Say Their Names: Hagar and Black Women’s Bodies

Over the next few weeks, I will be hosting a series called, “Say Their Names” which tells the stories of amazing women in the Bible who like our male heroes, exercised and operated from a deep sense of faith. And from their stories, I will expound on other historical and modern day examples. Outside of the biblical text, I will only lift up the faith narratives of black women because in our sociopolitical landscape in this present moment, black women are often the most exploited. The first woman from the biblical text in this series is Sister Hagar, the Egyptian maid of Sarah and wife-concubine of Abraham.

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In Genesis 16, Sarah told her husband Abraham to take Hagar and have children with her because she was unable to do so. In her own words, Sarah said “the Lord has prevented me from having children.” Abraham, the father of faith who the author of Hebrews spends so much time praising obliged even though God specifically told him on numerous occasions that Sarah and him would bear children. Impatient and doubtful, just as Sarah was, Abraham took matters into his own hands to help God out. 

But when Hagar conceived, Sarah grew bitter and jealous and took her rage out on Hagar, with Abraham’s permission. Hagar, who had been sexually exploited was now also a victim of physical and verbal abuse, though she was pregnant while enduring said abuse.

Hagar refused to put up with their oppressive actions and ran away. But God intervened and told her to go back, affirming for her that He had heard her cries and she would bear a son who she is to name Ishmael, meaning God hears. Ishmael would be a continual reminder, to not only her but the nation that God will raise up through Ishmael, that God hears the cries of the oppressed and suffering and in that hearing, God extends the eternal promise of progeny to all of Abraham’s children in spite of Abraham’s unfaith. The onus of his unfaith, as evidenced through his actions, is not the responsibility of Hagar nor Ishmael. 

Even so, it is often framed as such. Hagar is otherized because she represents the so-called illegitimate seed. But neither Hagar nor Ishmael are illegitimate – they are living representations of God’s mercy and grace. And Hagar responds accordingly. Though a victim, Hagar exercised the limited agency at her disposal by looking unto God. Even when Abraham allowed Sarah to throw Hagar and Ishmael out of the house, Hagar continued to trust. In fact, she – though impoverished, enslaved, and vulnerable – exhibited greater faith than Abraham and Sarah who had access to so much power and privilege. Her example of faith, even when those around her were faithless and consumed with their own agenda, deserves to be reframed and told. She never inherited the promise in her lifetime, but was obedient until the end.

Hagar embodies the black woman’s experience post colonialization and slavery. Post because Hagar is not the beginning of the black woman’s existence but is the reality that we now find ourselves in as a result of white supremacy and patriarchy. These two evils, operating at the same time, took autonomy over women’s bodies – making them both slaves and sex objects. Black women were subjected to the whims and caprices of white men who ruled over them – both because they were exoticized in the white male imagination and also because of the need to birth more children to increase their slave owner’s share in the “Abrahamic promise.”

For the crimes committed against her, black women were labeled Jezebel, hypersexualized and seductive by nature. This erroneous stereotype exonerated white men of their sin while simultaneously laying on black woman the burden of their own oppression. And white women hated them for it. White women who could not prevent their husbands from violating black women took out their frustration and anger on the black woman, both beating her and her off-spring (sometimes killing) for something that was beyond that woman’s control.

It is with great irony, then, that black men were and are still being lynched for the ‘theoretical rape and victimization of white women’ – something that has not and has never existed. In order to compensate, if you will, for the humility that white women were forced to endure as her husband panted after another, black men have been called to atone for the greatest sexual sin committed on American soil – the brutalization and rape of black women. Like Abraham and Sarah, white America has never been able to take responsibility over its role in creating Ishmael – the enduring presence of blackness in America. And so, like Abraham and Sarah, white America insists on driving Ishmael out. But be not deceived, the promise of protection and posterity remains as true for black Americans today as it did for Ishmael thousands of years ago:

But God heard the boy’s (Ishmael’s) voice. The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and asked her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid, for God has heard the boy’s voice right where he is crying. Get up! Help the boy up and hold him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God enabled Hagar to see a well of water. She went over and filled the skin with water, and then gave the boy a drink.” – Genesis 21.17 – 19

Like Hagar, the promise and hope of deliverance has carried black women through for generations. Even though what we witness with our eyes seems to speak of perpetual servitude and exploitation, with our spirits we know that liberation is coming which gives us the ability to resist. In our resistance, we deny the endurance of a system built on the labor and backs of black women’s bodies. Instead we call forth a reality where we have agency over our bodies, which not only frees us but frees our daughters and sons as well – for a system that cannot seize black women’s bodies for sexual exploitation cannot seize black men’s bodies for channeling its guilt and shame. This necessitates such a deep faith that is essentially other worldly, because only by believing that another world is possible can we give birth to it in the spirit.

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