The Black Church, the Blues, and Black Bodies by Kelly Brown Douglas
“Ooh, Ohh there’s something going all wrong”, Ma Rainey sang. There is indeed something going all wrong in the black church. This church, which is born out of the commitment to safeguard the life and freedom of all black people, has gained a reputation for repudiating if not demonizing certain black bodies, namely LGBT bodies. While there are certainly significant black church leaders who have vigorously defended LGBTQ person’s struggle for justice and equal treatment under the law, including support of marriage equality, those black church voices against LGBTQ rights have been vociferous and unrelenting. They have garnered and welcomed significant attention as they have suggested that LGBTQ sexualities are sinful and a “violation of the law of God” and same-same sex marriage violates Godly marriage, which is marriage between a man and a woman. Such a stance is striking when one considers the historical black struggle for social equality and the Black Church’s prominent role within that struggle. It appears inconsistent, if not blatantly hypocritical, for the Black church community to be in the forefront of racial justice concerns yet resistant if not repressive when it comes to the rights of LGBTQ persons. It is equally surprising for a people’s who were once denied the right to marry persons of their free choosing to deny such a right to others. Yet, as contradictory as such views appear, the reasons for them are just as complex. The way in which black people’s own bodies and sexuality have been maligned and manipulated by white racist ideology to justify their oppression, especially during the slavocracy, has shaped black people’s responses to various social issues, especially sexual matters. Caricatures of black women and men as immoral animals driven by abnormal and uncontrollable sexual desires has caused black people to adopt narratives toward sexuality in order to insure that they are not seen as abhorrent or immoral when it comes to sexual matters. Black church people’s vehement responses to LGBTQ sexualities and same-sex marriage reflects a persistent history of racially sexualized oppression. Nevertheless, even while we may appreciate the complexity of black church attitudes toward LGBTQ concerns, these attitudes must be confronted and challenged for such thinking indeed betrays the black faith tradition—a tradition which is predicated on the belief in a God of freedom and justice. It is for this reason that I have found myself singing the blues.
Blues women, such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Alberta Hunter and others carry forth in their music and in their lives a radical black faith tradition which maintains a liberator God as well as a belief in the sanctity and freedom of all black bodies. As these women sang unabashedly and without inhibition, about their own sexual preferences and appetites, they freed themselves from any narratives or stereotypes which would deny them agency over their own sexual bodies and limit their sexual choices. They granted neither the sexualized stereotypes of black people or black people’s repressive responses to those stereotypes any authority. They did not validate them. Rather they transcended both and crafted a new black identity, while at the same time testifying to a God who affirmed them as embodied sexual beings. And so it was, that a Ma Rainey could sing for God to bring her a man, or that Bessie Smith could sing “I ain’t here to try to save you soul/Just want to teach you how to save your jelly roll” (“Preachin’ the Blues.) These women, whether intentional or not, actually point to a God that cares as much about the needs of their bodies(sexual and otherwise) as the salvation of their souls. Indeed, blues women suggest that a saved soul is inextricably related to a free body. And so it is, that for blues women freedom and salvation meant nothing less than their ability to be fully who they were as embodied sexual beings.
And so it is that I sing the blues—for it are those blues singing women that I believe can lead the black church back to its own radical black faith. It are those blues singing women that carry forth the revelation of an incarnate God, one who affirmed the sanctity of the sexual body. If the black church community is ever going to be a place where all black bodies are accepted and thus, right the wrong in the Black church community then it must join Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and other blues women, and sing the blues. If it does this, then it will find its way back to where it belongs, in the forefront of movements for justice and freedom—including the movement for LGBTQ justice.
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.