The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
As part of our programming efforts for Minority Mental Health Awareness Month we’re closing out this July with a special episode featuring author and theologian Candice Benbow. Candice is a multi-genre theologian reimagining how faith can be a tool of liberation and transformation for Black women and girls. In her work Candice challenges Black women to think critically about how they see God, themselves, and the world around them. Our conversation explores processing church hurt, finding your identity within a church community, and Candice’s new book Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough.
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Executive Producers: Dennison Bradford & Maya Cole Howard
Producers: Fredia Lucas, Ellice Ellis & Cindy Okereke
Session 268: Red Lip Theology with Candice Benbow
Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for Session 268 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We'll get right into the conversation after a word from our sponsors.
Dr. Joy: As part of our programming efforts for Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, we're closing out this July with a special episode featuring author and theologian Candice Benbow. Candice is a multi-genre theologian imagining how faith can be a tool of liberation and transformation for black women and girls. In her work, Candice challenges black women to think critically about how they see God, themselves, and the world around them. Our conversation explores processing church hurt, finding your identity within a church community, and Candice’s new book, Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough. If something resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession or join us over in the Sister Circle to talk more in-depth about the episode. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us, Candice.
Candice: Thank you, I'm so excited.
Dr. Joy: Very excited to chat with you. You do so many things, but among them, you are both a writer and a theologian. Can you tell me a little bit about what drew you to studying theology?
Candice: I am a bonafide church girl, and I mean born and raised in church, got as many whoopings in church as I got at home. And I have always been fascinated with what it means to know God, to discover who that is, what faith means personally to you. But at the same time, growing up as the child of a single parent, I heard sermons that really disparaged my mom. And not just disparaged her, but other single mothers. I really came to this conclusion about the Church and its disdain for black women and black women's sexuality and that really was the catalyst—those questions, the inquiry, the desire to study. That's really what pushed me to say I want to study theology much more formally. But also being a church girl being formed also in hip hop culture, being a student of culture writ large, I wanted to find a way to seamlessly weave all of these parts of me to do this kind of work. Which I really think is as much a passion as it is a calling.
Dr. Joy: Let us talk about the book for a moment. The name of the book is Red Lip Theology, which I feel like is such a brilliant and beautiful title. I want to, one, hear about the origin story for the title but also, have you talk about what called you to write this book at this time.
Candice: I was in my last year at Duke Divinity School. The funny thing about Duke is that Duke requires one Black Church Studies course to graduate with your MDiv and a lot of my white classmates did not feel like they needed to sit and hear about Black Church and black religiosity to graduate. So I had one particular classmate who... and people, we know this. When white folks get caught out, they want to invite you to lunch or to coffee to make sure that you know that they’re not racist. So like every time he saw me, he would ask me to grab a coffee. I’m like I don’t drink coffee so we can’t go. He would wanna go eat, I just ate. I would find all these reasons not to talk to him. This particular day, he catches me in the library. When he sat down, had I immediately gotten up, it would have been clear that I was doing it to avoid him. And I really was trying to be more like Jesus that day, so I was like let me just sit down and just endure what he offered.
He looks at me, and he's like, so Candice, do you consider yourself a black theologian or are you a regular theologian? As if to say that what we do is niche, like that this is not theology proper. And I was like, I could go there with him but you know where you realize like it is futile to go back and forth with people who have committed themselves to a certain ideology. And I was like, I'm not gonna waste my breath. So I said, I'm a red lip theologian and he looked at me and he was like... You know how you’re looking like, okay, did I miss that in the reading? Like what is she talking about? And he was like, well, whose is that? And I was like mine, I just came up with it just now. And then I got my stuff together and I left. But as soon as I said it, it made so much sense for me.
Because, and I talk about it in the book, I started my seminary career making a promise to my best friend that I was going to take more care in my appearance and myself after this breakup. Like I had let myself go and only your best friend can come to you and be like, you really out here looking like what you've been through and that's not us, right? And so she was like I need you to do better. And then I couldn't tell her that I didn't know how. I couldn't imagine that I was here again, nursing a broken heart again. Like believing that this was going to work and it didn't work again. And internalizing it as if it was my fault and that there's something wrong with me. I didn't know how to piece myself together. And so she took me, her and my mom’s sister, they took me to Sephora. She made me make a promise that I was going to take a couple of minutes every day to put myself together and put my best face forward. And so at the same time that I was in seminary, I was honoring this commitment to my best friend. So red lip theology made so much sense because that's how I encounter and engage theological study. They were not separated for me.
Like the beauty industry participation and theological inquiry were bedfellows and I needed them both because, at the same time, both were working to heal parts of me that I didn't think could be healed. That was really the impetus behind writing this book. I think Toni Morrison had said it once like, you need to write the book that you need to read. And Reverend Doctor Katie Cannon said that we got to do the work that our souls must have. And so I knew that in my younger years and now, I needed a book that spoke to me as a millennial black woman who was born and raised in the church, but whose thoughts about church were much different than her mother’s, than her grandmother's. And that I needed space to think through that and I needed way to be okay with the fact that it looked different.
And so, part of writing this book was like, I'm not by myself. There are other sisters. Now, we might diverge on certain aspects, but the fact that we're journeying makes us sojourners. That we are saying we need to have conversations about faith that honor the totality of our experiences, that honor that our faith and our personal relationships get to be our own. And so I wanted and felt very called to speak into that space and that moment for sisters like me. and that's how you get Red Lip Theology.
Dr. Joy: I think when I first heard the title, I thought... And I feel like this is somehow where you were coming from, like red lips? I think for a lot of us as black girls, red lipstick is like the worst thing that you could ever do. It spoke to some kind of sinful kind of thing.
Candice: I remember the first Sunday, and it probably was the only Sunday. I intentionally wore red lipstick because I was taking my grandma to church. And I pulled up to pick her up, came in the house to get her and she said, where are we going? I said we’re going to church. She said, no *[inaudible 0:10:53], we're not going there. So what do you think you're gonna do? And I was like, Grandma, it’s just... And I knew. And my grandma sat on her bed, perched like this. She wasn’t moving until I took it off. And it was the funniest thing because my grandmother, I talk about she was the first theologian that I knew. My desire for theological inquiry and biblical study comes from her. And so she was looking like, girl, have you lost your mind?
And years past from that, she and I have been able to have much more deliberative, interesting discussions about sex and sexuality. About womanhood and the ways that she was raised in church and what she was raised to be. And the ways that her thought patterns converged, but she didn't have the room to challenge those. And so I think that part of the red lip for me was, what does it look like for black women to be transgressive as they are still honoring holiness? Like the theology is the part of us that is like, there is God. This god sustains us, this god is who and what we lean on in times of good and in times of plenty. And we get to, through this god and because of this god, push back against the systems and the ideologies that harm us. Because this god wants us to flourish and be well.
Dr. Joy: I love that. Thinking back now, the book has been out for a little bit of time. Thinking back now and reflecting on your writing, is there anything that you would have included that you didn't include?
Candice: I love that question. I will say this, and I thought about it. No. And the reason why is because I wrote this book (and this is going back to church), I was really trying to find a way of honoring the line of telling my story and honoring that my grandmother is still alive. Because there were some things that did not make the book and they only did not make the book because she is still with me. The truth is I believe we get to stand on our truth. We get to tell what people have done to us and how we have found resilience and hope in those times. I believe that and I also believe that there is a holy responsibility to find ways to care for the people who care for us.
My grandmother comes from a very different time. Like it was enough for the sixth chapter to go in there. I remember, when we talked about it, she was like, do you have to put it there? And then I didn't even tell her about the Amazing Grace for Side Chicks. I just let her read that and she said, Lord, you're gonna tell these people that you had an affair. Jesus! I remember the turns and twists she took sitting in that chair. And here's the thing. She knew that that was my truth to tell, she knew that even in telling it, I was owning up to ways that I had not lived in the light of who I am and that it was me helping sisters see that we’ve got to make better decisions that prioritize it. And for me, I realized that it was not about telling everything but it was, what kind of book can I write that can help women (people, but black women especially) on their own faith journey? What poles, what markings, what signposts can be stories from my life’s tale, that 10 months from now, from when the book comes out, 10 years from now when the book comes out, I can still hold to those. And also, what does it mean for me to think about that in relationship to how I write?
And so the next book that I've begun to think through, those are some of the same questions that I ask. Like how can I even tell these stories in a way that leads to more truth and freedom, but also honors our relationship with people? And I've tried very hard and I believe that I hit that mark, but I'm always working as a writer to be better at it. But I try not to be a salacious writer. I don't want you to, read for, ooh, what happened next, girl? But to be like, okay, dang! I want my words to be a mirror. That you may not have to be this transparent with everybody but be this transparent with yourself. You know what I'm saying? And so I've learned and I've made the decisions to include what I did, based on my relationship with her and what it looks like to honor her. And it was a larger lesson for me of like, what does it mean to honor that you've been called to write in this way. Which is awesome and you get the blessing to walk and do life with people in specific ways that you never want to take advantage of.
Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Candice after the break.
Dr. Joy: You know, something that I love from your work and also the work of the Sisters of Truth’s Table, is that I really feel like your work gives sisters the foundation to kind of really explore like how they may have been harmed by the church. And I think that that's really difficult for people to wrestle with. Because I think we play such an important role, especially in the historically black church. But to your earlier point around the ways that we are often dehumanized and denigrated in these spaces, even as recent as last week. Like we see all of these mega church pastors come out with all of these sermons that just feel so soul-crushing to me in a lot of ways. Can you talk a little bit about the church hurt and how maybe you have experienced it, but how also your work hopes to give sisters a chance to kind of heal from some of that hurt?
Candice: I think the first thing that I tell people about church hurt is that church hurt is anything that happened to you in church or at the hands of a religious leader that does not reflect God's heart, full stop. That is everything from physical and sexual violence that we know unfortunately is prevalent in our church places. That's everything from verbal and emotional violence that we hear in sermons, that we find out are happening as pastors are these tyrants as employers and bosses. And that also includes the ways that we are manipulated into giving our time and our resources because we are told that in doing so, we are giving to God and we are proving our commitment to a certain level of faith. And the danger of church hurt is that, in these spaces, it will cause you to question your very relationship with God. Like if I'm hearing these things from people who say that they're hearing from God and that God told them, then when I internalize these things (as I would) I think that I'm hearing that this is me hearing from God. And it puts such a damper, it puts such a foul perception of myself in me.
It took a lot of courage for me to first begin to write in a way that said, hey sis, let's think about this a little more. For all of the reasons that you just made. Like one, church (for black folk) and family become synonymous. So the moment that you really begin to like push back against the church, people think you’re pushing back on your family. They think you’re pushing back on them. I talk about it in my book. My fiercest arguments with my mother were around faith and the ways that I was evolving and pushing back against the church. But I needed to be honest about the fact that the first place that I began to feel and develop and cultivate inferiority in myself was the church. Full stop.
I needed to be honest and say that I learned from the church that the only thing that mattered about me was that I was smart. I learned through church that I was always gonna be a step below because my parents were not married. And that my father could be exalted because he was this man, he sang, he whatever. But my mother who stayed and took care of me was not who I should be, who I should aspire to be because if she would have just kept her legs closed... You know what I'm saying? I had to be very honest about that and say all of that messed with me. All of that shaped and charted a journey of doubt and insecurity that just was not fair. And if we take a moment and challenge theologies and ideologies that are harmful and death-building, we will not continue to have generations of girls that sit and wonder if God loves them because they don't check these boxes.
Writing in that way, it's almost like this podcast. What we know about the work that we do is that the moment that we step out and do it bravely, other sisters come and be like, oh my god, I needed this. And that's what happened. Sisters were like, thank you. And it’s heartbreaking because you don't celebrate a sister saying that she needed to read your words so that she could find a way to name what happened to her. Because what you realize is that that's another sister that literally is trying to overcome trauma and abuse and neglect. You don't celebrate that. So you get it and you’re like, can we not get this right? But you're grateful because that's one less sister who stays in the cycle. You're grateful because that means that she doesn't feel like she's alone. It means that she realizes that there are people that she can come to.
And I think part of why it matters to step out and to take the hits (because they come still, we were talking about that earlier), it's for those sisters. I remember I had gone somewhere and a very prominent Christian preacher came up to me and I didn't even think they knew me. And they were like, I appreciate your work because it forces me to remember that there are sisters out there who are deeply wounded and it makes me think about what I say and it makes me think about what I'm preaching and it makes me think about what I'm teaching. So thank you. And I remember I walked away and was like this is why I do it. I gotta keep doing it because that ensures that there's not gonna be a little girl like I was, literally asking the questions of does God love me? All because my daddy isn't here. All because I'm hearing sermons that don't call him to account but call my mom into account, and she's the one that's taking care of me.
Dr. Joy: Right, right. Given this work that you do, when you take so many public shots and darts and backlash to your work, what kinds of things have you put in place to support yourself? Like what does support look like for you as you continue to do this work?
Candice: Support for me looks like a spiritual care squad that I talk about in the book. There are these folks that I come to, to help me navigate any decision I have to make, that become refuge for me when I get those hits and it hurts. I have friends who support me enough that they can recognize when *[inaudible 0:26:01] and they'll tell me we need you to like log off and I don't need to see you post for another day. And I’m like okay. I have a therapist that I started working with in 2016 after my mom passed, and we went from three times a week to meeting every three weeks. You know what's crazy? I did not realize until I thought about that the other day, just how much growth that is. Like, I don't think that we stop enough to celebrate the growth. Because you can think about all the shadow work you’ve still got left to do. Here’s the truth, it's a lifelong journey to be your best self and I have learned that part of it for me is, what does it mean to show up as my best self for whatever season I'm in? And part of that, particularly as a creative, of like, those seasons ebb and flow.
So those seasons, there may be an intense season where I am writing. There may be an intense season where I'm reading and I'm feeling like thinking through what the next project is gonna be and I'm reading a lot. Care for me at that time means having people around me and a schedule around me that does not allow for me to get lost in that work. Like what does it mean to take breathers? There are times where I get lost, there's a season of writing where that gets heavy, where like there were days writing certain essays in Red Lip Theology where, though we meet every three weeks now, I had to do a check-in. Like I just wrote about my daddy. I know we probably just met a week ago, we’re not supposed to meet two more weeks—we need to talk today because I really want to drive to his house and ask him why he *[inaudible 0:27:58]. You know, like those are those minutes.
And there are times where it's out in the world and this was my first book. When it's out in the world, you can't control how people receive it, you can't control what people do with it. And so that was a completely different season of letting go, releasing, doing rituals around that. Around my own care of like what it means to celebrate that and to shield myself from certain things. And so like part of care for me has been recognizing that it looks different each season. There are some consistent parts. As somebody who navigates major depression and severe levels of anxiety, it has meant a lot for me to realize what it means to be very intentional with care around like the attacks on my work. So this is something that in the last year and a half, I've had to think through, and my therapist has really helped me with this. There are certain times of the year that are really difficult for me because of my mom's passing. Like her birthday, Mother's Day, and the Thanksgiving holiday season. What we had to do is say that those might not be the best times for me to do heavy work that may elicit a strong reaction negatively from people who want to push back. One, because I'm not gonna be in the best space to deal with that kind of critique. And I don't want to do anything, one, that will reflect negatively on the work that I do. And two, I don't want to respond to somebody out of some other stuff.
So when it's time for me to plot work, I think through, all right, I can’t write about that at that time. There have been some times where some stuff has hit in the news and in cycles and there's been the expectation that because it's the kind of work that I do that I'll speak to it. I've been asked to speak to some stuff and I had to say no, not because I don't have an opinion, but because it might be right before Mother's Day. It’s going to take enough for me to make it through that day versus blogging on and seeing somebody respond to something that I said, and they disagree and then they take me to another place. That last piece has been so crucial and I'm so grateful that she even suggested that to me. To say it is absolutely okay to not do heavy lifting around the times where your heart is the most vulnerable.
Dr. Joy: What a beautiful gift to have given you. I love that.
Candice: I will always keep that. I think that too often, particularly as creatives and creators, we don't give ourselves the space to think through that because our life and what we do is always around content and creation and getting out. And it's okay to be like, no, that can take a beat here. And if I can't take a beat, then I need to reevaluate what I've been doing because this work should be able to sustain beyond that.
Dr. Joy: What are you hoping that readers will take away from Red Lip Theology?
Candice: The biggest prayer and hope that I have is that readers know that it is okay to question and that it is okay to journey. That God is big enough for the questions, that God is big enough for the frustrations, and that you are going to be okay if you start the journey and the quest. And even beyond that, that a life that has had pain and unconscionable darkness at times can still be a beautiful life to live. Those would be what I hope. And what I am grateful for is that that prayer is being answered when I like get on socials and I get a DM, I get a post or I get an email. I'm like, okay, this is being answered in the way that I needed it to be.
Dr. Joy: More from my conversation with Candice after the break.
Dr. Joy: I feel like you started this, but what advice would you give to other writers or other creatives who are kind of bringing new projects into the world, but they're also trying to like heal and understand their own emotions and what they've been through? What advice would you share?
Candice: I’m gonna say the first piece of advice, and I learned this in my 4:43 days, when I wrote this piece 4:43 right after Jay Z released 4:44, and it went viral. And this is another lesson that once you put something into the world, you have no control over how it's received. The majority of it was received very, very well and women were responding positively to it. From that lesson, I learned to never write something that you’re not healed from. I was not over that relationship. I'm gonna tell you right now *[inaudible 0:33:56], he could have came back in the next day, that thing would have been deleted off the internet and y’all could have all talked about me and I wouldn't have cared. I learned from that. You do a disservice to yourself when you put something into the world and you've not healed from it. Particularly when you do this kind of work. Like when you are called in a certain way to be deeply transparent so that transformation can take place, you’ve got to be very careful with how you tell your stories, how you deliver those stories, deliver that content, because it's still also a part of you.
The biggest piece of advice that I give writers who are still trying to heal and tell their story is to find ways to ensure that you are doing that healing work so that, as you tell these particular pieces of the story, you are so far removed from the direct impact that you will be able to speak to it. I'll give you an example. My mother used to tell me as a kid—a kid being high school and college, in my twenties and thirties. She said my biggest fear for you is that you are going to be on a national stage somewhere and somebody is going to ask you about your father and you’re gonna fall apart, and he doesn't deserve to take that moment from you. Like as clearly as you and I are talking right now, I can remember the first time she said that to me. And I remember thinking like she’s right, he doesn’t. He doesn't deserve that. Apply that to every painful experience that we've had. Yeah, there are lessons. Yeah, other people can learn from them. And yes, they don't deserve to rob us from the moments that we get to stand in the truth and the power of our own resilience. So that's why we’ve got to do that healing work.
You also have to find ways to care for your soul, doing this work. I believe in bubble baths. Dr. Joy, it is so funny how that became like my thing. Like after writing something, I got a whole stand in my bathroom of just all of the different moods that I want to create with like candles and bath bombs and powders. And it is just... Like “I wrote this, it is out in the world, let me soak.” It has been that for me. To find ways to care for myself, taking better care of my health and my physical health of like working out and eating healthier. Like you underestimate how much that fuels you to do this work.
I think as writers, one of the things that I underestimated was just how much my mind and my creativity needed a healthier body. Like holistically. Like that my physical health and my emotional health, when they are optimal, my creativity and my productivity are optimal. And if I feel called to do this work and I want to honor it, and I really believe that we overcome by the word of our testimony. My mom would always say that scripture says the word of our testimony, it don't mean that it got to be your direct testimony. That's why I told my grandma, I put Amazing Grace for Side Chicks in the book because 10 years from now, if a sister may be thinking about it and she gets that book, she’s going to read as what? Ain’t no way in the world I want to go through what Candice went through, so let me cut this off at the knees right now. Because I believe that we've been called to do that kind of work, I need to ensure that I'm taking care of myself. And I need to ensure that people around me can hold me accountable to that and can find ways to let me not take everything so seriously. Like there's joy in this. It's not just writing about trauma, it's not just writing about pain and discussing pain. Like there's joy, there is a beauty and a happiness in life.
And I think that I’d tell people who are writers, if you can get those things down, figuring out what it means to care for you and heal as you want to tell these stories and give them to the world, the nuts and bolts of this, I can help you with those. You can go to workshops and they're gonna help you with the nuts and bolts of writing. What they can't help you with in these workshops is how to take care of you as you write because you'd be sitting there, as I have... Like I tell the joke of the first draft of Red Lip Theology, that big. It’s some essays that were in that first draft that my editor was like, “This is creative and it's a lot of information. What are we discussing and wanting?” And that was her way of saying you bled all over this, you get it out, it’s out. We’re not gonna use it, though, but I'm glad it is out. So like it is that space. And so I think if we can find ways as creatives to recognize that our creativity will thrive and our work will flourish when we really really take as vested an interest in ourselves as possible, we’ll soar. We’ll soar.
Dr. Joy: Candice, so many beautiful things but we cannot talk all day. It’s so much good stuff, so many beautiful ways we could go back. We have to come back so that we can kind of continue to talk about some of these other things. But tell us where we can stay connected to you. What is your website as well as any social media channels you want to share?
Candice: My website is www.CandiceBenbow.com and I'm on Twitter and Instagram @CandiceBenbow. I am on Facebook and I'm on TikTok only because my cousin told me that I'm not old enough to say that I can't do TikTok. But if you really want to see me and talk to me, Instagram and Twitter is where you’ll find me.
Dr. Joy: We'll be sure to include all of those in the show notes. Thank you so much for your work, Candice, and for joining us today.
Candice: Thank you so much.
Dr. Joy: Thank you. I'm so glad Candice was able to share her expertise with us today. To learn more about her or to grab a copy of her book, visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session268. And be sure to text two of your girls and tell them to check out the episode right now. If you're looking for a therapist in your area, check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory. And if you want to continue digging into this topic or just be in community with other sisters, come on over and join us in the Sister Circle. It's our cozy corner of the internet designed just for black women. You can join us at Community.TherapyForBlackGirls.com. This episode was produced by Fredia Lucas and Ellice Ellis, and editing was done by Dennison Bradford. Thank y’all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.