A Premature Critique of BlackQueer Conservatism
So this is the weird me. Trying to think about my continual relationship and disavowal of what is called the Black Church and what I call BlackChristianity. Personal in reflection by some more general claims, hoping to get somewhere with this theorizing. So as much as I write against a certain BlackQueer conservatism, I write against myself.
A claim: BlackQueerness is the condition of possibility for imagining a new world. Its seemingly erroneous underside: BlackChristianity cannot kill this possibility and a place like New Birth may be especially productive for imagination. Given the fascination with Eddie Long and his particular alleged infractions, it seems that mainstream media has been fairly successful with depicting him as a tragic figure, hypocritical of course, monstrous as well. Because I am not particularly fond of him in general, reading about the alleged acts was not surprising, and most certainly sad. But to linger in this moment as a crisis of BlackChristianity – by simplistic assertions about the seeming erratic, excessive homophobia of the Black Church – is to reproduce narratives of blackness as excess and, thus, dangerous, criminal, fugitive. Blackness might be all of these things, but unlike most news reports, I think this is cause for celebration. To continue to read the conspicuous consumption of New Birth’s tragic “David with five stones” as a special case of abuse of masculine power is to quite literally dance over the ways violent masculinist power is reproduced in the quotidian, mundane, ordinary, everyday occurrences of life. If some of us can continue to step in the name of love without flinching while claiming Long’s account as a more seriously egregious fault reproduces narratives of queerness as some extra-ordinary, non-quotidian erotics that is hella problematic.
So to ask a tough question: are there ways in which intense, intentional homophobic rhetoric can create the condition of possibility for social life? Or, more directly, does the zone of homophobia remove the agency of the person subjected to such virulent rhetoric? Though I fully recognize the problematics of such declarations – they are inconsistent with biblical notions of loving neighbor as self; they are hateful and display a lack of finesse when exegeting biblical text – rather than focus on the condition of the institution in which homophobia is a part and parcel, I would like to think about how life exists in that space, how people create a space in the horrible confinement. Does the oral rhetoric become the occasion for “opaque acts” that are “dark points of possibility” for agential enactment? This is important to consider because the Black Church is a space where a lot of queer folks exist. And we do not only lament the fact that we are queer. We feel sad, yes. Melancholy, certainly. Feel the rhetoric is fucked up, of course. But we also laugh and dance in the spirit, we wink and nod at each other secretly, we exchange glances and phone numbers, we talk late into the night and have sex early in the morning. All of this contradiction and complicatedness exists and is a sign of fecund, fertile life.
I have spent time trying to convince people to leave their churches because of the homophobia. Many will not. As much pain is there, there is also pleasure. The ability to have pleasure in the spaces that try to make it impossible is important. For me to desire everyone to leave the zone where they have pleasure isn’t too queer at all. Rather, that desire is just as Victorian and Puritanical as Evangelical Christians wanting to kick us out. So on the one hand, the homophobic rhetoric is supposed to subject queer folks to feelings of hurt, shame, loss, abandonment. And though it may do this, it just as often fails. Something like Moten would say: the consent we cannot give to hearing the rhetoric we can, still, withhold. We have the capacity to withhold in us a certain consent to the theological, emotional, psychical violence we are made to endure. And having the capacity to withhold, we have something in us that persists.
So I wonder if notions of self-hatred are not rhetorics of subjection, telling people what they are supposed to feel, giving them a path (right on out the church; to an “affirming” space) previous to their having felt any hatred of self at all. I mean, I was definitely confused as hell about my libidinal drive when I was a teenager. I definitely wanted to be saved and thought being gay was a sin. But I didn’t hate myself. I thought I had a future. There was a theology of “struggle” animating my relationship with my sexuality. I always thought that I could be delivered and, so, life was in abeyance. Life was in that suspended space between the libido of the present and the deliverance to come. We give a lot of attention to notions of deliverance as problematic and struggle as bullshit. But what about that space in the middle where all sorts of creativity is invoked for one to name oneself, for one to build relationships with others, for folks to think a way out altogether. Having a problematic theology of struggle was, at least for me, the condition of possibility to think I had a future with unbounded prospects. Theology of struggle let me suspend the worry about changing as a necessity today, let me put it off for some undetermined future. It created a space for me to exist. So another question: are affirming spaces always (if even primarily) safe? And are safe spaces always (even if primarily) affirming?
Popular media depictions of homophobia evacuate any possible agential potentiality, rendering intimacy in these particular zones of contact pathological and impossible concurrently. The homophobic rhetoric of BlackChristianity constrains us with no possibility for movement, for contestation, for resistance (and this is not a romance of resistance). But I wonders if self-hatred is the only way to be self-critical, if self-hatred is the only possibility for remaining in a problematic space. Having read a variety of critiques of the Black Church as an institution, usually in the form of missives telling people to escape the backwardness of the institution, I wonder about the anxiety animating these ideologies. There seems to be a particular worry about the impossible pleasure in the spaces that are deemed homophobic, a critique of enjoyment. We’ve gotta ask, though, “why do you like it here?” And, given the way the performative behaviors of what “Black Church” means (the dancing, sweating, long services, loud singing, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, etc.) are very often physically exhausting, embodied actions, I am speculating about how a liberal critique of the Black Church at some interesting nodal points parallels and revises the rhetoric of persistent critiques against queer people. Are there classist and elitist strains grounding the critique of the Black Church?
A Pew Research poll found that Atheists and Agnostics have more “knowledge” of religions than “believers.” Notwithstanding the fact that I do not find standardized tests regarding religion less biased than I do the SAT or GRE, what really intrigued me is the initial reaction by many non-religious folks on Facebook and Twitter. I imagined those non-believers printing the research findings and walking in the streets dancing, singing, laughing. I also imagined believers printing the findings and having bonfires. The polling data, of course, is taken to be truth; it is text believed to represent flesh. One’s gotta have a lot of faith in the truth claims the poll data is making. But more than that, I am intrigued by the ways strained knowledge comes to stand in for those who are knowledgeable. Declarations of the backwardness of these religious folks were rampant. If they only knew more, they’d behave differently. This means that religion is some sensual, bodily, primitivist thing and non-belief is a cerebral thing. But is religion merely about facts and figures? Nothing of community building or relationality? Nothing of prayer? Nothing of transcendence? I mention this research because the Black Protestants polled scored second lowest on all accounts.
Problematic, though, is the idea that knowledge is merely a cerebral thing, that religion is not as much about feeling as it is about facts. And I think the feeling is scary as hell…because it can be so pleasurable. As much as the Black Church offends us (and for many reasons, “it” should), at least some of the anxiety about it, I think is created by a seeming need to shore up against the sensuousness it offers (this, of course, could be said for all religious tradition). I can think about this with relation to Black Pentecostalism. Once I became “enlightened” and “knowledgeable,” enjoyment became so problematic. So I critiqued and wrote against other people’s enjoyment and pleasure in the space that was so problematic. Rather than asking about the effort and intentionality of pleasure in the most impossible of places, I wanted to curtail the possibility for pleasure in others. And that’s not cool. My particular anxiety made me wary of the space itself, not because of knowledge, but because of feeling. Hearing a Hammond B-3 organ still gets me. The arpeggios and bass runs, the notes at the high register and the pace of shout music began to worry me because not only could I not easily explain what it does to me, I would feel compelled to dance along with others.
So maybe instead of forcing people to leave spaces prematurely, we can think about the effort with which people sustain themselves in the most impossible of conditions. Or ask why is it pleasurable to exist there, in that contradiction of rhetorics and incongruous behaviors? What knowledge is carried in heads, in hearts, that allow for this sort of enunciation of personhood. Jamal Parris is one of the young men who alleges that Eddie Long coerced young men into erotic relationships, exploiting power by way of material possessions. Listening to Parris, he calls Long a monster, says that he still loves him and wishes he could forget the scent of his cologne. He declares that he is not gay but confused. Are these declarations homophobic? Hypocritical? Or are they declarations about the limits of language that cannot fully describe a relationship that didn’t feel right?
New words are necessary to indict the words which we tend to describe issues of power, religion, erotics. New worlds can be created in the midst of and in response to the given, known, hurtful worlds. It's sorta like when a preacher is up talking and the musician is "padding" behind her or him, playing "nothing music" softly (for a PERFECT example, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ua2JzHV37wI). People may be giving attention to the preacher but they very well may be engaged in an underground conversation taking place in plain view. Phones that allow for text messaging, Twitter and Facebook just make more apparent the fact of communication that have always gone on while preachers ain't sayin nothin, while the organist is padding softly and necessarily backgrounding sound. There is social life occurring right below the surface that emerges because of the apparentness of the surface. How can we attend to this sociality? How can we think feeling as a mode of knowledge? BlackQueerness can get us there.
 Brooks, D. (2006). Bodies in dissent : spectacular performances of race and freedom, 1850-1910. Durham, Duke University Press.