Womanist theology is in the midst of reconstructing knowledge, not only for the broad "mainstream" parameters of knowing but even for black male and feminist theologies. Thus, as womanist scholars of religion advance a new epistemology of holistic survival and liberation, a more intentional understanding of reconstructed knowledge processes is warranted.Admittedly, reconstructing knowledge is like tearing down a formidable edifice that has been built over an extensive number of years. The structure was designed by architects who had a clear vision of what the end product would be like and used only the most advanced technical devices for its erection. The architects guaranteed that the materials used would be permanent and indestructible. The building is, of course, our minds and the architects are those who historically have represented patriarchal, white European cultures. A womanist, in her reconstruction of knowledge, must not only be a diligent craft person, she must develop an approach that utilizes the kind of technology that can dismantle the seeming indestructibility of the original building materials. Human beings acquire knowledge through culture, most often obtaining it through the culture into which we are born. We procure knowledge in the same manner that our lungs receive oxygen. It is a conscious and unconscious process that systematically and deliberately pervades our minds and senses. Amassing knowledge is the process of becoming persons who "know." Who know what? It is knowing the things that are essential for living. For white patriarchal culture in the North American context, it is knowing how to dominate. In an adverse manner, for most people of color in the United States, it is knowing how to survive in white culture. The people with whom we interact and the environment in which we mature, especially during our formative years, determine the kind of knowledge we acquire. Hence, to get a sense of the attitudes and assumptions that were and are the bricks of the building which houses our knowledge, we have to revisit whom and what has impacted our lives from the earliest days. I call this foundational period our encounter with our "culture of origin." Therefore the culture of origin of excluded voices becomes an important aspect of reconstructing knowledge. As Andersen and Collins suggest, the primary question that must be asked in considering the reconstruction of knowledge is: "Who has been excluded from what is known and how might we see the world differently if we acknowledge and value the experiences and thoughts of those who have been excluded?" (1992:1).
The knowledge we acquire from formal institutions derives from the ideas, philosophies, and histories of the privileged; more specifically, it is information about people who wrote down their histories and their ideas. Chroniclers of the human historical record did not consider people with oral traditions to be essential for cultivating the Western mind set. Even when non-western people had written texts, such as the Aztecs, they were ignored. Thus, the knowledge that we have gained is knowledge by and about the privileged. How do we know this is the case? Let us turn once again to Andersen and Collins, who ask: How else can we explain the idea that democracy and egalitarianism were defined as central cultural beliefs in the nineteenth century while millions of African-Americans were enslaved? Why have social science studies been generalized to the whole population while being based only on samples of men? The exclusion of women, African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, and other groups from formal scholarship has resulted in distortions and incomplete information not only about the experiences of excluded groups but also about the experience of more privileged groups. (1992:1)Our knowledge base has been exclusionary and now the building that houses our knowledge is being meticulously dismantled, a dynamic which will eventually fashion a more diversified and inclusive edifice, even if it takes several generations. For instance, there are scholars of all persuasions and backgrounds who are committed to adding diversity to the way that knowledge is constructed. Thus, scholars adhering to a transformation and reconstruction of knowledge paradigm are discovering and accenting those marginalized ways of knowing which have been suppressed and dominated by the discourses which govern our societies. What are the dominant cultural themes with which we are living? We may believe that the culture with which we are most familiar is the dominant one, but that is not always nor necessarily the case. Renato Rosaldo in Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis examines a university in California that was reviewing its first-year core curriculum.(1) There was an assumption on the part of many faculty, who had been teaching for several years, that the course, "Introduction to Western Civilization," would naturally be continued without any revisions. When faculty members with alternative pedagogical perspectives began to raise questions about whether this was the best course to undergird first year students living in a rapidly changing world, many who sought to maintain the status quo were surprised. The latter posed adamantly the following query: Why shouldn't that which had worked over many years be continued? In response, those who proposed a revamped curriculum argued: Mainly, because what was assumed to work may have worked for some, but not for all.
From such a highly charged intellectual debate, we can discern how marginalized and locked-out voices are speaking up in a forceful manner. Consequently a radical shift must take place in our thinking because monovocal myth is being dislodged and a truth of inclusivity is being restored. Reconstructing knowledge means tearing down myths that have paralyzed communities, and recreating truths which have been buried in annals that contain vast sources of knowledge. In brief, I am talking about knowledge construction that is inclusive. Inclusive construction of knowledge denotes exploring sources that culturally may be vastly different from our own epistemological points of departure. It may be knowledge based on human experience as well as theory; and it decidedly involves inclusion of the ideas, theories, orientations, experiences, and worldviews of persons and groups who have previously been excluded. When such views are included, we infuse the Eurocentric and male construction of knowledge with other vitally important constructions.
The normative Eurocentric male construction of knowledge, while construed to be universal, is but one perspective now undergoing supplementation and correction. Womanist theologians bring to the center the experience and knowledge of those marginalized by a complex layering and overlapping by race, gender, and class experiences of all groups, inclusive of those with privilege and power. Thus, as we explore this multiple effect dynamic, we pose the question: If historically suppressed voices were central to our thought processes, would our conception of the world and analytical sensibilities be any different? If we pursue such epistemological dynamics as the personal/experiential or theoretical/scholarly, what influence would this endeavor have on the reconstruction of knowledge? (See Andersen and Collins 1992:2). Womanist theologians, in a word, retrieve sources from the past, sort and evaluate materials, and thereby construct new epistemologies that effect change in the space and time occupied by black women.
1. Thomas, Linda E. "Womanist Theoloy, Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm." Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 4.
2. Rosaldo. Stanford University's "Western Culture Controversy." (1989)
3. Andersen, Margaret L., and Patricia Hill Collins, eds. Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing, 1992.