Black Madonna

A Womanist Look at Mary of Nazareth

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Courtney Hall Lee
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , September
     2017.
     150 pages.
     $20.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498293792.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this innovative and challenging work, Courtney Hall Lee seeks to present the relationship of African American women with the Virgin Mary. As a Protestant, she admits to being somewhat suspicious and critical of the cult of the Virgin Mary, especially as it is lived and practiced in Roman Catholicism. However, she provides a good—although somewhat incomplete—overview of Mariology as it developed in the centuries after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Lee then attempts to develop this into a manifesto for a womanist theology grounded in a womanist interpretation of the Virgin Mary and her importance for Black women today.

Lee begins with a history of Black motherhood as a foundation for her quest to understand Mary and her significance for Black women. Unfortunately, in her study of slavery, she focuses mainly on the history of Black Protestant women, and therefore misses the long, deep relationship that Black Catholic women have had with the Virgin Mary for centuries. Lee also fails to show how those enslaved were, in many cases, often already familiar with the Virgin Mary before they arrived on American shores, due to the long history of Christianity in North Africa and the introduction of Catholic Christianity in West and Central Africa by the Portuguese and Spanish. Neither is there any discussion of Mariology found in African American spirituals.

Lee then moves to a discussion of what she depicts as “traditional Mariology,” looking through Christian history at how the Virgin has been received and venerated in Christianity and Islam. This section, while well researched, is marred by several errors. For example, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, not Nazareth, which is the Arabic capital; the Catholic Church did not become concerned about ecumenism until Vatican II in the 20th century, rather than after the Protestant Reformation; and Mary and Joseph were married when she gave birth to Jesus. The book itself requires substantial editing, as there are many errors in spelling and grammar that at times make the author’s meaning unclear.

As part of the traditional Mariology section, Lee presents an in-depth look at feminist Catholic scholars such as Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, among others. Surprisingly, when she moves to part 3 (“A Womanist Mariology”), while she discusses several Protestant womanist scholars, there is no mention of any Catholic womanists. This is a serious lapse: several Catholic womanist scholars have written on Mary and their input would have been extremely helpful in grounding and developing her discussion.

Lee also discusses liberation theology, but seems to see it only as a Latin American phenomenon. There is no mention of Black liberation theology or its critical connection to womanist theology, nor are any Black male theologians, such as the late James H. Cone, mentioned. In chapter 13, “A Manifesto of a Womanist Theology,” Lee relies on the work of Shawn Copeland, but nowhere mentions that Copeland is both Catholic and a womanist.

Despite these issues, the book serves as a welcome, albeit limited, Protestant perspective on Mariology: the first ever, I believe. Hopefully, it will serve as an incentive to both the author and other theologians to delve more deeply into the history and mythology surrounding Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her significance for the Black community today. For the Christian Black reader, this book certainly presents a challenge to diverse perspectives on Mary, suggesting a way to bring Black Catholics and Protestants together. As Lee affirms, Mary can serve as a critically important model for the womanist resistance and perseverance of Black mothers everywhere.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Diana L. Hayes is Professor Emerita of Systematic Theology at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Courtney Hall Lee is a writer, attorney, and co-host of the Dovetail podcast, a show about the intersections of faith, culture, and social justice. Courtney is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law. She is currently pursuing a graduate certificate at Hartford Seminary. Courtney is a contributor at Sojourners online and WomenInTheology.org.

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