Diana Lynn Hayes is Emerita Professor of Systematic Theology at Georgetown University. She holds the Juris Doctor (law), Doctor of Philosophy (Religious Studies), and Doctor of Sacred Theology degrees as well as 3 Honorary doctorates. Dr. Hayes has published over 75 articles and is the author/editor of 9 books, most recently No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality (Orbis, 2016).
- Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
Research Journey: I am a former attorney who was called into the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 33. Prior to that, I was a lapsed member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which I left at age 16. The calling was to become a theologian, so I went back to school for 8 years ending with the Ph.D. in Religious Studies and the Doctorate in Sacred Theology, STD, (1988). In school, I became interested in Liberation Theologies, especially Black Liberation Theology, which was beginning to be recognized. I met Dr. James Cone and participated in several meetings that he and others convened. This was also the time when Black Catholics were raising their voices and demanding to be heard.
Black Theology spoke directly to me as a person of African descent. I did not have to interpret it through the context and perspectives of others because I had personally experienced the hardships and oppression of being a Black woman. It only failed me when I looked for the voices and experiences of Black women and realized our voices needed to be raised as well. When I met Dr. Cone, he was not very familiar with Catholicism and knew almost nothing of Black Catholicism although he had met other Black Catholics. I believe he was intrigued by me, especially as I was a laywoman. Over the years, we spoke often at different meetings, etc. I believe I helped him to see that Catholicism was not the closed institution with rigid control over its members that he and other Protestants thought it was. My writings especially introduced him to a Catholicism open to dialogue and discussion at many levels, albeit not always at the very top. I wrote my Licentiate thesis on his work, and he regularly sent me copies of his newest books. I am a Black theologian as well as a Womanist theologian because of James Hal Cone.
I met my first womanist scholars at the American Academy of Religion. We were exploring the possibilities of a standing committee on Womanist Theology. I was welcomed into the group even though they had many questions about my membership in the Catholic Church especially when they learned that I had left the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church to become a Catholic. They mentored me, especially Katie Cannon, encouraged me, and pushed me to break open the roles and histories of Black Catholic women. They gave me the courage to proclaim myself a womanist.
- Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
Even as an attorney, my interests and concerns were always on the needs and issues of persons of color, especially but not exclusively, African American.
In May of 1985, I was given Alice Walker’s book, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens as a birthday gift. I immediately recognized myself and the issues I was having with Black Liberation Theology and Catholic Theology. From then on, I named myself a Womanist (never a feminist).
After graduation in 1988, I was hired at Georgetown University, the first African American hired in the Theology Department. I began to explore what it meant to be a Womanist scholar and was encouraged to publish on the topic, resulting in my first book: Hagar’s Daughters: Womanist Ways of Being in the World.
The title of Hagar’ Daughters simply came to me as I read the invitation from the Madeleva Institute at St. Mary’s (IN). I had been in the process of writing a book on Black Theology and was, I think, trying to work out where Black women fit, when I received the invitation. I wrote the entire book in one sitting, inspired I believe by my recent readings on and re-discovery of her as a Matriarch of nations.
As a result of its publication, I received encouragement and recognition as a Womanist theologian, resulting in many invitations and requests to publish with other publishers. Its publication led to the publication of And Still We Rise as a full-length text rather than the shorter intro I had been asked to write.
My writing was not really affected by my legal training although it helped me immensely in my research. While at CUA, I wrote many of my papers initially as I had been taught, as a legal brief. Then my Christology professor wrote emphatically on my paper that she had asked for a reflection, not a legal brief. That opened my eyes and made me rethink my writing style.
- How do you define “womanist ways of being” and why is this a theological concern?
As an African American woman, I am very interested in Black history and other fields involving persons of African descent, including theology. I wanted to know what the contribution of Black Scholars was to the academic world and society as a whole. I did not believe we had contributed nothing and the more research I did, the more I realized I was correct. I was encouraged by Dr. Cone and other writers and researchers who wanted to know more about themselves and their people. I was particularly interested in exposing the history of Black Catholics and their presence in this country since the 15th century (long before 1619) and their active participation in the Roman Catholic church since the first century.
It was difficult initially as little was written from or for a Black perspective. Much of the writing I have done has been to resolve questions raised: why are there so few Black theologians, why should we accept Euro-centric theology as representative of us, who are we as a people and how did we get here? Drs. Cone and Cannon especially encouraged me in exploring the history of Catholics of African descent. In one conversation with Dr. Cone, I spoke of writing on the Trinity. His response was that he had never heard an African American inquire about or speak of the Trinity. My response was to ask if he had ever spoken to Black Catholics for the talk about it often. He was quite surprised and answered no. Unfortunately, I never finished the work, but it opened my eyes to the importance of what I was trying to do.
I joined the American Academy of Religion and the Society for the Study of Black Religion and became involved in further study, I also joined the Catholic Theological Society of America where, at the time, there were only three active Catholic theologians, all Black and female. All of this helped me to develop my own lines of research in Black Catholic and Womanist theological studies. I have also been active in the Black Catholic Theological Symposium where I have sought to mentor and aid new scholars as they emerge.
Womanist Theology is a theology of, by, and for women of African descent throughout the Diaspora. It attempts to bring to the attention of theology and other academic disciplines, the needs, and concerns of Black women. Womanist ways of being concern every aspect of the lives, concerns, needs, and issues of Black women. It is a worldview that highlights those issues and concerns as well as the accomplishments of Black Women. Our concern is, however, to be about the redemption of all of society recognizing that no one is free until everyone is free.
Kimberle Crenshaw’s coining of the term “intersectionality” has aided us in this struggle because, as women of color, we acknowledge that we are impacted by the issues not just of gender but also of race and class. These issues have to be addressed in concert, not individually as they all result in a multiplicative assault on us as Black, female, and too often poor. As womanists, we walk in solidarity not opposition, seeking to disrupt the negative assaults on all women by contemporary society and providing to all the wisdom and faith that we possess. Womanist ways of being describe the reality of our lives and our struggle. It is critically important that we raise our voices as women of equal significance and critical importance in the field of theology.
- Can you share anything about one of your current projects?
I am retired now although I do teach as an Adjunct at the Sankofa Institute for African American Pastoral Leadership at the Oblate School of Theology. I also teach summers at the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of New Orleans.
I am currently working on a documentary history of Womanist Theology, a text that will be invaluable for bringing together voices of the earliest of the Black women to write on the origins of Womanist Theology. These are the major documents that helped to establish WT as an academic program. The book will cover the years from the publication of Walker’s text (1984) to the year 2000. I hope to continue the work in a second volume covering 2001 to 2020 or so. This work will allow the voices of Black women from our earliest days to speak the reality of womanist theological thought, its development and subsequent growth.
I hope that the first volume of the book will be published in 2023 by Orbis Books. There is no manuscript as yet so it cannot be pre-ordered.
- In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the intersection of race, gender and religion?
All my research and writing from its earliest beginnings to the present-day examines the intersection of race, gender and class as well as religion. As a person of faith, called to become a theologian before I even knew what the term meant, I have spent my life exploring the needs, concerns and contributions of women of color. In doing so, I have had to explore, develop, and weave my own understanding of these issues and how they have and continue to affect me. I am a woman of color, a Black woman. I have experienced, throughout my life, the oppressive forces that inhibit and limit women as they seek to follow their dreams in the world of the academy and in society as a whole. The text I am working on now clearly shows this. It reveals the efforts of our womanist foremothers who struggled with understanding their own call and the resistance they constantly experienced not only from their denominations and church but from male seminarians and professors as well who questioned, not only their right, but their ability to study theology and become theologians and/or pastors. As a Catholic, I have from my first steps into the Church been told to either become a nun (I am a vowed celibate lay woman), or to give up my position as a student for more deserving males. I have even been accused of entering theological study in order to find a husband!
- What do you consider to be your legacy as a womanist theologian?
As a Womanist theologian, the first to so name herself in the Catholic church, I hope and believe that I have laid a path for other women, regardless of race, to follow, not by imitating me but by encouraging others in the struggle. As I said earlier, as a Womanist, I see it as of critical importance to share my story so as to provide guidance, encouragement, and hope to others, regardless of gender or sexuality, racial/ethnic background and/or class. Hopefully, I have shown that it is possible and also necessary for more women of color to join forces against the patriarchal and misogynistic forces within our individual churches and US society so as to develop a more just and equitable world. My true legacy is my students of different backgrounds, ethnicities and faiths who have become theologians as well.
- How are you and other senior scholars providing mentorship for the next generation of womanist academics? (Is there anything you think is missing from the mentorship such women receive today?)
I was fortunate and yet also unfortunate. My first mentors in the Catholic church were both men, the priest who brought me into the church, Fr. Nellis Tremblay, and the Bishop of my diocese, Bishop Howard Hubbard. They saw something in me that I did not initially see. They saw God’s hand when I was afraid, confused and overwhelmed. They gave me the strength to persevere. In later years, as I met other students and professors who, like me, were Black but Protestant, I felt confirmed, nurtured, and in many ways sustained by them. There were only 2 Black Catholic women studying theology when I was. Unfortunately, there was more of a tension between us, especially in the beginning. I soon met other Black Catholics, however, who helped to guide me. Part of the difficulty was that the three of us were the first Black women to seek theological degrees. There was no one to show us the path; we were creating it as we went along.
Today, however, we have mentoring possibilities through the Black Catholic Theological Symposium (BCTS) that introduces student members to those of us who have now been teaching for decades. In many ways, I envy them as it would, I am sure, have been, if not easier, at least less lonely than it was when I first started out. Through the Catholic Theological Society of America (BTSA), the American Academy of Religion, the Black Catholic Theological Symposium, the Society for the Study of Black Religion and other entities today, we are providing guidance, instruction, affirmation, and other forms of mentorship but there is still much more needed, especially for those in the Catholic Church because of our much smaller numbers.
- How was your own sense of identity formation refracted through a theological lens? How might this be helpful for non-Black students and faculty within Religious Academia?
I am not sure what you mean by this question. My identity has been refracted through several lenses, I would say. Growing up, I was a very shy, introverted book worm but I had a strong drive to succeed. I began in chemistry but discovered my predominantly Black high school had not prepared me well for that major. I then switched to foreign languages (German and French), which became of great value later in my theological studies as did the Latin I took in high school. In my last year of college, having met Senator Robert F. Kennedy, I changed my major once again, to pre-Law. My legal studies helped me to focus and taught me how to write and do research. It also enabled me to see the crises of equality and injustice in American society.
I practiced law for about 10 years, even after I began my studies in theology. I worked as a researcher and then as Legislative Council for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. I know to this day that I would not have succeeded in theology if I had not first studied and practiced in the law. As I began studying theology, one of the major questions that I raised constantly was “where are the voices of Black men and women? Why are their contributions missing?” I knew as Africans or Afro-Europeans, Blacks had been a part of the world but realized that just as in the US their voices had been silenced, their contributions nullified.
I have spent my life trying to find, recover, uncover, and discover these voices and to add my own and those of other persons of color to them. I see the classes I teach and the lectures that I give as an opportunity to teach the truth of our past and present to non-persons of color. They need to know the truth about their own reality so that we, a people increasingly united in this world, can bring about the critically important changes needed to bring about a true justice and peace to all the world.
- In Trouble Don’t Last Always: Soul Prayers, you identify suffering, particularly health issues, as important themes to consider within theology. Is this one of the areas of research where womanist insights are largely unheard?
The issue of suffering is very important to me as it brought me into the Catholic Church in the first place. I was bedridden when I received the call to become a theologian. The aftereffects of that illness (chondromalacia) still plague me, worsened as it was by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in my second year of study at Leuven. Over the years, my condition has continued sadly to deteriorate ending in my retirement on disability in 2011. Suffering and disability issues are slowly breaking their way into the world of Womanism, mainly by Womanists like myself who, as disabled persons, are caught up in trying to understand what God is saying to them through their disabilities and then how they can hopefully relay that message of love and care to others, whether disabled or not.
I wrote Trouble in the midst of an intense flare which made it very difficult to sleep, walk, or do much of anything. Awakening in the middle of every night for several weeks and slowly realizing that I needed to write down what was being said to me helped me to understand my own pain as well as that of others. It became a door opener in freeing me from inhibitions in speaking out and sharing my fears, doubts, and pain as well as my persistent hope-filled belief that with the help of God I would be able to use my mind, if not my body, in the ongoing struggles facing us today. We do need more womanists to speak out about these issues in order to show the importance of what they are doing and their openness to the world. Disability opens doors; it does not close them.
DR. DIANA L. HAYES
1. Trouble Don’t Last Always: Soul Prayers (Liturgical Press, 1995)
2. Hagar’s Daughters: Womanist Ways of Being in the World, the 11th Madeleva Lecture (Paulist Press, 1995)
3. And Still We Rise: An Introduction to Black Liberation Theology, 2nd place award for theology from Catholic Publishers Assoc. (Paulist Press, 1996) currently out of print
4. Taking Down Our Harps: Black Catholics in the US, co-editor with Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB (Orbis Books, 1998)
5. Were You There?: Stations of the Cross, 3rd place award for Spirituality from Catholic Publishers Assoc. (Orbis Books, 1999)
6. Many Faces, One Church: Cultural Diversity and the Catholic Experience in the US, co-editor with Peter Phan, (Sheed and Ward, 2004)
7. Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made: A Womanist Theology (Fortress Press, 2011)
8. Forged in the Fiery Furnace: African American Spirituality (Orbis Books, 2012)
9. No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality (Orbis Books, 2016)