Author Alice Walker coined the term womanist in 1979, which has come to describe the particular experiences and perspectives of being a Black woman. The mainstream feminist movement didn’t focus on the plight of Black women, who were often disrespected, disregarded, and dismissed.

Now in 2021, Wylin D. Wilson, assistant professor of theological ethics, gets excited when she talks about her class “Womanist Theological Ethics” at Duke Divinity School.

“I look at various issues affecting women of color,” Wilson says. “I start with historical perspective. I dig deep into lynching. We read Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. It’s truly a labor of love—emotionally and intellectually taxing.”

Her class also features the work of the influential theologians Katie G. Cannon, Emilie M. Townes, and Jacquelyn Grant, founders of womanist theology.

“My students are willing to go on this journey with me,” Wilson says. “We’ve become a really beautiful educational community. We read books like Robert P. Jones’ White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. We deal with the historical silence of the white church. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to talk about these things with my students who are Black, white, Asian, and Latinx.”

Training Ministers How to Show up in the World

Wylin D. Wilson
Wylin Wilson, Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics

Prior to joining Duke Divinity School in 2020, Wilson was a teaching faculty member at the Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics and a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. She earned a master’s degree in agricultural, resource, and managerial economics from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in religious social ethics from Emory University.

Her class also looks at the lack of health care for women of color and issues such as Black maternal health. “We deal with Black women and health and marginalized women,” she says. “We discuss how race, class, and gender and play out in the existence of rural African American women and economics. We talk about social justice, environmental injustice, and communities of color suffering. We look at the historical discrimination and the current fall out of that history. … Many things have changed, but our cultural script hasn’t changed fast enough.”

Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston described Black women as the mules of the world. As Wilson explains, “In our cultural script, we are hypersexual beings … the essential worker, the care takers in our society that are so undervalued.”

Wilson says she wants the ministers she’s training at Duke Divinity to have an honest look at what’s going on in Black and white churches, both in the past as well as in contemporary contexts. “We have to be honest about our past. But also what do Black women’s lives look like now?” she asks. “Womanism is a practice. What does this look like when we live in a way that is transformative? So many relationships need repair. So many systems for Black women—and also for poor whites and vulnerable and marginalized populations—need repair.”

Wilson wants her students to take this question from her class: “How should I show up in this world?”

“What is central to womanism is for healing of our bodies, mind and soul … and healing our communities and nations. It starts with our experience with enslavement, racial violence, and economic opportunities. It focuses on the experience of women of color.”

Bioethics and Human Flourishing

Wilson’s work lies at the intersection of religion, gender, and bioethics. She explains that much of the field of bioethics has been shaped by white, male voices. “What womanism does to bioethics is look at it from the bottom up to include the voices of color,” she says. “It causes us to have an expansive view. We can’t leave out Native folks, Asian Americans. Our problem with our history is that it’s one-sided. We need to uncover these stories. If not, they may never be told. Who is going to tell these stories?”

Bioethics can help inform the perspectives of how both theology and health care matter for the flourishing of people’s lives and communities. “Bioethics helps us focus on underserved populations,” Wilson explains. “How do vulnerable populations experience the health care system? What about Black maternal health and mental health access? It has repercussions for the lives of marginalized population.”

“The reality is that we need real transformation of our hearts, and it’s a tool to help us get there,” she says.

Wilson grew up in Tallahassee, Fla. Her father was a human resource administrator and her mother was an educator. “I always wanted to teach; I wanted to be a professor,” says Wilson, who received her bachelor’s degree in agricultural business at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. She admired the professors at the historically Black university.

“I also knew I wanted to help the Black church with working in the community, to help them with economic development,” she says. Wilson wanted to do more than drop off food to a needy family. “I wanted to think of ways to help the church with economic justice.”