“Black women have been the most mistreated and scandalized in U.S. society and culture as they wrestle both individually and collectively with the triple jeopardy of racism, sexism and classism,” said Stacey Floyd-Thomas, an associate professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. “If that is the case — and I believe it is — it is no wonder that black women, due to their experience of sexism, would seek out their faith as a way of finding relief, reprieve, resolution and redemption.”
But even in the church, black women often find themselves in male-dominated institutions that are not always open to sharing power, said Anthony B. Pinn, a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice University.
“Black women provide most of the labor and a significant amount of the financial resources but don’t hold an equivalent degree of authority in these organizations,” he said.
For roughly a quarter of black women who responded to the survey, religion plays a less-than-primary role in their lives; a scant 2 percent of them said it is “not at all” important. They are women such as Sikivu Hutchinson, the author of “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars,” who describes herself as an atheist.
“What has religiosity and belief in supernatural beings really achieved for African Americans in the 21st century — and in particular African American women, given our low socioeconomic position?” she asked.
Hutchinson said she grew up in a household where history books and great works of literature dominated the shelves. “The Bible was something I was only cursorily familiar with,” she said. But when a schoolmate, a preacher’s daughter, once urged her to check in with God and read the Bible, Hutchinson gave it a try. Still, she said, her questions about religion remained.
Looking back on her childhood, Hutchinson wonders: “Why would children be compelled to profess belief, especially when they look around them and see that the world is overpopulated with adult believers flaunting their immorality?”
Hutchinson contends that perhaps there aren’t more black women grappling with that answer because there is little in their communities that supports a different perspective.
For most African American women, absolute trust in a higher power has been a truism for centuries. In follow-up interviews with some of the black women surveyed, there seemed to be little or no angst about their religious beliefs or their role in the church. The women said their focus is on one thing: their personal relationship with God.