Recently, I realized the heart’s capacity to hold both extreme tragedy and utmost joy simultaneously. Surely this is something I’ve experienced in the past, but both personal and nation-wide events have served as poignant reminders. First, the racism that primarily persists in microaggressive forms—in the underbelly of a society that too often prides itself in the heinous sin of “colorblindness,” claiming that racism no longer exists in the United States—reared its violent head in the most blatant and painful ways in the slaughter of nine innocent people in Charleston. Because the shooting took place in a church, some media outlets have tried to claim that the shooter’s intentions were to attack persons of faith. It is clear, however, based on Dylann Roof’s words, photos, and history, that these killings were hate crimes targeted specifically at black people. Hearts broke. Lives ended. We, as a nation, were reminded, all too soon and yet again, that the lives of black people are valued less. Racism is present, evil, persistent, both blatant and hidden. It is more than hearts can hold.
Only days later SCOTUS ruled that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. As my wife and I were packing to leave on a year-long journey throughout the country, we had already made copies of our marriage license (from Maryland before North Carolina recognized the legality of our love), two separate adoption decrees because our state did not recognize us as a family when my wife first adopted our child a brief 20 months ago, and all of the other legal paperwork that we could use to “prove” the legitimacy of our family in the case of an emergency (if medical staff wouldn’t permit us both to be in a hospital room with our child, for example). With those files copied and stored neatly in a suitcase, everything changed for us. Now, no matter what state we visit, our family is legally recognized. And while I’d like to think that our paperwork is no longer necessary, I know that the legality of the court’s decision doesn’t automatically change the hearts and minds of everyone in the country. Heteronormativity still reigns supreme. While we rejoiced at the ruling, we simultaneously acknowledged that marriage is only one small step in dismantling straight supremacy. Though countless couples can now marry, receiving all the legal rights and privileges therein, many may still live in states that allow LGBTQs to be fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity, where housing may be denied, where hate crime protections do not include sexual orientation or gender identity, and the list could continue. Still many queer people, myself included, found ourselves reveling in utter joy.
The day the court announced its decision, the life of the slain pastor of Mother Emanuel A.M.E., Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was remembered in a memorial service where President Obama sang and offered a eulogy. I wondered, in the midst of the entrenched racism embedded in systems of power, and in the love spilling out of those beloved rainbow flags, how our hearts could hold both realities at once. As I found myself—like many others—alternating between tears of joy and tears of rage, I realized how often these two seemingly disparate emotions are an ever-present reality for most people and communities with intersectionally oppressed identities. I thought about the number of times I’ve heard my fellow queer activists claim that the black church needs to better support the LGBTQ community, as though the “black church” is monolithic. I thought about the number of times I’ve heard my fellow queer activists remind others within the movement of the importance of standing for racial justice, forgetting that many queer people are, indeed, people of color, too. While it is true that more white queer folks need to work for racial justice, it is also true that statements like the previous one make the assumption that being queer and being a person of color are somehow mutually exclusive. Clearly this is not the case. If my heart was torn between raging at the violence waged against black lives and celebrating that queer love was finally being acknowledged, I couldn’t imagine how the hearts of my beloved queer black friends and colleagues were faring. And it’s not simply in the past few weeks, but every week, every day, every moment, that those with intersectionally oppressed identities must experience the rending of hearts, the paradox of falling in love and having one’s heart broken at the same time.
Even as I write I cannot quite find the words. I try to nuance how my own white privilege clouds my understanding and find myself grasping, longing, remembering, hoping. As a writer, I count on words to help me articulate. Sometimes they can. And sometimes they cannot. As an artist, I often also turn to painting to help with nuancing, a creative attempt to better understand. And as an intersectional feminist scholar, I often also rely on the brave stories of women who have gone before me to help with that nuancing.
Earlier this summer—before the massacre, before the ruling, before the move—I painted two saints, martyrs from the Christian tradition who were also black and sometimes recognized as queer. Though I cannot yet articular precisely how, their story—and their hearts—is what I find myself coming back to over the past weeks. I first learned of Perpetua and Felicity on Kittredge Cherry’s blog, Jesus in Love. Now they join my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist.
Perpetua and Felicity were North African women who were arrested for being Christian in the third century. Imprisoned together, there are stories that the two women—described as “dear friends”—held one another and kissed in their final moments before death on March 7, 203. Perpetua kept a diary, which is acknowledged as one of the first written documents by a woman in church history. Though Perpetua was married, her husband is conspicuously absent in her journals. The famous John Boswell first named Perpetua and Felicity as one of the three primary pairs of same-sex lovers in the early church. It is impossible to know whether these bold women were lovers, but we do know that a history of heteronormativity has codified thousands of years of details where lovers were remembered as “dear friends,” “companions,” their lives and loves unrecognized until, well, June 26, 2015 (in the United States, that is). Amidst this sullied history, Perpetua and Felicity have been lifted up as the Patron Saint of Same Sex Couples.
And I do not claim that their stories and lives directly parallel either the shooting in Charleston or the court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage nation-wide. But there is something about the intersectionality of their being that resonates and provides strength, rage, celebration, and hope in the face of it all.
As our hearts break and mend, only to break and mend again, the united heart of Perpetua and Felicity beats bold and true. Centered on the canvas, as the two women embrace one another, their heart cries out to us:
Comfort, love, and a holy kiss
Bound their hearts in
The moment of death,
Embracing so that all
May we also embrace all so that all may embrace.
Angela Yarber 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, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, and Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com