JEZEBEL UNHINGED, Reviewed by Ahmad Greene-Hayes

Written by
Ahmad Greene-Hayes, Reading Religion
June 25, 2019

In Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture, black feminist scholar of religion Tamura Lomax contends with and deconstructs deeply racialized, gendered, and sexualized cultural pathologies about Black women and girls. Lomax builds on the work of Black feminists and womanists, including but not limited to bell hooks, Hortense Spillers, Kelly Brown Douglass, and Emilie Townes, though Lomax does so with expressed attention to the sexual politics inside of “the Black church” among Black churchgoing people (4-5). She defines “the Black Church” as “the collective of historically black Protestant traditions, including Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Holiness, Non-Denominational, and other affiliations, for example, the more contemporary designation, Full Gospel, which have their roots in North American black religion, slavery, experience, and hush harbors” (211 fn 2). 

Cover of "Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture"

In her reading of the Black Church, Lomax teases out “the discourse on black womanhood” that is propagated by Black religious leaders and in Black popular culture. Her understanding of religion and culture draws from Stuart Hall’s notion of “lived culture” and its circulation in Black cultural production and representations and as such, she uses a variety of sources for analysis: sermons, music videos, songs, films, and social media, among others. In this way, Lomax describes her project as a “black feminist study of religion, a distinctive blend of womanist, black religious, black cultural, and black feminist criticism” (6). At the core of this study, however, is Lomax’s consideration of the pervasive cultural pathology embedded in the “normative and dangerous jezebelian ‘ho’ discourse that imagines black women and girls and black female sexuality as quintessentially different, hyperlegible, illegible, and the opposite (and absence) of ladydom, the latter of which may be achieved through effort” (10). For Lomax, “jezebelian ho discourse” does not just circulate around the Black church—by way of Black popular culture—but it is also produced and upheld through Black church practices, namely in the theological and cultural traditions which privilege cisgender, heterosexual, and married relationships over and against nonnormative or nontraditional arrangements. 

Chapter 1 provides a critical commentary on how the legacies of enslavement and the plantation white gaze are reified through “respectability, holiness, racial uplift and patriarchal right”  (13). In the subsection “From the Plantation to the Church House: The Curious Pilgrimage of Jezebel,” Lomax contends that the jezebel trope emerged on the plantation and was further developed through the “merging of slavery, Christianity, and biblical Jezebel” (21). Lomax then takes the reader from the colonial Americas up through the 1990s, in which she argues, “by the 1990s an explicit discourse on good and bad black womanhood revealed itself as a lucrative business in the Black Church and black popular culture, making them two of the most affluential sites of gender-specific cultural (mis)representation” (33). On the same page, she insists that jezebel be understood and reckoned with as a trope, whose “spawn” is “the ho—black folks’ thot, white folks’ whore.” 

Chapter 2 provides a black feminist theoretical reading of the Biblical Jezebel and its historical usage in Black church spaces by Black male preachers and elder Black women. Lomax uses the infamous 2014 moment of then-African Methodist Episcopal (AME) pastor Jamal Bryant’s appropriation of Chris Brown’s song, “Loyal,” to discursively show how ho discourse is amplified and culturally codified through Black preaching. Bryant preached from his pulpit, “these hoes ain’t loyal,” which Lomax describes as “an entanglement [between hip hop and the Black Church] … that enables violence” (37-38). 

In chapter 3, Lomax discusses how womanist theologians and ethicists, namely Kelly Brown Douglas and Emile M. Townes, have challenged restrictive sexual discourses in the Black Church. Lomax contends that womanist scholars have not adequately attended to the pervasive ideology of ho discourse in the Black Church and provides four critiques to womanist thought in religion: 1) move away from focusing intently on “the work of white ideological bias” in constructions of black sexuality; 2) name explicitly the ways that “black cultural producers appropriate black cultural images” such as jezebel, sapphire, and mammy; 3) make room for “ugly readings,” or readings that “force the cultural reader to walk a crooked line,” or analyses that are “not black-and-white”; and 4) move away from making “oppression characteristic of black women’s experience and white supremacist ideology unequivocally descriptive of black women’s oppression” (74-81). 

Chapter 4, “‘Changing the Letter’: Toward a Black Feminist Study of Religion” utilizes womanist thought in religion, black feminist studies, and cultural studies in offering new theories and methods in the study of Black religion—specifically the Black Church and of religious readings of black popular culture. Lomax writes, “Black feminist religious thought and religio-cultural criticism notes the significant influence of the Black Church in black women’s and girls’ lives and thus the ways in which representations and interiority, or historical-cultural-political-social projection and intersubjective identification, while distinct, are less black-and-white and more shades of gray.” This, she argues, is due to the fact that “Black women and girls negotiate their identities alongside politics, faith, beliefs, histories, and encounters” (107). Chapter 5 rightly moves into a discussion of how Black women negotiate these identities on a spectrum, with ho discourse on one end and, on the other, the cultural significance of “the Black Lady,” which is rooted in late 19th and early 20th century constructions of Black women’s respectability, sexual politics, and the performance of “holiness.” Chapters 6 and 7 shift from the pews that Black women fill every Sunday to spaces that have historically prohibited women’s participation—the pulpit, the stage, and the big screen—through incisive critiques of both Bishop T.D. Jakes and his Woman, Thou Art Loosed! Conference and Tyler Perry’s films. 

Reading this book provoked several critical questions. How does “jezebelian ho discourse” financially compensate (198)? In other words, how might black feminist religio-cultural criticism deconstruct the sexual politics of neoliberalism? Put another way, is there a Black Church market for ho discourse, and how is said market upheld by televangelism and the prosperity gospel and purity culture movements? 

These questions, and the many others it raises, signifies that Jezebel Unhinged is an insightful text that not only bridges the gap between Black feminist studies, Black pop culture studies, and womanist thought in religion, but also brings fresh and innovative analyses to longstanding discourses about black womanhood. It also destabilizes the privileging of cisgender, heterosexual or straight-presenting Black men preachers and cultural producers, as Lomax overturns “the pornotropic gaze,” and asks scholars of Black religion and the public more broadly to dismantle the violent sexual politics that plague Black women and girls.

[via Reading Religion]