Delores Williams is a womanist theologian who used her well-known book, “Sisters in the Wilderness” to highlight the plight of African- American women. Williams wrote this book with the intention of getting the much-needed attention on racism and white supremacy as well as black male dominance. She metaphorically uses the biblical figure of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, to give meaning to the lives of black women. How did she do so? Is it not a white God we serve? This essay aims to analyze the story of Hagar as brought out by Delores Williams and to give meaning as to how there are a link between African- American women and this biblical figure. It will do so by relating their two separate lives and shedding light to the similar joys and sorrows they face.
Story of Hagar (Genesis 16)
Hagar, whose hometown is identified as Egypt, was Sarah’s slave maid. During that time, this not only meant she had to do chores and tasks for Sarah, but she also had to act as a wet nurse, and if her mistress could not conceive, then that task fell on her hands. Sarah was unable to give birth to old age, and when she assumed that she would never be with the child, she asked Abraham to lay with Hagar so that she could get a child through her. Abraham did so and through Hagar, Sarah got a son, Ishmael. Hagar’s story from there is one of trials and tribulations. Even though it was Sarah’s wish that Abraham slept with her slave maid, she failed to show any regard to the son that was borne upon her request. Sarah treated Hagar in such an inhumane manner that she once had to run away into the unknown desert. Delores Williams has been able to explain the connectedness between Hagar’s story as she is identified as Egyptian, an African, and the lives of black women as I will expound on in the subsequent pages.
Surrogacy refers to the process of a woman carrying a pregnancy for another woman, such that once the woman gives birth; the baby is no longer hers. This has become widely prevalent in our society today where barren women have the chance to call a child their own. Or even women who simply don’t want to be pregnant. However, in the earlier days, it was not all rosy and formalized as it is now. In Genesis 16, Hagar was referred to as ‘a virgin dependent slave maid’. This means Hagar was still a virgin when Abraham was forced to lie down with her (24). Hagar’s body was no longer hers once she was taken as a slave maid. Hagar’s surrogacy is one that has a startling similarity with the experience African- American women have had for a long time. Hagar and black slave women have a shared bond in this surrogacy theme.
During slavery, black women were regarded as possessions by their white male owners who used their bodies for sexual pleasure. Black women were left with no dignity or rights to their bodies such that they were expected to subject themselves to rape whenever their white slave owners wanted. They were always supposed to be at their beck and call and if the wife of their white owner wanted them to act as a surrogate mother, then so be it. If any person or individual dared to protest, they would be treated harshly and even killed. Such was also the case of Hagar where she had no choice but to lie with Abraham.
Williams narrates harrowing stories of how black women suffered at the hands of these white supremacists. An old slave woman tells of how her aunt was used as a breeder woman by her white slave owner. Her aunt was forced to give birth to children every twelve months. Once these children came to be of age, they were sold into slavery.
Again another story of Aunt Nancy is told, who gave birth prematurely and lost six of her children yearly because she was forced to sleep outside the slave owner’s door ‘incase her owners needed water at night’ (37).
However, surrogacy didn’t keep the mothers from caring for their children. Hagar ran away with her son Ishmael in search of a better when she saw he had no place in the household they were in. Black slave women who were forced to birth these children often used to work tirelessly on the farm but would still perform their motherly role just fine. Stories are told of women who would carry their children on their backs and continue to plow on the lands for days on end. Hagar also doubled up her role by looking for a wife for Ishmael, a task that was performed solely by the father. It is, however, sad to note that even after slavery, black women continued to carry out this surrogacy function for their white employers. They nursed, tended to, cooked for, watched over and cleaned for the white children.
Hagar and black women live’ tell of nothing short but difficulties. Hagar’s and Ishmael’s life story bears a startling resemblance with that of black female slaves and their children. Just like Hagar did, black slave experienced harsh and cruel treatment at the hands of their slave mistresses. Slave women were forced to subject themselves to rape by their slave masters and give birth to children who were more often than not sold off. Hagar had also attempted to flee after suffering immensely at the hand of Sarah as was the case of many black slaves. If by chance they were freed, these ex-slaves were thrown out with nothing they could call their own. They were forced to come up with ways of survival and to make a way out of no way.
The same can be said of Hagar and Ishmael, who were sent away with only a little food and water which could obviously not get them far (138). However, in both the lives of these women, strength was manifested, and there was the victory over suffering. For these two women to survive, they had to develop a deep spirituality that gave them psychological support and it is what held most of them from losing their will to live.
In the book’s title, ‘Sisters in the Wilderness’, Williams has used the term wilderness symbolically to refer to the wilderness Hagar found herself in with no one else apart from her son and the unjust world black women found themselves in. Delores uses Hagar’s experience in the wilderness of Beersheba to serve as a symbolic counterpart to the living scenarios African- American women are forced to stay in. These are situations where the women and children live in constant fear of danger, with little close to no resources and with no one to look after them.
One might ask, how did these women still hold on to their faith after going through so much pain at the hands of their oppressors? Does religion set black women up to be exploited and dehumanized? This is because Hagar and black slave women alike still held on to their faith even in such turbulent times. When Hagar was alone in the desert with her son Ishmael, she could not bear to watch him die of thirst. She moved away and began to sob. God heard her cry and called out unto her. He promised her that Ishmael would be great despite the hardship they had gone through in the hands of their mistress. God then opened her eyes, and she could see a well where she fetched water for her boy. Ishmael went on to be a great man and became an archer. Hagar was a poor, African single mother but God met at her at her point of need. This is to show that God is not one of segregation or one with particular preference to a certain racial group. Black slave women also sought refuge in the Lord. The child of a slave woman told the story of how he was close to his mother and that most of their hours spent together were dedicated to prayer. She taught him how to pray and survive for the fear he or she would be sold. She gave him her prized possession, the power of prayer. She spent so much time in prayer (38). Like Hagar did, black slave women depended solely on God when they were without. They depended on God for emotional and physical strength to endure what they had to.
Unlike any other women in the Bible, Hagar is a biblical character that resonates well with the suffering of the black slaves as she too was an African woman. Delores Williams was able to weave a connectedness between these two through the themes of surrogacy, religion, and suffering. She dared to do what had never been done. Speak boldly on the oppression of black people at the hands of white people and go as far as to illustrate this is not a thing of the new world but one that has gone on for far too long. Hagar, an African woman, suffered at the hands of Sarah, a Hebrew, just as black slave women did.
Williams is a strong African- American woman who propagated womanism as the feminist movement led by white women failed to emphasize on the elimination of racism. She uses the word womanism, coined by Alice Walker, to illuminate the troubles experienced by African- American women. She narrates in depth how black women can find solace and comfort in the story of Hagar. Through this book, she gave black women a platform where they can tell their stories of oppression of the white people and hopefully, find a peace of mind in religion. She helped black women to regain their footing in religion by showing them their plight is one that the Lord knows of, and greater things are coming just as Hagar was promised. This is a thought- provoking book that fuels a fire in everyone to think of how they can make a change in the society regardless of their race.