Thursday, February 11, 2010

DIVINE AND HUMAN GENDER: An African American Woman

An African American Woman 
in Conversation
with the Text of the God of Moses (a Man)
Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s suspected, but not every pun the modern reader finds may have been put there by the author.--Clayboy (aka Doug Chaplin)
It is not the translator's duty to make her audience accept the author's message, or even identify themselves with the ancient audience, except in the sense that any literary work invites identification with its subjects. I am not certain that the translator is even obliged to make the modern reader understand what is overheard.
--Phyllis A. Bird
My epigraphs above have Doug Chaplin and Phyllis A. Bird in conversation, nearly.  The male says something rather generic, and the female with her specific gendered pronoun almost replies.  I'm being silly, a bit, because we all know that Bird spoke first, writing her sentences in 1997; but Chaplin wrote the first sentence above just yesterday.  Nonetheless, I'm trying to warn some of you about what could happen when, or after, you read an African American woman in conversation with the text of the God of Moses (a man).  This can be considerably contentious.  There is the question of authority, the author's authority and the text's.

Moses, ostensibly, is the author of his text, who says what he says, and intends what he means.  It's the text of origins, of Genesis, as if Generations were male-lined only, patrilineal only, patriarchal.  In some readings, the female (the Gune) appears there as if she comes after (merely translationally, perhaps etymologically) and has no part in what came in the Beginning, originally, GeoGraphically (only very much later in Greek somehow lacking originality as Γένεσις, γυναῖκα / γυνή, τὴν γῆν).  Moses didn't put in the Greek or the African-American woman reading.  So maybe God is the author.  But then there really is Gen-dering.  Or at least there is the female here too, before the Beginning, if any one of us (as readers, listeners, translators) is to see the image.

So let me warn you.  There will be disagreements.  Some men will object to etymologies.  But some women will say the objections of men have more to do with gender -- perhaps everything to do with gender -- than those men can easily admit.  Let me show you what I mean in the words of Hélène Cixous and then in the words of Phillis Wheatley.  Then we may be ready to hear the African American woman in conversation with the text of the God of Moses (a man).  First, Cixous advises (women):
So, I do not resound as much for painting, as for writing, where I can say that each hue in the signifiers is a light for me -- I have a wealth of possibilities in language, but this of course has to be cultivated.  For instance, practicing diction is most important for writers.  Even in my seminars, we have decided that we would always have dictionaries, not only to learn dictionaries by heart, which is absolutely essential, not only for their definitions and wealth of vocabulary but to refresh or trigger our knowledge of etymology.  I think that one of the mysteries of writing, of language, is really the fact that when we write at surface level (while we write or weave something on the surface) -- underneath the ground where the half of the body, where the dog is hidden [in the painting]), is where language goes on weaving kinds of effects of meaning, of music, and forth which we don't know of.
Second, she observes (men and women) observing:
The origin is a masculine myth. . . . The question, ‘Where do I come from?’ is basically a masculine, much more than a feminine question. The quest for origins, illustrated by Oedipus, doesn’t haunt a feminine unconscious. Rather it’s the beginning, or beginnings, the manner of beginning, not promptly with the phallus, but starting on all sides at once, that makes a feminine writing. A feminine text starts on all sides at once, starts twenty times, thirty times, over.
The contrast is instructive.  And when a woman is multiply marginalized, the difference and distance between her ways of making meaning and the central authorship of a man can be very wide.  Phillis Wheatley, a woman, was also black, also a slave, also a non-native-speaker of the language of the kingdom of Great Britain and its new colonies.  To George Washington (a powerful, commanding, slave-owning white man) in 1775, she starts by invoking the muse, but by starting again with feminine language, and writes "Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, / Thy ev'ry action let the goddess guide. / A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, / With gold unfading, Washington! be thine."  What else does she have to offer him?  The gender, her femininity, bleeds through from positions of outside and under.  This is her author-ity.

Now, during Black History month in the USA, I've been reading The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora.  (Thanks to David Ker, in Africa, who sent me the book).  Now, therein is an African American woman in conversation with the text of the God of Moses (a man).

Here's Wil Gafney, scholar, African American, woman, in her chapter "Reading the Hebrew Bible Responsibly":


Biblical Hebrew is a gendered language, inviting reflection on understanding of human and divine gender.  Virtually all biblical names for God are grammatically masculine, yet the spirit of God is grammatically feminine, recalling that human beings, created in the divine image, are male and female.  In Gen. 1:1-2, two verbs are used for God:  in verse 1, "he, God created," and in verse 2, "the Spirit of God, She was brooding."  The language of human gender in Gen. 1:27 is less egalitarian.  The word for female, neqevah, is derived from a term meaning "pierced" or "penetrated"; the word for male, zakar, is derived from a term for memory.  By etymology, women are "fill-able" while men are "memorable."  This is particularly ironic since God does not in the scriptures of Israel possess the organ of memory, the penis, through which men's memory is perpetuated through descendants.
      The only reproductive organ that God possesses in the text is a womb (Job 38:29).  God's womb is also present in the text through the tender love and nurture that emanates from the divine womb.  The verb r-ch-m, unfortunately regularly translated "compassion," is the emotion that emanates from the recham, or womb.  This is the love that God has for God's people throughout the scriptures of Israel:
Hos. 1:6-7:  Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter.  Then YHWH said to Hosea, "Name her No Mother-Love, for I will no longer have mother-love for the house of Israel or forgive them.  But I will mother-love the house of Judah, and I will save them by YHWH their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen."
      It is certainly the case that the scriptures of Israel are androcentric, contain patriarchal jurisprudence (e.g., Deut. 22:13-30) and discourse (e.g., Genesis 16 and 21), and narratives detailing violence against women (e.g., Judg. 20:20ff), sanctioned by God (e.g., Num. 31:15ff), instructed by God (e.g., Deut. 21:10ff), and occasionally carried out by God (e.g., Ezekial 16 and 23).  It is also the case that women's voices are heard in the scriptures of Israel:  that there are narratives in which women have power (e.g., 2 Kings 11), agency (e.g., Genesis 24), and authority (e.g., Judges 4 and 5); and that there is a recognition in the text that ancient Israelite society is dependent on the labor and contribution of women and men (e.g., Lev. 27:1-7).
      As it pertains to the analysis of gender constructions and gender roles in the scriptures of Israel, responsible exegesis requires intentionality in text selection, translation, and interpretation.  Those interpretive communities and individuals who use biblical portrayals of gender roles to construct contemporary gender roles must and do choose among liberative, egalitarian, and oppressive paradigms.


Bob MacDonald said...

Male or female, we still die. All of us. The Anointing of an individual or even of a community by the Spirit cannot be dependent on biological difference. Given Baalam's donkey, I can't see it even depending on species difference. I play on the phrases 'making sense' and 'it matters' since so much language about spirit is cerebral. If incarnation 'means' anything, it means the Spirit literally inhabits us. We are to be filled with all the fullness of God. Maleness is therefore cut off by this image.

J. K. Gayle said...

Ouch, Bob: Maleness is therefore cut off by this image.

I understand your point about difference, but doesn't the story go that God created the homosapiens species in God's image, male and female? Isn't the image (given the gendered plurality) still fairly special to one species?:

Given Baalam's donkey, I can't see it even depending on species difference. ?

Bob MacDonald said...

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh - sure, humans are somewhat special, but so are rats and pugs, and donkeys sometimes. I wouldn't put it past Hashem to create servants from stones or language from flowers. (A la Christopher Smart). I am going to rework my Matthew blog into a flower-language blog called The Poetry of Christ. I hope its long dangly roots give rise to something more than before.