- A Womanist Maternal Response to Self-Sacrifice
I recently completed an article entitled, “Paul’s Play Mother in Romans 16,” in which I place the concept of extended-family, non-bloodline relationships, particularly from an African American framework, in conversation with Paul’s identification of the mother of Rufus as his mother.1 The apostle states, “and the mother of Rufus and of me” (Rom 16:13, NRSV). It is doubtful that this woman was also Paul’s biological mother. More likely than not, she was “like a mother” to him. Thus, she was a type of “other” mother or “play” mother.
In this paper, I situate what I have labeled “womanist maternal thought” as a foundation of African American “other” or “play” mothering. I continue by comparing and contrasting first-century motherhood with current communal maternal practices. Understanding maternal moves and mood within the apostle’s setting provides a window into his own literary use of motherly language. Scrutiny of Paul’s filial wording in the epistle to the Romans sheds light on the naming of Rufus’s mother as his “own” mother. Finally, this exercise implicates the ways a relationship with this “play” mother of African descent molded and reflected Paul’s own Jewish identity in the first century.
Womanist maternal thought is a tripartite approach to understanding the nature of what it means to be Black, a Black woman, and a Black mother. It desires [End Page 167] to reveal the organic complexities of women who live, move, and have their being in this ontological, racial, gender, sexual, and familial existence.2 In addition to these three pillars of womanist thought, a fourth approach scrutinizes the intersection of race, family, and gender constructions related to African American mothers and in so doing, uncovers class dynamics. This mode of hermeneutics avows that a mother who is Black has to live and act through a certain lens that mothers in other racial and ethnic groups do not, simply because society sees and labels her “African American” or “Black.” At the same time, a womanist maternal approach does not purport that all Black mothers have the same challenges or opportunities. A womanist maternal path brings to the forefront the voices of Black mothers within this racial, ethnic, spiritual, and sociological context, whether they are biological mothers or women who for one reason or another took responsibility for another’s child. This umbrella also includes community mothers—matriarchal figures in neighborhoods or larger geopolitical networks. The triple consciousness of family, work, and community exemplified by historical clubwomen like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell comes to mind.3 As Black biological mothers, they did not relinquish their public duty as communal mothers.
Herein lies the first of two points of connection between my scholarly pursuits and Kathleen Gallagher Elkins’s Mary, Mother of Martyrs: How Motherhood Became Self-Sacrifice in Early Christianity. Particularly appealing is Gallagher Elkins’s commentary on the communal nature of mothers in the first century. She notes, “In antiquity, many maternal figures were linked with origin stories, community cohesion and identity formation.”4 Although much of her research joins motherhood with individual sacrifice, Gallagher Elkins pauses to lift up maternal impact on community development, national emergence, and macrocosmic stability. Highlighting the role of the materfamilias not only within respective houses but also in the public domain, she buoys this figure in a both/and position.
In the book, Gallagher Elkins cites the work of Prudence Jones, who pointed to the mothers of Romulus and Remus as powerful symbols in the establishment of Rome.5 Jones also examined Lucretia, the Sabine women, and Cleopatra as maternal mega-figures instrumental in the life of communities and nations. According to Jones, moral treatises and medical texts portrayed maternity as reflecting a community’s materialization, identity, and solidarity.6 Great works of art, like the Ara Pacis Augustae (an ornately carved altar) in Rome have also [End Page 168] depicted idealized optics of motherhood. Although erected to honor Augustus’s military success, its artistry praises childbearing and motherly prowess.7
Elkins offers a narrow lens of maternity as community in the Roman context. Nonetheless, it reveals...