Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “drag

Wil’s Words of Wisdom for the Womanists Catching Up to Me: You Betta Werk!

AAR/SBL Womanist In-Gathering 2012: Rituals of Wisdom and Healing

American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL

 Two Faces of RuPaul

I’ve learned a lot about being a woman and being a womanist from drag queens. So I’m going to share with you: Wil’s Words of Wisdom for the Womanists Catching Up to Me: You Betta Werk! (adapted from RuPaul’s Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Style, HarperCollins, 2010), an exegesis of Ru-isms/Truisms and drag as a template for womanist gender construction and performance in scholarly vocation.

I first became impressed by RuPaul’s intentional constructions and performances of gender on season one of her reality competition show, RuPaul’s Drag Race; during one episode she said, “Wearing drag in a male-dominated society is an act of treason.” Drag, and particularly RuPal’s incarnation of it, construct and celebrate womanish gender performances that I experience as womanist, although we may not all see them the same way. However it is there that I’d like to start, with the many ways in which we all construct our varied performances of gender. However it is that you are a woman, however it is that you express and perform that gender publically and privately, however it is that you relate to womanism and feminism, these words are for you, especially if you are coming up in this womanist scholarly enterprise. Today, I will be exegeting a number of Ru-isms that I find to be truisms.

Ru-ism: Learn your craft and know thyself. (p 13)

This Ru-ism focuses on the ways in which we construct ourselves from the inside out. Many black women professionals, scholars, authors and graduate students suffer from imposter syndrome. Whether we have had nurturing parenting or not, affirming mentors or not, achieved at and beyond expectations every single time or not, we live in a world that pathologizes our very existence and begins with our black women’s bodies. So learn your craft. And know that you know it. And know that learning is not a static accomplishment. To know your craft you have to keep learning your craft, keep crafting your craft. Know yourself in relationship to your craft, and apart from it. You are not your hair. Neither are you your dissertation, book proposal, acceptance or rejection letter, tenure portfolio, promotion package, cover letter, title, letterhead, bio or abstract. Know who you are beyond your vocation even and especially when you have a spiritual and/or religious understanding of your calling.

Know your drag. Know how you construct and perform your public werk. Understand how your drag is perceived and experienced in your context. Be intentional about your drag whether is it Carol Duncan “always bet on black” fierceness, Tracy Hucks “Yoruba-divine Africana” fierceness or Wil Mickey Finning Gafney “gladiatrix in a suit – Olivia Pope ain’t got nothing on this” hotness with a l’il international flair. And if there’s a part of your body, face, hair, thighs, lips, nose, eyes or smile that you have been taught to despise then do as Pandora Boxx says and put some glitter on it! Love it and yourself fiercely.

Ru-ism: There is freedom outside the box. There is truth outside the box. And it was outside the box that I began to truly understand and develop my own sense of style. (p ix)

Carve out a niche for yourself in relationship to your discipline and peers. Find your space, place, voice and vision. The boundaries around our respective disciplines are becoming more and more porous. Some of us straddle multiple disciplines while others of us weave them together into new constructs that frighten and confuse those who thought they were the object and objective markers of objective truth. Give yourself permission to do what has never been done, write what has not been written, say what has not yet been spoken. The world doesn’t need you to mimic your peers or mentors or even the great womanist and feminist ancestors and icons that inspire us.

In order to find truth – and beauty – outside the box you have to get out of the box. Get out of your office, get off your campus, get out of your house, or alternatively go to your home space, get into your garden, go to the gym, go jump in a lake, take a hike, have a day at the beach, dance in the rain, enjoy a tequila sunrise and sleep it off. Nurture who you are outside that box and figure out how she is connected to who you are in your vocational framework – I won’t call it a box this time – so that you are a full and complete well integrated person.

I want to riff on Ru and say, “but don’t throw out the box.” Don’t throw out everything that everyone has done before you. Relate your new hotness to the tried and true and even the tired and trifling. Even if you are light years ahead of your colleagues, you are all in the same time stream and you share that universe with students and staff, administrators and alumni, funders and fundraisers, governing boards and a general public and sometimes congregations and communions who all have a stake in what you do and how you do it. You are accountable to many publics and they want to see that box. Some of them want to see you in it. Use your box as a teaching tool and stepping stone. But don’t let them pack you in it with the peanuts.

Ru-ism: All the colors of the rainbow are there for you to use… You must learn the rules first before you throw them out, and then by all means throw them out. (p xiv)

Learn the rules. Follow the rules. And when necessary, change the rules using the rules. Learn your faculty handbook. And learn the HR handbook that applies to all employees too. Learn your promotion and retention requirements. Learn your tenure requirements. Learn your benefits package. Learn your tax obligations – especially if you’re clergy, get a housing allowance, file as self-employed and/or get a lot extra checks that add up to a new tax bracket at the end of the year.

Learn the letter of the law, and the spirit. Learn how things really work in your department and institution in spite of what the rules say. Understand that they will apply both the written law and codified oral tradition to you, often combining the most injurious pieces of both – when they’re not just making –ish up.

Learn the rainbow warriors and watercolor muddlers. Figure out who is working for diversity of thought and bodily representation in your community. Figure out who wants just enough earth tones to make the brochures look pretty. Figure out who thinks melanin and everyone colored by it are a stain on the image and legacy of the institution. Learn how to navigate the written rules and the unspoken ones. And each time you survive a snare, expose that trap for those who follow behind you, and use the rules to change the rules to make that place more just for whoever is traveling behind you. Throw shade when you need to – and you will need to – but don’t be shady.

Ru-ism: I focus on projects that get me excited. (p 169)

Werk! Do the work. Do the work you love. Teach the texts and theories you love. Write the books you want to read, write the books that you wish someone had written for you. Work smart and work hard. If you’re in grad school, as much as possible make every paper in every class connect directly with your dissertation. Let your book reviews and conference papers emerge from your work or advance it. Use your research in your teaching. Be strategic about accepting invitations to publish. Rewrite, reuse and recycle. Reuse your own work; quote yourself. Don’t keep reinventing the wheel. Enjoy yourself. And if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. There has got to be some joy in this thing, because there’s not enough money to make anybody happy. Do what it takes to maintain your joy and don’t let anyone take it away form you.

Ru-ism: Rise up and be fearless! (p 4)

You are not alone. There are mothers and mentors, sisters and far-seers, healers and huggers, listeners and lovers, cousins and counselors in this community, and bound to this community in love and affinity.

Finally let me tell you about my fierce drag, that it might be a mirror to you as you construct your own:

  •  I go to church every Sunday that I’m able. And when I’m not able; I don’t go. And I don’t sweat it.
  •  I celebrate the feminine divine in and around me. I designed my own vestments, incorporative the Divine Mother and Mother of God as the Blessed Virgin Mary and Tree of Life, עץ חיים היא, She is a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18).
  •  I plan to go to the gym 3-4 days a week and give myself full credit if I make it two. I don’t let it be none if I can help it.
  •  I have a good massage therapist.
  •  I go to the spa and to the beach and to the spa at the beach.
  •  I pamper my skin and beat my mug. Right now I’m on a Lush Cosmetics tip. I also worship at the altars of Nordstrom, Bobbi Brown, Sephora, Make-Up Forever, Smashbox and NARS.
  •  I believe in real jewelry, precious and semi-precious stones. I don’t put plastic in my hair.
  •  I rock heels as high as I can on my size 4’s except when I’m feeling low-down.
  •  I might have two or three Coach bags and accessories at any given time.
  •  I cluster my classes and teach longer days so that I can devote at least two days a week to writing. On my writing days I write in 1-2 2-4 hour blocks and if all I produce is 250 words that’s enough. If I can’t write, I rewrite, edit or research, but one of those two days will give birth to words even if I have to take them back later.
  •  I say no to my beloved colleagues when the projects they invite me to don’t fit my writing agenda or I have multiple contracts already. I can do that be cause I have already written with and for many of them and I have made space for them to write with and for me.
  •  And while I didn’t know it until I started watching Scandal, I am a gladiator in a suit. I always start the semester in a vicious suit and heels, so that when I decide to relax my look, I have already marked my territory and demonstrated my cultural and topical mastery.


Taking my own advice, I will share some of what I presented in 2008 when asked to present on “Surviving and Thriving in the Biblical Academy.” These are my Ten Commandments:

  • Thou shalt not allow anyone to divide thy person into the sum of its parts – ethnic, gender, orientation, religious affiliation or lack thereof.
  • Thou shalt not place collegiality or institutional loyalty above thine own career.
  • Thou shalt develop mentoring relationships with senior scholars on thy faculty.
  • Thou shalt develop trust-bearing relationships with scholars in and outside thy field of all ranks, genders and ethnicities outside of thy institution.
  • Thou shalt consult the elders before making stupid decisions because thou wilst not know that they are stupid until it is too late, but thine elders can see it coming.
  • Thou shalt manage thy time well and meet deadlines, developing strategies and/or schedules for when to write what.
  • Thou shalt pursue thine own research interests, while writing for projects requested by thy peers whether they interest you or not  – for one day thou wilst need those colleagues to write in thy projects, not to mention for thine retention, promotion and tenuring.
  • Thou shalt covet time with the one or ones thou lovest.
  • Thou shalt mentor junior scholars and graduate students.
  • Thou shalt observe a Sabbath – religious or not – a time of rest for thy body. Thou mayest attend the gymnasium or spa on thine Sabbath. Thou mayest travel on thine Sabbath to mountain bike, hike, snorkel or otherwise enjoy thy gift of thy flesh.

Ru-ism: May the fierce be with you! (p 23)


Drag Queens and Did Jesus Just Call that Woman a B—-?


(Listen to or download the sermon as recorded in chapel – mp3 format)

[Dons feather boa.] I love drag queens. I love the way they make me think about gender, its construction and its performance. Drag queens like RuPaul, Sharon Needles and Latrice Royale are some of my favorite critical gender theorists and theologians. Now drag queens are not female impersonators; for the most part they don’t want to be women. They can be gay men and there are straight men who drag it out. There are women who perform as drag kings. Drag performers are folk who have chosen to express themselves and (hopefully) make a living by publically performing another gender. While all gender performances including those of us here today who are not professional gender performers, choose some elements of gender presentation over others to represent publicly, drag performers tend to center their performance in the stereotypical: voluminous hair, curvy bodies, sequined eveningwear, feathers and eyelashes that would shame a giraffe.

While there are a few petite queens – Ongina boasted of being a size 4 – many queens are well over 6 feet without their 5-inch platform heels and some are so full-figured that they could play professional football. One of my favorite queens, Latrice Royale is famous for what she calls her “curves and swerves,” for being “chunky yet funky.” Drag queens have also been subject to public censure, ridicule, harassment and violence. RuPaul, the reigning Queen of Queens is famous for saying “wearing drag in a male dominated society is an act of treason.” Ru knows that choosing any kind of female gender performance by intentionally surrendering and/or sabotaging male privilege is an act of treason – or resistance – against the androcentrism is this planet’s original sin, pervading the scriptures and on display in the Gospel, on the lips of Jesus, no less.

You don’t have to be a drag queen to feel the wrath of some sections society – church and society even – for your gender performance and presentation: If you are a man who is deemed not to be appropriately masculine whether because you’re gay, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant – you knit or love babies, puppies, kittens, manicures and mascara, and think women are your equal… If you are a woman who is deemed not to be appropriately feminine whether because you’re lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or heterosexual and in some way non-compliant – you earn more than some men, coach sports, wear your hair short and spikey, hate make up or love trucks and wrenches, think men are your equal… Or because you’re a man, woman or child who has been raped or sexually abused and no longer fit in the hierarchy in the same way. In this rigid gender binary masculinity and femininity are immutable and fixed characteristics of immutable and fixed genders and those genders are not equal. The gender binary serves to keep women and feminine folk in their place and has little patience for folk who occupy an unanticipated, unscripted place in the hierarchy.

Like other marginalized members of society, drag queens have taken the hateful language spewed at them and transformed it into community and self-affirmation, like the Syrophoenician woman in the Gospel. Latrice Royale has taken one of the more hateful epithets thrown at all kinds of women and folks who perform as women and redefined it: Being In Total Control of Herself. The b-word in case you didn’t catch it, a female dog.

In a gospel that does not sound like good news to me, Jesus said to a woman kneeling at his feet begging for help for her child, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did Jesus just call that woman a b—-? I know this is Jesus and we’ve been trained to read him and hear him religiously, more than religiously, divinely, incarnationally. But where I come from you cannot call a child a dog without calling her mama a dog and you cannot call a woman a dog without calling her a b—-.

In my best Queen Latifah – I want to ask Jesus, “Who you calling a b—-?” (I know some of you don’t know that song, U.N.I.T.Y., it’s from the previous century.) In our supposed-to-be-good-news Gospel lesson Jesus calls a woman like me, a non-Jewish woman, a b—. There is no honest way around it. Jesus was not talking about a pet dog. Yes, he or the evangelist used the term kunarion, which sometimes meant a smaller dog like those kept indoors in other cultures; but the Israelites did not keep pet dogs. Dogs were filthy animals to the Israelites, something like a cross between a hyena and a rat, often paired with pigs in the literature of the wider Ancient Near East, all of them scavengers. “Dog” was also the code word for a man who sold sex to other men – voluntarily surrendering his proper place in the gender hierarchy. Dr. Mounce’s dictionary makes the point that a kunarion is a worthless specimen of a dog, reminding me of the way some folk who love big dogs think about little yapping dogs – that they’re not even worthy of the title “dog.”

When Jesus talks about throwing food to dogs, he is not talking about feeding family pets. He’s talking about taking your good food that you have prepared for your family off the table, walking it outside and throwing it in the gutter – Greek students note the ballistic verb in the text – so that the scavengers that are rooting through the garbage and maybe even eating the corpses of other dead animals can dine on what you prepared for your children. And the children in the analogy are the Israelites, the Syrophonecian, Canaanite, Gentile woman and her daughter are not even human in his metaphor.

The woman’s response, emerging from her context – after all Jesus is in her country, at the beach, blissfully outside of Herod’s jurisdiction – she reframes Jesus’ words and changes that context. She does that. In her words, not those of Jesus, dogs are if not pets, at least not scavengers; they eat under the table. Now she has already humbled herself. She is now kneeling at the feet of a strange man. She is begging him for help. She probably knows that he is a Jew and what Jews thought of Gentiles. And while there is no reason to believe that androcentrism was any worse in ancient Israel than any other place in the Ancient Near East, she is dealing with a religious leader from a tradition that alternated between suspicion of and outright hostility towards women.

And taking the words that David Henson calls racist and sexist,” (in Jesus Was Not Color Blind on Patheos), and that Matt Skinner (on WorkingPreacher) calls “palpable rudeness” while being “caught with his compassion down,” she shows Jesus what it is to Be In Total Control of Herself. She doesn’t ask, “Who you calling a b—-?” But she does werk. She werks the Word. And because of what she said, what she did, not what she believes – this is werk without articulated faith, Jesus healed her daughter. In v 29 he is converted by her logos, “that saying” not “saying that” – rendered as a verb in the NRSV, but her word, her logos. She is the embodiment of the divine Word.

Now, many will say that Jesus didn’t really call her the b-word. He just made an analogy in which the healing she wanted was compared to food for those whom he intended to heal, who were children and she and her child were dogs. So she was only a b-word by analogy. And that’s not the same thing. Well, one day I was in the chapel of another seminary and a seminarian walked up to me and said to me “I grew up calling black folk n-words – and the seminarian actually said the word, to me in chapel, then asked – what word should I use to refer to black people now?” She used the n-word about people like me while talking to me, in the chapel. When I discussed this with a variety of folk I was surprised that some of my colleagues said, “She didn’t reallycall you the n-word, she just used it in a sentence while talking to you.” They were of the belief that was a distinction that mattered. To me, that was a distinction without a difference.

And that’s how I feel about this text, that the difference between comparing the woman and her daughter to dogs in an analogy and calling her and her daughter the b-word is a distinction without a difference. Now I understand that not everyone experiences this passage that way. And I’m not claiming that this is the only way to hear this Gospel. I’m sharing with you how I hear it because the principles of womanist preaching include affirming the dignity of black women as legitimate interpreters of the Scriptures whether or not our interpretations converge with those of the dominant culture, because our interpretations are God-breathed and revelatory, Gospel to more than folk who look and think like us.

It’s alright if you have your own way of understanding this text. But I ask you to proclaim this Gospel in such a way that it doesn’t take lightly how deeply entrenched gender bias is in the world of the Scriptures, the Scriptures themselves and our world, that you don’t dismiss the concerns of girls and women who feel marginalized by the Church and even by the Scriptures and that you don’t empower people who call women outside of our names.

The church has taught that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, taught and fought, killed and died over that notion and it’s implications. But most of us are not ready for Jesus who was quite that human. Who you calling a b—-? A fully human Jesus is a product of his culture. Perhaps he was influenced by his own scriptures, Sirach who shared the same Jesus says in 26:25: A headstrong woman is regarded as a dog, but one who has a sense of shame will fear the Lord. The Anchor Bible Commentary (Skehan and Di Lella) has, The unruly [woman] will be thought of as a bitch… Even Jesus is affected by the androcentrism and ethnocentrism that characterize his people and their time. As am I.

I’m a black woman living in an American context that alternately demonizes and exploits my womanhood. If the Gospel isn’t relevant to my context then it’s not Gospel, good news to me. And I stand with and in the place of all of those girls and women who are called the b-word by men and boys and other girls and women. Who hear the word on television and in the movies and in the music that is marketed to them, to us. I stand with the women and feminine-gender performing folk of various subcultures who use the word affectionately and with those who have redefined it for themselves.

And I’m standing up to Jesus, talking to and about women like me using language like that. Some of you maybe asking, where is the Jesus I know and love? Well, I think I caught a glimpse of him, in the midrashic space between their words. The listening, learning Jesus is the one I know and love. In this story, this nameless woman is also a Christ-figure. She is the one who humbles herself and will endure whatever is dished out to her in order to bring healing and new life. She is the rabbi, who teaches Jesus the value of all human life. She is the prophet who preaches the reign of God for all of God’s children. She is the one who transforms the narrowly ethnocentric Jesus into the savior of the whole world. Apparently even Jesus needed a little help. In becoming her student Jesus becomes our teacher.

As a colleague recently reminded me, this is a passage that will sort out your Christology. How human, how divine is your Jesus? Is he human enough to be bigoted and biased? Or does your preconceived notion of the divinity of Jesus mean that whatever he said was holy, therefore comparing a woman to a female dog isn’t really the same as calling her a b—–, or it’s alright as long as it’s Jesus. How divine is your Jesus? That Jesus listens and responds to the woman, is that an indication of humanity or divinity? Or is it both? I think the humanity and divinity of Jesus are all tangled up in this passage, sometimes thick and sometimes thin, neither distinguishable from the other, impossible to sort out.

In this troubling story, Jesus teaches me the value of listening, the value of hearing, and the value of being able to grow and change your mind. Perhaps Jesus is a process theologian. In either case he models divinity and humanity in a muddy, godly, morass. Jesus is God enough/human enough/man enough to change his mind. And that is Good News.

This Gospel is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from fear and from death itself. Jesus, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.