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My Soul Is a Witness: African-American Women's Spirituality.

Gloria Wade-Gayles, ed. My Soul Is a Witness: African-American Women's Spirituality. Boston: Beacon, 1995. 370 pp. $24.00.

Several of the essays in the first section of My Soul is a Witness provided me with metaphors to describe my experience of reading this anthology. As I started the book, I felt, in the words of Katie Cannon, that I had entered into a "hush harbor," a secluded place of prayer and meditation that, while private, is also communal, since many other readers of this book also exist, ensconsed in their own reading spaces. And the book itself reminded me of Fleda Jackson's description of her mother's garden. Jackson tells us how her mother's acquisition of plants from relatives and friends "was not about collecting volume; instead it was truly symbolic.... The plants, you see, were constant representatives of the person, his or her garden, the visit." The different contributions to this volume seemed to me much like those plants, and I was a visitor to the garden.

Gloria Wade-Gayles terms the contributions to her anthology "testimonies," brought together more by chance encounters with people than by a rigid submission process. The result is a volume that resists easy categorization. As Wade-Gayles points out in the introduction, the collection rejects the traditional oppositions between spiritual and intellectual knowledge, folk and highbrow culture, spirituality and institutionalized religion. Similarly, it is composed of many different genres--poems (by Maya Angelou, Mari Evans, Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, and Audre Lorde), essays, autobiographical narratives, and chapters from novels such as Morrison's Beloved, Walker's The Color Purple, Bambara's The Salt Eaters, and Conde's Tituba. Brought together, these pieces create a garden ablaze with glory.

The anthology is divided into five sections. Part 1, titled "Boarding `The Old Ship of Zion': Witnessing for Our Mothers' Faith," is about the contribution of black women to the tradition of African-American spirituality from slavery to the modern period. In Part 2, "Testifying: The Spiritual Anchor in African-American Culture," the contributors testify about personal spiritual experiences that have changed their lives. Part 3, "Challenging Traditions: A New Baptism in the Spirit," describes how black women throughout time have needed to transform traditional notions of God and the Bible to make them more consonant with their own lives, while Part 4, "Praying at Different Altars, Singing Different Songs: African-American Women across Denominations and Faiths," shows how such needs have led to participation in different faiths. Finally, Part 5, "Invoking the Spirit: The Healing Power of Affirmations and Rituals," offers the reader stories of healing as well as suggestions for performing rituals. Although these five sections are presented as discrete, there is necessarily a certain amount of overlap. For example, Delores S. Williams's "Sources of Black Female Spirituality: The Ways of `the Old Folks' and Women Writers" from Part 3 could have been placed in Part 1, and Nancy Thompson's "Ritual to Invoke the Goddess Isis" from Part 5 has clear affinities with themes from the preceding section on praying across denominations and faiths.

Given the fluidity of its structure, My Soul is a Witness does not need to be read sequentially, but certain thematic patterns do emerge that give it narrative shape. Essays in the early sections examine African-American spirituality in slavery and focus on the oral traditions of song and prayer. The experience of such spirituality is presented not only as personal and private, but also as a means of socio-political resistance for both individual and community. Its power lies in the fact that its message is open to adaptation and reinterpretatation as time and circumstance demand. In the modern period, for example, its legacy is visible in the personal transformations of Paula Woods, Sandra Govan, and Carolyn Denard, as they come to terms with the deaths of their mothers and grandmother; but it also provides the "grounding," to use Lisa Brevard's word, of the political activism of Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer.

The contributions of the second half of the volume argue the need to challenge and expand some of the traditional Judeo-Christian tenets on which African-American spirituality has been based because they have not always addressed the specific concerns of black women. Such spiritual questioning leads to suggestions that we might envision Jesus as a black woman or worship ancestors instead of the Holy Trinity, that we rely on the "extra-biblical" tradition of "scripture" rather than the Bible, that we reinterpret Esther as a figure of black female resistance. The result is a reaffirmation of what it means to be a black woman. Similarly, the decision of still other contributors to investigate other religions and churches--Buddhism, Catholicism, the Imani Faith Temple, Islam, the worship of Black goddesses--is also motivated by their insistence on the need to pay homage to the values of black women. If Deborah James questions the teachings of Catholicism that weigh black women down in childbirth and rearing, Akasha (Gloria) Hull muses about how her Rastafarian dreadlocks have enabled her to overcome black women's obsession over good and bad hair. And, when we get to the end of the book, descriptions of rituals--how to heal, bless the house, call a guardian spirit--offer us the ability to carry forward in our own worlds the spiritual traditions invoked in this compelling book.
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Author:Peterson, Carla L.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Words:874
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