I recently sat down with Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, a phenomenal shero and someone who I am honored to call family, as she’s married to one of my best friends in the world, but I actually met her before I met him. I’ve had the pleasure to watch Eboni’s star rise and her brilliance shine brighter with each and every step. I knew what she did in title, and we’ve had many conversations about different topics relating to her work, but we never entered into the full substance of her role. Please join us as she offers an in depth look (as much as is possible in two hours) of what it means to be a feminist theologian, an activist, and an ethicist.
Images by ModeHunter.
Tamu McPherson: When we met you were working as a professional dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Describe the journey that brought you to your work as a theologian, ethicist, and activist.
Eboni Marshall Turman: As I understand it now and as I understood it then, the arts always seemed to me, especially through the lens of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and also the work of the Ailey foundation broadly, to induce religious experience. I always felt like performance and those performing were calling upon the spirit. Especially out of the wellspring of the African American experience and the black experience, because the various traditions that the Alvin Ailey school teaches are coming from not only African American experience but the experiences of people of color around the world. It was calling forth the ancestors, calling forth a strength that was beyond the present, prior to the present moment, and that it allowed, for people who would never necessarily find themselves going to church on a Sunday morning or to temple or any kind of religious house of worship, for them to commune with the spirit in the theater. And so this is why you would have people crying uncontrollably after seeing certain pieces or just in awe of the feelings that would enshroud them in those moments. I have always understood the art as that which calls for the spirit and as that which allows for people to connect with a certain kind of power that is bigger than themselves, which is in many ways constitutive of religious experience.
Coming from a very Christian background myself, where there is heavy emphasis on the incarnation, most Christians may not talk about it this way, but the incarnation is the idea that God becomes human. God is made flesh in Jesus Christ, a very Christian concept, but this idea that the body has the ability to be a conduit of the Divine. The way in which dance and performance centers the body, celebrates the body, and kind of lifts up the body as an expression of beauty, of joy, of love, of hope. These are all aspects of my faith. There was never [a] real disconnect between what I learned in church and what I learned in the dance studio. There was always a deep connection. It’s always about this body manifesting [a] certain kind of sacred power in the world, in ways that would bring forth hope, joy, and love in all those who would have the privilege of experiencing it, experiencing its performance. Some would think “Oh, she moved from dancing to being a theologian, it’s such a big difference.” No, I feel like they’re very much connected because in both frames as a dancer and as an academic theologian who talks about God and how God is manifested through human communities in ways that ought to bring forth the good in the world. Those things are just completely connected. And so, that’s what I do.
TMP: When we met, were you already a student of theology?
EMT: No, I was actually working on a degree in Fine Art. And it was at Fordham where I had the opportunity to take my first theology class. And my first theology class was taught by an African American woman, Dr. Joy Bostic. I’d grown up in the church, but I had never really thought of religion as something I could do as a vocational path or professional path because the leaders in the church at that point in time – we’re talking about the late 90s, growing up in the 80s – were always men. People who talked about God were men. I was able to talk about God in the dance studio with my body and demonstrate the power of the sacred through my movement. That didn’t necessarily require me to say much at all with my mouth. It was at Fordham that I saw how what I was saying with my body in the studio was actually translated into an actual discourse called theology and philosophy. I was actually a philosophy major, once I changed from Fine Art. So, in taking that class, along with some intro philosophy classes that were also required I determined that I probably didn’t need a degree in Fine Art, because I could already dance.
TMP: Yes, you already had mastered one of the arts!
EMT: I was like, let me spend this money on learning something else. Two years in, I decided to switch over, going from a Bachelor of Fine Arts to a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy. I still wasn’t convinced that there was a place for women in theology. I was like, let me just do philosophy and that’ll teach me how to think and then I can go to law school or do something that people who know how to think can do, then I can dance on the side to pay my way through. But, it was theology that really called to me.
TMP: And it was calling you! Because it was what you were destined to do and what you’re doing now.
EMT: I understand my work, since very early on as a dancer, as translating the word, the mind, and the Spirit of God to all people.
TMP: At what point did you realize that this could be something you could pursue as a profession and ultimately succeed in and be amazing at?
EMT: I did not realize it when I was first accepted to my master divinity program. I just thought “Oh wow! I get to do this!” I get to go and think more about God, but I never saw myself as becoming ordained, serving in a church, [as a] pastor, or anything like that. I just though “Let me learn some more.” But, when I got to seminary, graduate school to study theology, I became surrounded by women – by these powerful, amazing, profoundly gifted, spiritually grounded women, black women. A few come to mind like the Reverend Dr. Felicia Y. Thomas, Reverend Dr. Leslie D. Callahan, Reverend Dr. Joy Bostic, Reverend Dr. Emily Towns, and Reverend Dr. Dolores S. Williams.
TMP: You studied with all these women or they were professors?
EMT: A few of them were professors – Edwina Wright, Leslie Callahan, Felicia Thomas, and Joy Bostic – they were professors, they were preachers, they were everywhere! And I was like, “Who are these women doing this work?” Their presence in my life affirmed what I felt I had been called to [with] that kind of work. Their presence assured me that there actually was a place for me in the theological disciplines in the church. Even though there would be challenges – and there are challenges, moments that I would be marginalized because of my gender and my race – that I could still do it, because they were doing it. They also affirmed in a very particular way, especially Callahan and Thomas, that God – what I understood as God calling me. [I thought] “God is calling me? To do what? God is placing purpose on my life, toward what end? what is really happening here?” And they were like “God can use you. You’re young, God can use you.” I just had women. My mother was very much a part of my life and there were other women in my atmosphere. I had during that time of my life, and this is so important because a lot of young women, like 17-25, don’t have women immediately present to them saying, “You can do this. Yes, you can.” and I had that had these women who were like “You can do this, God is calling you.” And that’s when I knew that this most impossible thing of me becoming a theologian, becoming a preacher, a pastor, and climbing to the top of my respective field was actually possible, that there were women who had come before me and who had broken as they say, stained glass ceilings, so that I could go a little bit higher. It was because of them that I realized that I could do what up until that point seemed not just impossible, but just completely improbable.
TMP: Could you define liberation and womanist theology?
EMT: Liberation theology is theology that is emerging from the perspectives of oppressed people. There are all kinds of liberation theology. The kinds that are most resonant for me as a black woman, are black theology and womanist theology, but there’s Asian feminist theology, Asian liberation theology, American Indigenous liberation theology, queer liberation theology, Latinx liberation theology. There are so many different voices emerging from the margins of society that have something to say about God. And who understand, and this is a very important thing, because not everybody who’s a marginalized identity is doing liberation theology, God as on the side of the oppressed and on the side of the oppressed toward the end of their liberation. That God’s work is about the liberation of the poor and the oppressed, period. That’s what liberation theology is about.
Womanist theology orients itself toward the idea of survival, liberation, and flourishing from the perspective of black women. It centers the experiences of black women, in its analysis of social structures, and in its constructive work of talking about a God who liberates those who are marginalized, subordinated by race, gender, or class, or all three.
TMP: So that God is present on this journey to accompany and guide these people to liberation?
EMT: And I mean this is this is huge right? Because theology has historically been the domain of white men – privileged white men. Up until the 1980s, no one was talking about black women in theology. I mean, wasn’t even heard of. Black women just didn’t really matter. Once we got to the late 60s and 70s, there was a black male perspective and black theology was born.
TMP: Theology is the study of God and spirituality – we’re not talking about the church here?
EMT: Exactly. So, this is a big thing. [The concept that] People who are not privileged white men have things to say about God? And we should actually take them seriously? Even contemporarily whether or not we take them seriously is still up for debate. Thinking about the ways that black women have been talking about God for a long time, have been making a way out of no way for a long time, have been leaning on the spirit and the guidance of the spirit for a long time, thinking about the God talk that has emerged from these margins of racial injustice, gender injustice, and class injustice – that’s what womanist theology does and it’s different from feminist theology.
TMP: Is there an intersection?
EMT: There is an intersection and that intersection is the experience of gender injustice and gender marginalization. But, feminist theology in the theological academy has heretofore been dominated by white women, and white middle class women, who completely (we see this in contemporary feminist movements now: white feminist movements) subordinate, if not erase altogether, the difference that race makes in one’s gender and class analysis. What womanism and black womanists say is that actually, you can be a white woman who is definitely oppressed by the patriarchy and still be a racist. And so, we want to talk not just about gender oppression, but we want to talk about how race oppression, gender oppression, and economic oppression are always working together. Because as black women who cannot parse our womanhood from our racialization, we understand those things to always be held together.
TMP: As a young girl in the church, did you notice these inequities? Did they present themselves to you as unfair? Or was it just the case as you said earlier, “I didn’t know that I would be able to become a theologian or a pastor or ordained minister”?
EMT: No, as a kid, I didn’t know. I mean, as a kid, I knew that the women did everything in the church.
TMP: So, you saw that?
EMT: Yeah, I’m actually writing about it. My introductory chapter begins with a memory of my baptism.
TMP: You have memories from your baptism?
EMT: I do. I was 11, so, I remember it. I talked about the mothers of the church who were preparing the robe that I would wear afterwards or going to the pool and preparing the pool and the ushers who were standing by and, you know, they were women and the women who were cooking the meal in the kitchen. Women were everywhere, the women who sing in the choir, the woman who was the church clerk, who handled the administrative affairs of the church and the women who kept the records. Women did everything and the men had the power to proclaim the Word of God. So, I saw this, which is why I’d say “Oh, I could never do that”, because that’s what the men did. But I knew that the women were there and very critical to the life of the church. I also have a distinct memory of being an adolescent and there was a competition [with] all these different categories you could enter in. I remember I would enter and I would always place in dance. But, I remember wanting to do oratory. I wanted to I enter for oratory, but only boys did oratory. I wanted to memorize a speech and I knew that I could win first place in oratory. I knew I could do it. But that wasn’t what was expected of me. Right? I didn’t have language to say “This is sexism. This is patriarchy. Something is wrong here. Let’s talk about this.” I didn’t have the language for that, but that experience is very much present.
TMP: As an activist, do you think you will create some kind of initiative or implement a program? I mean, there are female ministers everywhere, but do you think these young girls fully understand that they can become ministers and hold other high positions within the church? Is there any outreach to prepare them if they were interested?
EMT: So, there are not female ministers everywhere. There are probably more women in ministry, we are better represented now than ever before, hands down. I don’t think there’s an argument about that, but it’s still very disproportionate when you think about how the church and especially African American churches are upwards of 90% black women in terms of the congregation. Leadership does not mirror what the congregations actually look like in terms of gender representation. Also, many women in ministry, although they may be ordained, they are not given [or] allowed to deploy certain kinds of power. So, you won’t see proportional representation in the senior pastoral roles. We have a lot of women who are kind of stuck in the cycle of assistant minister or associate minister, youth minister, children’s minister – roles that are typically seen as women’s roles. There’s still a lot of resistance even though we have more women in ministry than ever before. There’s still a lot of resistance. There are also denominations [that] just don’t ordain women, and women are complementary to men – the man is the head, these are kind of dogmatic principles that women are second to men, that continue to guide many Christian contexts, but also religious contexts beyond Christianity.
TMP: Part of the scope of your work is directed at bringing awareness to the state of gender representation in church leadership, but would you ever in any way create a program focused on encouraging women of every age to pursue these roles?
EMT: So, there are programs. One that I can think of offhand is the Rise Mentoring network led by the Reverend Dr. Lisa Rhodes, out of Union Theological Seminary here in New York. That program is about connecting young women or women just starting out in ministry with more seasoned women in ministry. I talked about having that kind of informal network of women around me, showing me the way. This is a more formalized kind of program that does the same thing for women in ministry.
There are also pastors like Cynthia Hale out of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, who have a Women in Ministry conference annually that brings women together who are at all ranges of ministry – they may just be thinking about it, they may be in college and trying to figure out the ropes, they may be younger than that, they may be seasoned senior pastors. She brings them all together for a very intense couple of days to think about call, vocation, to think about what ministry looks like and ought to be for women, especially women of color.
You have the Reverend Dr. Neichelle Guidry at Spelman College who is directing her work especially toward younger women, helping them to imagine what ministry as a vocational, professional path could look like for them – for girls who have always known that God was in their heart and speaking to them, guiding them, and compelling them, but never had any models and never had any language to say “Huh, I can say yes to this, as much as I can say yes to dance or fashion.”
So, there are some of these programs happening and I participate in them in the ways that I can, you know. I typically will participate as a preacher or facilitator for workshops. I don’t have a lot of spare time, but every once in a while, I’ll participate as a participant observer, as a mentor informally. I do my own work around goal setting, management, and strategy, which is not directed toward ministry per se, but because of my context, I will often get a lot of women who are in ministry and are thinking about how to get to the next level, how to push through some of the barriers and challenges that have been set in their path. I’m always open to doing that work. I don’t anticipate starting something new given the strength of what’s already there and the respect I have for the women who see themselves called to that kind of work primarily but, I see myself as supporting them in that work. As an academic theologian bringing robust analysis, theory, and theological vision to conversations around gender, race, and religion in other settings. So, I will go to the University of Bern in Switzerland and talk about black women and religion. I will go to the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and talk about black women and religion, giving a broad narrative, theory, and analysis. That analysis, I imagine, supports my sisters in the on the ground work, of building these groups of women up so that there is a pipeline, and you know, when I can drop in, I’ll drop in.
TMP: Can you provide some specific examples of how policies espoused by the black church impede the progress of black women?
EMT: First, it’s important to recognize that the black church is not a homogenous institution – it’s not this one thing. I use the term black church as a rhetorical device to signify a broad tradition. There are many different kinds of black churches and this black church over here is not necessarily going to be the same as this black church over here, right. Some typical practices would be not ordaining women. So, resisting or not affirming that women can be called to the ordained ministry. There are what I call containment ethics: the way in which black women’s bodies through fashion are policed in churches through rules about hemlines and necklines and casting women’s bodies as the spirit of Jezebel, as temptress, as that which can make a man sin. So, when a girl hits a certain age, she needs to dress [in] a certain way, or else she is labeled as sexually lascivious.
TMP: So, it’s like a shaming?
EMT: Yes. We saw this in a real clear way at Aretha Franklin’s funeral. When misogyny is proclaimed from the pulpit, seeing the demonizing of single motherhood, the shaming of women whose family dynamics differ from heterosexual cisgender norm, shaming teenage mothers, through preaching. There are ways that women participate themselves in subordinating other women, so women become themselves patriarchs and suppress other women. There’s physical violence. We saw this at the Potter’s House satellite location this past year where women are actually physically accosted in churches and violated because they dare to march to the beat of their own drummer, and to assert the authority of their own personhood in ways that are not threatening to anyone, but it’s seen as a threat.
TMP: What kind of physical contact?
EMT: Physically accosting someone and restraining them, holding them down, putting your knees in their backs, handcuffing them in the church. Yeah, this this kind of thing happens. There’s been a wave recently of reports about sexual violence against black women in black churches. I mean right here in Brooklyn, at a progressive Baptist Church and right here in Harlem last week. These are girls being violated by adult male pastors. The list goes on and on and on. I think not ordaining women is just the tip of the iceberg as it relates to the violence that women experience in church at the hand of patriarchy. I’m writing a book about it, Black Woman’s Burden. This is the second one, then the third one is, Love is the Spirit. It’s kind of an intellectual history of womanist theology.
TMP: I don’t know if there’s a distinction here, but how has the black church failed to protect black women? Do those examples that you already listed fall into this because you can argue if you’re being sexually assaulted by the leader of the church, then…
EMT: I think the church, and the black church, has failed black women and women by espousing bastardized theology, theology that’s actually not consistent with the Word of God. It’s theology that positions women as subordinate to men and therefore deserving second class status in the church.
TMP: Tell me about your first book.
EMT: My first book is titled, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon. In a nutshell, I make the argument that the body is a theological problem and it has always has been. I back into this argument, because it’s a particularly Christian problem. I see and have observed that black women’s bodies are problems in the church. I make the argument that not only are black women’s bodies the problem in the church but the body has always been a problem in the church. And this is how Jesus fixes the problem for us. My book is a christological look at Jesus through the Council of Chalcedon, which is really even though no one talks about it with conciliar language, the Council of Chalcedon is what guides all of our belief. It’s the council that says that Jesus is human, fully human and fully divine. That Jesus is God’s begotten son.
TMP: So why is the problem of the incarnation of Jesus – that’s our problem because we can’t figure it out?
EMT: No, Jesus reveals to us that the body has always been a problem because when you study the councils and you study conciliar tradition, you will find that the bishops killed each other. Literally they fought in Council and kill it me to the death around Jesus’s body – whether or not Jesus was fully divine or fully human. The church has been fighting for a long time, for the same reason contemporarily, the church is fighting and splitting and people are losing their lives over the ordination of women, over the queer community and whether or not the queer community is fully human and should be allowed to be ordained, worship in the church, be married in the church, bless their babies in the church. The Methodist Church is one. I mean, the black churches don’t even talk about that. They don’t talk about it. But churches are actually splitting over these very concerns. In Europe. I mean, the church barely exists anymore. Because it was not prepared to deal with the questions emerging from social worlds that are now modern, and postmodern. So, but this has been going on forever. Our confession was born out of the church fighting over a body that nobody could figure out. Nobody could figure out this body, Jesus’ body. I suggest the encounter in the Council of Chalcedon, where it’s determined that Jesus is both, and, Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, there’s some kind of reconciliation mediation that happens that is our clue to how we begin to think about bodies that defy the status quo, of the arbiters of power. That our mediation that the church can become whole again in relation to problematic bodies by doing what it should be doing in the first place: thinking about Jesus.
TMP: How will we rescue the black female body in the black community? What will have to take place and what hard or drastic actions will we have to take as a culture?
EMT: I think that it begins with actually seeing and hearing black women and girls and allowing for and affirming their full humanity. That’s baseline. We have to begin to believe that black women and girls are actually fully human.
TMP: Even black men have to begin to believe this?
EMT: Absolutely, yeah. Like, everybody.
TMP: What’s their problem? Why can’t they believe, if we’re birthing them? It’s beyond.
EMT: Delores Williams does work around that. Well, I think because patriarchy, right? And women participate in patriarchy. Right, so we can birth sons who we raised to be patriarchs, who we raise to despise us, because of the way we’ve been conditioned to despise ourselves and to uplift men. A certain kind of man, right? A heterosexual, cisgender man. I think there has to be a recognition of the full humanity of women and a full humanity that demands equality. Until we kind of get to that first step, everything else is for naught. Demanding that humanity requires resisting the caricatures and tropes and negative tropes of black womanhood that have dominated history and asserting what actually is the case about black women, which is the work of black feminism and black womanism and those who find themselves to be allies with black feminists, black womanists.
TMP: Who are our allies?
EMT: I would say that there are feminist men who can be our allies. I would say that there are feminist women, who are not women of color, who could be potential allies. I think that kind of gets to everybody. I think that there’s room for a lot of different kinds of people to be allied with us in this work to be co-conspirators in the work of black women’s liberation and flourishing. There’s room for a lot of people, but I’m not saying that there are a lot of people doing the work with us. In fact, most are not. I mean, at some level it requires black women getting on our own team and working together toward our freedom and liberation. And that, in and of itself is a notion, right? Because again, the way we’ve been conditioned toward fragmentation, and toward not loving ourselves and not loving others, which is why in womanism this idea of self-love is so important, radical and redemptive self-love is so critical, because we exist as black women in a world that really hates black women.
EMT: You know what I’m saying? I mean you’re in fashion, think about fashion. The fashion industry, when I think about theology and or academia broadly and the representation of black women in the higher education period, right, not even in a specific field, but just in higher education. I mean, in all fields black women are so, so underrepresented. We live in a world that really hates black women and black girls. And I mean that makes perfect sense. When we think about the ways in which women are hated and black people are despised, you put that together you’re at the bottom of the barrel. Womanism and black feminism really privileges this idea of black women loving ourselves as one of the first steps toward liberation.
TMP: … and God loving us.
EMT: Absolutely. I go even further than that, and I say that not only does God love us, but God is us. In part of my book is making the argument that God is in the flesh of black women, not that black women are God, [but] that God is in the flesh of black women. Which goes back to dance. There’s something sacred that is happening in black women’s bodies and that can be determined, can be seen if we decide to see black women.
TMP: And that’s the reason why we persevere notwithstanding that we are the most hated members of society.
TMP: Because God is in the flesh and that which is crucified raises up.
This interview has been edited and condensed.