda disappears from the narrative, going down as comedic relief or the “crazy slave-girl.”
Another womanish character is an unnamed slave girl in Acts 16. According to the text, she was possessed by a spirit, which gave the girl the gift of divination, and her owners used her as a fortuneteller to make money. In the narrative, the girl followed Paul and Silas around for several days, proclaiming, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of Salvation” (Acts 16:17 NRSV). Paul was annoyed by the girl’s behavior and cast out the spirit.
The slave girl’s spirit of divination gave her an uncommon voice and agency for a slave—two womanish qualities. In fact, one could argue that her owners allowed her to be womanish for their own profit. When Paul cast out the spirit, this not only took away the owner’s source of income but also the source of the girl’s freedom (Aymer 2012, p. 243). The spirit of divination was that girl’s womanish spirit. Just like Rhoda, the slave girl disappears from the narrative, making way for Paul’s imperialism.
In Luke’s Gospel, we have another unnamed slave girl who recognizes Peter as a follower of Jesus after Jesus’s arrest. Peter denies the girl’s accusation (Luke 22:56). In her book, The Literary Construction of the Other in the Acts of the Apostles: Charismatics, the Jews, and Women, author Mitzi Smith examines the parallels between Rhoda and this slave girl in Luke. Smith believes the Gospel writer may have been attempting to redeem Peter for his public denial of Christ. “When Peter gains entrance into Mary’s home, Rhoda’s testimony is affirmed—something Peter could not bring himself to do in the recognition scene with the high priest’s slave girl,” Smith writes (2012, p. 126). However, I do not see this story as redeeming Peter. Instead, by silencing Rhoda, the Gospel writer lets us know that slave girls should stay out of other people’s business. Smith also writes that when Peter enters the house and tells his story even Mary is silenced. In fact, everyone is silenced except for the male authority leader (p. 127).
A strict reading of the three Biblical texts might leave us believing that being womanish is not a good thing after all. However, Alice Walker offers a positive connation to womanish in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. She says the term womanist comes from womanish:
(Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) … From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
Where Walker states that womanish is about being serious, Aymer articulates that Rhoda’s story must be taken seriously (Aymer 2016, p. 265). I believe each womanish character should be taken seriously. Each story focuses on how the womanish women were either being comical, acting outside their station, or imposing themselves into other people’s business instead of the fact that they were silenced and most likely left in a worse, or at least the same, oppressive situation. To take womanish characters seriously is to take oppression seriously.
Being womanish should be seen as a good thing. Personally, I like being womanish because by being serious and having willful and courageous behavior, I am rebelling against racial patriarchy, slut-shaming, and classism. Although Rhoda and the other two slave girls were negatively portrayed, they remained womanish until the patriarchal system shut them down. This is why I—and other black women who have been deemed womanish—will continue to stand up to the empire. Black girls do not need to let the term negatively influence them, but can reclaim it like Walker did. It ain’t easy being womanish but it ain’t a bad ting either. Womanish bon (womanish is a good thing).
Margaret Aymer, “Acts of the Apostles,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd ed., edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), pp. 536–46.
Margaret Aymer. “Outrageous, Audacious, Courageous, Willful: Reading the Enslaved Girl of Acts 12,” in Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse, edited by Gay L. Byron and Vanessa Lovelace (Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2016), pp. 265–90.
Mitzi J. Smith, The Literary Construction of the Other in the Acts of the Apostles: Charismatics, the Jews, and Women. (Cambridge, U.K.: James Clarke, 2012).
© 2017 by Christian Feminism Today and Princess O’Nika Auguste