Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality

Africana Lessons on Religions, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence

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Traci C. West
Religion and Social Transformation
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , January
     2019.
     336 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479833993.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence, Traci West offers a rigorous yet thoughtful account of her journey to explore transnational responses to gender-based violence. West focuses on rape within heterosexual marriage, male-perpetrated violence against women, sex trafficking of women and girls, and the targeting of lesbians for rape and murder. Carefully balancing her knowledge of intimate violence in the West with that of violence in Ghana, Bahia, and South Africa, the author attends to the belief that we cannot separate North America’s history of violence from its politics—politics that are instrumental in enabling gender violence. For West, it is pivotal to consider how religion and anti-Black racism play a role in repeating gender violence. Thus, she embarks on a journey of transnational learning by traveling to three countries to engage with the gender-based violence activists and scholars of those regions. She thinks through the ways in which their experiences and responses can assist in deconstructing gender-based violence responses in North America. In this way, she seeks to interrupt the American moral exceptionalism that creates what West calls a “gendered historical amnesia”.

West, who self identifies as engrained in the subculture of her New England upbringing, breaks through her reserved nature to participate in the kind of unceasing self-disclosure that is familiar to those who utilize social media and ought to become more familiar to those conducting qualitative research fieldwork. She is transparent about everything from her Christian bias to being a picky eater, and while the latter may feel like an overshare, it helps give the reader a clear view of what is at stake when one truly engages in intercultural and transnational exchanges. Transparency and vulnerability are necessary in our attempts to tackle violence against women. Bearing the weight of her cultural biases and Western knowledges, West deconstructs how North American responses to gender violence ignore transnational discourse and interventions as well how the violence of the Northern hemisphere replicates itself to create violence abroad.

The author uses a decolonizing approach to gender violence by centering the voices of Africana activists who do the practical work of advocacy and activism. One of the most striking things about Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality is that all of West’s secondary sources are scholars of the regions she researches. She illustrates the importance of transnational conversation partners and cuts through the traditional (read: Eurocentric or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant -centering) scholarship that insists on the primacy of Western theory to speak globally. Hers is a decolonizing practice that allows a subaltern to speak.

West makes clear that those of us in the North American context cannot attend to the problem of gender-based violence by using the same set of tools; rather, she expands the toolbox by encouraging us to have broader, more diverse conversations. She proves that the work is not just to engage in qualitative research that picks the brains of activists, but it is to read what they read, to see what they see, to understand how they understand. West’s task is not to take the work of these women and return to North America to implement solutions; rather, she holds her findings with the utmost respect and regard proving that she is not the colonizer who comes to plunder and pillage. Instead West stands in radical solidarity with activists and victims of gender-bender based violence across national borders and claims that as an act of defiant spirituality. By doing this she decenters the symbols and texts of traditions such as Christianity and Islam and expands the borders of spiritual response to intimate violence.

Through this work the author encourages scholars of religion, and North American gender-based violence activists, to recognize that everyone is responsible for decolonizing their knowledge. West shows that the solution to the ill of gender violence is through a decolonizing practice of deep listening in in-depth interviews with activists and advocates; somatic knowledge in which she places her body and its vulnerabilities in the midst of intercultural exchanges; and defiant spirituality that challenges the dominance of Christian theology and practice in order to make room for the voices of Africana traditions. 

West centers these decolonizing practices through narrative writing, which she takes up as a way to add depth and intensity to her learning as well as to increase accessibility to her work. The book reads like ethnographic fieldnotes, which can be cumbersome at times, but again, it is all in the service of bringing the reader deeply into an account of unlearning and learning anew how to respond to gender violence. Because of this mode of writing, West leaves room for the reader to find themselves in her self-disclosure, cultural mishaps, and moments of enlightenment.

What is at stake in this book is for people to find themselves in the battle against gender violence, to understand the biases they bring to this epidemic that does not seem to be abating, and to participate in the practice of withdrawing themselves from colonizing practices that stabilize incidents of violence against women.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicole Symmonds is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Traci C. West is Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School.

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