Book Review: I Bring the Voices of My People

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Published:
October 25, 2019

There is a plethora of Christian literature on racial reconciliation. The market is not lacking perspectives from (primarily male) authors who encourage the Christian community to see the image of God in everyone, to celebrate difference, to listen to one another’s stories, and to intentionally make friends with people who are outside of our racial/ethnic groups. We see Christians hosting various panel discussions and dialogues about race, we see symbolic foot washings between members of different races, and we see hugs of forgiveness and “Christian brotherhood” shared between Black and White pastors. With all the effort Christian communities have put into talking about race and racial reconciliation, it makes one wonder why there seems to be no real progress.

In an oversaturated and marginally effective market of Christian racial reconciliation literature, Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes brings us, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation. In this book, Dr. Walker-Barnes highlights the misconceptions and dispels the myths about race that have guided much of the Christian racial reconciliation movement. She also engages topics that other authors writing about racial reconciliation have failed to engage, such as how the confrontation of whiteness is a prerequisite for this work and how womanist thought can be a framework for reconciliation that centers the voices of women of color (and Black women in particular).

This book is a short read at just 233 pages, but the brevity of the text does not limit the content. The book begins with a preface that provides some background on Dr. Walker-Barnes’ life and how her experiences have led to this book. She ends the preface with a quote by Anna Julia Cooper from which the title of the book is drawn:

“Not by pointing to sun-bathed mountain tops do we prove that Phoebus warms the valleys. We must point to homes, average homes, homes of the rank and file of horny handed toiling men and women of the South (where the masses are) lighted and cheered by good, the beautiful, and the true, — then and not till then will the whole plateau be lifted into the sunlight. Only the Black Woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’[1]

With this book, Walker-Barnes is entering the conversation and is bringing with her the voices of her people. The introduction provides a brief history of the Christian racial reconciliation movement which began to rise during the mid-1990s. Barnes particularly highlights the Promise Keepers movement led by Bill McCartney, football coach at the University of Colorado. This movement focused galvanizing Christian men around seven promises, one of which became their primary focus — racial reconciliation. The rest of the introduction examines the continuing impact of the Promise Keepers movement and defines womanism as the framework from which Walker-Barnes will develop a theology of racial reconciliation.

Following the introduction, the next five chapters systematically build upon one another to construct this theology. Chapter 1 debunks several familiar misconceptions that are part of the Christian racial reconciliation paradigm: “(1) race is a social construct and therefore not real; (2) racism is the sin that results from division based upon the social construction of race; and (3) reconciliation occurs by increasing interpersonal contact between people of different races.”[2]

Walker-Barnes also introduces the matrix of power and provides a working definition of racism, connecting it to white supremacy. Chapter 2 contextualizes the concepts brought out in the first chapter and examines how racism manifests itself in various ways in the lives of women of color. Walker-Barnes concludes by suggesting racial reconciliation take an intersectional approach that centers the voices of women of color because it “centers upon dismantling White supremacy and White power structures” and “requires far more of White people than making a Black friend.”[3]

Chapter 3 asks and answers the question of whiteness and if the failure of Christians to grapple with whiteness hinders racial justice. Walker-Barnes defines whiteness and identifies several markers of white sociocultural identity. She is clear in her conclusion that until White people (particularly White Christians) grapple with whiteness, their efforts toward racial reconciliation will continue to center the comfort of White people while remaining complicit in the system of White supremacy.

In Chapter 4, Walker-Barnes utilizes the journey of Celie from Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple. Celie’s journey outlines four steps of reconciliation: (1) confrontational truth-telling, (2) liberation and healing for the oppressed, (3) repentance and conversion for the oppressor, and (4) building beloved community.[4] This chapter fully lays out the process of reconciliation and Walker-Barnes challenges us to examine what these steps could look like in our communities.

The process of reconciliation that Walker-Barnes proposes seems exhausting and nearly impossible. Chapter 5 addresses the fact that true reconciliation is hard but necessary work, and provides readers with six spiritual commitments that sustain this mission: (1) being held captive, (2) confessing and lamenting, (3) standing in solidarity, (4) keeping Sabbath, (5) cultivating grace, and (6) watching God.[5] This chapter closes with hope and a prayer. Hope that nothing, not even this difficult process of racial reconciliation, is impossible with God and a simple prayer, we believe. Help our unbelief.

Seventh-day Adventists, like many other Christian denominations, have struggled in the area of racial reconciliation, and are guilty of treating racism as an issue of interpersonal relationships and settling for the appearance of diversity without dealing with the grip of White supremacy that keeps this Christian community from becoming a beloved community. Dr. Walker-Barnes’ work should become required reading for everyone who attempts to engage in dialogue about racism and racial reconciliation.

This work also provides a strong introduction to womanism for those who may have only heard of it in passing or who have never heard of it. Womanist thinkers are pushing Christian theology to question its biases and listen to the voices of women of color, particularly Black women. I Hear the Voices of My People shows us the importance of womanist voices and how hearing these voices can lead us all to places of wholeness and healing. I highly recommend this book and can see this being a resource that changes the trajectory of Christian racial reconciliation for years to come.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Qtd. in Chanequa Walker-Barnes, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019), xviii.

[2] Ibid, 23.

[3] Ibid, 113.

[4] Ibid, 163.

[5] Ibid, 208.

 

Danielle M. Barnard currently works as a Legal Advocate for sexual assault survivors at the Cora Lamping Center in Benton Harbor, MI. When she’s not working, she’s finishing her research for her MS in Community and International Development at Andrews University.

Book cover image courtesy of Eerdmans Publishing

 

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