Each spring, Harvard Divinity School's Office of Ministry Studies organizes the Billings Preaching Prize Competition, an annual preaching competition open to second- and third-year MDiv students. The finalists delivered their sermons at the Wednesday Noon Service on April 12, 2017.
Below are the remarks of prize winner Chandra Plowden, MDiv ’18.
A reading from Genesis 29: 31-35
When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.
Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, “Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.”
She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also”; and she named him Simeon.
Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons”; therefore he was named Levi.
She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the Lord”; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.
In the late spring of 2013 the slogan “Black Girls Are Magic” was created by a woman named CaShawn Thompson. The intention of the slogan was to celebrate the brilliance personified in black women. In recent years, the slogan has been shortened to a catchier hashtag for social media purposes: #blackgirlmagic.
Often, this hashtag is paired with pictures and selfies highlighting the accomplishments of black women, such as graduations, promotions, and the receiving. Equally dazzling, pictures that employ #blackgirlmagic include a well-done hairstyle, makeup, or outfit. However, like many contemporary phrases, this hashtag is left undefined by Webster’s dictionary. Because it is not precisely defined, I have a number of questions about what #blackgirlmagic really means?
For example, if there is such a thing as black girl magic, WHERE IS MY MAGIC WAND??? I didn’t receive one at birth!!! Is it too late to get one? Are they sold on Amazon? Do they come in purple?
But more importantly, I question the following: What does such “magic” even do?
The narrative of Leah, Jacob's first wife, I think adds perspective to my question. Genesis 29 alludes to the only two distinguishing markers between Leah and Rachel, her younger sister and Jacob’s second wife: Leah was older and they differed in appearance.
Leah possessed unusual eyes. They were considered “tender, lovely, dull, or even weak.” Rachel, on the other hand, was noted for her conventional beauty. Rachel was what Jacob considered to be beautiful, and he loved Rachel but did not love Leah. It’s interesting how standards of femininity still create what is admirable and what is simply tolerated.
Such standards are nothing new to the contemporary black culture. Even the most self-assured black woman cannot escape the presence of dominant beauty perceptions. White skin, straighter hair, and lighter, brighter eyes. If #blackgirlmagic really exists, is blackness magical if the world says it’s not beautiful?
Despite a “lacking loveliness,” the text says that Leah, unlike Rachel, was granted the ability to have children. Because of the covenant made with Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, fertility was of value to Jacob.
Leah is still unloved but is now valuable. Useful even. Fertility is now her function. But still after carrying three sons, Leah is not loved. She is just productive. In the crudest sense a breeder. Through Leah’s plight one can recall Zora Neal Hurston’s description of black women in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God: “The nigger woman is da mule uh de world so fah as I can see.” Not quite human, not worthy of compassion, not attractive, but useful.
In a country where the percentage of black women who earn bachelor’s degrees each year supersedes men and women of all other racial ethnic groups, black women have proven themselves worthy, productive laborers. However, daily social media posts from the Washington Metropolitan Police Department of missing and abducted girls suggests that the inherent worth, the humanity of black women, is still up for debate.
Value without compassion for human dignity, even in the American context, is bondage.
What is especially notable about this story is that Leah names all four of her children. However, the names of three come from a place of longing for acceptance and love.
With Ruben: “Surely now my husband will love me.”
With Simeon: “I am hated, and God knows it.”
With Levi: “Now we [Jacob and I] will certainly be joined.”
It seems as if her conception, birthing, and naming places her on a figurative stage. She pulls a rabbit out of an empty hat, a slew of handkerchiefs out of her sleeves, and even cuts the man in a box in half and puts him back together again. All of her effort, act after act, is met with Jacob’s deafened ears, and Leah is left with no applause. No affirmation, no praise, until she creates and convinces Judah or praise within herself.
I believe one of the greatest human abilities is the ability to name things. Even from the Bible’s creation narrative, Adam himself served as a sort of co-creator with God naming every animal. However, the ability to name, like many other human abilities, can be used for less than creative purposes.
However, Leah’s fourth baby still proves that in spite of the names heaped upon her—ugly, unloved, fertile—she can name something beautiful, magical even, not for others, but simply for herself.
“This time, because of Judah, I will praise the Lord.”
The focus switches from the desire to be loved to the desire to love what or who has been there all the time. Dare I say through loving God she develops a love for and by herself. That, beloved, is magic.
What is interesting about the trend #blackgirlmagic is that it is created solely by and for black women, and once #blackgirlmagic starts trending on social media, postings become continuously fiercer and more grand. What starts as one woman’s graduation picture soon becomes posts of groups of black women who earned JDs, MDs, or PhDs. What starts as one beautiful picture of coiled hair turns into pictures of mother-daughter duos showing off their thick, luscious tresses. This is done not for affirmation or applause. It’s a labor of being, not a labor of doing. That is the type of magic I seek after.
Leah’s magic is no different, for what starts as one baby from an unstable marriage creates the messianic lineage. What starts with Judah becomes Boaz, Jesse, David, Solomon, and one day the very personification of love, praise, and freedom: Jesus Christ himself. And he is the freedom, the salvation, the magic I seek after. Amen.