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(NOT) ABOUT EDDIE LONG: BLACK QUEERNESS AND SOCIAL LIFE

 

By Ashon Crawley

Saturday, October 2, 2010.

Editor's note: The well-known African American evangelist Eddie Long, has been accused of sexually abusing three young men. Bishop Long has made homophobic remarks in the past.

Queerness (always already a concept in and of blackness) once and again comes down on us, befalls us, befuddles us. Queerness rears its ugly head, showing itself, laying bare the necessity of the hypothetical and hypocritical in any theology, Black Christianity notwithstanding. The general question: why are we all up in arms regarding the (al)legibility of the potentiality of queerness in Black Christianity once again? I am not interested in Eddie Long in his particularity as much as I am intrigued by what his seeming infractions – and the many responses to it – speak about notions of sexuality, religious tradition and the structured life of Black queer folks.

I want to make a few general observations, possible because of my obsession with the words of Hortense Spillers, Toni Morrison and Fred Moten. These three, in my understanding, engage projects that ask how thought and imagination – of gender and sexuality for Spillers (see “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”); of literature and narrative for Morrison (see Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination); of the western philosophical tradition for Moten (see “Knowledge of Freedom”) – are always troubled by a pathogen that needs to be detected, diagnosed and discarded.

And I want to here make a claim that there is an irreducible erotic at the heart of Christianity generally, certainly in the western formation of Protestantism with its focus on and targeting of the body’s behaviors and comportments, even more so true for articulations of Christianity in Black(ness). This erotic is that which continuously is in need of control, in need of policing, in need of curtailment. In Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique, Roderick Ferguson convincingly argues that the Black Holiness/Pentecostal church targets the body of individuals as that which needs to literally behave itself. This behaving of oneself is always done through the control of the libidinal excesses, through rhetoric against eroticism.

Evelyn Brooks-Higginbotham in Righteous Discontent elucidates how the politics of respectability was likewise used to target and curtail the seeming loose behaviors of Black Folks as a means to citizenship and Christian formation. One may begin to think about the relationship between notions of self-control that Black Protestantism can be said to aspire and reckless abandon that Black Queer folks may be thought to embody and perform. Black Queer folks are the performative vestibular (Spillers’ word) of the particular Black Church context in which I am interested. Black Queer folks in this religio-cultural context come to stand in for everything that the one who is “saved, sanctified and filled with the holy ghost” is not. Joseph Roach might say that Black Queer folks, though marginalized and placed on the outside, are central to the faith tenets of this particularly raced, sexed, religious context.

This is a longwinded argument regarding the necessity of proximity of a certain Black Queerness to any articulation of Black Christianity. Supposedly, being saved, sanctified and filled with the holy ghost is everything Black Queerness is not. But Black Queer folk are necessary in church buildings and in mental imaginations as targets of hatred that is nothing other than residue of the patriarchal, sexist, racist, classist society in which we all live, move and have our being.

Black Queer folks, then, must occupy space of choir lofts and the prepared notes of preachers if any of that preaching is to be effective…so it seems. I am convinced that Black Queerness, as a sensual, sensuous field, is the libidinal, excessive, always already out of control, in need of control, philosophy that preachers write and orate against. Or, more precisely (hopefully), there is an intense and fundamental relationship between the desire for respectability, citizenship and salvation on the one hand with the Black Queer figure on the other. This Black Queer figure figures its way into sermons and songs by way of denial (outright, overwrought, write out, wrought over), by glances, by stares, by rumor, by gossip, by condemnation, by celebration (we sing and play the organ very, very well!).

If this is the case – and certainly, Eddie Long might agree with my sentiment of the some purported sinfulness of Black Queer folks as he has in times past, taking firm stances for the family and against marriage equality – Black Queerness is a sort of pathogen that exists previous to declarations of salvation; we might even say it is the force that animates Black Christian formation. Some call it sin. I call it a particular enjoyment and pleasures of erotic that is foundational for life and love that was the condition of possibility for abolition movement, for modes of flight and escape, for what we call freedom. (And I don’t want to be “saved” from that…and I doubt you do either. So the quest of Black Christianity since enslavement has been to figure out a way to assert desires freedom while somehow striving toward American citizenship – recognition by the state.) Normative Black Christianity (so intimately related to the Christianity of its origin, though this is not my concern here) suppresses its original Black Queerness by recognition, relegation and removal. This removal is only a ruse.

Many are astonished by such allegations. Astonishment – given when folks say “I can’t believe it!” or “Let’s pray for him!” or “This can’t be true!” – is the articulation of the betrayal of knowledge by stupefied senses. The etymology of “astonish” is “to stun, to daze, deafen, astound.” The senses – of sight, smell, taste, touch, sound – are cut, augmented by some seemingly new knowledge that, we know, isn’t too new at all. The senses are stunned by the knowledge of Black Queer folks existing and having social life in the face and place of impossibility. It’s like how Harriet Tubman escaped slavery, arrived to New York only to find herself alone. She then stole her body back to the very place she left in order to bring others with her. There was a desire for and movement toward sociality that animated her notion of joy and happiness, what we call freedom.

This elucidates my concern for how Black Queerness – in the space of the religious circle that seeks, but is also predicated upon, its exclusion – astonishes by the alleged and the legible. Some folks simply don’t want to believe that a person like Long could even engage in such activities because the activities are supposedly reprehensible. Because of the position of power he occupies, and by way of the rhetoric he utilizes against Black Queer folks, the putting to question of Long is put to question. Or, how can one allege that he is even culpable? For many, Long and others like him do not even inhabit the zone of the alleged because of money, power, respect is a covering and mode of escape.

The concern here, I think is this: what does it mean that a type of Black Queerness can make even the most successful, blessed, prosperous (and those all should've been in scare-quotes) man succumbs, acquiesce, and fall? This isn't about him. It's about the notion that he has all these material objects/possessions that should have been able to "protect" him from such penetrations (and I mean that in many resonances, whether or not any of the alleged sex acts were indeed penetrative). We live in a society of possession and he preaches prosperity through possession. Yet, none of that could protect his libidinal borders.

This isn't about him. It's about those of us who don't have these possessions. How ever will we “protect” ourselves? The media harps on the innocence of the accusers and the church speaks about the possessions they lacked (e.g., they were poor kids, broke into the church, tried to steal possessions). The media and church also speak about Long in terms of material possession, his wife and children included. He has attained this stuff, so these intimate zones of contact, these desires for companionship seem contradictory at best, scary at worst. Salient is the relationship between possession of stuff (capitalism) and modes of expected social sexual behavior.

We've got to rethink what it means to be a sexual being. We have to be attentive to how capitalism works with and against modes of religious desire. As such, culpability in my estimation is a concern for the possibilities to think through and against modes of power, of authority, of religious or embodied text. If we can allege Long, religious tradition is ledged, place on the sill about to topple over and break. To put to question the very questions is to think about alleging as a condition of possibility for new modes of existence that do not depend upon suppression and relegation, but rather openness celebration.

More intriguing for me, though, is the notion of legibility, the possibilities for discernment. There is a social life occurring underground, outside, beneath the surface. It’s that open secret that everyone suspects but few respect. Who has this knowledge, this discernment? Astonishment comes by way of the kind of social life – men (and more expansively, all gendered folks) laughing, loving, sexing, hugging, enjoying each other’s company – inhabiting the homophobic zone of Black Christianity makes possible.

To steal a question from Moten for my own purpose: “what if desire is correspondent to a certain kind of event to which a certain set of social conditions make possible?” I want to displace the question of Long’s particularity, of his alleged acts to ask; rather, what are the social conditions in which he (and his accusers, and many, many others in similar positions) have desire?

Being set on the outside of any institution does not mean that life simply goes away, that folks don’t have relationships, don’t want to love. It means that they (we) find ways to do it in the space of impossible conditions. This is not to claim that it’s cool for Long to be homophobic, an abuser of power or boys. But to step aside from that question, I ask what sorts of possibilities for life exists for those who have been and continually are constrained, compressed? The sort that is alleged regarding Long is certainly one possibility.

But there are others as well: where having a coke with a lover in the public square can become an occasion for poetry; where the secret smiles and winks and nods body forth love. I am interested in what the social conditions for desire to be enacted are. The possibility of a Black Queer social life – not merely as supplement but constitutive – in the face of Black Christianity’s very denial of this social life allows us to be attentive to how desire for relationship, for sociality, is a spiritual thing.

 And…

 watch this, watch this, and watch this

 ...someone should preach about that.

With thanks to Mark Anthony Neal, PhD, at New Black Man.

Ashon Crawley is a graduate student in the department of English at Duke University.

 

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