making it work: on a vocation of softness
alt. title "how I made it my job to talk about rest" (ft. a poem by Sonia Sanchez)
We’ve officially made it through half of the first month of the new year! I have been away as I focused a couple of weeks on finishing my final paper. I can now say I’ve graduated from my Master of Sacred Theology program, where I focused on spiritual formation. I have so much to say about that, and in some ways, I am inspired to write and explore those thoughts here. Today’s post offers reflections shaped by ideas/subjects I studied in both master’s programs.1 Footnotes are my way of honoring those connections.
This is less a warning and more of a reminder of the pace of life that is open to you: You may want to read this slowly or make space for reflections and questions. You may want to read a sentence multiple times. Or consider the unfolding of multiple meanings as they come to you.
Also, if you typically read these in your inbox, this one surpasses email length and may be best experienced in the Substack app or the website.
perhaps i should
plan to enjoy more sunsets
i should look for reasons to look up
i should not tarry where
legos on the road to my place of peace
i should find relief
in a whistle, a narrow passage of air
rejoicing in her escape
let this be
i longed for rescue—
should i come up
with sore arms?
“I am a soft Black woman.”
The first person I heard this declaration from was Peace Amadi, who was hosting a Black women’s check-in through Liberated Together in 2021. That truth landed on my spirit like a weighted blanket. My imagination moved quickly through the implications of and applications for embracing this affirmation for myself. I opened my Notes app and wrote “I am a soft Black woman.”
That was almost three years ago. Since then I have had many adventures trying to live into this affirmation. Emphasis on trying. I have struggled and I sometimes had to make it work. Let me repeat that:
I made it “work.” I made it a part of my public ministry work and spiritual care work in cohorts. I sometimes found that my hope for rest meant approaching work differently, and sometimes the only freedom I could find was in saying no and living with the consequences.2
I made it “work”…in that so often, softness was packaged to me as a fancy retreat or an expensive skincare treatment, but I had to crowdfund my vacations and carve out a space in the tiny rooms I have occupied to practice yoga.
Is it possible to be a soft Black woman in a world like this? I can tell you the answer is complicated. I can also tell you (this is sometimes good news) I am not the first or the last to ask. I found a poem by Sonia Sanchez, tracing a possible way forward:3
THIS woman vomiting her hunger over the world this melancholy woman forgotten before memory came this yellow movement bursting forth like coltrane's melodies all mouth buttocks moving like palm trees, this honeycoatedalabamianwoman raining rhymes of blue/black/smiles this yellow woman carrying beneath her breasts pleasures without tongues this woman whose body weaves desert patterns, this woman, wet with wandering, reviving the beauty of forests and winds is telling you secrets gather up your odors and listen as she sings the mold from memory... there is no place for a soft / black / woman. [continue reading here]
there is no place for a soft/black/woman
“Liberation is thus a childbirth and a painful one.”
— Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Sonia Sanchez’s words allowed me the space to affirm the “soft/Black/woman” I aspired to be and name the impossibility of becoming her in this world. To declare myself as a soft/Black/woman is to live out an identity bound to a utopia.4 It was bound to be a journey on the ends of myself in a world content to end me before I could make it as real as it ought to be. I see Sanchez’s poem as a lament, in which one function could be to illuminate where reality comes up against a dream or a hope in ways that necessitate revolution.5
In my poem above, “the es’cape,” I navigate a world of what should be. The “supposed to be’s” are laments for me, with the last one being a question that must be answered through revolutionary action. The whistle of liberation is a narrow place, much like the “womb ripe,” in Sanchez’s poem as the woman makes a pilgrimage to herself.
I call myself a “midwife of divinity,” for many reasons, in part because I hate the implications of “mastery.”6 I want to spend my life rejecting it alongside the declarative tone it seems to hold on to and over others. But I remember a time when I thought traditional pathways to authority would help me be more liberated in the world. The world of education and academic credentials has been tricky—I have been affirmed of my intellectual abilities and I now have three degrees behind my name (B.A., M.Div, STM). Yet I have watched and heard stories of Black women who suffer through Ph.D. programs and tenure processes. Some receive death threats at work and are unprotected from public violence and ridicule.7
“the struggle,” “labor,” or “work”
We find ourselves in a place where we are called powerful while also being powerless.8 The more I read, the more I spoke, and the more I communed with Black women in pursuit of claiming the softness within ourselves the more it became overwhelmingly true that this pursuit is not only one of embracing “rest as vocation.”
I know, I know, I know, I know—it’s been in everything I have said publically for three years. It’s been in my bios whenever I was a featured speaker or writer. And it is still a part of what I care about. But as I explored and studied vocation academically and lived this pilgrimage to myself, I realized work/rest were two sides of a vocational coin.
It has felt like….a pregnant pause.
Come to think of it, I have only ever been a walking pregnant pause, in the most literary of senses. I kept my mouth shut through some horrific things in my past. I swallowed questions I couldn’t ask out loud. I went online to find a voice and a seat at the table when the reality around me was like, “No, women can’t be preachers/teachers.”
When I found myself in that Black women’s check-in, we were mourning the loss of Ma'Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old girl killed by police in a “post-George Floyd,” world. We created a space to mourn because no one else seemed to be as outraged as we were. People weren’t reaching out with the same energy they met with the death of George Floyd—not that we should ever have to do that kind of comparing to legitimize our grief…but sometimes one cannot help going there. We were nevertheless held in full dignity as a result of the work of thought leaders like Peace Amadi, and Erna Kim Hackett, whose platform provided the space.
It was a pregnant pause.
"THIS woman vomitting her hunger over the world this melancholy woman forgotten" "this woman... is telling you secrets gather up your odors and listen as she sings the mold from memory."
labor of softness
I began by saying I have a lot to say. A lot of thoughts. I am often so familiar with being in spaces where I am misunderstood or received with alienating wonder. I know what it’s like to be the minority, in too many intersections to name. I began by sharing a bit about the things I’ve studied and the community I hold closely as I consider these ideas.
I am someone who appreciates patterns, someone who wants to hold the complexity of those patterns but wishes to create something that holds my people close, like a quilt. I am also someone who has been shaped by the simple stories Jesus told and the curiosity to explore their implications 2,000+ years removed from their original context. I love when things make sense, but know a fascination with pulling at loose threads toward the unraveling of a comfortable way of living. So with the weighted blanket that is all of that, I say:
There is no place for a soft/Black/woman. There is no place and I have looked, sometimes, everywhere but in. I have known places that promise freedom but only sing death and expect us to find comfort in cages. I have listened, to the songs of longing from our ancestors and my sister/siblings who want that soft life. The making of that place requires us to confront the pregnant pause, the space those committed to being midwives of divinity know comes from labor. Those of us who’ve made it our work to talk about rest.
a spiritual hooding ceremony
As a scholar, I found myself taking on and off the label of “womanist” throughout my studies.9 There were times when the critiques of Candice Benbow resonated with me,10 and I have felt let down by some who touted the identity of “womanist” in academic writing alone. But still felt pulled into the kinship it offered somehow, even as I wondered if my Haitianness had a place there. But many people have been expanding my imagination for what is possible in recent years and I feel safe to say I see myself as a “fourth wave womanist,” as ebonyjanice describes in All the Black Girls Are Activists: A Fourth Wave Womanist Pursuit of Dreams as Radical Resistance. She describes a fourth-wave womanist as one who centers “rest, ease, play, pleasure and dreaming as valid and necessary forms of activism.”11
When I think about what Sanchez could be saying in a woman who “sings the mold from memory,” I think about ebonyjanice pulling on the part of Walker’s definition of womanism where a young Black girl says, “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me,” and her mother responds, “it wouldn’t be the first time.”12
Reading ebonyjanice’s book the weekend of my graduation from this program feels like a spiritual hooding ceremony. A hooding ceremony is a graduate degree ritual and at my school, you picked two professors to place a garment over your head. Once placed, you are officially outfitted in the wardrobe of mastery. Ideally, they are those who journeyed with you in a significant way. In this practice, they welcome you into this new way of being in the world, as a “master” of whatever degree, as those who have been there before.
In some ways, I feel like I received my hood from a community of people who are both saying, “I have been there before,” and “I am on the journey with you towards a place that does not exist….a way of being we must make out of no way.” Sometimes they are saying, “I am with you in the pregnant pause,” that necessary space of rest you need to “do the work your soul must have.”13 These beloved ones see me, whether I come in the cape of the StrongBlackWoman, or the weighted blankets14 of where the words “soft/Black/woman” are stitched together so that I can rest and find new dreams to live into.
and my singing becomes the only sound of a blue/black/magical/woman. walking. womb ripe. walking. loud with mornings. walking. making pilgramage to herself. walking.
It is true, in some ways, the soft life is hard work. And finding a place to be a soft Black woman feels impossible. We seem to be in a place where contradictions abound, but as a scholar of Black aliveness, I know that we have always found ways to be human in a world that others us into nonbeing or objectification.15
Or as Lucille Clifton simply says, “what did i see to be except myself? i made it up.”16
walking it off
And I walked off you
And I walked off an old me
Oh me, oh my, I thought it was a dream
So it seemed
—“Alaska,” Maggie Rogers
People lo(oooooo)ve asking someone who just finished something “what’s next?” And I have promised to cut off Barbie ponytails to avoid answering that question. I will share more on where I hope my work will take me in life, but honestly? I am committing myself these days to being more myself. In ways I miss and in ways I long for. In ways I’ve felt denied and in ways I feel I’ve been emboldened to pursue.
Even as I am committed to midwifery vs mastery in my approach to learning, teaching, accompanying, etc…I know there are still ways of being embedded in me that I will have to “walk off.” As I pressed send on that last paper, I could feel myself searching for the next thing to be intensely focused on. I need some time to lament-into-revolution the endless ways things “should have been.”
So I will continue this pilgrimage to myself. I will continue to make this up, in the most Cliftonian of ways. I will continue to “make a way out of no way,” in the most womanist of ways. I will continue to make it work, in the softest way forward.
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I recommend a good walk or two or listening to a song that takes you on a journey towards yourself. Maybe find a friend who will sit with you in lament of the things that were supposed to be…and help you labor through your own pregnant pauses, as they hint towards what could be. Walk toward yourself, walk towards a softer way of being…or walk off all the reasons your breath narrows into a whistle when you’ve had enough.
Broadly speaking this includes vocation, theopoetics, pedagogy, racial trauma, and pneumatology, with a special focus on Black women/femmes. I love footnotes, and one of my favorite seminary professors helped me see the footnotes as a communion space. This is where I honor ideas and people who inspire me. Like an intellectual family tree of sorts…and sometimes we have beef with members of our family. That same professor taught me a bit about Jacques Derrida, whose footnotes were a space for wrestling that displayed an intimacy with ideas, both beloved and rejected. That is my kind of deconstruction.
The lesson that sometimes all we have is the power to say no comes from Michaela Coel, whose short autobiographical book (based on a speech), Misfits, described her journey of uncovering this maxim for herself despite what she was told in drama school. For me, this feels like a way made where there was no way….Imma let that simmer.
From her collection of collected poems, pages 118-119. Originally published in a collection called, “A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women.” This poem doesn’t have a title, but it is the only one in the section called “Present,” which sits between “Past,” and “Rebirth.”
Paulo Freire talks about utopia as a space where we never truly arrive, always on the edge of all liberation efforts. I think this idea meets Audre Lorde’s beautiful belief about revolution and the use of poetry to illuminate the possible unfolding of new opportunities to resist and find liberation in “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider.
I have a history of thinking through the importance of lament from my evangelical days. I now realize a lot of this literature centers whiteness and white people who need this reminder. Still happy to share those titles if they interest any of you. Just ask.
If you’d like to take the journey of divesting from the language of mastery, I think these books would be a good place to start: After Whiteness by Willie J. Jennings, Nobody Cries When We Die by Patrick Reyes, and Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community by bell hooks. Honestly, just read everything Audre Lorde wrote, but if you need a starting place, Sister Outsider is always within reach—even now as I write.
I am thinking of the stories of these past few weeks from Black women in academia. Especially resigned Harvard President Dr. Claudine Gay and the late Dr. Antoinette (Bonnie) Candia-Bailey, who committed suicide.
See Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ book Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength or The Strong Black Woman by Marita Golden.
If you’ve never come across the term before, here is a good place to start, with the definition itself. A good theological start could be Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenges of Womanist God-Talk.
I read this through the audiobook so I have no page/chapter number! You can explore more of Candice Benbow’s Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Wasn’t Enough
ebonyjanice, All the Black Girls Are Activists, xviii.
ebonyjanice, All the Black Girls Are Activists, xx-xxi.
I read an article bycalled “Alvesian Theopoetics, the Academy, and What May Come,” where I got the impetus to “remember the weight,” in the theological work I do, to honor what my body knows. Thankful to play with that language here in the image of a weighted blanket, which reminds me that there is a heaviness that resides with me. We’ll talk more about this later maybe. (side note: I do not, at present, own a weighted blanket…but I just might use all the money I get from Substack this month to purchase one.)
Thankful for the work of Christina Sharpe, In the Wake, Fred Moten, Blackness and Nothingness, and Howard Thurman, The Luminous Darkness.
Lucille Clifton, in the seminal poem of my life, “won’t you celebrate with me?”