This Black History Month, I am sharing 28 stories of Black women who shaped me and showed me the way towards liberation. Because Black women are often not cited for their ideas, I thought this would be one way to give flowers to those who influenced me.
On Day 9, I would like to give flowers to Dr. Christena Cleveland. Dr. Cleveland is an activist, author, truth-teller, and spiritual leader. Her work and her book God Is a Black Woman have been a major part of my own journey to liberation.
I first encountered Dr. Cleveland’s work when I enrolled in her Liberating Mind Body Spirit from White Supremacy retreat in 2018. The retreat was about exploring our own racial identity development and how systems of oppression manifest in our lives. I absolutely *loved* everything about the learning space Dr. Cleveland created. Dr. Cleveland used stories, poetry, dance, affirmations, and movement in ways that embraced connection, slowness and real talk about our humanity. Dr. Cleveland challenged our ideas about power, race, and solidarity. Some of the lessons from that retreat still shape how I see solidarity today:
–If you want to be in solidarity with someone who has experienced harm, you have to make space to lament with them.
–If you are acting in solidarity with someone, you should not seek validation from them that you are an ally - it’s not about you.
–Moving too fast to try to “fix racism” is blitz energy that can cause harm to those you claim to be in solidarity with
At the time of the retreat, I was working in an environment where people in power were actively trying to discredit and diminish me, and to prevent my DEI work from moving forward. I was experiencing a lot of harm but felt conflicted about staying at the organization. Dr. Cleveland was one of the many Black women who told me to #GetOut (spoiler alert: I did not get out then probably to my detriment. Always listen to Black women who tell you to get out, y’all - we be knowin’.) The retreat was truly an affirming balm for my soul during a hard time professionally.
I’ve been lucky to continue to be able to learn from Dr. Cleveland through the years. Her book God Is A Black Woman is truly a breath of fresh air. In it, Dr. Cleveland weaves stories about her own experiences as a Black woman breaking free from the pressures to align with the cultural “whitemalegod” and finding her own path to liberation through the Black Feminine. In the book Dr. Cleveland shares details of her pilgrimage to visit Black Madonnas in France and finding freedom and love for herself along the way. One of my favorite passages from the book captures its essence well, “At each stop on my pilgrimage, I came face-to-face with the immensely loving Sacred Black Feminine, who intimately related to my experience as a Black woman, and in whom I could discover my sacredness. Like the North Star, each Black Madonna reminded me yet again, that I am divine, that my quest for liberation is true, and that I am accompanied as I fight the white patriarchy. She is right there with me, affirming my wholly, holy Black femininity and guiding me to freedom just as She guided Harriet.” Witnessing Dr. Cleveland’s journey to find her own divinity has been inspiring to me as I do my own work to embrace who I am in a world intent on telling me and other Black women that everything about us is wrong. The book is like a portal to radical self love for embracing our own - and others’ - messy humanity. (https://www.christenacleveland.com/god-is-a-black-woman)
Thank you, Dr. Cleveland, for your audacious and unrelenting commitment to liberation, to supporting us all to release shame, and to celebrating Black women for our divinity, our humanity, and complete, messy wholeness. #28LoveLetterstoBlackWomen #BlackHistoryMonth2023 #Day9
Image Description: A headshot of Dr. Cleveland against a black background. Dr. Cleveland is wearing a black shirt and circle earrings.