The Role of Black Women in the Church: A Wakandan View of Flourishing
**The following contains plot spoilers for Black Panther.**
Malcolm X famously stated, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Most Hollywood movies neglect to offer a compelling vision or portrayal of life as a black woman, and when offered, it instead reduces black women into three archetypes: maid/slave, crazy temptress, or eye-rolling, but sage and sassy best friend. Compared to the limited representation of black women in Hollywood filmmaking, their positive portrayals in Black Panther stand out as one of the revolutionary aspects of the film. Black Panther presents black female characters who avoid the typical Hollywood tropes and offers instead an attractive and complex vision of black womanhood that celebrates our gifts and abilities.
Black Panther is a visually stunning, complex story about a fictional African nation and their new King, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). The movie begins with T’Challa ascending to the throne of Wakanda. From the outside, Wakanda seems like a small, mainly rural country, but it is actually a technological metropolis thanks to an endless supply of vibranium—a natural resource that heals bullet wounds, builds superior weapons, powers the city, and provides wealth to the tiny African nation.
T’Challa must face an old foe, Ulysses Klaue, who previously attacked Wakanda to steal vibranium for nefarious purposes. Klaue (Andy Serkis) has a mysterious partner named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has his own reasons for wanting to obtain vibranium. T’Challa must stop both Klaue and Killmonger in their attempts to create weapons of mass destruction, while also learning how to lead Wakanda into the future. While the set-up seems like standard Marvel movie fare, the portrayal of black women in Black Panther is anything but ordinary for a Hollywood blockbuster.The women in Black Panther are the best representation I’ve seen of God’s intention for His daughters.
The truth is a fictional African nation offers a more compelling vision for black womanhood than the one currently offered by the majority of the world or even in evangelical spaces. In Wakanda, the vision of an African utopia is not limited to freedom from colonialism, slavery, and plunder; it includes a vision of human flourishing where women, particularly black women, are celebrated, honored, and heard as agents of change and as partners. The film accomplishes this primarily through the narratives given to the female protagonists.
Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is T’Challa’s love interest. But she also has her own calling. As the movie begins, she is in the Sambisa Forest in Nigeria to rescue women who have been captured by militants and are being transported against their will—an obvious allusion to the school girls of Chibok kidnapped by Boko Haram. Okoye (Danai Gurirai) is general of the Dora Miljae (“the Adored Ones”), an all-female elite military unit. She is a trusted partner in mission and the fiercest warrior in Wakanda. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is T’Challa’s younger sister and a teenager, yet she is pioneering the research and development of Wakanda’s most precious natural resource, vibranium. It is Shuri who creates the Black Panther’s suit, in addition to all the high-tech weapons utilized by Wakanda’s warriors. Shuri is a genius, and T’Challa treats her as such by listening to her counsel.
The black women in Black Panther are essential, not peripheral, to the future flourishing of Wakanda. They are not passive, silent, or invisible, yet they are desirable as partners both in mission and in life. T’Challa’s vision is not limited to just the flourishing of the men of Wakanda; Wakanda simply cannot flourish if the women do not flourish.
Such a life-giving view of flourishing is what sets Killmonger’s rise to power at odds with T’Challa. Killmonger is a villain because his vision of liberation is too limited—one that is self-determined (detached from the community so beautifully depicted in Wakanda) and one that does not include women and the gifts that have made Wakanda beautiful to begin with. Evangelical churches are suffering from the same lack of vision that plagued Killmonger. As bell hooks has pointed out, “When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are discussed the focus tends to be on white women.” The same goes in evangelical spaces: black male pastors are called to speak on issues of race and justice. White middle-class women speak on gender and biblical womanhood. Complementarian or egalitarian, the voices are mainly white, male, or both.
Black women are almost never the first chosen models for what is considered a “desirable Christian leader.” Black women are too outspoken, too difficult, too obstinate, or too angry. The challenge of walking the tightrope between marketability and total truth-telling leads many black women to either opt out of or be erased from public ministry. Few prominent evangelical leaders mentor young black women, which mean our talents are less likely to be identified and highlighted to the types of groups and publishers needed to thrive in public ministry. There is generally a low view of justice and compassion ministries among evangelicals, so black women called to these areas have trouble finding employment or a market for their expertise. Yet, when opportunities do arise, the voices elevated are once again white or male.
In Black Panther, T’Challa finds a way for Nakia to fulfill her calling within her native country, precisely because he values her gifts. Yet, scan the conference line up of any major evangelical conference and very few black women are keynote speakers. Even in conferences that are broadly marketed for all women there is usually one black woman for every five white women. Scan the aisles of the women interest section of any Christian book store and be prepared to see very view Black female authors, mainly because we are severally underrepresented among Christian publishers. The lack of visible representation does not communicate a valuing of the voices of black women within evangelical spaces, and it fails to communicate their value not just to the Kingdom, but to God.
The church has fallen victim to a cultural view of womanhood that bears little resemblance to the Bible. Our expectations of godly women are based in white, middle-class norms that fail to address the ways in which racism and economic inequality force black women to work outside the home. It is worth considering if the church has created extrabiblical standards in determining what makes someone a compelling speaker, teacher, or expert mentor. If the only way for a woman to achieve even marginal success or platform is to conform herself into a version of a white American middle-class Christian womanhood, then the qualifications need to be reconsidered.
The root of the problem is with the idealized version of biblical womanhood: It’s too narrow. Frequently, the modern models of biblical womanhood are the stories of Corrie ten Boom, Lottie Moon, and Elisabeth Elliot, and less Nannie Helen Burroughs, Septima Clark, and Harriet Tubman. This isn’t to dismiss the former women of their place in God’s redemptive drama, but to highlight the latter women whose places aren’t acknowledged at all. Often, even popular female biblical stories, like Ruth, Esther, and Mary are stripped of meaning beyond that which can fit into the larger white American middle-class hermeneutic. Whether for good or ill, the examples of women lifted up in the Bible represent a tiny swath of the fullness and richness of the image of God in women, and black women in particular.
Inclusion is more than passing acknowledgement or the tokenism of including one brown face in a conference brochure. It is more than just following black women on social media. Inclusion requires humility and requires intentionality. It requires the freedom to change and expand your perspective. Inclusion means allowing yourself to be challenged and led. Inclusion means a seat at the table and input into the menu, not requiring others to fit themselves into a predetermined space and eating what is already being served—as often required of black women in evangelical spaces. If we are one Body and we are meant to do this Christian life together, we should not force our ear to perform olfactory functions in order to fully participate in the life of the Body, because in the end we end up deaf and disappointed.
Evangelical spaces do a terrible of job of affirming black women as image bearers when the platforms are all white and mostly male. Sadly, this dampening of black women within the Kingdom diminishes the beauty and power of the Body. Oddly, a fictional superhero story presents a vision for the Church’s flourishing, all members together.
Ryan Coogler, through his real-life partnership with Ruth Carter (costume designer) and Rachel Morrison (cinematographer) has created a beautiful world where women, particularly black women, are seen in their own right as ezers who help T’Challa reclaim his throne. The term ezer is the Hebrew word for helper, but the same word is used to describe God when He goes with the Israelites into battle. Black Panther acknowledges women as warriors suitable for all kinds of battles.* The women in Black Panther are the best representation I’ve seen of God’s intention for His daughters. It may be a story, but it speaks a truth that’s been long silenced. We celebrate Black Panther because inclusion and representation matter; people want to be a part of a world where they see themselves reflected in the story and in leadership.
This is the world that exists in Wakanda, with black women as partners, as leaders, as innovators, front and center. This is the world I long to see, not only on movie screens, but also in real life, especially among God’s people. The portrayals of black women and their vital roles to the future flourishing of the Wakandan nation are a lesson for the church. A biblical vision of flourishing includes every part of the Body, with every part functioning as it is meant to. Just as T’Challa could not thrive without Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia, the Church cannot thrive without the full inclusion of all women, along with their voices and their gifts. If the Church is to thrive, space must be made for black women without requiring conformity to any image—except that of Christ.
*Corrected; an earlier version of this article had an error in defining the term ezer.
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“The term ezer is the Hebrew word for woman, meaning “strong warrior.””
this is not actually true.
Thank you, Paul, for pointing out this error. It was an editorial copy/paste mistake (not Kathryn’s), so I’m especially glad to correct it!
Erin Straza, Managing Editor
Your words spoke to my heart. I have struggled with finding my place in the church. I am a listener, advocate, educator, and activist outside of the church’s doors. Why am I struggling to find a way to use these parts of myself in the church? I have settled in my heart the church is more than the walls of a building, but rather all people I blessed to encounter.
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