WHEN my great-grandmother heard about the accident at her children’s school, the baby growing inside her died. At their primary school in Abbi, in Delta State, in the south-east of Nigeria, my grandmother, Patience, and her brother Len would regularly join the other children in some manual labour which included the moulding of mud blocks.
On the day in question in 1938, some of the children who were making mould for the blocks were buried as the mud pit caved in on them.
My grandmother recalls how the school descended into chaos as teachers desperately tried to dig the children out, and were joined by anxious parents from the village wanting to know their children were safe.
Their attempts came too late for one boy, Peter, who was not from our family, and he died in the tragedy. Such was the trauma of that horrific day that my great-grandmother, who had been out in the market looking for her children, miscarried on hearing the news of the accident.
Of all the stories I have heard about my great-grandmother, this is the one that stretched out through the decades and made me feel connected to her in a way that I cannot describe.
I have a sense of how she may have felt in that moment; the dull and familiar ache that sits inside every mother, the helplessness we feel from the moment the umbilical cord is cut and we can no longer guarantee the safety of our children; the dread that comes with hearing that our worst nightmare might have come true.
My great-grandmother’s miscarriage in that moment represents that inescapable truth that women’s bodies carry so much pain: scars we carry with us throughout our lives, no matter where in the world we might be.
To be a woman is to feel that deep sense of connection with other women — those who have come before and those who come after us, each of us bound up in that notion of sisterhood, whether we like it or not.
What I am starting to understand, however, is that, while the notion of womanhood might bring us together, we are separated by the very different experiences we have as we exist in this world as Black women or white women.
The bonds of sisterhood are not strong enough to break through the barriers of race.
IN THE mainly Evangelical church spaces in which I have spent most of my Christian life, within the patriarchal structures and beliefs — sometimes overt and sometimes under the surface — women have a part to play as helpers, homemakers, and hotties; in each of these roles, it is femininity that is prized.
Chine McDonaldChine McDonald’s great-grandmother, Alice Ene
But in subtle ways this femininity refers only to a particular type of woman: a white woman. Black women have long been excluded from the notions of femininity and left out of discussions around womanhood.
Sojourner Truth, a black woman abolitionist and women’s-rights activist, intimated this in her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in 1851: “That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, and lifted over ditches, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!
“And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well!
“And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
Some of my best friends are white women. White women have held me as I’ve cried at some of the darkest moments in my life. White women have taught me, encouraged me to hold my head up high. They have listened to me, laughed with me, explored the world with me. White women have been some of my greatest allies, fighting against the injustice that we see in our world, and cheering me on from the sidelines when I have needed their support.
I will continue to be grateful for their friendship. But there is something altogether different about my friendships with Black women. Even to call these bonds friendship does not quite get to the heart of describing the invisible, yet unbreakable, connection I feel I have with other Black women.
The depth of connection comes from that recognition that we are interlinked by both our race and our gender, by some unspoken thread that causes us to say, I see you without even uttering a word.
Whether I have known these women all my life, or whether our eyes have met briefly as we pass each other on a street — two strangers, yet sisters in a sea of whiteness — Black women recognise in each other our distinct identities and experiences of the world. We see the divine in each other — even when others do not.
I used to meet regularly with three Black sister-friends for a “cook-out”. During these life-giving sessions, we would cook some of the best-known dishes from our parents’ and grandparents’ repertoires, attempting to recreate the smells and tastes of our childhoods. While cooking together, we would talk about love and loss and disappointment and ambitions and hopes and dreams.
We would laugh till the tears rolled down our cheeks, talk about what it was to be Black women, and open up the Bible, reading in its pages life lessons that spoke to our individual and collective situations.
Though it has been many years since we sat in each other’s kitchens, I treasure those memories. This meeting together of Black women in expression of our solidarity is essential in a world that places into question our humanity.
“We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit,” Audre Lorde writes, “because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other.”
God is found in the beauty of the connection that forms between Black women. God is found in the cries of Black women — those marked out as “the oppressed of the oppressed”; God is found in the beauty of their voices — their worship reaching depths that no other places can reach.
IN CHURCHES around the world, it is women in general and often Black women in particular who work tirelessly behind the scenes, giving of themselves in service to God and their communities.
The character Adoha Onyeka, played by Ellen Thomas in the BBC sitcom Rev, perfectly encapsulates this idea of the sacrificial Black women found in churches up and down Britain. In 2010, the BBC press pack accompanying the show described the character of Adoha as “Overbearing, maternal and yet unnervingly sensual, Adoha is what’s known as a cassock chaser. . . Adoha will do anything for Adam — and that’s what scares him.”
In this description we see how Black women — including Black women in church — are presented as scary, angry, domineering, and over-sexualised, but also undesirable. Black women are the losers in a world riddled with patriarchy and white supremacy.
It is for Christ’s sake that we should remove the barriers that keep people from seeing God for who God is. God is not a white man, and a Church that either consciously or unconsciously continues to suggest that God is will lose the Black women who might love the Church but can no longer deal with its white superiority.
When the God standing at the altar is white and male, then Blackness and womanhood become invisible. This invisibility is making it easier for Black women to slip out of churches, closing the doors firmly behind them in search of acceptance elsewhere.
This is an edited extract from God Is Not a White Man: And other revelations by
Chine McDonald, published by Hodder and Stoughton at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.59).
Listen to Chine McDonald talk about the book on the Church Times Podcast.