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Christena Cleveland on ‘God Is a Black Woman’ and What Compelled Her to ‘Step off the Plantation’

When Dr. Christena Cleveland’s award-winning book Disunity in Christ was published in 2013, she was thoroughly convinced that she was a reconciler. She reasoned that “reconcilers are bridges, and bridges get stepped on.”

“So I thought it was my duty and my calling, and even a pathway to faithfulness or holiness for me to do everything I could to try to bring people to what might be called a reconciliation table, even if that meant being trampled myself,” Cleveland told Faithfully Magazine.

“I was usually really, really, really focused on honoring the dignity in other people. And it hadn’t quite occurred to me that my dignity was just as important,” she added.

Things changed, however, when Cleveland set out on the journey that led to the development of her second book, God Is a Black Woman — published nine years after Disunity in Christ.

In God Is a Black Woman, Cleveland shares her painful yet liberating journey of confronting what she calls “whitemalegod” and recounts how she learned to embrace the Sacred Black Feminine. She introduces readers to a Black Female God who is the complete opposite of the oppressive and controlling god fashioned and favored by White patriarchal Christianity.

Cleveland, a social psychologist, public theologian and activist, is also a former professor at Duke University’s Divinity School. She currently leads the Center for Justice and Renewal and Sacred Folk, an organization that “creates resources to stimulate people’s spiritual imaginations and support their journeys toward liberation.”

Managing Editor Nicola A. Menzie spoke with Cleveland about God Is a Black Woman during a March 2022 live interview. The excerpted transcript below has bee edited for clarity. Watch the video or listen to the podcast to experience the entire, unedited conversation.

Why ‘God Is a Black Woman’

Nicola Menzie: God Is a Black Woman is obviously far different from your last book, which was almost 10 years ago, I believe, Disunity In Christ. So, I’m wondering if you could kind of tell us, who was Christena Cleveland, then? Maybe who and what was she then, and who is Dr. Christena Cleveland today?

Dr. Christena Cleveland: Well, when I wrote Disunity in Christ, I was pretty firmly entrenched in this idea that I was a reconciler, and that reconcilers are bridges, and bridges get stepped on. And so I thought it was my duty and my calling, and even a pathway to faithfulness or holiness for me to do everything I could to try to bring people to what might be called a reconciliation table, even if that meant being trampled myself.

So, I was usually really, really, really focused on honoring the dignity in other people. And it hadn’t quite occurred to me that my dignity was just as important. And that if my dignity was being trampled in the process of justice, then maybe it wasn’t justice. And so I think Disunity in Christ is a beautiful book, in a lot of ways. I’m one of those proud authors who has a love-hate relationship with their earlier work. I think that’s pretty normal. If you’re thinking and growing, it’s pretty normal to be like, “Hmm, I’ll redact some of that.” And also, there’s some of it that I like, and I would maybe adapt for today.

But yeah, I was a different person. I’m a bit of a late bloomer in the sense that, because of my family of origin, and the very conservative Christianity I grew up in, it took me a while to find my own truth. And so Christena now, I’m similar in some ways, very passionate about truth-telling, still fiery, still interested in pushing the edges of what we can be as a people, as a society, and also a very different Christ that I relate to now, a very different divine figure. And now I see myself as sacred first and foremost, and my work flows out of that, my theology flows out of that.

Menzie: And we’ve already dropped these terms, of course. So I’m just going to ask you to define them real quickly, so that everyone is on the same page. For example, when you say “God is a Black woman,” what do you mean?

Cleveland: Literally and figuratively. I mean, that God’s social location is at the intersection of Blackness and female and that God can relate to my personal experience as a Black woman, and that anytime you encounter a Black woman walking on this earth, you are encountering a divine one. And I also mean that God is a Black woman in a more cosmic sense, that Christ shows up in Blackness and femaleness in the ways that we…And those terms are really representations of Christ are like, my…I remember James Cole says, “My Blackness is the image of God in me as a Black person.” So, I say God is a Black woman in that way too, that God’s Blackness and femaleness is the image of God in Black and female women people. Yeah.

Menzie: Okay, and closely related to that, what is the Black Feminine Divine?

Cleveland: Yeah. And I use the term, “the Sacred Black Feminine” a lot in my book. And that’s the broader kind of grouping of divine beings that can exist inside or outside Christianity. The Black Madonna is an example of that, a Black Virgin Mary. But anytime God shows up as a Black woman and standing with and for Black women, that’s the Sacred Black Feminine. So she exists in Hinduism in the form of Kali. She exists in Buddhism in the form of Tara. She exists in Judaism in the form of Shekinah. And so you see her showing up kind of like a universal Christ figure who’s Black and female.

God is a Black Woman book by Christena Cleveland
(Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins)

Menzie: And finally, who is “whitemalegod”? And for those of you who have not read the book or read anything about the book, you present “whitemalegod” as, you know — otherwise we’d say, “Oh, that’s three words.” No, you present it as one word, whitemalegod, who and what is whitemalegod?

Cleveland: whitemalegod, all one word, all lowercase.

Menzie: Yes. No respect for whitemalegod.

Cleveland: I call whitemalegod the patron, a patron saint of White patriarchal religion. whitemalegod is the belief system that confers holiness, sacredness, dignity, worth and value to people if they conform to White maleness. And so whitemalegod, kind of like the Sacred Black Feminine, shows up in different iterations. whitemalegod shows up in White Jesus. So that’s a very blatant form of whitemalegod. But whitemalegod also shows up in much more subtle forms, like the fact that it says, “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill next to a White male, George Washington. A whitemalegod shows up in the fact that in the history of the Supreme Court, we’ve never nominated a Black woman, because Black women are as far as from whitemalegod as you could possibly be, therefore, Black women are not seen as sacred. And so whitemalegod sort of determines who’s sacred and who’s profane. And the more you approximate whitemalegod and/or contort yourself into something that’s acceptable to he and his minions, you will get access to some of that holiness and sacredness and value in our society.

Her Journey Away From whitemalegod

Menzie: Okay. And I guess to jump into some of the more personal — although this is a personal journey for you, you know, from top to bottom, but you spend a lot of time in the book talking about your upbringing as a kid and how your family shaped you and the church you attended, shaped you. And some of that stuff obviously, it was difficult to read. And I can’t even imagine perhaps the trauma and the pain linked to some of those memories. So, I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about how your upbringing, how you were shaped and molded to kind of see the world and see the divine and understand your relationship with the divine… And kind of eventually brought you to that place of conflict where you could see with clear eyes, maybe the damage that had been done and things that needed to be changed.

Cleveland: Yeah. I’m a unique… Well, no, I’m not unique. I think I’m like a lot of Black people who grew up in the United States and we live in lots of worlds. We might live in Black worlds, but we also live in White worlds, multiracial worlds. And so, I spent a lot of my time in growing up in the Black Pentecostal church, and I spent a lot of my time in the White Evangelical church. And one of the earliest memories I have at church is being called a nigger by my White VBS teacher, Vacation Bible School teacher.

And I remember as a five-year-old feeling shame, not understanding the word but knowing it was bad, and knowing that it was about me. And it was about the fact that my skin color was different than all the other little boys and little girls. And so early on, I mean, little Christena had a sense that this space that’s supposed to be a safe space, it can’t always be relied upon to be a safe space. And it’s because of my Blackness, that I’m not safe here.

Unfortunately, which I think is the case for a lot of folks, some of the messages that I got in the church, were pretty consistent with the messages I got in my home. And it certainly was a moment of grief when I realized that I’m not necessarily safe from whitemalegod in my own home, and as I started kind of recounting some of my memories growing up. But my parents were really young and had been raised in pretty constrictive religious spaces. And so they handed down some of the same ideology of whitemalegod that I was hearing in the evangelical church. And I mean, this part, it’s not just about the whiteness of God’s skin or the maleness of God’s body, it’s really the White patriarchal notions of hierarchy, of top down leadership, of hating the body, fearing the body, elevating the mind and over, like, embodied experience.

So there was a lot of that that I was raised in, in my home. And one of the things that we were taught was that need was not okay and perfection was not okay. And we were punished pretty harshly for, what in retrospect, I now understand to be just kids being kids, kids working out their emotions, or kids working out their questions and their needs, but maybe not being able to express them as eloquently as a Yale-educated adult might expect from another adult.

I was taught very much as a child that I needed to be afraid of my own humanity. And because of these experiences, both in the home and in church, they were also connected to this sort of distant God, this father sky God, who didn’t really like me, but sort of was so loving that he put up with me, but he also sort of had to sacrifice his son in order to even justify putting up with me, and I needed to contort myself into the best possible version of myself, according to his exacting standards that I would never be able to meet, in order to get good things in life.

So I was introduced to this God, who was terrifying. This White male, off-planet father sky God, who really didn’t want anything to do with my Black female body, and was interested in only dominating me so that I could do acts and service of him.

Menzie: … I was also thinking as you’re talking, like, you know, I don’t know exactly when things started shifting for you and you started questioning things. But I remember, it was kind of like a shock, I guess, or a surprise or people weren’t expecting it. It made headlines in Christine media, right. “Dr. Christena Cleveland has left Duke Divinity.” And so I’m guessing there was something going on there. That was another point.

Cleveland: Yeah. I think the first time I really started talking publicly about my shifting spirituality was in 2018, when I went on my Black Madonna pilgrimage, and I had been churning for years before that internally. But that was the first time I just sort of started sharing my journey with people. I was like, “This is what I’m thinking about.” And I’m going to visit these Black Madonna’s which…I mean, I grew up with Protestantism. So not only is the Black Madonna Catholic, but she’s like, the sketchiness of Catholicism. We were just taught that Catholicism wasn’t Christianity,

So I think just it being interested in the Black Madonna has turned some heads for folks but then also, I’m sorry, interested in Catholicism, or these relics within Catholicism and then the Black Madonna, in particular. And then yeah, I think, as part of that journey, I did end up leaving my position at Duke Divinity School because I eventually encountered myself in the divine and felt too sacred to be working on a plantation that wasn’t designed to help my work flourish.

But really, backing it up just a bit for your community and for readers who might be coming to the book. A huge turning point for me was right around when Disunity in Christ, my first book, came out nine years ago because — two things. One, Trayvon Martin was killed about 10 years ago. And that was a huge wake up call for me and many Black millennials. And when I saw the way the people who claimed to be my family, both as colleagues, and also as fellow church congregants, when I saw the way that these White people and non-Black BIPOC people, were responding to this national conversation. So, for the first time, we’re having a national conversation about race, probably since Amadou Diallo, in 1999. I was just at a high school event.

So, this is the first time in my adult life, where everywhere you turn on news, there’s some sort of conversation about this. And just seeing the way the church — and also my academic colleagues, and at that time I wasn’t in a Christian academic setting — but just seeing the way they respond to that, that really started waking me up to the problem of White Christ. And I started speaking about that, I started writing about that. In 2015, I wrote a piece about that for Christianity Today magazine. And so I was already starting to really interrogate some of these assumptions.

But then I think the next big piece for me was the #metomovement, the #churchtoomovement, and then also Donald Trump getting elected. And I think for me, as a Black woman, particularly in these Christian justice spaces, I always had to choose, “Am I going to care about being Black today? Or am I going to care about being a woman today?” Because the White Christian women’s movement is the worst. And then the multiracial church racial justice movement is very male-dominated, very misogynistic. I was often the only woman who shared the stage at these big conferences. And as I’m walking up to the stage, I have men telling me, “I actually don’t even believe that you should be up here speaking with us,” and I’m like, “Thanks for the vote of confidence as I literally take the mic.”

So I was always split. My Sacred Black Feminine-embodied soul was always split. And so I kind of just set the women part aside, I’m like, “Let me just focus on White Jesus, because I can’t even…” And when Trump got elected, that’s when I was like, “Oh, wow.” I know Trump’s racist. I know Christians aren’t going to care about that, because Christians are racist, because I wrote a book called Disunity in Christ. And all I got was hate mail [from] racist people. So, no surprise there. But when Trump started going after White women, I was like, “Okay, they’re going to do something, right?” I mean, I think we all thought that like, this is finally it. And it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, what? Even their precious little White women aren’t sacred?? Then we’ve got a big problem.

We’ve got a problem with not just the race of the divine in America, but the gender of the divine. And so that really was a huge turning point for me. So, 2016, of course, I didn’t really start talking publicly about it till 2018. But the wheels were really turning already, and I was making some pretty significant changes in what I was reading and what I was thinking.

Menzie: So there was a whole series of events happening over years and years, and it all just kind of added up. Is there a key defining moment where you’re like, “All right,” you drop the axe, and you’re like, “This is it. I’m gone. I don’t want to be a part of this would anymore.”

Cleveland: Yeah. Well, there were several in 2015 and 2016. And I talk about a lot of them in the book in the section called “Severing My Careers as Christianity’s House Nigger.” There were many events in succession, where I just saw I was starting to wake up and I was just seeing… I’m just literally being…I’m a mascot. I’m being exploited. These people do not care. And I was becoming aware of that, and I couldn’t unsee it. So, I think that was a big turning point, just that sort of disillusionment, realizing….Yeah, there’s a huge difference between what people see, is this person who’s on these big stages, and what’s actually happening behind closed doors.

And then I’d say the next big turning point was when I started looking for images that were of Black Female Divine and within instantaneous moment of encountering a picture of the Black Madonna, my entire biology changed. And I realized I’ve been holding my breath for maybe my whole life.

Menzie: Wow.

Cleveland: It was like the biggest exhale. I’m still feeling the reverberation of that exhale, where it’s just like, “Oh my gosh, I’m sacred to…” Everything I thought I knew needs to be re-examined. Yeah.

Cleveland took photos of Black Madonnas during her pilgrimage in France
Cleveland took photos of Black Madonnas during her pilgrimage in France. (Photos: Courtesy of Christena Cleveland)

whitemalegod Hates Everybody

Menzie: So, I guess to really drive it home, who are whitemalegod’s favorite people?

Cleveland: I mean, that’s the paradox, right? I think whitemalegod hates us all. whitemalegod is inherently anti-human. And whitemalegod is disgusted by humanity and life. I mean, whitemalegod hates the planet, its birds — like, how do you hate kittens? I’m not even a cat person but I like kittens, at least I don’t hate them. You know what I mean?

Menzie: Right.

Cleveland: And so, I mean, no one. Although our social structure is designed so that we’re all clamoring up this ladder to try to get the so-called life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, that whitemalegod keeps dangling in front of us. The people who are closest to whitemalegod have access to the most of his goodies. So, if you’re White, you’re male, you’re cisgender, you’re heterosexual, you’re middle class or higher. You’re formally educated, means you have some college education. You’re American, you speak English, you’re able-bodied, all these sorts of things, you’re Christian. Even if you’re that guy, your life still sucks. Because you’re constantly in this capitalistic, competitive, anti-nurturing world, where your worth is entirely dependent on your conformity to these prescriptive rules.

And I remember having a conversation with one of my most… I mean, well, at Duke Divinity School, I say like, half my colleagues were famous. All my colleagues were famous in their little world, their little academic world. And half of them were just straight up famous, like just always on TV, always speaking at these huge conferences, big books, that kind of stuff. And I remember talking to one of them who’s super famous. And I caught him in a moment of just like, ah, honestly, it was like, late at night, we were just talking in the hallway. And he was just like, “Yeah, like, the reason why I’m here at 11 p.m., or whatever is because I’m afraid that if I don’t keep producing that I’ll become irrelevant, and I won’t maintain my status and I won’t be a valuable person in this world.” And I was just like, you? You feel that way? If you feel that way, then there’s no hope for any of us [unintelligible] whitemalegod. You know what I mean?

Menzie: Right.

Cleveland: You’re winning in every way we’re taught to, and you still feel insignificant. And that’s the thing, like it’s a resource scarcity trap. We’re all trying to be part of this tiny, terrifying circle of acceptability. And we’re so busy trying to be part of that world, that we don’t even stop to ask ourselves, do I want to be in that world? Do I even like the people in that world? Because that world’s associated with goodness, with holiness, with going to heaven, for people who believe in hell and are afraid of that. And so, I think it’s scary to just stop and be like, wait a second, why do I…?

I remember when I was back in the Evangelical world, there’ll be so many Black people who would just be like, “I really want to get a seat on the board of the National Association Evangelicals” or something like that. And I’d be like, “Why? You don’t even like those people. They’re whack. They’re not making decisions that are for Black people. And if you did get a seat at that, you would just be a token. It would mean nothing.” And it’s like, yeah, we’re just too busy. And I feel the same way about my decision to go, to do, you know, it’s like, oh, it’s an opportunity. It’s a bigger stage. I’ll have more resources. Awesome. I didn’t ever stop… It wasn’t till I got to Duke that I was like, how exactly does one do reconciliation from the plantation? How exactly does that work?

Being Authentic While Writing the Book

Menzie: And I want to ask you a bit about too, going back a bit to like the family upbringing and the things you were experiencing as you started thinking more deeply about how wrong, I guess, some things from your past was? How was the process of writing the book? Because I know it took you, I think, a couple of years, and you’re doing this pilgrimage also. And you’re also working through some of these memories and trauma and trying to get it on the page and reliving things perhaps. So how was the whole process for you, getting that down on the paper and reliving that stuff?

Cleveland: Yeah, this is definitely one of those books that’s like…It’s been a life work. It’s taken up a lot of my space, both socially, relationally, spiritually and professionally. And yeah, so in addition to the five-week walking pilgrimage across central France, I think the real work was writing, the real work was taking these encounters that I had on this pilgrimage, that were really transformative and countering these Sacred Black Feminine images of God that are just super ancient and super artistic and breathtaking, really. I knew, even as I was walking those 400 miles, like, “Christena, you have a choice, you can either make this like a super-cute trip…”

And at that point, my trip had nothing to do with the book, it was just, I’m on this journey for myself. I went to see these Black Madonnas. I was still working at Duke at the time, so Duke paid for the trip. So I was just there enjoying my life. And I was like, “This could be a super-cute trip, and I can have all these great journal entries, or this can be something that actually changes my life.” But if it changes my life, it’s going to be because I went back home out of [unintelligible], where everything just feels so connected and clear, and integrate it with my life.

So as I came face to face with these 18 Black Madonnas and encountered myself in the Divine, I had to say, “Okay, if I really believe that God is a Black woman, and if I really believe that I am sacred as a Black woman, how is that going to change my life back home? How is it going to change my relationships with shady White people that I probably should have fired a long time ago? How is it going to change my relationship with my parents that is still really governed by hierarchy in a way that’s not honoring to me, or really, them? How is that going to change the types of speaking engagements I take and the types of jobs that I keep? And I even knew in 2018, you know, it wasn’t until a year later that I actually left Duke. But I knew on that pilgrimage in late 2018, I can’t say at Duke longterm, I need to start figuring something else out. Because I needed to untether from that capitalistic model.

So the writing of the book is what encouraged me to integrate the book, to integrate the ideas. And that’s part of the reason why I took about a couple years to write it. Because I — maybe it wasn’t, maybe like a year and a half. But there were often times when I’m writing about my body and the Sacred Black Feminine, I was like, “Yeah, I can’t write this with integrity without going and doing some more work on this. I’m going to set this chapter aside for months at a time, and circle back when it feels authentic.”

There were lots of moments like that where I’d be like, “I can’t with integrity, write this without having this conversation with one of my beloveds because this conversation speaks directly to what I’m talking about right now.” And I’ve been putting it off, but my sacredness demands it. And so there were lots of experiences like that. So, it wasn’t just leaving Duke. That was a big part of writing this book, but also leaving a lot of things and then taking up new things.

Menzie: Yeah, and one of the things too, I would love for you to comment on a bit, the whole deconstruction thing. And when you reconstruct into something that is liberating for you, when you’re living your best life, and you don’t feel like you’re under this gaze of this terroristic whitemalegod, and you come back to “the real world” from your pilgrimage. And you mentioned it a bit in the book about possibly, I don’t know, your relationship with your family who’s so important to you, suddenly, maybe perhaps being severed. So was that a real concern for you, you know … because you’re on your own now?

Cleveland: Yeah, absolutely. Oh, my gosh, yeah. I mean, there’s a reason why people don’t leave plantations. It’s really hard. It was hard for our ancestors. It’s hard in modern day plantations. There are so many reasons for us to stay. And a lot of them are good reasons. You know, we love our family members. We feel connected, we have history. Black women in particular are very collectivistic and our identities are often very connected to our families. And that’s a beautiful thing.

And it was so important for me to realize that my commitment to myself had to be as strong as my commitment to other people. But yeah, it was absolutely terrifying to have those conversations, it was terrifying to make adjustments in those relationships. And it was terrifying to see them change in ways that we may not ever regain the perceived closeness, that felt closeness.

I don’t think that in a hierarchical relationship, you can actually have intimacy. I think it’s a felt intimacy. So, I think that’s something I grieve, is just that I’ve never really had that sort of intimacy that some people can have with their parents where it’s not just hierarchical, especially as people grow into adulthood. But as I grew into adulthood, the hierarchy did not change, if anything, it got even more entrenched in my family. And there’s some [examples I give from my 20s], and I could give examples from later on, too. But I was trying to keep it just a little bit when I was younger.

Christena Cleveland
Dr. Christena Cleveland. (Photo: Kelli Wholey)

But yeah, I mean, just making changes and standing up for yourself. And that comes with a real loss of, well, things aren’t the same. And we don’t have this cute chummy relationship that we used to have and we don’t have the same language to talk about [things]. We don’t speak the same language. And it kind of reminds me of — I think I mentioned this earlier in the book, like how when Harriet Tubman would [unintelligible] people, people who chose to try to escape with her, she would threaten them, “Don’t go back. You can’t go back to the plantation.” And I kind of think of it that way. It’s like, once you are on your journey, the relationship’s going to be different. Even if you’re still in touch with that person, you’re not going to be living the same life that they’re living, and vice versa. And it makes sense to grieve that. I imagined my enslaved ancestors grieved so many things about what they left behind, including relationships, and a sense of certainty.

Embracing the Black Madonna

Menzie: Yeah, loss can be expected. So not just the professional costs, or whatever the communities we know we’re used to, but family loss can also be a big part of it. And so I want to touch a bit on your tour, your pilgrimage in southern France, and you being on the run from the law. Just like the Black Madonna’s you encountered, maybe you can talk about one or two, and the one you kind of connect with the most that you feel really affirmed by [that you feel like, sees you] and is for you.

Cleveland: Yeah, I mean, they all do, they’re all so magical. And I think I talked about maybe eight or nine in the book, although I went to see 18 on that particular pilgrimage. So I don’t have a favorite because of course, it’s like, uh, which of my kids is a favorite? But the one that I keep returning to the most, and the chapter that I read in my book the most often is, I believe chapter five, which is about “She Who Cherishes Our Hot Mess,” and that’s the Black Madonna of Vichy France, which is in central France, and she’s called Our Lady of the Sick officially, traditionally, but I call her “She Who Cherishes Our Hot Mess.”

For some reason or another, I keep returning to her because — it could be my personality. I don’t know if you know the Enneagram, but I’m an Enneagram One. And so it could just be personality, in the fact that I’m a perfectionist, but I think it’s also growing up in this whitemalegod world where dominance, perfection, needless are markers of humanity. And even though you know that the run up to this book launch… So the book came out almost a month ago now, and there’s just so many pressures towards, “Your book only matters if you’re dominating the market. Your book only matters if you’re getting the most important interviews. Your book only matters if no one has any critiques of it.”

So again, that perfect, that perfection, that dominance that, you know, and just being okay with saying like, “Oh my gosh, this is super stressful. I’m kind of falling apart here,” you know? And being honest about that, as opposed to, “Everything’s great, and I’m so hopeful,” you know? And so, there’s just so many messages we get in our society, that it’s not okay to be human. And so I keep returning “She Who Cherishes Our Hot Mess” who knows what it’s like to be decapitated, who knows what it’s like to have her head separated from her body because that happened to her, too. And the people tracked her down when she was stolen during the French Revolution. And at that point, her walnut head was all they [could] find. And so they built her walnut body and pieced her back together.

So just this idea of like me, this human being who’s been decapitated by this White patriarchal world that just wants me to perform and wants me to turn off everything in my need, everything in my body, all need, all messiness, all blood, everything. It’s just so powerful for me to be reminded that it’s my knee, that’s my special offering to her, that she cherishes that more than anything else. And so that’s just an image of God, that’s just so stark in contrast to what I grew up in, grew up with in the church, and then also just the vibe in our world. And that we can lead with our need, and we can be big and loud and messy with it. And that’s okay. And that in her, we can find communities of people who will cherish our need as well. So she’s pretty powerful for me, even though [unintelligible].

Menzie: So just winding down a bit, Dr. Cleveland. You kind of mentioned this in the beginning how the Black Madonna is like a Catholic thing, so to speak. But what are Protestants missing out? And really closely related to that, because this is the path you took, is this the path toward embracing the Black Feminine Divine? Was this just the way for you, Christena Cleveland, to get free? Or is this the way for all of us to get free?

Cleveland: Both. Yeah, I mean, it’s my journey. And I think, you know, one of the goals of my book was to write my story, and then hopefully give people some sort of inspiration to write their own story and to find themselves in the Divine. And so I don’t necessarily think that everyone needs to go on the exact same journey as me and make the exact same conclusions as me. And also really, the Sacred Black Feminine is probably the only thing that can heal us from the ills of whitemalegod, because she’s the complete opposite an antidote to who he is. And when we truly see that all women and all Black people are sacred and we’re really truly as a society committed to the liberation of all women and all Black people, that will liberate everybody because the systems of domination that would have to come down in order for that to happen, would set us all free.

So I think this journey, this particular journey for me to the Black Madonnas make sense given my background — first of all, my racial gender background, but then also my Christian background. The Black Madonna is just one example of the Sacred Black Feminine. I don’t think it’s a surprise. As a social psychologist, I’m not surprised that the image of the sacred feminine that I first was drawn to was the one that was the most familiar to me, even though it’s Catholic, it’s still Christian.

I mean, the Catholic Church doesn’t exactly own the Black Madonna. And she certainly exists outside of the Catholic Church as well, but she’s most associated with the Catholic Church. And we look for what’s familiar, we look for what feels safe. We’re taking our little baby steps into the forest and we want to see what feels good and what feels comforting. But she’s just a portal, and she connects me to… I mean, the Black Madonna, or [unintelligible] and like, Haitian voodoo, they’re the same. And so there’s so many other iterations of her in other religions. And so I think people can find whatever path makes sense to their spirit, and then that sort of makes sense in the context of their spiritual language, as well.

Menzie: And so I guess it would also help to clarify for some, because I’ve read reviews and reactions, I guess, to your book, and the material you share. And I also read in one interview, you obviously don’t describe yourself as a Christian, in the traditional sense, or in the sense, you would have maybe like 10, 15 years ago. So what label, because labels help some people understand things — how should we understand your spirituality now? And what are some of your practices because I’m guessing you’re not going to necessarily Sunday morning church in the typical environment and doing whatever the practices are there. So, what are your spiritual practices right now? How do you connect to the Divine? How do you worship the Divine? And what labels, I guess, would help us understand your faith right now?

 Cleveland: Well, I certainly would say that I’m connected to my Christian roots. I think I’m like one of my ancestors in the hush harbor. I’m someone who’s harvesting the most life-giving elements of Christianity and mixing them with other spiritualities that affirm my Sacred Black Feminine soul. And that was pretty common on the plantation as well.

So, I don’t think it’s really different from traditional African American religion. I don’t know that I have personally not called myself a Christian. I think Christianity has kicked me out. I think people have said that. I don’t really feel strongly either way, but I do attend a church that is a part of like a traditional Christian denomination. So, I do participate in their worship services.

But I also love… I mean, I’m also a member of a Buddhist Sangha. I also love to practice spirituality that would probably, you know, things that I’ve learned when I lived amongst lay priests for a while, and things that I’ve learned in other contexts, so somewhat inter-spiritual but also just know, like [unintelligible] that… I don’t want… Even if I wanted to completely extricate myself from my Christian roots, I wouldn’t be able to because I’m a social psychologist and I understand that we are non-consciously formed. But I don’t think I would want to either because I think the Sacred Black Feminine is so interested in weaving and healing, and weavers and healers take what is and make something beautiful out of it. And so throwing the baby out with the bathwater, that doesn’t feel life-giving to me, either.

Deconstruction and Pursuing Abundance

Menzie: If someone is, you know, they’re having this internal struggle, they’re starting to question things, what would you recommend is a good first step to maybe start answering some of these questions that are popping up within?

Cleveland: Yeah. Well, I think the answers, if they do come, they’ll come after a while and they may not come. And so, I think my deconstruction journey led to reclamation, but not all deconstruction journeys do. And so I think if you’re going to go down that path, getting comfortable with ambiguity and getting comfortable with feeling alone — and I’m not sure that you always are alone, but it feels that way, when you’re starting to ask questions that no one else is asking, you’re starting to take steps and explore in ways that people around you aren’t, especially in very insular Christian communities. I think my best sort of lived wisdom would be, connect as much as you can with whatever abundance looks like to you.

I think a whitemalegod really traffics in resource scarcity and fear. And there are so many reasons why we don’t even start to ask the questions that our souls are longing to ask, because we’re afraid. And so, for me, connecting with abundance was huge. And that was literally doing self-compassion practices, going for walks in nature, reading scriptures that remind me that I’m unconditionally loved, even if that’s not the message I get from the established church, these actual scriptures that say, but you are beloved, and I will never leave you or forsake you. And those sorts of things, just to give me the courage to step off the plantation, and just asking a question can feel like stepping off the plantation.

And I think a lot about Harriet Tubman, our ancestor who… I think a lot about that, the time period between when Harriet Tubman woke up as an enslaved person, and was like, “I’m too sacred for this.” And then the actual time when she left. There was probably a whole incubation period, where she was gathering up her connection to abundance, she called it North Star, she said, “Keep your eyes on the North Star.” But gathering up her connection and her trust in a divine source that was going to guide her as she walked into the unknown, because we’ll never ever, ever know what we’re walking into. We can’t read enough, we can’t plan enough, we can’t prepare enough for taking that step. It’s just impossible. So the question is, how can I connect to my North Star? How can I connect to abundance so that when I do step off that plantation, all hell may break loose, but at least I can keep my eye on something that anchors me?

Menzie: All right, great. So we’ll leave it at that…. I want to thank you, Dr. Cleveland, for taking the time to talk with us. Thank you for your very powerful book, God Is a Black Woman, it’s much needed today. Your voice is much needed today…. Any parting thoughts at all?

Cleveland: We have a newsletter. If you just go to my website,, you can sign up for our Freedom Journal where we’re just continuing to ask questions that connect us with our sacredness and liberation. And yeah, it’s a great way to just stay connected. It’s bi-weekly, so just twice a month.

Watch the live Q&A with Christena Cleveland about God Is a Black Woman below.

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