Enfleshing Freedom: Black Body Theology, Being-in-the-World, and What It Means to be Human


Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, from its Forward section, proposes that theological anthropology should address the historical perception and treatment of black women’s bodies “by framing theological inquiry around [them, in order to] point out both the pitfalls of human conduct and interactions and the potential for transformation found in the Christian faith.”[1] In terms of Copeland’s argument about the subjectivity and objectification of black female bodies, African-American theological discourse must revolve around the body by “highlighting the manner in which the materiality of the black woman’s concrete, perceptive flesh impacts and informs both theological language and conduct.”[2] In light of this, not only does Copeland suggest that black female bodies, “because they are female and black, black and female,” are discarded, used, and defiled,[3] but there exists, from that fact, the Christian question of what being human means on the body.[4] This notion, then, is utilized by Copeland in explaining how the relationship between being human and the body are explicated through being a woman in black skin and the black female body. What makes the black woman’s body the central concern for Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom as the starting point for theological anthropology is through “allow[ing] us to interrogate the impact of [the black woman’s bodily] demonization in history, religion, culture, and society.”[5]

From there, Copeland proceeds to consider the theological anthropological relation between the social body and the physical body as a means of “opt[ing] for the concrete and aims to do so without absolutizing or essentializing particularly or jeopardizing a notion of personhood as immanent self-transcendence in act.”[6] The focal point of this is undoubtedly encapsulated in race, by way of what Copeland denotes as the use of skin as horizon –this horizon is summated in “what and who is outside the range of that field [as being] eliminated from [one’s] knowledge and interest, care and concern [to the extent that this] limited and limiting standpoint of skin as horizon reassures and is reassured in bias.”[7] From this supposition, Copeland connects the body and the exemplification of race to being black, where, in a negrophobic society, blackness “mutates as negation, non-being, nothingness [and] insinuates an ‘other’ so radically different that [those exhibiting a blackness ontologically has their] very humanity discredited.”[8] What this affords, then, is the quest for authenticity, where “the black struggle for [that] authenticity is coincident with the human struggle to be human and reveals black-human-being as a particular incarnation of universal finite human being.”[9]

To address this black struggle, Copeland argues for a black body theology that “enfleshes” freedom through a form of theological anthropology that “interrogates the enfleshing of created spirit through the struggle to achieve and exercise freedom in history and society.”[10] Speaking specifically in terms of the black woman’s struggle, black bodily theology arises in response to “the reduction and objectification of black women [which] began with the seizure and binding of the body; the violent severing of the captive from community and personhood; imprisonment in dark and dank places below ground; packing and confinement in the slave ship; the psychic disorientation and trauma of the Middle Passage.”[11] When considering this history of the black female body, the fact that Copeland proposes these instances as “suspended out of time and in ‘no place’ further suggests what Martin Heidegger noted as the relationship between time, the realms of entities existing temporally and ontologically in a specific reality, and the underlying concept of space as a means of understanding the manner in which an existing entity exists.[12] Like Heidegger, and even Kierkegaard’s belief in the subject and object respectively arriving at a truth while assuming a history,[13] Copeland is concerned with subjectivity and objectification.

So, to apply the interconnections Copeland makes between the body, race, and being in light of how blackness is represented subjectively and objectified socially, it becomes evident that these interconnections embody a specific theological understanding of what it means to be human. This kind of theologizing is, as Copeland describes as a black body theology. Though this is explained in reference to black woman’s body, there remains the possibility of universally theologizing the apparent ways and means the body incorporates a social and physical identity by its relative being-in-the-world. This “being-in-the-world” is Heideggeran, where existence, pertains “both to an understanding of something like a ‘world,’ and to the understanding of the Being of those entities which become accessible within the world.[14] With that, what Copeland puts forth theologically is not just a formulation of blackness as comprising a combination of body, race, and being but presents a Kierkgaardian truth in its history that is distinctly human.


[1] M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), ix.

[2] Ibid., xi.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Ibid., 13.

[8] Ibid., 19.

[9] Ibid., 21.

[10] Ibid., 24.

[11] Ibid., 29.

[12] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1962), 39.

[13] James Brown, Subject and Object in Modern Theology (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1953), 34-82

[14] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1962), 33.

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