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Freeing the Bible’s Marginalized Voices

Marvin K. White, Vashti and Liberation

In honor of Women’s History Month, GLIDE’s own Interim Minister of Celebration Marvin K. White shares his gifts as a poet and theologian in a piece entitled “Vashti”. The poem and accompanying interview were originally published in the GLIDE Church eNews, Congregation Connect.

Vashti

I was with the other women
In the woman’s place
In the palace
And it’s only
The letter “A”
That separates place
From palace.

I was with the other women
When he called.
I had been up cooking all night
And had just wiped
The last of the semolina
Off my forehead
And we were finally ready to eat

When he called
We were in our one hundred
And eighty-seventh day of celebrating
One hundred and eighty-seven times
I was called up,
Pageanted for him
And the visiting priests, provinces, and princes.
He had been feasting for the last six days
Without calling.
I waited six.
I was queen.
He told me that.
I was clear.
Or tried to convince myself to be.
I was picked
Like the prized pie at the carnival
Because I was the fairest.

When he called
He never thought
I would refuse him anything.
I was lucky you know
And yes
I heard him calling
Cuz I hear everything.
I am a woman.
Ears trained to ground and sky.
I hear the women
Like myself
Breaking
Like the bread we ate that day.
Women
Who were picked over
For some beauty standard
That had nothing to do with us.

I wasn’t leaving this party.
It felt right.
And yes
I heard him calling
But I also heard God’s warning breath
Whisper my ear
With my mother’s fear,
“Say no girl,
say no.”

So, when he called
It was the seventh day.
He had been drinking.
His heart was merry with wine.
He was drunk.
And ordered,
because that’s what you can do
when you make someone a queen,
He ordered me
To him
In the crown royal,
Now,
He was ready to show me off.
And
I
Said
“No!”
Because I a woman
And I am moved
Like the women I am with
And the women I come from
Are moved.
And there is a place
And it’s only the letter “A”
That separates place from palace
In my belly now.
Fuller than the feast
Whose grease
Lingers on my fingers.
There is a place left
From gathering with my like,
Telling me what to say,
And I am finally ready to hear
This word
This bird
Flying out of my mouth
Turned song.
And I am sure
Other queens have heard it.
Put their tongues
To the roof of their mouths
And tasted it.
My sisters
Esther
Ma’a’cha
Bathsheba
Jezebel
Sheba
Candace.
We who have all said “No!”
And have not known
And known at the same time
Why.
“No!”
For our daughters,
The next in our broken royal lines.
“No!”
For their voices strong and spirit led.
“No!”
We can say “Mother God” and “Father God.”
Can think
That in the company of women
Quiet wars can be raged.
Battles birthing women and
Women birthing battles,
Who don’t forget their kindred
Or their people.
When he called
There was new breath in mine
Pushing this defiance
Out of my chest.

Like life
Collapsing in on itself.
Like rock caught in the craw of my throat
Coughed up.
Like tear and snot braced for pain.
Like we are getting ready
To sing
Or preach
Or pray
For the first time.

Like I said,
When he called
I had been up cooking
All night
And had just wiped
The last of the semolina
Off my forehead,
And we
Were
Finally
Ready
To
Eat.

How did this poem begin for you?

I really believe in locating stories in the Bible through a “Hermeneutics of Suspicion.” In theology, it’s a style of interpretation that bypasses the patriarchal and class readings of biblical stories, so that less-visible and “differently beautiful and powerful” stories can emerge. That’s how I found Vashti. Obfuscated by men, Vashti’s and other marginalized figures’ stories risk being untold. I couldn’t let that happen. I could hear her faint voice, still calling out, these many years later. I have learned to listen and be led by the voice of women all of my life.

What prompted you to write from the perspective of a woman in the Bible? 

I always try to remember when I am writing in the voice of women, that the aim is to be spoken through by women and not to speak for women. I was fortunate enough to have been “mama’s/grandmama’s boy” when I was growing up. My therapist would say that I was a “spousified child”. You know, “Mama’s little man.” But it gave me an insight and entry into “women’s ways.” I hold those intimacies close still. As an adult, I was also the primary caregiver for my mother and grandmother, who both, at different times in my life, lived and died with Alzheimer’s. I was a writer watching their stories disappear. I began having conversations with them by whatever relative’s name they called me. I learned their ways. And learned to be a person who dispensed wisdom. If I have any insight and compassion into women’s experiences and female bonds, it is because they speak through me.

From a feminist, womanist and liberation theological standpoint, Vashti displayed agency and self-valuation.

Can you please talk a bit about the context of Vashti in the Book of Esther? 

Vashti was the queen to King Xerxes, who had a habit of getting drunk and sending for his queen to show her off to his visitors. In one of these instances, Vashti said, “No.” and refused to come. Xerxes’ dudes got in his ear and convinced him that Vashti had dissed him in front of his homies and he was going to have to do something to show who was in charge. I’m being the worst exegete in the world right now! Xerxes declares that all wives shall obey their husbands.

From a feminist, womanist and liberation theological standpoint, Vashti displayed agency and self-valuation. She chose women over men. She made choices that were uncommon in a bible that casts men as the heroes. Her story is now sited as one of resistance, risk and threat to the patriarchy. And it’s not because she was “against” men, but simply and more powerfully, “for” women. There are still other women, and other marginalized voices, hidden behind men in the bible or in bondage by the bible’s storytellers. It is my job as a theologian to free them.