November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
October 6, 2014
One’s neighbor is often not even the people next door but the people of one’s home, household, workplace and religious community. One’s neighbor is the person of the opposite gender.
—Mercy Oduyoye, Beads and Strands
Beyoncé Knowles has done myself, and many like me, a huge favor. Through the popularity of her hit single “Flawless,” from her 2013 surprise album, Beyoncé, she has made audible the voice of African women, a voice that is ever-present in America yet often unheard. Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian author who is sampled in verse two of the song, addresses the humorous and heartbreaking contours and characteristics of black African female life. She reminds us in this verse that these women, these overlooked black women, exist among us in America.
Perhaps most interesting, though, is that Adichie has to remind us of this people group at all. Beyoncé’s inclusion of parts of Adichie’s speech illumines an elephant-in-the-room-problem of black African female visibility. After all, why does it take a musical assist from Beyoncé to make Adichie visible to us? Are black African female voices seen as important within American life?
Beyoncé’s hypervisibility and influence highlights the hypovisibility—or invisibility—of the black African woman. If brilliant authors like Adichie are not easily seen, our ability to see African women in any facet of American life comes into question. As Christians, “Flawless” forces us to consider who and where African women are in America’s narrative and within our theological imaginations.
It seems that an unnamed cultural culprit is rendering African women visible in some instances and invisible in others. I contend that a combination of African and Western cultural patriarchal practices help place African women in roles where their bodies are automatically affiliated with a work and space that renders them invisible: these black female bodies are expected to do certain types of work in certain places; thus, in actively working, they are rendered unnoticeable.
In her speech that is sampled in “Flawless,” Adichie urges us to recognize that there is a connection between visibility and value—and for African women, that connection is often seen with domesticity. The space of the domestic is not only their home but also the determinant of their social location. It is a landscape with strict borders, a social and cultural topography of relegation and limit, particularly with regard to how and where one is allowed to be seen. Black African women are an unnoticed group in America because of where they are and where they are expected to be: at home. Thus, home becomes an important ideology, and how the home is utilized offers direct commentary on how African women are utilized. With this in mind, it is difficult to consider the home without acknowledging its hierarchical foundations that directly affect African women.
In this logic of limitation and hierarchy, then, the positive Christian practice of hospitality comes into question. Hospitality is a practice reliant on the ontological domestic assignment and work of women, including African women, as their primary task within hospitality is the maintenance and management of the home for the comfort of others. Their bodies begin to live into expectations of gender roles merely because they are women. This is precisely why the dynamics, mechanics, and purpose of domestic hospitality—especially in its Christian form—must be interrogated.
Adichie exposes the unfair ontological pedagogy of the black female in contrast to that of the black male. The female is taught that the purpose of her life is to strive toward marriage, whereas the male is not assigned this same life purpose. While black men may strive to inhabit an unattainable form of manhood that can also be deciphered as white maleness, African women’s strivings are tied to ideals of domesticity. The life goals of black African women are a prescribed and predestined space of femaleness of which they have no authorship rights. African women, like many other women, are relegated to a particular way of being human, shackled to particular ideas of female human being within the house and home.
What work does the house itself, this domestic architecture, do in naming, creating, and even solidifying the sociological place and ontological strivings of the black African woman? What work do the systems present within the house or within the notion of the home do to situate the black African female existence within? In other words, how are house and home, as systematic landscapes, operating in shaping the existence of black African femalehood?
The House Is Not the Home
The house and the home are two distinct parts of the domestic realm, and their respective operations are important in considering how they both affect black African females. Popular literature by Nigerian men gives us an idea of the house structure in some areas of African society. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ola Rotimi’s The God’s Are Not to Blame, for example, the house manifests in a compound fashion where various familial units of wives and their children create a communal environment within a polygynous system run by one male.
The house is thus both an abstract entity constructed around an idea of male headship and a structural unit that metaphorically holds an organized system of relations. This system of relations is the home. The house does holding work, but the home does the formational and identity work. The home is a social location and relational territory that is a way of functioning within the space called the house.
The house and home, together the domestic realm, also contain a network of relationships that determine one’s positionality. The house encompasses familial structure itself; however, the home generates roles within the family, the details of that familial structure. The house contains mothers and daughters; the home determines the purpose and function of mothers and daughters.
I question how domestic space and place determine ontological formation, especially in line with the Christian precept of hospitality. The theological notion of hospitality is directly tied to domestic assignments of space and place, but if hospitality’s presence is connected to limiting or predetermining gender ontology, tension ensues. The power inherent in this domestic assigning of gender roles takes on an air of naming and labeling, power and hierarchy. Therefore, what is communicated theologically under the auspices of hospitality is that women are assigned particular roles for the primary benefit of another, the male. This predetermines that their identity in relation to hospitality is servile worker, and that the male’s identity is that of powerful host.
In many ways African culture has not been hospitable to its own women. They are the assumed caretakers of their societies, yet they are static, voiceless participants within their own homes. The Ghanaian author Ama Atta Aido claims that African women are often the “mute beasts of burden.” They are expected to work silently, operate as if they are the property of men, and carry the weight of their communities and people. They are the keepers of the house and of central importance to the maintenance of the home system, but they are never in control of the house or the home; rather, they are a product of the house and the home. They are the invisible foundation of both house and home, and yet they are powerless.
In Christian Scripture, the concept of hospitality is often affiliated with welcome into the house. It is primarily understood as a positive active demonstration of welcome and acceptance. Although this may be true in certain respects, we must consider carefully how the idea of welcome into a house is upheld and perpetuated through systems of home structure and management, often through the work of women or those who are deemed lesser or destined to serve. The dark side of Christian hospitality must be named, explored, and addressed.
Hospitality in Christian Scripture is a moral practice that is laced with ideas of community, relationality, and provision, but it carries within it a perpetuation of ontological ideals and indicators of identity. A popular biblical account of hospitality is found in in Genesis 18:1–8, when Abraham welcomes the angels; his dictation begets hospitable welcome. Yet Abraham’s excited welcome of the angels also illuminates a system of ontology that does not bode well for the female (or the servant) as they are given the task of executing hospitality without receiving credit. In a moment of great revelatory potential, when Abraham rushes into his tent, a system of patriarchal hierarchy is exposed. Sarah is told to bake for the visitors so that Abraham’s household may welcome them well. The servants are given the calf to prepare, but Abraham is credited with its preparation. Abraham’s role is primarily one of dictation within his home so that his household might be a space of welcome for the visiting strangers, and as the male head of his household, these hospitable actions pose no problem; they are, in fact, the expectation.
Sarah’s role may closely mirror that of the African woman, but if we are to apply ideas of the Old Testament hospitality system to contemporary times, we must keep in mind the details surrounding the hospitality problem of the modern third-world woman. For black African women, home is only one space where she is overextended. This is because for black African women, the first-world, feminist idea of the right to work has never been an issue but an expectation. African women, Aidoo argues, never had to “fight for the ‘right to work’”; they were always expected to maintain and keep the home through cleaning, maintenance, and cooking for their families in addition to working.
Like Sarah, who is expected to work without being fully seen, black African women disappear into their work, thereby becoming extensions of what they do. They are perceived as being built into the house and home, as if they are just a feature of it, a feature that provides the labor for its maintenance. In the patriarchal landscape of Christian hospitality, the female’s being is diminished while her work remains advantageous to men. In this way, female human beings become human doings. They are reduced to actions. In the Christian realm of the domestic, their bodies and beings are action alone, and actions do not have voices.
Male Spaces, Man Places
In The Hostess, Tracy McNulty argues that in a home with a male and female, female hosting—and thus hospitality—is nearly impossible. Female housework and familial maintenance makes male hosting the most present and viable form of hospitality. Credit for the hospitable work that the female offers, such as cooking and cleaning, is taken away from her, as she is forced to live in the shadow of the male host. Her invisibility thus discredits her labor, and hospitality then becomes a male venture and women’s work its indiscernible foundation.
McNulty brings the menacing, capricious nature of hospitality and hosting into view. If women are shadowed, ghostly creatures of the home, I would suggest that the domestic nature of hosting has actually been emptied of its feminine character and become hypermasculinized. Female labor is thus not attributed to her at all but rather becomes the badge of the male. The feminine host becomes the ground on which male home-headship is constructed. As such, the female host is not even fully present, and her being comes into question because her affiliation with space is dismantled.
The male host’s power to use her in order to offer the hospitality of his home to a stranger redirects power and the domestic back to the male. The female host is not a host but rather a ghost of one, the forgotten other of the male host. She is always present but never seen, haunting the reality that hospitality must derive from his female otherness. The male host’s position as head of his house and home necessitates her invisibility. The masculine thus extracts the feminine and renders the female invisible. In other words, hospitality even in its Christian form, is a means of ridding the home of its feminine components. In this act, women are muted and unseen. Hospitality denotes not only masculine domination but also the extermination of the feminine.
Masculinity is essentialized in an area ontologically constituted by the feminine. Therefore, feminine is deemed valuable in its ability to keep up the male headship persona. Within this framework, masculine interior (of the domestic realm) and exterior (through societal influence and formation) dominance are promoted. In this, the idea of the masculine overshadows the feminine, and in this vein, extending hospitality is revealed as a harmful project of masculinity perpetuation and dominance.
What theology is promoted in a domestic ontology? A harmful and patriarchal one, one lacking the rich ideas of true Christian hospitality. Christian hospitality is the choice to take in, to receive someone fully. For the Jewish poststructuralist Jacques Derrida, it is a penetration of the space and life of the host by the stranger. Initially seen as absolutely on the outside—barbaric and unknown—the stranger, through a hospitable gesture, is brought into the space of the home and extended welcome by the host and/or hostess. But even Derrida identifies hospitality as impossible because of the power and control issues of the host. Yet as I have demonstrated, the impossibility of hospitality is deeper than the host-stranger relationship; the impossibility of hospitality is found in the rotten foundation of hosting itself, in the very fabric of the realm of the domestic.
The redemption of hospitality must therefore be initiated from the inside. Women should be the primary spokespeople, given that it is their sacrifice and work that allows it to exist at all. The domestic realm must be repurposed so that hospitality can be a shared gift and extension of the self. The first step to such a restoration would require the fair portrayal of hospitality, which means that accurate recognition must be given to women and that those systems that are reinforced in this benevolent action of welcome must be exposed.
Such acknowledgments would be an important first step, but I imagine the body of Christ is expected to go further. Beyond the creaturely corrective of acknowledgement in the hospitable system of the domestic rests the notion of an equal share in its fulfillment. The church should pay attention to this: hospitality can be one area of the domestic in which male-female relationships can turn toward justice.
The African feminist theologian Mercy Oduyoye claims that each person needs others in light of the life God gives creation as a whole. She urges Christians to see that everyone’s life matters, especially the lives of those who stand and live next to us. She motivates the church to action: to see one’s neighbor as one of the opposite gender inspires one to care for the other well. For Oduyoye, God is the center from which all life emanates, authoring all human-to-human relationships and human-to-creation relationships. All relationships necessitate reception and care. This closeness, interaction, and codependence between beings conveys hospitality. All life is interwoven together; therefore, neighborliness and hospitality are crucial to the well-being not only of individuals but overall communities as well.
Hospitality is a way of being communal; it is not a series of actions insuring position and power. It is a way of seeing one’s self and others enough to recognize not a hierarchy of importance but rather similitude in agency and identity as fellow parts of God’s creation. Hospitality as an action pointing to God’s gracious nature cannot live trudging through systems of oppression but instead by dancing through power sharing and equal consideration. It asks men to care about the position of women, as well as their potential to contribute equally. “What we have failed to do,” Oduyoye states, “is to insist that men too are made in the image of God and so must be helpers, nurturers and sustainers of all that God cares for.” All of humanity is responsible for each other. All humanity is responsible to see one another and to treat each other fairly.
Hospitality, albeit a positive form of religious witness, has its flaws that must be exposed. It requires the voices of the invisible to make its tragic foundations visible and open to correction. It requires not only that we who are privileged see people but also that we want to see where we occupy spaces of power in Christian systems.
I encourage us to take this lesson seriously. We must see people in such a way that we do not require a pop star to bring them into view. We must seriously ask ourselves, given our contexts, what we see, and who we see when we use our Christian language and teach our scriptural precepts. The black African woman can no longer be an invisible or ghostly figure; we must allow her to be human. Christians who do not identify as a black African female must notice black African women because we black African women, too, are Christian.
Being Christian requires us to take in a perspective different than our own. It calls for men and women in the church to realize that women are not extensions of men. Women are not ribs but “tsela,” creatures who attribute their being and ontologies not to men but to the God who created both male and female, who created humanity to live alongside one another. Christianity needs its dominant class to recognize where its power and privileges hide, and hide well, within their practices. All of us must honestly and often ask, whom does my visibility make invisible? We must allow an exchange of power, where the Spirit does what she wills, permitting justice to be done to us for the benefit of another.
 There is much debate about the authenticity of Beyoncé’s feminism and the feminist expression in her music, videos, and written pieces, but my focus here is the voice she highlights. By exposing her fans and others to Chimamanda Adichie’s work, Beyoncé commands listeners to hear an important contemporary voice in African literary and feminist expression. Beyoncé’s use of Adichie’s speech did not serve as Adichie’s initial exposure and claim to celebrity, yet she has recently shot to stardom in part because of this grand, subversive musical gesture. See Adichie, “We Should All Be Feminists,” TEDxEuston, December 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc.
 In this piece, when referring to “black African women,” I am literally speaking of black African females from the continent of Africa, mainly from West Africa, who live in America. I am not speaking about black women who identify with the slave history of the West (e.g., in the Caribbean, the United States of America, South America). In other words, in this piece I am speaking of black (West) African immigrant women. In making this distinction, I want to address the problem of visibility for a particular sort of black woman who exists in the United States today. Unfortunately, her ethnic specificity is the very thing that creates her invisibility. She is categorically swallowed up in the label “African American woman.” My hope is that in her particularity she would become visible, much like African American women have been considered critical to pay attention to recently. In this piece what I argue against is a patriarchal cultural view of black African female being that affects her whether in Africa or in the Diaspora. Cultural patriarchy follows her whether in her original context or the one she immigrates to. The geography of her oppression and the location of her resistance takes on a fluid nature, and thus, whether she is in Africa, Europe, the United States, or elsewhere, her plight is first and foremost one that has been mapped onto her body.
 See Ama Ata Aidoo. “The African Woman Today,” in Sisterhood, Feminisms, and Power: From Africa to the Diaspora, ed. Obioma Nnaemeka (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1998), 47.
 See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York, NY: Grove Press, 1963), xiii.
 See Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in On Ideology (New York, NY: Verso, 2008), 16–18.
 See Rob Kitchin, “Creating an Awareness of Others: Highlighting the Role of Space and Place,” Geography 84, no. 1 (January 1999): 53.
 Ibid., 48. Although Kitchin speaks interchangeably about the power and sociocultural landscape of space and place, I differentiate between their operations as holding unit (house as space) and the concretized relational object held within the unit (home as place).
 Ibid., 45.
 See Kwok Pui-lan, “Mercy Amba Oduyoye and African Women’s Theology,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 20, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 10.
 Aidoo, “The African Woman Today,” 44.
 See Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 17.
 Some womanists, especially Deloris Williams, would not appreciate my use of Sarah as an example of black African female mistreatment in the realm of the domestic (see Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999]), but I use this scenario to highlight two things: (1) the male-female dynamics of hospitality in general as an enterprise of male benefit in exchange for female labor, and (2) the dynamics of class as important in a male-dominant and patriarchal framing of hospitality. Abraham may or may not himself be operating out of a space of class distinction and obligation, yet he holds the highest position within his household; it is his hospitality that is extended, not his and Sarah’s (and their servants’). Thus, even in naming class distinction, the aura of maleness seems to reign supreme in biblical and, thus, Christian hospitality.
 See Maurice Hamington, “Introduction: Feminism and Hospitality,” in Feminism and Hospitality: Gender in the Host/Guest Relationship, ed. Maurice Hamington (New York, NY: Lexington Books, 2010), xiii.
 Given Deloris Williams’s womanist argument that the servant of Abraham and Sarah would most accurately represent African persons in Scripture, that Abraham would represent a white man, and that Sarah would represent a white woman, it would be interesting to explore the differences in work intensity associated with kneading dough and preparing the calf. This story not only speaks to the labor differences between sexes but also differences in position and power among women.
 See Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York, NY: Grove Press, 1963), 182. Fanon would deem women a feature of the “natural landscape.”
 McNulty, The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity and the Expropriation of Identity (Minneapolis, MN:
University of Minnesota Press, 2007), xliii and xii.
 See Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 73 and 77.
 Oduyoye, Beads and Strands (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 45.
 See Esther Acolatse, “Unraveling the Relational Myth in the Turn Toward Autonomy,” in Women Out of Order, eds. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner and Teresa Snorton (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 222.
 Oduyoye, Introducing African Women’s Theology (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 105. Italics, original.
 See Genesis 2:21–23 NRSV.
Oluwatomisin “Tomi” Oredein is a ThD candidate in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School. Her work focuses on Christian theology from an African diasporic perspective. Oredein is a contributing editor at Marginalia LA Review of Books and the author of the chapbook i have stared down winters.