Painting Baby Suggs by Angela Yarber
Each month I am writing an article that discusses one of my Holy Women Icons, which are an array of icons painted with a folk feminist twist. These Holy Women Icons are comprised of biblical women, such as the Shulamite, feminist scholars, such as Mary Daly, artists, dancers, and women from mythology and literature. This month, I’d like to focus on a holy woman whose preaching embodied eschatological imagination and whose dance liberated broken bodies. This holy woman cannot be found within the confines of scripture or met in the flesh. Rather, her preaching and dancing are found within the pages of Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. If ever there was a holy woman who preached on behalf of all those broken and bound it was Morrison’s stunning character, Baby Suggs, holy.
Eschatological imagination is a communal foretaste of resurrection that does not suppress the social conflicts and injustices of racism, poverty, slavery, and privilege. Through the preaching and dancing of Baby Suggs, enslaved bodies are redeemed and transformed into resurrected bodies. A slave herself, Baby Suggs leads all the black men, women, and children to a clearing each week for worship. After inviting men to dance, children to laugh, and women to cry, she offers up one of the most beautiful sermons on behalf of her enslaved community. Morrison describes the efficacy of Baby Suggs’ message, saying:
She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glory-bound pure. She told them the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
Rather than proclaiming that we’ll “understand it better by and by,” Baby Suggs invokes heaven-on-earth in the here-and-now. In a manner similar to the many double entendres embedded in early spirituals—where the message of liberation is encoded in the message of salvation—this old black slave woman uses her voice and body to assert the freedom of eschatological imagination, proclaiming:
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs, flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick ‘em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. They only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it.
This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh.**
Resembling the ring shout typified in the brush/hush harbors of slave worship, Baby Suggs dances in response to the redemption her broken body feels and experiences. And her community of faith—those gathered in the clearing—respond with their own dances. Their dances and words may not end suffering, but they make life more livable. Such dance, proclamation, and the underlying concept of eschatological imagination are the inspirations behind my icon of Baby Suggs. Situated on a large, flat-sided rock she stands erect and proud, even with her twisted hip. From the squared canvas she proclaims the Word:
From among the ringing trees
Her great, big heart beat,
Preaching on behalf of all those broken and bound
Flesh deeply loved and free
And it is because of the proclamation of strong women like Baby Suggs that the bodies of black women and men find liberation, their dances pulling the very pieces of heaven down to earth so that all may find freedom and equality here and now. Or, as womanist activist and author, Alice Walker, once stated so poignantly, “No one can end suffering except through dance.”
**Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Penguin Group, 1987), 88-89
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com