Following is an excerpt from a talk I presented at a panel during the Reunion of the National Black Feminist Organization held at Penn State University in 2010. I wanted to give a glimpse of how feminism shaped my view of spirituality and sexuality.
. . . My family’s religion made it seem that my sexuality wasn’t my own, but was to be saved for a marriage and a baby to come. Sexuality seemed to be polarized into good and bad, and both judgments lack vitality.
The erotic is an assertion of the life force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our loves. (Read Audrey Lorde’s Essay on “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”)
A passage in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston connects spirituality and sexuality as they are budding in a teenage girl. In the following passage, Janie, 16, is lying under a pear tree on a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had begun to avoid chores in order to lie under that tree “every since, the first tiny bloom had opened.”
From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously . . . It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness. She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.
Under the pear tree, Janie witnesses a natural power, privilege, and fulfillment to which she is entitled. Our fore-mothers in Europe, Asia, and Africa knew the power of nature. Whether our fore-mothers expressed a reverence towards the lunar cycle above or detected the nutritional and medicinal value of the plants growing at their feet, they understood that it’s all good, or if you want to drop an “o” it’s all God—God in their own likeness—God as the Divine Feminine. She who has an understanding and appreciation of the Divine Feminine is self-contained and controls and directs and owns her own self.
Through pollinated air she saw a glorious being coming up the road. In her former blindness she had known him as shiftless Johnny Taylor, tall and lean. That was before the golden dust of pollen had beglamored his rags and her eyes.
Shiftless Johnny represents the unwholesome man Janie responds to as if he is an answer to the mystery she experienced under the pear true. But he symbolizes the unwholesome, insecure masculine diminished by the absence of the Divine Feminine (although he would co-opt woman as his own).
Modern culture is still wounded by a history in which women were forbidden to practice her nature and her power, for example, as a midwife or a medicine woman. Historically, woman was forbidden to own herself and cut off from her spirituality and sexuality. In some sectors, she was forbidden to be a priest or to discern sacred truths for the well-being of her family, community, and herself. The patriarchy controlled women by making the lush, fruitful, responsive, life-birthing body perverse. However, when we see a woman gyrating, and shaking her booty on an angry rap video, she might intuitively be using movements that were intended to open her chakras, loosen her spine, and assist in childbirth—powerful movements reduced to the pleasure of the masculine alone.
The promises made by the shiftless Johnnies (or Annies) of the world are so intangible they might be confused with the formless nature of the Divine as Janie senses God in the bees giving and marrying in the pear tree. When a woman loses herself to another, she loses her spirit—that invisible animating force that points to true North, her true self, and her true life direction. No longer in touch with her spirit, she might trade sexuality for sensationalism over and over again so that she no longer knows or feels like herself.
My experience in the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) encouraged me to define myself. Defining myself means shunning the dictates and doctrines of religion, learning to trust my inner voice, doing the work (sometimes it’s hard work) of knowing what God means to me. My experiences in NBFO taught me to take responsibility for my own life and my own body. I learned that to be a sexual woman means to be a whole woman, in touch with my creative power and erotic power as an expression of my whole life.
Integrated, spirituality and sexuality provide an opportunity for us to consciously assert, tap into, and use the full range of our creative power every day of our lives.