“Flesh that Needs to Be Loved”

Recovering a Theology of Beauty and Black Life


  • Chanelle Robinson Boston College




beauty, #sayhername, #blacklivesmatter, black women, womanist theology, Catholic theology


#SayHerName developed in reaction to the increase of police brutality cases that name black women as victims, signifying a pervasive issue. Interrogating the legacy of the black female body in North America, this article proposes a theology of beauty that considers black women as a primary subject. Theological aesthetics is not only a philosophical concern but represents a starting place for problematizing how black humanity is often excluded. Drawing on African American literary traditions and reflections from black Catholic theologians this article, primarily reflecting on events prior to 2020, argues for a theological response to systemic violence against black women’s bodies that articulates black life through theologies of beauty.

Author Biography

Chanelle Robinson, Boston College

Chanelle Robinson is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology at Boston College.


Balthasar, Hans Urs von. 1983. The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Volume I: Seeing the Form. Translated by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis. San Francisco: Ignatius.

Bostic, Joy R. 2010. “Flesh that Dances: A Theology of Sexuality in the Spirit of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” In The Embrace of Eros: Bodies, Desires, and Sexuality in Christianity, edited by Margaret D. Kamitsuka, 277-295.Minneapolis: Fortress. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt22h6t7g.22

Brown, Melissa, Rashawn Ray, Ed Summers, and Neil Fraistat. 2017. “#SayHerName: A Case Study of Intersectional Social Media Activism.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 40(11): 1831?1846. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2017.1334934

Copeland, M. Shawn. 2009. “Knit Together by the Spirit as Church.” In Prophetic Witness: Catholic Women’s Strategies for Reform, edited by Colleen M. Griffith,16–24. Boston: Boston College.

———. 2010. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress.

———. 2016. “Memory, #BlackLivesMatter, and Theologians.” Political Theology 17(1): 1?3.

Dadosky, John. 2014. The Eclipse and Recovery of Beauty. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. https://doi.org/10.3138/9781442667310

Douglas, Kelly Brown. 2015. Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Dickerson, Vanessa D. 2001. “Summoning Somebody: The Flesh Made Word in Toni Morrison’s Fiction.” In Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representation by African American Women, edited by Michael Bennett and Vanessa D. Dickerson, 195–216. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1990. The Souls of Black Folks. New York: Vintage.

Goizueta, Roberto S. 2013. “Theo-Drama as Liberative Praxis.” CrossCurrents 63(1): 62–76. https://doi.org/10.1111/cros.12013

Hartman, Saidiya V. 2007. Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hill Fletcher, Jeannine. 2017. The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Hudson, Sandy. 2020. “Unborderable Blackness: How Diasporic Black Identities Pose a Threat to Imperialism and Colonialism Everywhere.” In Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada. Edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson, and Syrus Marcus Ware. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press.

Jennings, Willie James. 2010. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lindsey, Treva B. 2015. “Post-Ferguson: A ‘Herstorical’ Approach to Black Violability.” Feminist Studies 41(1): 232?237. https://doi.org/10.15767/feministstudies.41.1.232

Massingale, Bryan N. 2010. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0360966900006885

———. 2011. “The Systemic Erasure of the Black/Dark-Skinned Body in Catholic Ethics.” In Catholic Theological Ethics, Past, Present, and Future. Edited by James F. Keenan. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

———. 2016. “A Church Where Black Lives Matter.” US Catholic 81(12): 8.

Massingale, Bryan N. and Susan A. Ross. 2017. “White Supremacy, the Election of Donald Trump and the Challenge to Theology.” Concilium 3: 65?73.

Maynard, Robyn. 2017. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Halifax: Fernwood.

McCormick, Patrick T. 2012. God’s Beauty: A Call to Justice. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical.

McMurtry-Chubb, Teri A. 2016. “#SayHerName: State Violence in Policing the Black Female Body.” Mercer Law Review 67(3): 651?769.

Mikulich, Alex. 2005. “Mapping ‘Whiteness’: The Complexity of Racial Formation and the Subversive Moral Imagination of the ‘Motley Crowd,’” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 25(1): 99?122. https://doi.org/10.5840/jsce200525126

———. 2014. “Massingale, Martin and Enduring White Complicity.” In Christianity, Consumerism and the Market. Edited by Diego Irrarazaval, Sarojini Nadar and Susan A. Ross. London: SCM.

Morrison, Toni. 2004. Beloved. New York: Random House.

Mullings, Delores V., Anthony Morgan and Heather K. Quelleng. 2016. “Canada the Great White North where Anti-Racism Thrives: Kicking Down the Doors and Exposing the Realities.” Phylon 53(1): 20?41.

Ontario Human Rights Commission [OHRC]. 2019. Foundation of Freedom: Ontario Human Rights Commission 2018?2019 Annual Report. Toronto: Government of Ontario. http://www.ohrc.on.ca/sites/default/files/AnnualReport2019-Compiled%2006-07-2019FINAL%20%282%29.pdf

Philip, M. Nourbese. 2006. “Meditations on the Declensions of Beauty by the Girl with the Flying Cheek-bones.” In She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Toronto: Poui. http://www.nourbese.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Meditations-She-Tries.mp3

Prevot, Andrew. 2016. “Divine Opacity: Mystical Theology, Black Theology, and the Problem of Light-Dark Aesthetics.” Spiritus 16(2): 166–188. https://doi.org/10.1353/scs.2016.0024

Ross, Susan A. 2005. “Women, Beauty, and Justice: Moving beyond von Balthasar.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 25(1): 79?98. https://doi.org/10.5840/jsce200525125

Scarry, Elaine. 1999. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400847358

Schindler, D.C. 2017. “Beauty in the Tradition: Hans Urs von Balthasar.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b26vvB3-97g

Smith, Ted A. 2012. “The Good, the Beautiful, and the Difference.” Arts 23(3):19?22.

Thompson, Cheryl. 2019. Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Townes, Emilie M. 2011. “To Be Called Beloved: Womanist Ontology in Postmodern Refraction.” In Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader, edited by Katie G. Cannon, Emilie M Townes, and Angela D. Sims, 183-202. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.

Vatican II (Council). 1965. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html

Walcott, Rinaldo and Idil Adbillahi. 2019. Black Life: Post-BLM and the Struggle for Freedom. Winnipeg: ARP.

Wallace, Mark I. 2010. “Early Christian Contempt for the Flesh and the Woman Who Loved Too Much in the Gospel of Luke.” In The Embrace of Eros: Bodies, Desires, and Sexuality in Christianity, edited by Margaret D. Kamitsuka, 33–49 Minneapolis: Fortress. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt22h6t7g.7

Williams, Delores S. 1994. “African-American Women in Three Contexts of Domestic Violence.” In Violence Against Women. Edited by Elisabeth S. Fiorenza and M. Shawn Copeland. London: SCM.

Williams, Shannen Dee. 2015. “The Global Catholic Church and the Radical Possibilities of #BlackLivesMatter.” Journal of Africana Religions 3(4): 503?515. https://doi.org/10.5325/jafrireli.3.4.0503

Williams, Sherri. 2016. “SayHerName: Using Digital Activism to Document Violence Against Black Women.” Feminist Media Studies 16(5): 922?925. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2016.1213574



How to Cite

Robinson, C. (2020). “Flesh that Needs to Be Loved”: Recovering a Theology of Beauty and Black Life. Religious Studies and Theology, 39(2), 193–209. https://doi.org/10.1558/rsth.42186