Black Women, Faith, and Sexuality

An Interview with Candice Marie Benbow

Writer and Multi Genre Theologian; Author of Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough

Describing the Work

What I like to say is that I try to create space for Black women to see themselves and understand themselves holistically and reimagine healthier relationships with God and healthier relationships with themselves. I think that if those two pieces are in place, especially if you are faith-filled, then other things seem to jive too. And so, I try to write work and foster conversations that speak to our full humanity, that make room for the complications, that make room for the nuance, that make room for the days when we know better, and we don’t do better. The days when we did the best we could. But ultimately pushing us to think that we don’t have to see that as inherently insufficient to us and negative, but that we can see ourselves as in the fullness and totality of who we are and hopefully recognize ways that we can thrive and flourish and so, hopefully, you know that when people read me and when people interact with me, I hope, particularly sisters, I really hope that that’s the takeaway that they get.

The Journey to This Work

I always knew that I wanted to be a writer…When I went to undergrad, I switched to law school. I wanted to go to law school. And then, after graduation, I didn’t get into law school. My mom was a professor, and I liked her schedule, like she had freedom and flexibility, and I was like that’s what I want to do. And so, I went, and I got a Master’s in sociology. And my questions were both sociological and theological, and it’s really interesting because I knew that I was always drawn to ministry. I have not always been clear on what that ministry looked like, but I knew that I had a call. I wasn’t necessarily certain that part of it was a call to preach, although sometimes I try to make it feel that way and I tried to fit into that. While I can preach and have preached, it was not necessarily as authentic to me.

So after my sociology program as I was teaching sociology, I started blogging and writing publicly about kind of these Black Church social issues, gender, faith, kind of really wanting to be this voice that was speaking right…I started my first blog on March 27, 2010…, and I continued to write and got opportunities to write and larger spaces. And it became clear that to do what I needed to do, even if I didn’t know what that was, that I needed to go to seminary and that I needed a theological education. And so, I went and got it and even then, still thinking that I would do that work from the Academy. Graduated, got an MDiv from Duke. And went and headed into a doctoral program and so many circumstances, including the death of my mother, just really led to this crossroads, and I ended up leaving the doctoral program. And my therapist was like what do you want to do?

Because the truth is, while I knew that I was called, I still didn’t know what that call looked like, and my mind and world had been framed for the Academy. And here I am leaving that. I had offers to start another PhD program, but I didn’t want that. One, the trauma of what I experienced in that previous one really shaded things for me, and then two, I was just like I am not talking to these people. It was really interesting that, I got more life, more excitement, more care, creating a blog post, writing a blog post, than I ever did writing a paper. And the truth is that the book that I read for the paper informed the blog post, but I realized I am not writing to the Academy. I am not writing for the Academy. I’m not writing to my contemporaries in the Academy. Because if we’re really being honest even as you are training students, theological education is a conversation amongst itself, like it just is. And I was like, “yeah, I’m not talking to y’all, and I don’t really care to talk to y’all.” I was like, I am having a conversation with Black women. I’m having a conversation about God with sisters. I’m having a conversation about my home girls, and then it became so what does it look like to create the circumstances that allow me to do that?

I always wanted to do that, and the more I wrote, and the more it resonated with people, the more it became clear to me that this was my call.

And so, I had opportunities from writing that I did for my public blog and website. I got opportunities to write for Essence and for Glamour, and my world really became this freelancer, and I was just like, “okay, like this is what I want to do. “It’s different because it’s not ministry proper, but it’s absolutely what I want to do. And so, there were days, where like I wrote something that I cared about, and then there were days where I was like “what the hell?” because I had to pay bills. But at the core, I always wanted to write about Black women, I always want to write about Black people, and I always wanted to write about the message that’s underlying. I always wanted to do that, and the more I wrote, and the more it resonated with people, the more it became clear to me that this was my call, and I settled into it. It doesn’t have to look like what everybody else does, and it never was going to look like what everybody else did and what everybody else does because it’s unique for me. And that’s okay. And then the more that I settled into that, I was like “Yeah, there’s a different kind of ministry. There’s a different kind of experience that people are longing for, that women are longing for, that gives them space and room outside of a traditional church context to ask questions and to think and to probe.” And what I know is that every sister may not agree with absolutely every single thing that I say, but for the most part, they appreciate the space that I create that allows them to think about it because we grew up in contexts that didn’t let us think about it. Like how dare you think some of these things? We weren’t allowed to think about it, and so being able to is helpful. So, I think that is a long way to answer that question, and I hope it was helpful, but I finally had to become comfortable with being unconventional.

Freelancing and Navigating Uncertainty

I mean I’ll be honest like freelancing is a huge risk because you’re pitching a lot. You pitch why and you hope that somebody picks it up and hope that somebody likes it, and then there are times, where they might not rock with it. If it does get picked up, pay is not immediate. So, some places, most places, you’re looking at net 45 days from when it was posted, and sometimes it could be net 60. And that was really difficult. I would say that if I did not have savings, and I had a settlement that I was living off of at the time, trying to figure out how to freelance, I wouldn’t have done it…I just wouldn’t have. And I will say that those years helped to set me up to be in the position where I am now. But even still, I write and I contract out, so it’s still net however many days and sometimes I have to chase down invoices, sometimes I don’t. And it’s difficult because I’m not married, so I don’t have a safety net. Like my net is my own.

So, those first years, I tell people all the time, I don’t romanticize them. I tell people who consider it that it is really important to have a very strong support system where you can basically be honest with people and say this is what I really want to do. This is shaky, like can you support me? That level of uncertainty, I don’t think leaves until you secure enough for your financial future that you’re breathing, and I will be honest that like I am not there yet, and I anticipate to be there soon, but I still get nervous and those are the moments where I have to be like “Okay God, I know that you’ve called me to this, and I have to trust you.” And then there are the days where at the end of the month, I am literally sitting back marveling at how I made it. Like it was God that carried me through that month because it was a lean month, and you’d be like “Hey, like how? Like I paid everything.” You know, you’re just like “that was God.” But I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, and I have to rest in that.

…And I wanted to have that kind of care for sisters. That if I went through something, you don’t have to go through it too, but if you’re going through something, to not let you feel alone.

Like it’s not easy, as we were just saying. I’m building something I’ve never seen before, and not only is it something I haven’t seen before. I pray that my footsteps are deep enough that the sisters that come behind me get to just fit in them, and that l took the lumps, and that the road is smoother for them, and that my footsteps have created enough cushion and safety that allows them to blaze their own trail. But that’s the risk that you take when you when you are doing something like this. Entrepreneurship, which is what freelancing is, is inherently risky, and I know it would be easier if I had parents. It would be easier if I had a husband. It would be easy if I had a financial backer. A lot of different things would make it easy, but I will say every day I wake up and know that I’m doing what I love, and I’m doing what I’m called to do, and so that doesn’t overtake the anxiety, but it does mitigate factors and that’s to me equally important.

The Inspiration

So, I grew up with like a hodgepodge. When I grew up, my mama was raising me in church, but she was reading Toni Morrison. She was reading Susan L. Taylor. At the time, she was the editor of Essence, so she was reading her column. She was reading Renita Weems. She was reading Iyanla Vanzant. And I remember young saying that I wanted to write for sisters the way that they wrote for my mom’s generation. To be very honest and transparent, Juanita Bynum was really influential to me. I look back on the “No More Sheets” sermon differently now, but in its moment and it’s prime and even now, I still marvel at her vulnerability and the ways that she opened up her pain to help heal other sisters, and I wanted to have that kind of care for sisters. That if I went through something, you don’t have to go through it too, but if you’re going through something, to not let you feel alone. And I feel like she did that with that sermon and just her ministry overall up until a point.

Contemporarily, Melissa Harris Perry completely opened my mind to what an academic could be. I was like “oh wow” like you could be a Black woman with a PhD, smart and dope, and have your own show, and talk about whatever you want to talk about. And that was what I wanted to do because I mean we had Oprah, but Oprah feels very much like a supernova to me that ‘you only get one of those in your lifetime’ kind of feel, and while she was and is a deep inspiration, I felt for years like that couldn’t be possible for me. And when I met Melissa, and when I watched and was nurtured by her, I was like “Okay, this is possible,” and then that also made me look at Oprah differently. Like “Oh no this is possible, for me too,” and Oprah isn’t somebody who makes you feel like you can’t do what she does. It was just about changing my mindset. And there are women clergy who are inspirations to me because they bring a level of care, and I just think when Black women preach and when Black women pastor, there is just a different kind of experience. And so, a lot of them were inspirational to me because they bring a level of care and empathy to the work that’s so important.

And to the point where I finally was like, “Okay, I need to pull from several different places to create what it is that I believe, fits and suits me.” And I believe that God gives us models and mentors and inspiration at each journey and each sector, so there are women who professionally inspire me, and then there are women whose personal lives [inspire me], like how do I balance, how do I have the kind of personal life they have while also navigating a very public facing public career right. And that’s different you know, because there are assumptions made because my work is public…But like it has been incumbent on me to think about what it looks like to nurture a private relationship as my life is so public, and how do I hold space for that privately and sacredly? And so, there are people who become inspirations for me in that regard.

I have just come to the conclusion that at the end of the day, if I get to heaven, and I was wrong about what I believe about God, that grace extends to me because I was really trying to love people and make this world safer for folks; that if I’m wrong let grace cover me when we all get there.

So, it’s this continual pulling from everywhere. It is also listening to what sisters tell me that they need from me. I allow myself to be held accountable to the people who trust me and listen to me and allow me to journey with them. And it doesn’t mean that they take over and dictate every moment, but I listen to them when they’re like “hey, can you talk about this?” or “can you dadadada?” And I’m realizing it’s because these conversations matter to them and because they want a voice that they can trust, and so even then, it’s just like I gotta pull from, because there is no blueprint, other places. Hopefully in five years, sisters will be like “there is a blueprint,” and they’ll come, and they’ll expand it even more. But you know right now, it’s about crafting it as you see it.

Challenges and Barriers: When What You Say Is Controversial

It comes with the territory, and you have to be fortified in recognizing that when you say something that is controversial and polarizing, you’re gonna hear a response. What I have had to work on is this. Someone told me years ago “online comments is where humanity goes to die,” so I don’t read them. I am learning and have learned to distinguish between the people who are genuinely, even if they disagree, engaging in conversation with me versus the people who disagree and just think I’m just a demon going to hell. And then there are times where I put my foot down on certain issues and topics. I have just come to the conclusion that at the end of the day, if I get to heaven, and I was wrong about what I believe about God, that grace extends to me because I was really trying to love people and make this world safer for folks; that if I’m wrong let grace cover me when we all get there. But the other part, is…I’m a scholar so it’s not like I’m just pulling it out of my head, so it’s like I can have a conversation with you…I know that I’m grounded in that and I also believe that at the end of the day, all we are really supposed to do is love people and do what needs to be done to make the world better for them, and that’s what I hope I’m always doing. That’s what I’m always trying to do. So, it’s a combination of realizing that you can’t listen to everybody, and then it’s a push to say I just gotta live it. I just gotta live it.

The Vision

I have a couple more books that are coming out after this one that I’m really excited about, but as far as Red Lip Theology, I really want it to be a conversation that sisters have with each other, that sisters have with me, that really kind of sparks a different kind of talk about us and God. I’m really excited about that. I’m most excited about it getting in Black women’s hands because I feel like after that, it’ll dictate what happens going forward. But the part I’m really, really, really, really excited about is trying to see what sisters think about it, and I think that conversation will dictate a lot of where Red Lip Theology is going forward. But for me, I’m so ready for January [of 2022] because I can’t wait to hear what sisters have to say.

Advice For Those Hoping to Do This Work

I would first say to become very comfortable with the journey because it’s not linear at all. To Constantly read. To constantly be open to transformation. To get very clear about who is listening to you and who you are talking to. I think when you get clear there about who you’re in conversation with and who you’re talking to, a lot settles. And don’t be afraid to bring yourself into the work, like to do this kind of work, you’re not supposed to do it like somebody else. You’re here because people believe in you. People trust you. People care what you have to say. And so, give people the beauty and honor of you and your voice and what you have and what you can offer, and be open. I probably said this earlier: Be open to the journey and always be willing to marvel at it. Like there are moments where I’m just like, “I just got here because I said it ain’t no hell.” Like always be willing to just marvel at what comes because you dared to take that step, because you dared to be brave. And my friend just told me this this morning. We were talking about me. She sai, “you’re at a V. You know what the bottom is, but there’s no ceiling for you right now. You can blow it wide open. You can be okay with blooming, and it’s gonna be some days, where you’re like that ain’t work, and we’re not gonna do that again, or that may have worked, we have to wait and see, or like that’s it. That works for me.” Just be open. Open to the uncertainty because it’s full of uncertainty, but the uncertainty breeds so much joy and so much power and so much potential. I think the best advice I could give somebody is just be open.

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