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What we mean when we say #TrustBlackWomen

“I am so glad you are Black.” That was Rev. Shanea Leonard’s response after joining the Zoom meeting and seeing my face.

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

“I am so glad you are Black.”

That was Rev. Shanea Leonard’s response after joining the Zoom meeting and seeing my face. After a jovial back and forth, I can understand why they would be surprised that I was Black. We are in a 92% White denomination, and I’d initially introduced myself through my work email at Presbyterian Outlook, a 200-year-old media institution. So their surprise was not all that far-fetched. It’s also why this article is so important.

I also interviewed Rev. Kerri Allen, Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt, Rev. Lakesha Bradshaw-Easter, and Rev. Brooke Scott. Between these phenomenal Black leaders in the denomination, I experienced the equal nervousness and excitement that Oprah and her team must have felt after securing the coveted Michael Jackson interview in 1990. I’ve been following the careers and ministries of these people for years.

Leonard works at the Office of Gender & Racial Justice in Louisville and helps us unpack who we need to be as a church. Leonard is worth paying attention to. Allen brings a level of depth that is bar none as the visionary for the Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force and through her research in public health. DeTar Birt is a millennial pastor radically redefining who gets a seat at the table. Bradshaw-Easter, a founding member of the task force, brought key insights in our interview, and my conversation with Scott, who is not a member of the task force but who has participated in their webinars, was essential in helping me understand the context and nuance surrounding this story. Carmen Alexander and Samantha Davis are also members of the original task force, but I was unable to interview either of them.

Individually and collectively, these Black theologians are worth all the snaps and claps and standing ovations. They are setting the groundwork and creating a precedent that we will have more people that look like them, like us, come into service and make the church more inclusive and, quite frankly, more righteous. To say I was grateful for the opportunity to interview them and amplify their voices would be an understatement. I felt like I was being reunited with friends from college and we were having a much-needed kickback to share “aha” moments as well as our struggles … what’s been hard.

As much of a labor of love and professional accomplishment this was for me personally, basking in their presence was not the purpose of this interview. I needed to circle back to the 2020 article, “​​Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force Holds First Conversation on Issues of Concern,” originally published by Presbyterian News Service (PNS) and republished by the Outlook, to fill in the fluorescently missing blanks.

While both DeTar Birt and Allen were quoted in that article, neither of them were interviewed for it. I wondered why. Being at the Outlook this past year, I have learned three important truths — news moves fast, time is of the essence, and diversity is needed. When your circle is more diverse, it makes it easier to get the necessary voices and perspectives that bring the entire body to the table. I wonder how our experiences would be more impactful if all institutions of power were more intentional about developing relationships.

My first question referenced DeTar Birt’s tweet that the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. doesn’t support or care about Black women. (This tweet was the catalyst for the 2020 PNS article.) While watching the 2020 General Assembly online, I turned my back for a few minutes, then turned back around to multiple black Zoom squares reading “Trust Black Women.” Until my interviews with Leonard, Allen, DeTar Birt, Bradshaw-Easter, and Scott, I could only piecemeal what had led to that tweet and this subsequent silent protest.

“​​Can you tell us a little more about the history behind the Black Women and Girls Task Force and what was the goal at the General Assembly two years ago, which then prompted Ashley’s tweet?” I asked.

“The task force was something that was born out of the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns (ACWC),” Allen answered. “I was serving on the ACWC at the time, and we continued to address issues that were related to advocacy for Black women and girls. And we had the assembly, six years ago now, in Portland. They passed the Freedom Rising Project [to ‘improve the worsening plight’ of] Black men and boys, and we recommended that they include Black women and girls.”

The church is not alone in being ignorant of the fact that Black females are just as victimized by prejudice as Black males. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, civil rights advocate and creator of the term “intersectionality,” led an unforgettable social experiment during her 2016 TEDWomen Talk entitled “The urgency of intersectionality.” She started by asking everyone who could to stand. One by one, she began calling names. If you had never heard the name before, you were to sit down. If you were familiar with the name, you remained standing. Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray were the first names called. Most of the majority White audience stayed standing through those four names. “Michelle Cusseaux,” Crenshaw said next, and more than half of those standing took a seat. Tanisha Anderson’s name was then called, and only a handful of people continued to stand. Aura Rosser’s name and then Meagan Hockaday’s name left only four people standing.

“Only one thing distinguishes the names that you know from the names that you don’t know: gender,” Crenshaw said. That statement, following the experiment, perfectly describes intersectionality. Racial bias is one thing. Add gender to that and it’s another. Then you also have sexuality, class, and so on. Intersectionality is exactly why, as DeTar Birt said in our interview, “we need to be having this conversation about Black women and girls while also recognizing that there needs to be conversations about Black non-binary folks, and that these conversations need to happen sooner rather than later.”

The inaccurate portrayals that lead us to believe Black males are at a higher risk than Black females are not only coming from the media but from our denomination. Allen vividly recalls being told by White church leaders that Black men have it harder than Black women. And when she recommended to the assembly that Black women and girls be included in the Freedom Rising Project, the response was beyond disheartening. It was disrespectful. Although the recommendation shouldn’t have required any convincing, she’d backed her suggestion with data to prove that Black women and girls also experience disparities like emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual, and psychological violence at alarming rates.

In response to her recommendation, a commissioner stood and asked, “Can we hear from a Black woman?” Hearing this, I spat out my imaginary tea. Get out of here! I screamed in my head in complete disbelief. “We are so invisible. We are either invisible or hypervisible,” Allen added to my internal dialogue.

Another Black woman in attendance at the General Assembly in Portland stood at the commissioner’s call and stated that, as a grandmother, she felt that her grandson’s life was more at risk than her granddaughter’s. The grandmother’s truth sealed the deal. The Freedom Rising Project would focus only on Black males, not Black females. I wondered if the grandmother’s testimony weighed heavier because she was older or if it was because she was darker skinned and considered more credible in this case or if the PC(USA) simply gravitated to what they knew they wouldn’t have to do anything about.

Nonetheless, as DeTar Birt pointed out, “a room full of White people used that as a vote to not add Black women and girls. They had the opportunity to do it, and they chose not to. Then, when it passed, everybody patted themselves on the back like they had done something, and I left that room in tears.”

I didn’t have to ask what the impact of the assembly’s actions had on Allen. She answered my question before I could ask it, speaking directly to the denomination: “You have proven to me that you don’t care. If you cared you would trust Black women, listen to Black women. You would do something. We’re right here! We’ve been talking the whole time — for years, centuries!”

She was not exaggerating in her reference to Black women being ignored for centuries. “Presbyterians were among the most prolific slaveholders,” Allen elaborated. “So that means that for centuries, Presbyterians have been engaging in using Black women’s bodies to further their own agenda. Black women’s bodies literally birthed the capital that sustains this denomination, that sustains our colleges, our universities, our churches, and our Presbyterian entities. That’s the backdrop. So this goes on and on and on and on.”

In response to the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, the Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force was commissioned. “The task force was really born out of the Georgetown Law Center’s studies on the adultification of Black girls, which is really just a flashpoint that points to the structural sin that exists and creates the inequities that Black people as a whole and then distinctively that Black women and girls experience,” Allen noted.

Leonard, DeTar Birt, Bradshaw-Easter, Alexander and Davis were among those who joined the task force to create a report that gives a very practical approach to action items that can be done within and outside of the church. And the report is already working. “In my work at the national office, this report is so imperative,” Leonard emphasized. “I’ve been told that Black people are fine. They point to various Black people in leadership positions and say that we aren’t struggling nearly as much as other oppressed groups. People don’t really understand what folks are truly going through. That’s why it’s important to drive home this narrative, not just about racism but about the intersectional issues that occur for not just people of color but Black people.”

The Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force

Even within a task force centered on Black women and girls, there must be a variety of voices on the subject matter. “Different voices really directed the direction and the meat of the report,” Allen said. “So we had reproductive justice experts, we had a Christian education expert, youth experts…” DeTar Birt further clarified that “The youth were their own experts. When we did our research for this, we talked to folks who work with young people, but, also, we talked to the young people themselves to hear their experiences and to get their insight on what was happening to them.”

This diversity of voices, backgrounds, and experiences is so important because we are not a monolith. That diversity also includes what led us to this denomination. None of the pastors I interviewed are cradle Presbyterians. I’m not either. Most Black folks aren’t. DeTar Birt started when she was seven years old. Bradshaw-Easter is about 20 years in, but she didn’t even go to Presbyterian seminary, and she said that people are shocked when they learn that she’s not a Montreat baby. One cannot and should not speak for all, as was the case when the grandmother’s word at the 222nd General Assembly finalized the decision to exclude Black women and girls. DeTar Birt summed it up perfectly when she said that, “We all have different experiences, sometimes contradictory experiences, but you’re not going to know that and you’re not going to be able to do anything with that if you don’t actually listen to what we have to say.”

Due to polity, the task force understood that the report would not be on the agenda for the 2020 virtual General Assembly. At that moment, they just wanted an affirmation. “Just a statement of affirmation with some names, a statement that says that Black women and girls matter in this denomination, like two paragraphs long. That’s it,” DeTar Birt said. That did not happen, however. The moderator said that to receive an affirmation, the assembly had to vote to approve the item for discussion and then again to approve the affirmation. The task force ended up being 20 votes short of bringing the item up for discussion. It did not even make it to an approval vote.

“Doing it is one step forward. Not doing it is a giant leap back. And to have this get hung up, not even on its own merit, not even on the wording, not even on the content, but on a procedural issue? Falling behind 20 votes on a procedural issue is the same Presbyterian nonsense that we have seen in the past. It is the same Presbyterian nonsense that gets used to block anything progressive. It gets used to block LGBTQ issues. It gets used to block issues of racism. This is not new,” said Allen.

Adding insult to injury, the assembly decided to pray for Black women and girls. No direct action to initiate change, just a prayer. And while the prayer included traumas and tragedies that were listed in the report that Allen and the ACWC gave to the assembly, including sex trafficking and domestic violence, it only focused on these very sad Black women tropes. The psychological violence that happens to more of us was completely overlooked. “When we got thwarted, it was the Black woman trying to speak for themselves,” Allen said. Pausing briefly to let her point sink in, she continued, “When there was finally an attempt to say, ‘All right, let’s say something about this issue,’ it was not a Black woman speaking. [The prayer] was just playing into every sad, terrible stereotype about Black women and girls that one could think of. That was an emotionally and spiritually violent prayer.” Coming four years after their rejection in Portland, the rejection of their affirmational statement and the use of this prayer sparked the silent protests and the subsequent tweets from DeTar Birt.

Following the 2020 General Assembly, the task force decided to launch a series of webinars. “It focused on the topics of the report, and each one was led by a member of the task force and myself in some way. And those still live on Facebook on the Gender Justice Facebook page,” Leonard said. This is also where Scott comes in. Although she wasn’t a member of the task force, she was involved with the webinars as a speaker on the panel for LGBTQIA Black women and things that we can do better as a denomination to be more inclusive of this community.

For Scott, the panel felt like a for-us, by-us space. A place to vent and be heard and embraced. Part of her truth was that she didn’t want to only be chosen to make the picture look better. “I don’t want to be a token,” she said. “I don’t want to be just simply added onto something or assimilated. I don’t want to be just a Black face. I actually want to lift up the issues that are affecting me.” That can be seen as too much though. I know that from personal experience. Agreeing, she added that speaking up about what’s not right is often viewed as “too militant. Too angry. It’s too, ‘We don’t want to offend people. We don’t want to ruffle feathers.’”

That reminded me of a quote from Vernā Myers, a diversity and inclusion consultant who’s also a Black woman: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” There are instances, however, when the excluded are invited to the party and even asked to dance, but you have to fit into a prefabricated mold. You can’t dance the way you want to. You can’t change the rhythm. Otherwise, you’ll be ignored.

“Diversity is just a sexy word right now.” Scott said. “It’s a sexy word in church and in the world. I don’t think anyone in their heart of hearts would disagree that people being at the same table, people being in the same places, sharing experiences, sharing backgrounds, is bad. But I think [the reality is that these are] empty words … propping people up for our own purposes and not really wanting to be transformed by the people that we’re bringing in.”

Hearing this, I silently thanked Leonard, Allen, and DeTar Birt for suggesting that I reach out to Scott because that is exactly what we mean when we say that Black women aren’t trusted. Don’t just invite me to the table and expect me to be grateful for a plate. Listen to me. Otherwise, our sentiments will continue to echo this statement from Bradshaw-Easter: “I feel that the PC(USA) as a whole does not trust Black women’s authority and voice in the church. I don’t know if it’s just us in general, but it’s certainly about our place. [The PC(USA)] doesn’t trust our place in the church, doesn’t trust our contributions to the church, does not support our calls and our gifts in the church. The PC(USA) doesn’t trust our presence. I think that may be a better statement. And it’s not that it tolerates it. In many cases, it’s window dressing …”

“What do you think could be done for our voices to be heard and trusted? What needs to happen?” I asked Bradshaw-Easter.

“First, we need to call out toxic theology and the spiritual abuse that attempts to silence and control Black women’s representative voices in the denomination and within society,” she answered flatly. “Second, we need to open up the door to folks, to Black women and others, who, like me, didn’t attend a Presbyterian seminary. The church shorts itself by looking for homogeny in people and what they are called to express. We’re missing out on hearing the people who are actually doing the work like you, Shani, people like myself, Denise Anderson, and Bernice Parker-Jones. Excellent Black women in the church, who are called and equipped by God. The representation you are offering us in this article provides space for us to be heard, and I trust the Spirit will work in those who have ears to listen and respond through faith in action.”

Then I asked her what I also asked Leonard, Allen, and DeTar Birt: “The task forces’ reports will be on the docket for this year’s General Assembly. What’s your hope that will come out of that?”

The response was the same across the board. They want the report to be funded. For the assembly and the church at large to apply the action steps in the report to their everyday lives. For the church to, as DeTar Birt so eloquently put it, “open themselves up to the possibilities of what God can do through your connection to Black women and see how you can be transformed.”

To trust Black women, you have to feel connected to us. To feel connected to us, you have to listen to what we say. To effectively listen, you have to make space and be willing to, as Scott said, “feel the weight of the violences that have been committed.” As she also spelled out, “We need to start with awareness, repentance, and then take those small steps to do the repairing and the restoration.” Because the last thing we want to do is make an even bigger mess and, as DeTar Birt called out, “turn the oppressed into oppressors.”

Following the interviews and meditating on their truths, I went from noting Leonard’s relief in seeing that I was Black to feeling that my hour with them mattered in so many ways. I fully understood my assignment, and I knew exactly why they were so comforted in there being a Black woman interviewing them on such a complicated topic. Navigating oppression ain’t easy. True allyship ain’t easy either. If it is, it’s not authentic. I’ll never forget Dr. Cameron Byrd of Howard University School of Divinity saying that “When you love something so much you want to make it right.”

That’s what this #TrustBlackWomen movement for change is all about. It’s us loving this church so much that we want to make it right.

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