Queering the Soul

Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0024371/00001

Material Information

Title: Queering the Soul Homoerotic Spiritualities in African-American Literature
Physical Description: 1 online resource (149 p.)
Language: english
Creator: Moore, Marlon
Publisher: University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: 2009


Subjects / Keywords: baldwin, gomez, homoerotics, homospirituality, religion
English -- Dissertations, Academic -- UF
Genre: English thesis, Ph.D.
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
born-digital   ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation


Abstract: Queering the Soul combines African American literary theory, feminism/womanism, and black theology to argue for a black queer aesthetics that is in conversation with the broader culture in regard to issues of the afterlife, metaphysicality and theological notions. Queering the Soul examines 20th-century narratives of the black experience some famous, others obscure that entwine notions of God or spiritual pursuits with prominent characterizations of same-sex desire. This cultural terrain has been, indeed, a site of politicized struggle for decades, and I will show how this literary tradition, queering the soul, works to dissolve the sinner/saint binary in discourses that pit people with LGBTQ identities against so-called people of faith ; and the good/bad binary inherent in many descriptions of the spirit-body division. To that end, Queering the Soul investigates the narrative strategies in the fiction of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Becky Birtha and Jewelle Gomez as they demonstrate the ways representations of homoerotic spiritualities can serve as tools of resistance to such polarizing discourses.
General Note: In the series University of Florida Digital Collections.
General Note: Includes vita.
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: Description based on online resource; title from PDF title page.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The University of Florida Libraries, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Statement of Responsibility: by Marlon Moore.
Thesis: Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Florida, 2009.
Local: Adviser: Horton-Stallings, LaMonda.
Local: Co-adviser: Emery, Kimberly L.

Record Information

Source Institution: UFRGP
Rights Management: Applicable rights reserved.
Classification: lcc - LD1780 2009
System ID: UFE0024371:00001

Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0024371/00001

Material Information

Title: Queering the Soul Homoerotic Spiritualities in African-American Literature
Physical Description: 1 online resource (149 p.)
Language: english
Creator: Moore, Marlon
Publisher: University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: 2009


Subjects / Keywords: baldwin, gomez, homoerotics, homospirituality, religion
English -- Dissertations, Academic -- UF
Genre: English thesis, Ph.D.
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
born-digital   ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation


Abstract: Queering the Soul combines African American literary theory, feminism/womanism, and black theology to argue for a black queer aesthetics that is in conversation with the broader culture in regard to issues of the afterlife, metaphysicality and theological notions. Queering the Soul examines 20th-century narratives of the black experience some famous, others obscure that entwine notions of God or spiritual pursuits with prominent characterizations of same-sex desire. This cultural terrain has been, indeed, a site of politicized struggle for decades, and I will show how this literary tradition, queering the soul, works to dissolve the sinner/saint binary in discourses that pit people with LGBTQ identities against so-called people of faith ; and the good/bad binary inherent in many descriptions of the spirit-body division. To that end, Queering the Soul investigates the narrative strategies in the fiction of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Becky Birtha and Jewelle Gomez as they demonstrate the ways representations of homoerotic spiritualities can serve as tools of resistance to such polarizing discourses.
General Note: In the series University of Florida Digital Collections.
General Note: Includes vita.
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: Description based on online resource; title from PDF title page.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The University of Florida Libraries, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Statement of Responsibility: by Marlon Moore.
Thesis: Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Florida, 2009.
Local: Adviser: Horton-Stallings, LaMonda.
Local: Co-adviser: Emery, Kimberly L.

Record Information

Source Institution: UFRGP
Rights Management: Applicable rights reserved.
Classification: lcc - LD1780 2009
System ID: UFE0024371:00001

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2 2009 Marlon Rachquel Moore


3 This project is dedicated to al l the dykes, faggots, sissies, punks, bois, bulldaggers, unwifeable women, bitches, butches, hoes, infidels, heretics, witches, heathens, conjurers, healers and any indecent, uncouth folk who know they got soul.


4 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I thank m y advisors, including those who guided me in unofficial capacities: LaMonda Horton-Stallings, Kim Emery, Tace Hedrick, Kevin Qu ashie, Stephanie Evans, Charles Nero and Mark Reid. I also thank Jean and Robin Gi bson for their generous endowment through the Florida Foundation.


5 TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS...............................................................................................................4 ABSTRACT.....................................................................................................................................6 CHAP TER 1 THE WHY & WHAT OF QUEERING SOUL ........................................................................ 7 Why...........................................................................................................................................7 What........................................................................................................................................20 2 SANCTIFIED SISSIES AND SACRED MU SIC: BLESSED ASSURANCE AND JUST ABOVE MY HEAD..................................................................................................... 24 3 UNGODLY THEOLOGIES: IN THE LIFE AND THE COLOR PURPLE ......................52 In the [After] Life................................................................................................................53 God is (a) Pussy: Homoerotic and Masturbatory Spirituality in The Color Purple ...............71 4 HOMOEROTICS OF TALK IN THE GILDA ST ORIES .......................................................84 5 THE EROTIC COMMUNION OF BROWN HEATHE NS, BLACK QUEERS AND ANCESTRAL SPIRITS IN BY THE LIGHT OF MY FATHERS SMILE ...........................108 Christian Lies............................................................................................................... .....123 Heathen Truths......................................................................................................................126 Conclusion or, Wrapping It up in Queer Soul...................................................................... 136 Where Do We Queer from Here?......................................................................................... 139 WORKS CITED.................................................................................................................... ......141 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.......................................................................................................149


6 Abstract of Dissertation Pres ented to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy QUEERING THE SOUL: HOMOEROTIC SPIRITUALITIES IN AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE By Marlon Rachquel Moore May 2009 Chair: LaMonda Horton-Stallings Cochair: Kim Emery Major: English Queering the Soul combines African American literary theory feminism/womanism, and black theology to argue for a black queer aesthetics that is in conversa tion with the broader culture in regard to issues of the afterlife, metaphysicality and theological notions. Queering the Soul examines 20th-century narratives of the black experiencesome famous, others obscure that entwine notions of God or spiritual pursuits with prominent characterizations of same-sex desire This cultural terrain has been, indeed, a site of politicized struggle for decades, and I will show how this literary tradition, queering the soul, works to dissolve the sinner/saint binary in discourses that pit people with LGBTQ identities against so-called people of faith; and the good/bad binary inherent in many descriptions of the spirit-body division. To that end, Queering the Soul investigates the narrative strategies in the fiction of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Becky Birtha and Jewelle Gom ez as they demonstrate the ways representations of homoerotic spiritualities can serve as tools of resistance to such polarizing discourses.


7 CHAPTER 1 THE WHY & WHAT OF QUEERING SOUL Why In Spiritual Interrogations a fascinating study of 19th-century African American womens writing, Katherine Bassard claims, Significantly, the struggle for empowerment, agency, and subjectivity within a cultural and communal frame of reference is nowhere as evident as in black womens negotiations with prevailing religious discourses (21, original emphasis). Her analysis focuses on four women, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Phyllis Wheatley, Ann Plato, and Jarena Lee, who used their writing to transform white and male supremacist rhetoric into reflections of their material realities and spiritual journeys. Bassard explains the empowering aspects of their appropriation of Christian terminology a nd their seizing upon conversion discourse in a context of slavery. For individuals socia lly cursed with a racialized and othered subjectivity, convers ion represented one of the few discourses, and certainly the most prominent, holding the promise of a radical change in subjectivity. If one could move from sinner to saint, she/he could also move from slave to free, [and] from bondage to freedom (Bassard 23). The authors in Bassards research subtly refashioned the rh etoric and applied their own interpretive lens to the power and promises of religion. Through the gift of salvation they were able to claim a liberated identity and perf orm a type of freedom in religious rituals. Rebecca Cox Jackson is an especially intere sting subject because she not only used her writing to transform discourse in the manner described, she embodied a critique of a womans place in the church hierarchy through her visibili ty as an itinerant preach er. Bassards title of the chapter about Jacksons writ ing, Rituals of Desire : Spirit, Culture, and Sexuality, echoes the holy trinity at the center of Queering the Soul, but for different reasons. Jackson practiced celibacy independently for twelve years before she discovered the Shaker community, a radical


8 Christian sect within which celibacy was a theolo gical pillar. She believed that God called her to celibacy as a rejection of the sins of the fles h. This stance made of her an outcast from the black Christian community because her message of celibacy was disruptive of the patriarchal construction of family vis a vis the womans responsibility to regenerate the race. Meanwhile, her race alienated her in the traditional white congregation. In her autobiography, Jackson decries her spiritual a nd social isolation: The Christian Church would be set before me, with all their Bishops and Elders, all living in th e works of the first Adam. I saw nobody lived the life I was called to live. I then entreated to the Lord to tell me why it was that I was called to live a life that nobody lived on the earth. Then in answer to my request, I have a people on earth that live the life I have called you to live. (qtd in Bassard 112) Her reference to the first Adam is a way of saying that her contemporaries were following Old Testament creeds that had been superseded by Je sus, who is called the last or second Adam.1 Jackson critiques their sexist practices as th e result of misguided in terpretation. Also, her message of celibacy is so roundly rejected that sh e imagines no one else lived the life. So she goes to Godit is he, after all, for whom she livesseeking affirmation and a fellowship community. He grants her both. After leaving the AME denomination Jackson met Rebecca Perot, and the two moved to Watervliet [New York] to join the Shaker family. [They] lived together for over thirty-one years, the rest of Jacksons lif e, and Perot was often referred to as Rebecca Jackson, Junior (Bassard 114). What I notice firs t about the list of events is the sequence. First Jackson rejects the masculine hierarchy of bishops and elders; then God promis es her a people; she finds a black female companion; together they move into the Shaker family where they share a life until Coxs death. If a memoir ist illuminates a particular memory to create a sense of identity through


9 that image (Murdock 11), what are we to make of these series of events? Cox uses her spiritual autobiography to map and justify the controvers ial religious choices she made. It has been suggested that, had they lived in a later period, Cox and Perots relationship would have been interpreted as lesbian. Bassard finds the evidence inconclusive. I raise this issue not to argue for or against a lesbian reading of this couple. Perhaps their racial isolation in an otherwise allwhite community was enough reason for them to create a sanctuary in which their shared blackness was privileged. Rather, I want to use th eir story to demonstrate how a queer space of interpretive possibilities is opene d up when their religious bond, or their practice of spirit, culture and sexuality, is considered in a nonhete rosexist paradigm. In sh ort, I want to queer Jacksons soul. The verb to queer comes from the movement within lesbian and gay studies to reclaim the pejorative queer as a term of empowerment and is defined as the taking up of the notion of queerness as a serious subject, object and technique of criti cal inquiry. For its proponents, queer is a more inclusive term for describing nonheteronormative sexualities and identities; for it moves beyond the hetero/homo binary and opens up liberatory discourses to include bisexual, transgender and intersexed populatio ns. As a critical lens, queer is informed by post-structuralist theorization of identity as both provisional and c ontingent; as such, it challenges and critiques the finite definitions of sexual identity around which lesbian/gay politics is organized. So queer emerges as a politics of difference and ambiguit y. And as an intellectual model, it opens up the semantic field and allows multiple and sometimes contradictory impulses, desires, and articulations of sexuality and gender. Both in culture and politics, queer [theory and identity] articulates a radical questioning of social and cultural norms, notions of gender, reproductive


10 sexuality and the family (Smyth 42). To qu eer Coxs text means to open it up for broader inquiry in relation to concepts such as desire, celibacy, and female separatism. In that light, when confronted with the fact that Cox and Perot lived together for thirtyone years in a cultural context in which spiritual families were privileged over biological ones, a queer analysis would ask: What if Jacksons 19th-century perspective lacks the tools with which to interpret or articulate her absence of de sire for heterosexuality other than as Gods will for celibacy? Folks in their community responded to their intimate mentor-protg relationship by calling the younger woman the juni or version. What if she and Perot shared an erotic bond that was only viewed through a religious lens? Wa s there some sensual in teraction that was not interpreted as sex and, theref ore, allowed a continued claim to celibacy? What can we glean from Coxs descriptions of Perot and other women? Is there an eroticization of the Shakers female deities or the other cultural markers in Jacksons visions and dreams? 2 For some people, this is a reading into the text, a topical digression from the interlocked systems of race, cla ss, gender and religion clearly ar ticulated in Coxs recollection. But feminist studies of language, womanhood and identity have shown us that sexuality is embedded in and fashioned by each of those system s. Theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid asserts that religion is especially obse ssed with what is considered de cent sexuality. Based on sexual categories and heterosexual binary systems, obs essed with sexual behaviour [sic] and orders, every theological discourse is implicitly a sexua l discourse (Althaus-Reid 22). So what can our contemporary knowledge contribu te to an analysis of a 19th-century relationship between two deeply religious women? I wonder what we miss, what is skimmed over in a feminist analysis that is not transgressive? Queer ness is the iceberg tip that brea ks through the watery surface of culture.


11 A queer analysis would be a reading of Jackson s journals as a ritual space that calls for a redefinition of early African American womens spirituality and cultural performance (Bassard 9) and one that refuses to overlook the possibi lity that community, spirituality and homoeroticism could be fused into Coxs tr ansformative use of la nguage. This is the interrogative essence of Queering the Soul: Homoerotic Spiri tualities in African American Literature. I introduce my interpretive fram ework this way to indicate that the act of queering, that is, connecting sex and eros to conventional definitions and e ngagements of the soul, is not necessarily a brand new concept (does not Jackson embody a religi ous queerness?) and, simultaneously, to insist that my analytical a ngle brings newness to an interrogation of black spirituality. Like Bassards text, Queering the Soul reveals the struggle for empowerment, agency, and subjectivity through nego tiations with religious discourse. This project began as a search for Ja mes Baldwins (1925-1987) literary progeny. Baldwins attempts to disentangle the knotty dilemma of the black, sexually queer, Christianidentified subject make him a transitional figure in African American letters. His work highlights what previous black literary polit ics (Uplift and New Negro ideolo gies) had obscured: that samesex desire and homosexual identities exist in Af rican American communities. He often situated this desire in religious families. For example, in his 1953 novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain Baldwin transforms the laying of holy hands on the threshing floor of a Pentecostal church into a moment of homosexual realizati on. Critics have highlighted the va st modes of spirituality in African American literature since the Ha rlem Renaissance but, Baldwin scholarship notwithstanding, few literary studies have observed th e homoerotic versions of this trope. So this project grew from the question, who since Baldwin is writing about the ways black LGBT people think of themselves in relation to notions of the sacred, God, and the afterlife ?


12 Along with queer theory enumerated above, I us e gay/lesbian criticism as the entry point in my study of 20th century African American literature. Particularly, Charles Neros essay, Toward a Black Gay Aesthetic (1991) has pave d the way for my work. Nero highlights how black gay writers in the 1980s critiqued heterosexism and ho mophobia by signifyin on the black church, among other rhetorical devices. How ha ve black men created a positive identity for themselves, Nero asks, and how have they cons tructed literary texts which would render their lives visible and therefore valid? (229). In the same vein my research asks, how is black queerness represented? Where is it affirmed ? What do black writers who identify as queer/les/bi/trans contribute to our understandi ng of black identity, spir ituality, and community? Contemporary religious-political discourse still assumes a mutually exclusive binary in which people of faith are set apart from gay /lesbian communities; it is an antagonism that situates queer sexual identities in the inferi or ideological position. Fo r a person whose sexual activity is not strictly heterosexual or whose desire s, sexual identity and/or family structure is not heteronormative, the negative eff ect of being considered evil or unnatural can be profound and totalizing. People either internalize this nega tive image or, as Baldwin did, struggle against it. Queering the Soul is concerned with those artists whos e work struggles to casts off those classifications and re-figures the relationship between faith, spirituality and sexuality. A cursory review of black gay li terature reveals that it has, understandably, always been concerned with these themes. In 1986 Joseph Beam published In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology to fill the racial void in the gay litera ry scene and because, as he states in the introduction, visibility is survival (14). In the Life brought together writers who would continue to impact literary culture, such as Melvin Dixon, Essex Hemphill, Samuel Delany and Assotto Saint. One compelling essay in the book is Rev. James Tinneys piece entitled, Why a


13 Black Gay Church? Tinney lists th ree core needs this kind of c hurch can meet: the development of the black gay spiritual community, the possibilit y of shared power in relationships with other Christian churches, and the re alization of authenticity. The opening paragraph on the authenticity discussion mer its full repetition here: The development of Black gay churches will make it possible for Black gay Christians, for the first time, to hear th e gospel in their own ways, and reinterpret the gospel in their own cultural context taking into account both race and sexual orientation at every step in this process. In a socio-poli tical sense, this is called contextualization; in a psychological a nd existential sense, this is called authenticity; and in a biblical sense, this is called conversion. (76) Again, the reader is confronted with the socially and racially othered subject who negotiates and transforms religious discour se into a means for commun ity building, empowerment and reinterpreted subjectivity. Beams anthology was soon followed by the self-published success of E. Lynn Harris Invisible Life (1991), which foregrounds religious homophobia and the impact of AIDS. On its heels appeared James Earl Hardys urban homo-thug novel, B-boy Blues (1994). My focus on the masculine lineage is not to sugges t that there were not re presentations of female homosexuality being published in the black gay renaissance, as it has been called. Ann Allen Shockley created the first African American interracial lesbian romance in Loving Her (1974); Octavia Butlers debut sci-fi novel, Patternmaster (1979), contains a healer who has been interpreted as bisexua l; Gloria Naylors Women of Brewster Place (1980) features a lesbian couple; and Alice Walkers Pulitzer prize-winning The Color Purple (1984) continues to inspire. Nonetheless, black gay litera ture dominated popular cutlure in the 1980s and early 90s, while the feminist movement was the main pl atform for advancing black lesbian literary contributions.3 Particularly, the nonfiction writings of Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, Alice Walker and Barbara Smith are known for their refusa l to privilege heterosexuality in their antiracist, anti-patriarchal politics. Their represen tations of blackness werent acceptable at first


14 either. In the forties and fifties, Audre Lorde reminisces, my lifestyle and the rumors about my lesbianism,[sic] made me persona non grata in Black litera ry circles (qtd in Hall 73). Undeterred, she produced work that continues to challenge those gatekeepers who seek to narrowly define blackness and womanhood. The love expressed between women is particular and powerful, continues Lorde, because we had to love in order to live; love has been our survival (Hall 73). As Joseph Beams sentimen ts above and Lordes echoing statements here reveal, survival is a dominant th eme in the earliest cultural pr oductions of gay-, lesbianand bisexualidentified artists. While gay and lesb ian-themed novels, poetry and short stories have flourished (relatively) in the publishing industry since the 1980s, the focus in nonfiction genres has remained, necessarily, on narratives of the closet, silence, shame, coming out, violence, and civil politics. Queering the Soul shifts the spotlight to narratives of living out (of the closet) and stories of spiritual fortitude. Because of the themes of spirituality and liber ation, the critical framework that I use is also strongly influenced by various writers within Black Theology, an academic discipline within religious studies developed from the political tene ts of Black Power. The earliest work in this field was guided by a political investment in provi ng that black American Christian religions are indeed theologically based and relevant to the struggle for racial justice.4 The doctrinal shift in Black Theology represents the move away from integration politics of the civil rights era; emphasizes the independence from white controlled church hierarchies; and is committed to a Black Aesthetic. At its inception, the paradigm broke most conn ections with white Christian norms as they related to biblical interpretation, the role of religion in social change, and worship practices.


15 So during the cultural shift to an emphasis on black power politics, seminary students and religious scholars began to affirm their folk tr aditions and African orig ins. These scholars also searched their religious history for a tradition of political commitment to freedom. They found much historical support such as: Richard A llen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church who spread the abolitionist message in his churchs pamphl et; David Walkers 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World in which he distingui shes between the pseudoChristianity of American slaver y and true Christology, which prom ises liberty to all believers; Harriet Tubmans claim that visions and prophetic messages from God assisted her on the Underground Railroad; and similarly, preacher a nd slave Nat Turners confession that it was the voice of God that told him to slay his enemies with their own weapons when he led the uprising against white slave owners. Ultimately, th e black theologians found that the struggle for political freedom had always been located in the black church, incl uding those invisible institutions during slavery, in wh ich enslaved people met in secret, or prayed into holes in the ground to muffle the sound. The Black Theology of the late 1970s and early 80s marked the rising influence of the feminist movement. Black women were entering seminary school in larger numbers than ever before. This generation of mini sters and religious scholars intr oduce the notion of a Womanist Theology, an adaptation of Alice Walkers extens ive definition of womanist consciousness. The aim of their work was to define a womanist libe ration agenda that is di stinguishable from the Eurocentric, middle class focus of white feminism and the male supremacist myopia of the first generation of Black Theology. Promin ent voices include Renita Weems Kelly Brown Douglas, Cheryl Sanders, and Delores Williams. There are th ree important strategies that they introduced to black religious studies: 1) the use of womens roles in the bible to challenge conventional


16 views of women in ministry. 2) the advocacy of holistic theology with an emphasis on folk culture and 3) the use of black womens novels as primary sources for locating theological concepts. The latter, feminist-inflected school of Black Theology is the most influential to my work in Queering the Soul because literature is understood to be a reflection of the black communitys central values and cultural experiences. Katie Canon, the first black female ordained Presbyterian minister in the US, is someone who has been pro lific in her study of ethics and spirituality in black womens fiction. She explains why black womens literature is such a rich source: As creators of literature black wo men are not formally historians, sociologists, or theologians, but the patterns and themes in their writings are reflective of historical facts, sociological realities and religious convictions that lie behi nd the ethos and ethics of the black community. (57) In other words, this literature may not presen t hard facts but it can represent lived truths. Building upon Canons exploration of literature for ethos and ethics, my work in Queering the Soul is a search for similar elements in gay/lesbian narratives. Furthermore, the most recent discourse in black theology (early 90s to present) is a move to transform the conservative stance in bl ack religious communities concerning sex and sexuality. This generations focus is on lessening the restraints on female sexuality in general and includes the voices of gay/lesbian/bi -ident ified clergy that have identified a need to acknowledge multiple sexualities and calls for recognition of them as sacred. It is within this subset of Black Theology that I locate the most radical integrations of spirituality and sexuality. These concerned scholars, parishioners and mi nisters challenge religious attitudes towards sexuality, the occlusion of sexua l variability, and the affect th ese factors have on individuals, families and communities. James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore anthologized some of these


17 dialectical essays and reports in Black Theology: A Documentary Anthology (1993). For example, Elisa Farajaje-Jones outlines an in the life theology which grows out of the experiences, lives, and struggles against oppression and dehumanization (140) of nonheterosexual religious folk. In Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line (1996), Michael Eric Dyson makes the case for a theolog y of eroticism (91) that resists extreme self-denial that has little to do with healthy sexuality (93). He argues that mere repression is not the proper perspective. Weve got to find a mean betw een sexual annihilation and erotic excess. Otherwise[Christians] will continue to be stuck in silence and confusion (101). Dysons message stresses the links between spirituality and sensuality and advocates an inclusive liberation theology. Kelly Brown Douglas also br oadens the scope of spiritual liberation in Sexuality and the Black Church (2003) by asserting that an anti-homophobic sexual discourse of resistance is necessary to disrupt the terrorizi ng manner in which black people have used biblical texts in regard to homosexuality (107). Other advocates include Anthony Pinn and Dwight Hopkins, who co-edi ted the anthology, entitled Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic (2004). They encourage their readers to see that liberat ion must not only involve the restructuring of socioeconomic, political, and cultural space, it mu st also involve an appreciation of the body and the pleasuring of the body (6). G. Winston James and Lisa Moore bring these notions further along in Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black Gay/Lesbian Identity (2006) by featuring spiritual narratives of diverse spiritu al perspectives and sexual identities that serve as count er voice, text and knowledge (xiv) from within the black experience. Despite the subtitle, Spirited actually moves beyond affirm ation; indeed, it renders spirituality as a matrix of erot ic schemes, soul-deep knowledges, and sacred bodies with circuits


18 that intersect, overlap and crisscross. In its entirety, this literary lineage enacts a powerful queering of black culture by crea ting fissures in heteronormativ e discourses of spirituality. This project relies on that li terary lineage of religious st udies and sexual discourses as it attends to homoeroticism and spirituality in litera ture. Hence, the first definition (of two) of the term soul in Queering the Soul is spirit: that which is understood as an immortal essence within living beings and is believed to be a se parate entity that thrive s after physical death. The soul is understood as the place from which intellect, emotion, intuition, prophecy, and talents all spring forth. It is the ultimate Self encased within th e outer shell, the physi cal self. My work is concerned with the conventional belief, in Chris tian interpretations in particular, that these selvesthe spiritual and physical are always in conflict. Acco rding to most interpretations, once the soul is converted, the body still makes demands that threaten the souls well-being. Most famously, Jesus is quoted as saying the spirit indeed is w illing, but the flesh is weak. This construction of conflicting selves creates a good/evil dichotomy in which the body pulls a person towards petty, selfish, primal urges, which implicitly are not sacred; so the body is always already evil and must be overcome for the sake of the soulwhich belongs to God. The second application of soul is an understa nding of soul culture that emerged during the Black Power Era. It is an expression of bl ack consciousnessa recognizable black identity politics. Portia Maultsby charac terizes it best in the anthology Soul: Black Power, Politics, and Pleasure : Therefore, soul has both sociopolit ical and cultural functions and meanings. From a sociopolitical perspective, it advocated awareness, Black empowerment, and a Black identity. From a cultural perspective, it identified expressions symbolic of a Black style or a Black way of doing things, as well as a range of traditions unique to African AmericansBlack behaviora unique cuisineBlack cultural institutionsand creative expressions. (270)


19 Soul bespeaks aesthetics, ideals of cultural unity, and African herita ge. Although it cannot be completely excised from turn of the 20t h-century iterations, such as Dubois Souls of Black Folk, the black in black queerness has politically a nd historically specific connotations. Ultimately, soul in Queering the Soul is meant to evoke African Amer ican cultural specificities. Both meanings of soul apply simultaneously. It is both the racialized, phenotypic category assigned to people of African descent in the US, and a conc eptualization of an i mmortal, inner self. Lastly, my work is framed by literary theo rists that invoke dialectics and multi-vocality as critical tools for understanding African American literature. Namely, Mae G. Hendersons essay, Speaking in Tongues: Dialectics, Dial ogics, and the Black Woman Writers Literary Tradition, (1989), Audre Lordes Uses of the Erotic, (1984) and Barbara Smiths call to consciousness, Toward a Black Feminist Cr iticism (1977) are th eories and cultural perspectives that undergird my arguments. Anothe r important influence in literary studies is Bahamian scholar Melvin Rahming, who coined th e term spirit-centered as a way to describe those texts which foreground human interaction with spiritual forces. In his essay Theorizing Spirit (2004), Rahming charges that traditional cr itical approaches lack interrogational depth when confronted with the non-We stern concepts of reality (2) particular to Africana fiction. A text is spirit-centered [w]hen its ideological and aesthetic structur es consequently have as their primary function the dramatization of spiritual co nditions and spiritual act ivity (5) and, as such, require a spirit-centered criticism which can quali tatively assess a texts potential for spiritual enrichment or cultivation. Th at is to say, we need to properly recognize when spirit is the story and is a possible manifestation in the reade rs response. Rahmings exploration of the relationship between spirit and literary criticism has been useful for illuminating the symbolism, cosmological tenets and ot her cultural politics that propel the narratives in Queering the Soul.


20 So the methodology in Queering the Soul derives from and operates within multiple traditions and related discourses that all have an underlying liberation agenda. My contribution to this epistemology is a concentr ation on homoeroticism within th e illustration of the spiritual dimension. This project offers but a sampling of the narratives that entw ine notions of God or spiritual pursuits with prominent characterizations of same-sex desire. In fact, some of the fictional representations of spirit/spirituality discussed in Queering the Soul parallel the sentiments put forth in contemporary religious discourses. In some cases, a writer moves beyond sanctioned doctrines into visionary fields of th e afterlife and the transcendent mysticism of unauthorized mythologies. Also, there is much appropriation and subversion of the Christian bible and, at times, a reveling in African or Native American cons tructs of holiness and ancestral intervention. What strikes me most about this group of artists is that their narratives treat the body-spirit relationship not as a conflict between good/bad desires or sacred/profane expressions, but rather, they depict it as the sensory experience in concert with the soul. Each writer works to dissolve the sinner/saint binary or, the more general, good/bad binary inherent in many descriptions of the spirit-body division. What This project is an expression of queer soul, as the chapters ar e arranged thematically rather than chronologically. This structure f unctions more like a topographic mapillustrating grooves and peaks in the landscape of traditionrath er than a historical tracing of phenomena. Each chapter features close readi ngs of one or two representations of a singular trope within the queer soul theoretical umbrella. I identify the tr opes by their rhetorical work: the duplicitous use of sacred music; the articulation of ungodl y theology; a homoerotics of talk; and erotic communion. By the end, it becomes clear that these strategies of anti-homophobic resistance


21 overlap in some places and critically diverge in others. Overall these depictions of blackness in the spiritual realm share a politics of undoi ng, appropriating, or out right rejecting the condemnational aspects of Christian rhetoric. My examination begins in Chapter Two with examples of queering that manifest as the duplicitous use of sacred music. I employ the DuBosian concept of black double-consciousness along with Roderick Fergusons assertion that queer racial formations present ruptural possibilities to support my readings. Just as en slaved people used Spirituals to code their yearning for freedom or to announce the plan for escape, 20th century writers create a doublemeaning in religious songs to illustrate hom oerotic desire. Langston Hughes short story Blessed Assurance (1963) provides the first exam ple. It is a tale of competing masculinities within the black church: working class patria rchy, the black preacher, and the black sissy. Hughes focus on the choir boy character queers the black church because it highlights the gay subculture that exists within gospel choirs. Th e second example of duplic itous use of religious music appears in James Baldwins last novel, Just Above My Head (1978) I analyze the gay romance between members of a gospel quartet. H ughes and Baldwin enact a queering of the soul through double entendre wherein erotic desire is inserted into religious musical expressions without negating the religious meaning of the song. Chapter Three explores the articulation of an un-godly theology in Becky Birthas short story, entitled In the Life (1987) and Alice Walkers The Color Purple (1984). The spiritual concepts in Birthas text ar e ungodly precisely because in thei r rendition of how the universe works, God is either not mentioned or is not a centralized, static c onstruction. Also, ungodly is used here to connote its colloquial usage: ind ecent or immoral. In the second section of the chapter, I build upon Angela Y. Davis arguments in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998)


22 to posit Color Purples Shug as a blueswoman evangelist This chapter argues that ungodly theologies shatter the ideological barriers between nonnormative sexuality and access to the sacred realm. They also struggle to undo philo sophical divisions between bodily pleasure and spiritual ecstasy. Chapter Four combines Audre Lordes ideas in the essay Uses of th e Erotic with Karla Kaplans notion, called an erotic s of talk, for a reading of The Gilda Stories (1996) by Jewelle Gomez as a black female homoerotics of talk. The protagonists development into an ethical vampire and her African American cultural accoutrements combine to critique racial and gender oppression, as well as explore the pol itics of black lesbian desire. Chapter Five is a study of Alice Walkers lesser-known novel, By the Light of My Fathers Smile. Like Gomez, Walker uses speculative fiction to re present the eternal soul-force of black queerness and to instruct readers through the spiritual princi ples at work in the text. To that end, By the Light lays plain Walkers philosophical av ersion to Christianity. Essentially, hegemonic Christianity is blamed for the psychospir itual damage that manife sts in the lives of an African American family. By the Light enacts a queering of the soul by maintaining that African American Christians suffer from a false consci ousness, depicting black female sexuality as potentially fluid, and insisting upon an erotic connection to the spirit world. On the whole, Queering the Soul proposes a way of reading. It offers up these artists, theorists, and characters as the presence of counter-knowledges, counter-visions and counterschemes, and as a community that is otherwise sc attered about in the disc ursive winds of gay rights or lesbian fiction. I propose that we reconsider our understand ing of black strivings against emotional and sexual bondage. For these irreverent, indecent, heretical ministries


23 worship the rising spirit of desi re. They convey a sense of community and wholeness derived from the love of sensuali ty, self, humanity and soul. NOTES 1 Paul refers to Jesus as the last Adam in 1Corin thians 15:45. Second Adam is a commonand contested variation of this phrase. Pauls teachings also refer to Jesus as the end of the law in a manner that is interpreted to separate the Mosaic Law (Ten Commandments and book of Leviticus) from the teach ings of Jesus (see Romans 10:3-5). 2 There is scholarship that addresses Coxs lesbian sensib ility. My point here is to demonstrate the limitations of a study of Coxs rituals of desire which mentions but does not address the homoerotic nature of her dreams and visions. This is important because Cox believed that visions were manifestations of Gods voice speaking directly to her soul and eventually founded a separate black female Shaker community. I am pointing out the possibilities that Bassard chose to ignore so as to segue way into a discussion of queer as a critical lens. 3 I am referring to material platforms, i.e. feminist presses, bookstores and publications. 4 Black theologians were responding, in part, to their white counterparts who we re debating in religious journals and conferences about the role of religion in the Civil Rights Movement.


24 CHAPTER 2 SANCTIFIED SISSIES AND SACRED MUSIC: BLESSE D ASSURANCE AND JUST ABOVE MY HEAD In the last two decades, hundreds of essa ys and books have been published with queering in the titles, such as Queering the Renaissance and Queering the Canon which illuminate, challenge, or deconstruct heterose xist assumptions in traditional analytical approaches to classic European and American literature. This publishing flurry indicates the taking off of the movement within lesbian and gay studies to reclaim queer as a term of empowerment and the taking up of the notion of queerness as a seriou s subject, object and critical lens. For its proponents, queer is a more inclusive term for describing nonheteronormative sexualities and identities. But like a ny politics that privile ges one aspect of identity or a single perspective of consciousness over others, queer studies often lacks significant engagement with intersecting systems of power, a nd therefore fails to rec ognize multiple sites of oppression and resistance that can mutually exist within one persons daily existence. So queers of color began to fill the theore tical gaps. Recent texts such as Aberrations in Black: Toward A Queer of Color Critique Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture, Queer Race: Cultural Interventions in the Racial Politics of Queer Theory and Black Queer Studies bridge queer studies and black studies. They represent critical formations in academia concerned with the multiplicity of black identity and invested in queerness as a lens and politics that can open up possibilities of subversion, empowerment and freedom. Queering the Soul: Homoerotic Spiritua lities in African American Literature contributes to that formation by illuminating the intersection of black institutional power, black identity politics, and lesbian/gay liberation. Queering the Soul is a study of moments in Africa n American literature in which protagonists, narrators, a nd authorial techniques reveal a qu eer-affirming philosophy of the spirit.


25 That is, they present counter discourse to th e dominant narrative of homosexual condemnation. Importantly, it is also an expl oration of transgressive sexual identities, sex acts and gender performances within those same texts. This project med itates on the intertwining of blackness, homoerotics, and spirit in a narrative, so as to identify any theological/spiritual perspective it constructs. This particular ch apter pinpoints moments in which the expression of unsanctioned erotic desire is inserted into religious/theol ogical reflections. I call it sanctified sissies and sacred music to relay that the major characters are participating members of an organized religion. Sanctified is defined as the opposite of sinful and, in African Am erican communities, is used to designate a Christian lifestyle in wh ich a person abstains from many typical secular activities and wears conservative clothing styles. More genera lly though, it means a person of the church. The person of the church under analysis in this chap ters two textsBlessed Assurance by Langston Hughes and Just Above My Head by James Baldwinis an effeminate gospel singer. The spirituals and gospel music tradition have been established as sites of resistance as much as they are black cultural expr essions. As Mary Allison reminds us, The spirituals were far more revolutionary than most people, until recently, have imagined. Close examination shows just how subversive they were, and it is no t surprising that so many were used as freedom songs by the ci vil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Songs like Go Tell it on the Mountain were all spirituals being used a second time to stir up a spirit of resistance. (qtd in Scott 166) The characters in this chapter claim this spir it of resistance through th eir songs and in their refusal to conform to a straight performance of masculinity in their religious service. The cultural context is a black institution and the stru ggle is to define their experience in their own


26 terms. The oppressive context of that experience necessitates subterfuge and subversive use of an already coded language. The Spectacle of Sweet Mascu linity in Blessed Assurance For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetryPolitics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection. Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country. Therefor e, how can a poet keep out of politics? Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise you are dead. Langston Hughes, qtd in I Dream A World: The Life of Langston Hughes Volume II Langston Hughes advises the writer who delves into politics that it may cost him his audience. He knew only too well. By 1964 he had suffered through New Negro politics, communist and socialist sympathies, and the US House Un-American Activities Committee. His desire to be with and for his pe ople often drew the ire of his critics and eventually limited his publishing opportunities. The epigraph is from an unpublished manifesto a bout the role of the artist in society that was discovered after his death. The manifest o was written a year after he published Blessed Assurance, which is his only s hort story to deal directly with black male homosexuality. The appearance of this tale might seem significant simply because it could offer insight into the rumors that Hughes lived a cl oseted gay lifestyle. His love life seems mysterious mainly because, although he never identified as homosexual, Hughes never married or publicly partnered with a woma n. Yet, Blessed Assurance is not mysterious or closeted in dealing with black queer masculinity. Instead Hughes creates a politicized spiritual space for addressing black queer masculinity in a church community by offering a tale of an aging father, John, struggling to accept his sons homosexuality. Arnold Rampersad, Hughes biographer, characterizes the narrator as a sophisticated voy eur (334) who neither criticizes nor endorses the son or his organist-admirer (334) but th e gender politics conveye d through black fatherhood and black worship are anything but neutral. It is this cultural milieu that allows Hughes to hang himself in his own words. His text engages th e intersection of religi ous expression, sexuality,


27 sensuality and ecstasy. With humor, sarcasm, and the poets keen ability to capture truth in tiny snippets, Blessed Assurance illustrates how t he body is the one organizing site of multiple and competing signifiers within the black chur ch service (Johnson, Feeling the Spirit 92). Indeed, the spectacle of Delmars queer body signifies the multiplicity of black identity, resistance and spirituality in his performance of sacred music. Religion professor Johari Jabir supplies part of the analytical foundation for the queering of soul in this story. In a panel presentation, entitled Preachers and Punks, Sissies and Saints: Constructions of Black Religious Masculinity in the Climactic Mo ment of Black Worship, Jabir argues that in the theater of traditional black churches, the performances of the male preacher and the male musician construct a hierarchical masculine/effeminate binary, which privileges the preacher by placing him in the masculine space. I n the context of black worship, these two masculinities cooperate and colla borate to construct each others masculinity through two of the most essential material aspects of black wors hipthe pulpit and the Hammond B3 organ (4). Jabirs formulation identifies the literal space of creativity and authority each man occupies but oversimplifies their duality. In theatrical terms, the musician, also called the Minister of Music, is the opening act. The title can comprise as many roles as choir director, lead musician, vocalist or songwriter. The production of music or song in the service of God is considered a type of evangelism, for he surrenders to the Spirit and serv es as its vessel; his talent is an instrument of God. The ministers ability to compose, arrange, or sing is his service and worship of the holy giver. Still, in the greater scheme of the church program, he is the sub-minister. Spatially, he is the director in the orchestra pit who provides the soundtrack to the pr eachers center stage monologue. Although men and women serve in this position, it is feminized because it is historically a womans supportive place in the church (along with teaching, while men are


28 conventionally pastors and deacons). So as it is with other feminized occupationshair stylists, fashion designers and dancersa male pianist/or ganist is always alr eady sexually suspicious. Because of the musicians feminized masculinit y, the preacher is the alpha-male almost by default. Even so, the intrinsic role of music and singing in the (tradi tional protestant) black worship service places even the most flamboyantly gay and gifted musician upon a high pedestal in the community. Jabirs commentary also points to the conflict within the preachers and punks dynamic. The words from the pulpit rise and fall against th e pianos music, each in dramatic pursuit of the audiences emotional/physical/spiritual releas e, until the sermonic climax is a moment simultaneously cooperative, collaborative, and contesting (Jabir 4). The call-and-response pattern of the piano and preachi ng is a collaborative effort, and the rhythmic vocals of the preacher cooperate with the swaying chords played by the musician. The sacred nature of the pursuit is unquestioned. But in their separate ae sthetics and performances of black religious masculinity these actors disagree, Jabir explai ns, not about the goodness of God but about the meaning of what it [is] to be a man (4). Jabi rs queering of the ideological tensions that can exist between sermon/song and Prea cher/Minister of Music sets the stage, so to speak, for Hughes short story. Blessed Assurance expands and revises the preacher and punk dyad into a triangulated, overlapping connection of relational forces: black patria rchy, black gay men and the institution of the black church. The first point on the masculinity triangle is John, who represents black patriarchy. John is coming to terms with the fact that his only son, Delmar, is gay. The narration seems sympathetic to Johns homophobic re signation that to [his] distrust of God [,] it seemed his son was turning out to be a queer (58) Not only is Delmar a queer, he is also the most controversial


29 representation of black male sexuality. Delmar is a sissy. The early passages supply a catalogue of Delmars sweet characteristi cs: he performs his chores wit hout complaint, washes dishes too easily, does not antagonize hi s younger sister, played with dolls in his childhood and wears exaggerated ornamental glasses. His preferred spor t is tennis, not his fathers game of football, and he is a member of the glee, French and dram a clubs. We are given this list, ostensibly, as proof of Delmars sweetness, his failed masculinity, and of Johns rightful parental embarrassment. But we soon learn that these pass ages are not really a bout Delmar, they are about Johns failure as patriarch. John has fathered an intelligent, talented and likeable son. He is described as a brilliant queer because as his social resu me reveals, he is well-rounded and excels in his high school studies. He is on the honor roll, is ranked highly in his class and has avoided the allure of the street life. No juvenile deli nquency, no stealing cars, no smoking reefers, ever (58). However, Delmars brilliant queerness is, for John, testim ony of his inability to transmit a socially acceptable masculinity to the next generation. Delmar is also a brilliant queer in terms of his physical appearance and mannerisms. As is expe cted of him by society, John has attempted to guide his son towards what he considers more appropriately gendered behavior. In the quote below the author tags the synonyms for sweetne ss or queer with italicized emphasis: That Spring he asked, Delmar, do you have to wear white Bermuda shorts to school? Most of the other boys wear Levis or just plain pants, dont they? And why wash them out yourself every night, al l that ironing? I want you to be clean, son, but not that clean. Another time, Delma r, those school togs of yours dont have to match so perfectly, do they? Colors blended as you say...The boysll think youre sissy Once again desperately, If youre going to smoke, Delmar, hold your cigarette between your first two fingers, not between your thumb and fingerlike a woman. (59) Here his brilliance is physical; his is a shiny masculinity, marked by its flawed motion among other black male bodies. Delmars brilliant qu eerness highlights his nonconformance to working


30 class masculinity: his affinity for white(ness) or bourgeois sensibilit y, a level of cleanliness usually associated with women, a keen sense of fashion, and the cigarette reference suggests he imitates movie starlets. In other words, Delmar lacks a cool pose, a mask of tough posturing defined, in part, by restrained and aloof masculinity associated with African American men, constructed to hide sensitivity and express power (Majors and Billson 5). Johns explanations for his criticism tie into his desire for Delmar to be read as cool by other men. He wants Delmar to meet a particular standard set by him ( I want you to be clean), his male peers at school (the boysll think) and societal norms (notlike a woman). Assuming the plot is set in Hughes c ontemporary moment of the 1960s, John may represent the black Power paradigm which gene rally views sexual queerness as incompatible with the building of a black Nation. In this na tionalist framework, an effeminate man is often regarded as the weakest link in the fight agai nst white supremacist mythologies that have naturalized black sexual devian ce since slavery, and since this is a father-son relationship, Delmar represents a generational shift away from those values.1 While historical context is always an important aspect of understanding literature, further suppos itions about the Black Power Eras influence on Hughes anti-homophobic project will not substantially change the reading of this text or add greatly to Hughes possible motiv ations. Heterosexism, homosexual taboo in black racial politics, and the constant suspicion of Hughes homosexuality all predate the 1960s. Throughout the post-emancipation history of black people in Amer ica, there has been cultural pressure to properly represent the race. Sissies and punksand dykes for that matter have always been positioned rh etorically outside the bounds of proper black representation. E. Patrick Johnson describes this constant imposition of heteronormative pressure as hegemonic


31 blackness, wherein maleness, stre ngth and overall leadership abil ity are qualities equated with hetero-butch masculinity: The representation of effeminate homosexuality as disempowering is at the heart of the politics of hegemonic blackness. For to be ineffectual is the most damaging thing one can be in the fight against oppression. Insofar as ineffectiveness is problematically sutured to femininity and homosexuality within a black cultural politic that privileges race ove r other categories of oppression, it follows that the subjects accorded these attributes would be marginalized and excluded from the boundaries of blackness. (51) In other words, the feminized man is generally an unacceptable representative of black leadership and strength. Hegemonic blackness le aves little room for gender and sexual transgression, as is evidenced by Hughes own sexual ambigu ity. His sexual history remains shrouded in mystery, presumably to maintain hi s respectable position as folk laureate of black America.2 In a similar cautionary vein, the narrator states that John is mo re concerned about his sons transition into adulthood because the boy is colored [and] Negroes have enough crosses to bear (58). John is aware that black mens dreams can be thwart ed by the obstacles of racism alone, without the additional fallout from the homophobic surveillance of sexuality in and outside of black communities. To be black and iden tifiably queer is to be marked for social (and sometimes physical) crucifixion. So John is c oncerned about the weight of the homosexual stigma for Delmar and, more crucially, for himself because Delmars improper performance of masculinity reflects directly upon him as the patr iarch. In spite of his efforts to dull it with normative correctives, Delmars queerness remains radiant. John is also a failed husband. He lost his wi fe to another man who made more money than any Negro in their church. Owned a Cadillac. Racket conne ctionspolitely called politics (59; original emphasis). Th at John is unable to maintain a cohesive family unit is another mark against his manhood. The mention of the other mans political and financial clout


32 suggests that John may have lack ed in his role as breadwinner or simply that the new mans income dwarfs Johns. He also calls his wifes new lover burly, reveal ing that he is also physically larger than John. In patriarchal symbology, these featur es combine to construct the new man as the alpha-male and John as th e punk. Clearly, Johns issue with Delmars masculinity is intertwined with his own sense of displacement and deficiency. He finds some relief in Delmars wish to attend the Sorbonne in Paris. Like many parent s, he had hopes his son would attend his alma mater, Morgan State Un iversity in Baltimore but that, too has changed. Now he simply wants Delmar out of the way because John will soon host a reunion with his fraternity brothers. The historic ally black college and the black fraternity are enclaves of hegemonic blackness that will not easily accept Delmar. [I]s the Sorbonne like Morgan ? John ponders. Does it have dormitories, a campus? (60). He considers Dellys future and we ll being, but the admission of his probable homosexuality never firmly settles in his mind. To acknowledge to himself the motivation behind his sudden advocacy of the Sorbonne, is to acknowledge the other trut hs as well. As John meditates, the narration tumbles into garble d stream-of-consciousness to demonstrate his ambivalence. In Paris he had heard they didnt care about such things. Care about such what things didnt care about what?( 60). Time and again John struggl es with denial. In the most provocative passage, as he seems to come to term s with Delmars sweetness, his mental process begins to break down: God, dont let him put an earring in his ear like some, John prayed. He wondered vaguely with a sick feeling in his stomach should he think it through then th en think it through right then through should he try then and think it through should without blacking through think blacking out then and there think it through? John didnt. (59-60)


33 The repetition of the phrase think it through is significant. What will happen if John can think this situation through to its logi cal conclusion? Can Delmar be queer and a legitimate extension of Johns manhood? As the symbol of black patriarchy, John clings to a self-destructive macho ideology that insists he expel Delmar from the community. The other embedded question is, should he (and we) think this th rough without blacking out? Blacking or blocking out is a mental self-preserving mechanism in which the brains subconscious protects the conscious from painful realizations; that is, information is literally set outside the reach of memory to prevent furt her trauma. Johns attempt to think it through launches him into vertigo. In orde r to avoid the implications of the truth, his inner voice gets stuck like a needle on a scratched record, jumping back to its starting poin t or skipping so that the same word is repeated without progression: with a sick feeling in his stomach should he think it through then then think it through right then through should he try then. Blacking out also symbolizes the African American polit ics of extracting, obfuscating or otherwise suppressing information of possibly deviant behavior of its brightest and most influential members. Black sexuality is considered polit ically, morally, and spiritually correct if it expresses itself in patriarchal, religious-based co nstructions of family, polit ics, art and culture [, and] any variance or transgression can cause one to be burdened with shame (Hemphill 182). Barbara Smith highlights these b lacking out campaigns in her ex amination of black historians treatment of lesbian subjects. Sm ith found The themes of uplift, of social validation, and of prioritizing subject matter that is a credit to th e race have burdened and sometimes biased black historical projects (89). John is the voice of old guard politics as it confronts the shifting landscape of black representation that emerges in Delmars generation. He must choose whether to think it through or black out.


34 Johns desire to keep Delmar hidden from black institutions illustrates the nexus of contradiction that is the sissys existence: his sexuality renders him unseen in the landscape of black male-authored masculinity; yet his femi nized presence in black communities, albeit despised and perceived as emasculated, is hyper-v isible. Delmar must be removed because his sweet masculinity is spectacular and therefore alienating. Yet there is another dimension to Johns hope for Delmars future in Paris. Paris ho lds symbolic and historic freedom in the lives of many African Americans. At one time it wa s an American colony in France where many generations of black artists (of all sexual orientations) and white homosexuals fled to escape the tyranny of racism and sodomy laws in the US, including Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Richard Wright. Hughes first encountered Eur ope as an impoverished dishwasher aboard a ship, but he would eventually return severa l times as a famous author in search of sanctuary. To suggest it as a site of particularly gay refuge evokes Baldwins tragic romance in the novel Giovannis Room .3 More important is Dellys unwillingness to exercise caution in the face of this cultural pressure to deny or suppress his differe nce. On the contrary, Delly, with the aid of his churchs Minister of Music, acts out his queerness in a particularly Christian spotlight. Manley Jaxon is the Minister of Music at Tried Stone Baptist Church and Delmar is a member of the choir. As discussed earlier, in this profession his queerne ss is overdetermined. It is a space marked as queer, even if the male occupant does not exemp lify any tale-tell signs. Hughes relies on this assumption; he expects his readership to know that he is marking Jaxon as queer simply by having him occupy that space. Perhaps with this connotation in mind, Hughes names the minister Manley. This could be read ironically or as a hint that Jaxons masculinity should be distinguished from Delmars (hes manly as opposed to girly). Th is is supported by the


35 fact that Delmars nickname is Delly, a clear evocation of Dolly or Nelly (a colloquialism for sissy). Manley is positioned as the black gay site (with Delmar) on the competing masculinities triangle. He introduces Roderick Fergusons ruptural possibilities into Jabirs preachers and punks scenario. Ferguson convincingly argues that queer characters disrupt heteronormativity by supplying an oppositional voice that expands the construction of blackness within the narrative. The presence of thes e nonheteronormative racial form ations serve as discursive ruptures, critiques and alternatives (Ferguson18) to regulatory discourses. As a sub-minister in the church, Manley competes with John in the shaping of Delmars manhood. Thus, it is meaningful that as part of his masculine inst ruction he composed a song based on the Christian Bibles Book of Ruth dedicated it to Delmar and, without respect for gender (Hughes 60), assigned Delmar to sing lead. The decision to have Delly sing Ruths song provides the first ruptural and critical act. It disrupts the religious reinfor cement of proper gender binaries. The bible story they musically reenact establ ishes Ruth as Jesus ancestor through her celebrated relationship with her mother-in-law Naomi. Ruth and Naomi simultaneously lose their husbands to some unnamed catastrophe and, according to Hebrew law and custom, are expected to separate and find new husbands to support them. However, inst ead of moving back into her fathers house until she can remarry, Ruth defi es tradition by moving with Naomi to Bethlehem and supporting her better than seven sons (Rut h 4:15). Her loyalty is exemplary because she chose to leave the family, culture, and religion of her birth for Naomi. In Lethal Love, Mieke Bal observes that the verb used to describe Ruths attachment, to cleave, is the same one used to refer to the matrimonial bond in Genesis (72). Ruth pleads, Entreat me not to leave theefor where you go, I will goyour people will be my people, and your God will be my God. This


36 moment is heralded as the greate st proof of Ruths love and devotion to Naomi and, in a larger sense, towards the Hebrew God. When Manley assigns Delmar to quote these words as lead vocalist, he asks Delmar to perform as Ruth in the musical (imagine a ma n singing of Eves experience with the serpent). The affect of having him do so transforms the church into a queer space in which two men can vocalize their devotion to each ot her. Meanwhile, As the organ we pt and Delmars voice soared above the choir with all the sweetness of Sam Cookes tessitura (61, emphasis added) Manley fainted. When the music stops unexpectedly, Amens and Hallelujahs drowned in the throats of various elderly sisters who were on the verg e of shouting [and] swooning teenage maidens suddenly sat up in their pews (61). By fainting, the musician interrupts the womens pleasurethe sisters and maidensas he su ccumbs to his own. The sweetness of Dellys voice creates a male-on-male connection that supe rsedes that of male-to-female communication implicit in his role as musical foreplay to the preachers soulful penetration. It would be a disingenuous stretch to imply that men do not faint or respond with emotional exuberance in church, yet it is more co mmonly depicted in literature as a feminine reaction to the touch of the spirit Poet Pat Parker illustrate s it thusly: Daughter of Ham lies on a church floor/ filled in orgasm with her Ma ker / a spent lover ignoran t of a hard bed (55). Similarly, Nella Larsens Quicksand narrates the writhings and weepings of the feminine portion [of the congregation], which seemed to predominate (141). Larsens protagonist Helga Crane observes, Behind her, before her, beside her, frenzied women gesticulated, screamed, wept, and tottered to the praying of the preacher The women dragged themselves upon their knees or crawled over the floor like reptiles, sobbing and pul ling their hair and tearing off their clothing. (141-42)


37 In terms of literary representati ons, Hughes portrayal revises th e heteronormative scene into a spectacle of queer disruption. Manl ey is a sight because he get s happy so quickly and in so feminine a manner. Still the program is far from over; conversely, the energy of the show is further channeled into and ont o the continued queer spectacl e of Delly and Manley. When Manley collapses, their duet (t he sweet voice accompanied by the weep[ing] organ) becomes Delly/Ruths serenade. When the organ went silent, the choir died, toobut Delmar never stopped singing. Over the limp figure of Dr. Jaxon lying on the rostrum, the Entreat me not to leave thee of his solo flooded the church as if it were on hi-fi. Finally, two ushers led [Manley] off to an anteroom while Delmars voice soared to a high C such as Tried Stone Baptist Church had never heard. (61) Delmar in the lead role is the first transgression in the conser vative church space. The second is that they display a homoerotic spirituality. They are able to express an unsanctioned same-sex love through their holy worship. Rather than choosing unambiguous sides in the punks/preachers or sissies/ saints conflict, they blur the lines and become sissified saints and preaching punks. The text queers the soul by al lowing black gay bodies to become sanctified vessels of nonnormative religious performance. As in the slaves routine of dual coding, their song is duplicitous for it as much a spiritual as it is a love song. Delmar as the singer is the souls mouthpiece, the passageway through which the souls desire is manifested as breath, tongue and vocal chords. Manley, in his role as the organ(ist), is a natural accompaniment to th e lyrics. When the mouth moves, the organ surrenders or, as Delmars sister explains to John: Some of the girls say that when Delmar sings, they want to scream, theyre so overcome, but Dr. Jaxon didnt scream. He just fainted (61). They utilize the space in religious rhetoric for queer transgression and subversion. We know that Delly and Manley have a close relationship because, be sides the song dedication, it is


38 mentioned that they broke away from the group to visit Greenwich Villa ge together during a choir trip to New York. If we believe that Manley and Delly are romantically involved, the religious song can then be interp reted to serve dual rhetorical purposes. First, when he sings over Jaxon, the lyrics declar e his emotional loyalty. In light of his possible departure for France, Delly may be using the songalready understood as a same-gender sentimentto express his desire to remain close to Jaxon. Second, in his role as soloist he is also the vessel through which The Word as lyric is projected into the world. His song refers to family loyalty as analogous to the Christian devotion to God. A trad itional reading might assert that the gender of the lead singer should be overlooked and the mome nt understood only in terms of his role as a Christian singer, but the narrative ma kes clear that this exhibition, for John at least, is perverse. Together they raise a praisesong to the heaven s and to each other. They expand the traditional interpretation to vocalize that if Ruth and Na omis cleaving is a worthy, holy celebration so, too, is theirs. The preachers reaction is to assume control of the service, at which time the triangle of competing masculinities comes sharply into focus. The pulpit masculinity is at odds with the singers masculinity, whose performance, in turn scandalizes the patriarch. Dr. Jaxon has only fainted, friends, Pastor Greene assures the st artled crowd, We will continue our services by taking up collection directly after th e anthem (61). It is unclear if he is directing the choir to finish the song without Jaxon or announcing the end of the anthem. But John believes it is a signal for his son to continue his indecent lyrical drag show and trie s to intervene. Five times he orders Delly to shut up. For a moment ther e is silence and the next voice is Reverend Greenes. We will now lift the offering Deacons, raise a hymn. Bear us up, sisters, bear us up! (62). The pastor wants to put the derailed program back on its heteronormative track so he


39 enlists other, more traditional men to take co ntrol and the women to assist in their longestablished secondary function. While Christianity is not the sole source of Western gender-role ideologies for black Americans, it is a major one [it] is certainly the case that patriarchy is a protected modus operandi, a visible if unacknow ledged tradition, and one of the most cherished and tenacious values in the Black church (Cole 160). The choice of language is telling, for it is couched in terms of physical labor. Hegemonic blackness toils to veil or close the fissures through which nonheteronormative formations emerge Deacons are told to raise a hymn, to lift a song over any remaining echoes of Dellys hi gh C, while the women are instructed to bear upcarry, endure, holdthe men. Even the change in the musical genre from the improvisational spiritual to the contained compos itions of the hymn book s uggests an effort to control the environment. It is not enough. The next voice is not that of a deacon or a woman. It is Delmars. His voice boomed through the cultural pressure to return to the groups idea of natural order. He does switch to the hymn, Blessed Assurance, from wh ich the title of the story is taken, but it is in the spirit of resistance. He refuses to be silenced by the voices of normative mascul inity. In fact, the hymn further demonstrates the space in religious rhet oric for dual coding and double-consciousness. Delmar sings the first two lines alone: Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine! Following his lead, the congreg ation swung gently into song: Heir of salvation, purchase of God, Born of the Spirit When Delly transgresses the restrictions of patriarchal gender performance, he negates [Christianitys] attempt to censure his presence, to erase his body, to deny his legitimacy as a child of God (Dyson 235). More conflict follows. At that moment, during the pause between lines, Johns voi ce bursts through with an irreverent ad lib. God damn it! he cries twice. Hughes places this outburst immedi ately after Delmar claims to


40 be born of the Spirit because this is precisely what is contested. Can De lly be unnatural and a holy heir? The long held interpretation of th e Old Testament is that God condemns men who lay with men, and in his frustrated sh ame John cites this wrathful decree. God damn it, he repeats with emphasis, as he is still unable to think it through beyond th e implications of his own masculinity. Fortunately, Delly gets the last word, as he si ngs along with the other saints that he, too, is born of the spirit and washed in His blood (62). The story ends with Dellys triumphant claim over Johns and Reverend Greenes dispute. Ye t the ellipses at the end of the last verse signify the unfinished or omitted ending of the actual song. The lines that follow Dellys lyrics comprise the chorus, the meaning of which deserves attention. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. Whose story is this really? The narrative begins with Johns depressed interiority but it is qu ickly hijacked by Dellys sweet e xpressions of individual will. We are never allowed inside Dellys head, perhaps because Hughes project is to engage and dismantle the homophobic perspective. Delly does not pr oduce a counter-argument via conversation or interior monologue ; he embodies a disruption of nor mative discourses. He is the singer and the song that queer s black church culture. Whose song? Is it the authors, whose auto biography is described among other things, as a tour de force of subterfuge in which deep er meaning is deliberately concealed from the reader? (Rampersad xvii). Ultimately, this line of analysis raises more questions than it could possibly answer. What we do know is that Hughe s sissy successfully transforms his gender transgression into a critique of heterosexism and hegemonic blackness, while he claims validation through the same Bible whose prohibition his performance defies. If we are to believe the epigraph in which Hughes implies that his most dangerous politics are embedded in his art,


41 we can say with some surety that he is inve sted in unveiling and an tagonizing the cluttered contradictions and ironies that exist in the triangulated relationship between homosexual men, black patriarchy and the historic institution of the black church. Dellys Christianity and his queer masculinity exist within and are articulated through one song, one lyric, one belief system. As we will see in the next section, James Baldwin makes very similar rhetorical moves in a text that also queers the soul through sacred music. Baldwins Sacred Sensuality James Baldwins contentious relationship w ith his upbringing in holiness culture, from his experiences as a child evangelist to his ev entual rejection of Christianity as a false consciousness as an adult, is the source of copiou s scholarship and is, perhaps, the subtext of all of Baldwins literature. The most definitive discussion of his loss of faith is The Fire Next Time in which he says I remember feeling dimly th at there was a kind of blackmail in [religion]. People, I felt, ought to love the Lord because they loved Him, and not because they were afraid of going to Hell (347). Baldwin connects his disillusionment to his maturation as a reader and writer. His consciousness of the cr eativity required to write his se rmons led him to reconsider the authors/authority of the Bible. He knew far more about divine inspiration than [he] dared admit at the time (346). I knew how I worked myself up into my own visions, and how frequentlyindeed, incessantlythe visions God granted me differed from the visions He gr anted to my father. I did not understand the dreams I had at night, but I knew that they were not holy. For that matter, I knew that my waking hours were far from holy. I spent most of my time in a state of repentance for things I had vividly desired to do but had not done. (346-47) This passage hints at the synthe sis of the sacred and profane (p resented here as states of consciousness/unconsciousness and wake/sleep) that will fully bloom in Baldwins novels. What


42 he means is that his desires were not holy acco rding to his religious paradigm. His emotional development was mired in conflict: even as he was called to preach, he was also being confronted by his budding sexuality. When he reflects upon his teenage years in Fire, he conflates sexual fantasies with holy visions. The implication is that his spirituality and his sexuality spring from the same place. When seen in this light, it becomes clear that his conflict begins not with God but with his religion, with th e differences between his beliefs and his reality, with what he has been taught and his self-discove red truths. It is an ov erwhelming struggle that ends in his casting off the cloak of the ministry and, eventually, organized religion altogether: [W]hoever wishes to become a truly moral human beingmust divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concep t of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him. (352) In spite of this seeming outrigh t rejection, Baldwin never fully gets rid of God or escapes the pulpit. He wrestles with the prohibitions, crimes and hypocrisies in every text, from essays and book titles to his characters dialogu e. While his numerous texts ar e filled with the influence of holiness cultureits songs, rhetorical style, and tropesthis discussion will focus on a few passages in Just Above My Head Baldwins last novel. The pa ssages encapsulate how Baldwin queers the soul through his duplicitous use of sa cred songs, a queering wh ich reconceptualizes Christian notions of the bodys rela tionship to its spirit. Gospel mu sic is represented as a coded expression of an oppressed community, butmos t importantin Baldwins work it is also represented as a coded expression of sexual desi re (Scott 144). In a novel awash with sexual baptisms (Harris 169) Baldwin por trays spirituality, the ways one expresses a connection to the divine, as an erotic connection between men of faith.


43 According to linguist Kenneth Burke, religious expressions are imbued with a sacred aura because they represent the ethereal, and then are used among secular terminologies to apply that sacredness to the secular experience. According to him this is a linguistic paradox: For whereas the words for the supernatural realm are necessarily borrowed from the realm of our everyday experiences, out of which our familiarity with language arises, once a terminology has been developed for special theo logical purposes the order can become reversed We can borrow back the terms from the borrower, again secularizing to varying degrees the originally secular terms that had been give n supernatural connotations. (7 italics added) So the paradox is that a word that conveys a sacred notion is set asideborrowedin the consciousness as metaphysical or su pernatural and then, for effect is moved back into the realm of the natural, even though it is always the language of the physical world.4 These words inherently represent the physical because this is the limit of human experience. Still, the psychosocial weight of its supernatural status is real. In semiotic terms, a sign that represents the heavenly or godly sphere can bestow its sanct ity or supernaturality upon other signs in its discursive system. Once considered holy or sacred words, they are borrowed back into secular speech for an intensifying affect. Langua ge of the sacred, when used to modify the language of the everyday, can raise that word or phrase the level of the sacred. Baldwin employs this borrowing back technique in a candid scene by interposing his description of eroticized flesh with lyrics from a spiritual. He creates an aura of sacredness around that which is deemed abominable and unholy, and transforms a moment of sin into one of tr anscendent carnality. Just Above My Head is the story of a gospel-singer-turne d-soul-artist, Arthur Montana. It is narrated by Arthurs brother as a eulogy for the artist who lost his song shortly before he died. Among several other subplot s and characters, it recounts his coming of age during the Civil Rights Movement and chronicles his romantic life and international crossover fame. This


44 analysis focuses specifically on the teenage romance between Arthur and Crunch when they were members of the Trumpets of Zion. The lyri cs of the gospels and spirituals they sing are often included in the depiction of their performances alongside descriptions of their facial expressions and interaction with the audience. The spirit-filled service springs from the page: the organ, drums and piano; amens, hallelujahs and yes lords fill the gaps between verses; the bodies sway, writhe, or tremble to the rhythm; hands clap or shake the tambourine in syncopation. Religious rhetoric is scattered throughout the narrative to expr ess a gamut of the characters other emotions, including fear, doubt, love, lust, and remorse. Very quickly then, the reader becomes accustomed to the religious lens through which the characters perceive the world. The teenaged boys fall in love during their tim e together in the gr oup. The first hint of Arthurs non-hetero leanings appears when an adolescent girl from a church gives him special attention. While he does not want to take Sister Dorothy Green into some dark corner [like the other boys have done with girls] he does indeed want to do something the narrator explains, for a need is growing in him, a tormenting need with no name, no object (180). When Arthur finds himself alone with her, his body responds to her closeness, while his mind continually drifts to Crunch. He is both comfortable and un comfortable. He likes her. He wonders where Crunch is, and what he is doing, and he feels his prick twitch again (1 81). He kisses Dorothy and is aroused by their contact bu t things end there. Later, he names his tormenting need in a church performance. Gospel music is his most natural form of expressing emotion, so that almost everything goes into the song (180). Perhaps a more precise phrasing would be to say almost everything goes through the song. When he and Crunch kiss for th e first time, somet hing like terror leaps in Arthur: something in him sings (190). To capture the ambivalence of each moment of


45 transgression, Baldwin often tria ngulates fear, joy, and (the pr oblem of) voice in his narration; and always the lexicon is performative, for it tran smits the body into a sacred orbit. For example, to describe Arthur and Crunch s reticence in sharing their budding relations hip with the other boys, we are told, They cannot shout hallelujah! dare not cry hosanna!yet a tremendous, hurting joy wells up from the belly and the loin s (191). To say that they dare not cry hosanna, defined as a loud cry of praise and adoration to God, is a wa y to convey their understanding of the disapproval they would receive from their community. However, this censure is quickly eclipsed by the insertion of yet into the senten ce structure. The narrator disrupts the normalcy of silence, a silence which threatens to also normalize their shame. Instead the reader is compelled to equate their paradoxical hurting joy to that spiritual experience which would make one shout hallelujah and hosanna. In another poignant moment of duplicity, Art hur yearns for Crunch from across a table. The passage enacts several levels of queering. Crunchs smell was in his nostrils the overwhelming image of the hair in his armpits, the basketba ll players thighs and ankles, deep like a river, Arthur thought, insanely, his arms, his arms; then suddenly, silence dropped on him like a heavy cloud (193; original italics). There is no direct allusion to a spiritual here. Th is time the italicized ph rase alludes to Langston Hughes poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Speaking in the persona of the Entire Negro Race and challenging the widely held racist notion that Negroes lack history, Hughes traces the African presence from the earliest Nile cultures to the banks of th e largest and longest river in North America, the Mississippi River. Ive known ancient dusky rivers the speaker concludes, and my soul has grown deep like the rivers. The poem expands black creativity, freedom and cultures to a time older than the flow of hu man blood while emphasizing a present-day black


46 interiority. To have this famous political assertion emerge in the middle of a homoerotic fantasy, Baldwin implicates Hughes and enacts a blanke t queering of black hist ory: Crunchs long, black body represents ancient same-sex desires and an cient masculinity. Arthur thinks the phrase, deep like a river as his minds eye caresses Crunchs legs and arms. So deep in this case indicates a physical presence. Crunchs body and its sexual pot ential is a space into which Arthur imagines sinking. In an emotional perspective, Arthurs overwhelming craving is likened to drowning, for the desire rises so quickly and so insanely as to feel bottomless. In an ultimate act of queering of the church space, before the boys consummate their relationship sexually, they achieve it melodically in a church performance. The river metaphor is extended as the boys moan, sweat and move r hythmically through an unprecedented darkness of dual coding before an audience. They affirm their desire through the song first: Crunchs guitar began, as Arthurs voice began, Take me to the water Crunch moaned, yes! Take me to the water! He heard [anothers singers] witnessing falsetto, but he answered Crunchs echo, take me to the water/ to be/ baptized He paused, and closed his eyes, sweat gath ered in his hair; he listened to Crunch, then he started again. [Repeats refrai n with call-and-res ponse between group members]. He paused againtrusting every second of this unprecedented darkness, knowing Crunch and he were moving together, here, now, in the song, to some new place; they had never sung together like this before, his voice in Crunchs sound, Crunchs sound filling his voice, So I know None dont tell me, I know, I know, I know! as though Crunch were laughing and crying at the same time but the righteous so true! none dont you leave me now! but the righteous []


47 yea, little fellow, come on in! shall see God. Crunch and he ending together as though on a single drum. (199) Arthur has already likened Crunch to the river, and now the water refere nce in the song allows him to verbalize his erotic desires. The song refe rs to the Baptist tradition in which a believer demonstrates his or her spiritual renewal thr ough full immersion in a body of water; it is a symbolic washing away of the old way of being. So the singer directs the a udience to take him to the river to act on his faith, a requirement, as th e song says, to prove himself before his God. The dual meaning is Arthurs desire to fully submer ge into Crunch deepness. Therefore, Arthurs experience of performing the song is keenly erot ic. He is completely in tandem with Crunchs musical strides, knowing Crunch and he were moving together, here, now, in the song, to some new place. The new place is th eir recognized spiritual-emotional bond, which serves as the bridge to the sexual union. Crunch s understanding of the subliminal significance is evidenced in his responses. Dont tell me. I know! I know! I know he exclaims, sounding as if he were laughing and crying at the same time. His repe tition implies a passiona te manner, while the laughing and crying reproduces the hurtful jo y described earlier. The unprecedented merging in which Arthurs experiences his voice in Crunchs sound, [and] Crunchs sound filling his voice foreshadows their sex acts. In fact, Crunchs submissive or permissive phrase yeah, little fellow, come on in will be echoed in a way that di rectly connects this erotic moment with their subsequent fellatio scene. In an equally poignant passage of duplicitous use of religious e xpression, Arthur and Crunch have sex. This time Baldwin incorporates ly rics from the spiritual You Must Come in at the Door to express the final c onfrontation and confluen ce of their sexuality and spirituality: Crunch moaned again, surrendering, surrendering, as Arthurs tongue descended Crunchs long bl ack self, down to the raging penis. He licked the underside of the penis, feelin g it leap, and he


48 licked the balls. He was setti ng Crunch free Arthur understood Crunchs terrorthe terr or of someone in the water, being carried away from the shoreand this terror, which was his own terror, soon caused him to gasp A moment came when he felt Crunch pass from a kind of terrified bewilderment into joy. A friendly, a joyful movement, began. So high, you cant get over him Sweat from Arthurs forehead fell onto Crunchs belly. So low and Crunch gasped as Arthurs mouth left his prick standing in the cold, cold air, as Arthurs tongue licked his sacred balls you cant get under him Arthur rose, agai n, to Crunchs lips. So Wide. You cant get around it It was as though, with this kiss, they were forever bound together. Crunch moaned, in absolute agony, and Arthur went down again. Little fellow. Baby. Love. You must come in at the door. (208) When Arthur begins to cover Cr unch with kisses, he encounters the raging penis and they both experience terror. The terror is real: their Bible st ates that this behavior offends God and these boys are deeply entrenched in church culture. Together in spirit they struggle against the homophobic ideologies of hegemonic blackness. Th ey face the terror of community judgment and, in narration that relies upon the eros inhabiting the language of religious surrender and redemption (Edelman 69), transform their fear into a spiritual quest, a joyful movement. As they move closer to a climax, the narrative interj ects testimonial lyrics to broaden the readers understanding of what is happeni ng spiritually. Baldwin uses the normalizing authority of sacred words to stake a claim for homoerotic sacredness a nd to make vibrant what is not supposed to be part of normalcy: the queer (Cobb 287.) Let me explain. As Lynn Orilla Scott reminds us, In appropr iating religious song to express human desire for freedom, dignity, and l ove in this world as well as th e next, Baldwin conflated sacred and secular meaning in a manner consistent with a long African American tradition of representation (169). What we s hould not lose sight of is the first level of meaning of the religious song in the particular tr adition that Baldwins characters represent. In a study of black


49 Holiness/Pentecostal culture, ethnographer Glenn Hinson evaluates the status of sacred songs among other worship practices. Within this frame, song ranks as much more than just another realm of expression. Song stands apart, vaulted to the very pinnacle of heavenly favor. In the eyes of the saints, song reigns as the chosen channel of celestial expression. [] For the saints, pleasuring the Lord is the frame w ithin which all sacred song falls. Whenever one joins the choruses of a congregation, sings as a performer before a church audien ce, hums melodic praises in a moment of privacy, or simply liste ns to sacred songs on the radio, one enters a sphere imbued with associations of celestial agency and godly delight Engaging with song thus entails more than just engaging in praise. It also en tailspartaking of the holy. (110-111; italics added) Seen in this light, the inter polation of You Must Come In elevates Arthur and Crunchs lovemaking to the very pinnacle of heavenly favor. The Him in the song is God, whose spirit and power are omnipresent and, therefore, an inevitable force in the lives of mankind. But Baldwin borrows back this phras e to bless the carnal act bein g shared between these men. The duplicity is a sanctification of the homosexual act. The promise made by foreshadowing (Crunchs sound filling his voice) is fulfilled when Arthurs vocal organs envelop Crunchs penis. As they move together in sacred se nsuality, the narrative follows their emotional movement from terror to joy and finally to l ove. Sexual ecstasy, sealed with a kiss and the affirmation you must come in at the door, is imbued with associ ations of celestial agency and godly delight. This narrative strategy creates a metaphysi cal, theological space for romantic/sexual love between black Christian me n. Like Hughess singer, Baldwins sissy uses the sacred song in order to have the privileges of publicity without having to reveal anything specific (Cobb 287) while Baldwins narration (separ ate from the gay characters own verbiage) also imbues the homoerotic excha nge with spiritual vibrancy. 5 And though I do not go into it


50 here, it is important to note that Arthurs status as a soul music icon in his adult life connects to all the meanings of soul bei ng explored in this project. Although the entire novel is a queering of the soul, for the narration consistently equates the erotic and the spiritual, this scene is exceptional. Ar thur and Crunch are dipped in body waters sweat, spit and eventually semenin a mo ment that marks the sensual initiation into their love affair. Sensuality is a necessary aspect of this construction in order to configure the pleasures of the flesh as the gateway to and indi visible from the spiritual realm. In knowing one another through our senses, feeli ngs, and intelligence we come to know God (Heyward 93-4). In other words, Arthur and Crunch connect to God through shared touch, thought and emotion. In a rhetorical step beyo nd rejecting the taboo of homo sexuality, Baldwins textual technique is in dialogue with wide spread practices in Christianity that require the sacrifice of bodily desires in order to gain spiritual access to God. Sexual deprivation particularly is often equated with holiness. For example, lifelong chastity through nunnery, monkship or priesthood is valorized as the highest form of spirituality; a nd virginity is considered a hallowed gift to be relinquished only to ones spouse. In fundamentalist readings of the Bible, engagement of the sex act should occur exclusively for procreation. Si milarly, various scriptures connect other bodily functions or body parts to Godlin ess in areas such as selectiv e food consumption, avoidance of the female body during menstruation, male circumci sion as the mark of faith, the covering of womens bodies and restriction of tattoos. A udre Lorde wrote that these extremities have reduced the spiritual to a world of flattened a ffect, a world of the ascet ic who aspires to feel nothing (56). The ascetic lifestyle is not the height of spirituality, she argues, but is the height of self-abnegation. Baldwins charact ers resist self-abne gation by expressing their bond in the public language of sacred music. In resistance to these notions of all-things-bodily as profane


51 and the soul as the isolated source of sacredness, Baldwin coats his depict ion of eroticized flesh with the language of the sacred to create a theological space for same-sex desire. This novel constructs a homoerotic spiritualityhomospirit ualitywhich enacts a definitive queering of the soul. 1 The themes of homophobia and sexism are well-document ed phenomena in Black Power/ Black Arts expression. Some prominent examples can be found in the work of Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka and Manning Marable. Cleaver and Baraka are cited most often for equating black homosexuality with racial betrayal and male softness with whiteness. Specific critiques of texts and their influence on black popular consciousness abound in the work of bell hooks, June Jordan, E. Patrick Johnson, Michele Wall ace, Marlon Riggs, Essex He mphill, Phillip Brian Harper, Barbara Smith and others. 2 For details of controversy surrounding the Hughes legacy and the Hughes estate, see Hemphill and Berry. 3 In Giovannis Room David, a white American, travels to Paris believing he was in love with his female fianc, but discovers through his tumultuous romance with a man that the [homosexual] beast which Giovanni had awakened in [him] would never go to sleep again (111). David is able to confront his attraction to men there in ways he could not in Brooklyn. The irony is that Paris turns out to be only a pseudo-sanctuary from homophobic aggression. Giovannis apartment is a metaphor fo r suppressed emotions and a real clau strophobic space in which the majority of their secret affair takes place. So while John may be reassured by the possibilities of Dellys (and his own) impending freedom through travel, Hughes suggests that this is only an illusion. 4 An example of words carrying the weight of the supernat ural can be found in Jewish culture, wherein the word God is never completely spelled. Also, in my mothers Christianity, goddam is considered the misuse of Gods name and breaks one of the Ten Commandments. 5 Arthur is described as effeminate in the text.


52 CHAPTER 3 UNGODLY THEOLOGIES: IN THE LIFE AND THE COLOR PURPLE Chapter Two isolated a queering of the soul in w hich sacred songs are used to articulate same-sex desire. The stories under examination in this chapter provide a different take on the relationship between black queers and the black church. The politics in Becky Birthas short story, In the Life move beyond a mere critique of the Christian institutions and mythologies. The politics are such that the bounda ries of a black church must be redefined. I call the spiritual concepts in Birthas text ungodly because God is neither mentioned nor implied in the storys cosmological construct. Tied into the spirit uality and politics is the title, for it invokes homosexual culture. In Black Vernacular, the phr ases in the life and in the family have parallel meanings to queer. When a person iden tifies as being in the life, she is claiming membership in a community of sexual practices sexual orientations and genders that exists outside the normative realm of straight identi ty. It has been a moniker for black queerness for over 20 years. Therefore, ungodly is asserted here to also connote its colloquial usage: indecent or immoral. In the Life is ungodly by normative st andards because it portrays a black spirituality full of haunting lesbian desire. Within a celebration of the black butch/femme working class aesthetic, it renders the mundane domestic space as the locus of spiritual activity. Sacredness, if not God, is in the details of everyday life. The second part of this chapter pulls reader s closer into Shug Aver ys philosophies about the nature of God in The Color Purple. Many critics have examined the feminist and holistic qualities of Shugs insistence that G od is a genderless force, an I t that moves through all living things. This chapter builds upon those theories by suppos ing that if feeling the spirit of It is the orgasmic bliss that Shug promises to Celie, then the gateway to emotional recovery for Celie is through her spiritual connection to her sexuality. Ne ither tale tethers the li fe of the spirit to a


53 particular religious sect or a centralized godhead. What unfolds in these texts is a philosophy of the spirit that foregrounds indi vidual truths and folk knowledg es that, ultimately, produce a duo of ungodly theologies. In the [After] Life There are two narrative layers th a t comprise the focus of this analysis. The first is a spiritnarrative of lesbian love, loss and supernatural re union. The other is an op positional retelling of a confrontation at church on Easter Sunday in which the presence of a butch lesbian incites anxiety in a church space. In the Life contains prominent traits of the spirit-narrative genre in its narrative arc and cultural polit ics. Harryette Mullen delineates the tradition in African Signs and Spirit Writing (1996). She observes that alongside the widely celebrated tradition of secular ex-slave narratives exists a parallel tradition of vision ary literacy as a spiritual practice in which divine inspiration associated with Judeo-Christian biblical tradition, is syncretically merged with African traditions of spirit possession [It] may be traced to narratives and journals of spiritual awakenings and religious conversions written by freeborn and emancipated Africans and African-Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Each of these traditions of literacy, the sacred and secular, has a specific relation to African and diasporic orality as well as to the institutionalized il literacy that resulted from the systematic exclusion of African Americans from equal educational opportunities. (626; italics added) 19thcentury spirit narratives, or spiritual autobiographies, were written by people denied access to formal education and who claimed to rely so lely on divine intervention for their education. They also trace their emotional-spiritual jour neys through this testimony from ignorance to knowledge. This characteristic in th ese ex-slave narrativesthat liter acy as a type of liberty is gained through a spiritual experienceseparates them from the likes of Frederick Douglass, who marks progress from slavery to freedom thr ough access to books and instruction. Anthologized spirit-narratives are the stories of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, who rely on reading the


54 extraliterarythings unseen or signs in the heavensfor direction (Mullen 627). The first woman-authored spirit-narrative was The Life and Religious Ex perience of Jarena Lee a Coloured Lady, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel published in 1836. Others include Rebecca Cox Jackson, Lees contemporary, who kept a journal that was not published until 1981; Sojourner Truth published her Narrative in 1851; and the Story of the Lords Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith the Colored Evangelist appeared in 1893. Spirit-writing encompasses several forms, from drawings or scribbles created during possession, to the autobiographical recounting of an ecstatic spiritual engagement and its material aftermath (an angel spoke to my heart and now I can read). Quoting Robert Farris Thompson, Mullen defines this genre as the arts of defense and affirmation and arts of black yearning for transcendence and freedom (626). Mainly, the genre of spirit wri ting concerned itself not with the legal status of the material body, but with the shackles placed on the soul (627). So the agenda was to bear witness of liberation from the sp iritual and emotional tyranny of slavery, exclusionary white ways of practicing religion. A la rge part of the cultural work the women authors perform was also to define and defend their call to preach; a defense necessitated by their outcast status as unnatural women who stepped ou t of their station in life. In the words of Richard DouglassChin, the womens narratives collectively enac t a profound self-fashioni ng [that] demystifies and challenges the performance of black womanhood prescribed and/ or described as natural by hegemonic discourses (11). In a similar defense of unnatural woma nhood and a claim to spiritual virtue, Becky Birthas narrator describes her journey from lonelin ess and fear (of death) to a flourishing erotic connection with a beneficent, ghostly being, w hose call transforms the trepidation into eagerness. This connection to the sp irit-narrative is the point of de parture because Birthas text is


55 a work of fiction and cannot be defined as a sp iritual autobiography or an act of spirit writing per se. Yet the content, structure and cultural politics connect it directly to the tradition outlined above.1 In the Life is a neospirit-na rrative, a speakerly text in the tradition of oral testimony of spiritual encounters and ecsta tic experiences but is distinguished by its emphasis on sexual rather than racial exclusion. 2 The political purpose is to empo wer and affirm a black lesbian spiritual life that is locked out of conventional religious paths.3 The opening lines testify in African American syntax, Grace come to me in my sleep last night. I feel somebody presence, in the room with me, th en I catch the scent of Posners Bergamot Pressing Oil, and that co coa butter grease she use on her skin. I know she standing at the bedside, right over me, and then she call my name. Im so deep asleep I have to fight my way awake, and when I do be fully woke, Grace is gone. (289) The reader may be inclined to in terpret this as simply a dream, a memory of scents and sounds long held by a lonely widow. This is not the way Jinx understands it. Ji nx does not say I saw Grace in a dream; she recalls that Grace stood over her while she slept. When she does manage to wake up, she makes her way down to the garden half expecting Gracie to be there waiting for me, but there aint another soul stirring tonight (289). Pun intended. Gracie has been deceased for thirteen years. We will see that Gracie is a spirit-informant whose message Im just gone down to the garden awhile. I be back (289) has multiple meanings. In fact the garden, a symbol of untamed nature and the Earths fecund womb, is an integral aspect of the story that must be properly situated so as to facilitate the spirit -narrative claim. The garden is a metaphor for a secular mysticality that Jinx can access without institutional inte rference which, as such, marks the liminal space where Jinxs co rporeality meets ethereality. The garden aligns Jinx with an African-inf luenced organization of the universe that differs from Anglo-Christian pers pectives. African influences, es pecially those philosophical and


56 musical, flourish in African American culture and throughout the African Diaspora in the New World.4 Substantial differences from Anglo-Christian ity are the beliefs that spiritual powers are found throughout nature, and that the cycle of life is circular: one is a spirit before birth, then that spirit is encased in the physic al body and, in death, one becomes an ancestor spirit who may be born again in the same family. Ancestors are as important as deities because there is no one source of accessible spiritual pow er. In Yoruba religion, for example, the supreme God is a nongendered spiritual force that ope rates through common creatures as well as spirits and humans. It is believed that God appeared to the world in the form of certain animals: python, viper, earthworm, snail and woodpecker. Historian Ro bert Farris Thompson expounds: God, within these animals, had, according to Yoruba belief, bestowed upon us the power-to-make-things happen, morally neutral power, power to give, and to take away, to kill and to give life, according to the purpose and the nature of its be arer. The messengersreflect this complex of powers (6). In Yoruba culture, there are also ancestral spirits who form the world of the dead. The dead interact with the living through dreams, visions, an d possession. They can be invoked to bless their loved ones or an entire village (Lawal 51). Non -fiction versions of how this operates in African American myth ology are recorded most famously in the work of Zora Neale Hurston and ex-slave interviews conducted durin g the 1930s Federal Writers Project, which are filled with folk tales of hants and mother wit. The religion/spirituality binary is introduced early in the st ory when Gladys, a neighbor, cautions Jinx, You reaching that time of life wh en you might wanna be giving a little more attention to the spiritual side of things than you been doing (293). The woman is, of course, referring to the Christian belief in eternal damna tion that she believes awaits Jinx because she is not saved. Jinx does not argue with the neighbor, but neither is she moved by the warning. It


57 aint no use in arguing with her kind she intimates sarcastically, [because] the Lord is on they side in every little disagreement (293). Jinx cons tantly mitigates the attempts to terrorize her into conversion through these kinds of comedic interruptions. When Gladys first appears in her yard, for example, she describes her self-righteous assure dness as grinning from ear to ear like she just spent the night with Jesus himself (293). Without Jinxs encouragement or verbal response, Gladys continues with missionary zeal. When Gladys begins to quote Bible verses, the narration cuts off the womans proselytizing with ellipses and allows Ji nx to take discursive control. Gladys wants Jinx to think about attending church soon. Funny thing, Jinx tells us, I been thinking about it all day. But not the kinda thoughts she want me to think, Im sure (293). Jinx then steers the audience into a memory that expresses views about church that she dares not speak aloud to Gladys. To say she takes discursive control of the na rrative means that rather than recounting her conversation with Gladys verbatim, Jinx fashions a counterdiscourse that disrupts, rereads and overrides the conventional story (Henderson 358). Gladys proselytizing attempts are a familiar convention to anyone who is not a member of an evangelical community but is in constant contact with people who are. Gladys assumes a position of superior knowledge of the workings of the universe. She quotes the Christian Bible as the ultimate authority of the spiritual side of things and implies that fellowship in a church setting is the gateway to proper spirituality. Convention dictates that the sinner will hear the message and comprehend her sinfulness. However, Jinx rejects this arr ogance and authority on the grounds of her experiential knowledge. Rather than positioning us, too, as listeners to the religious rhetoric full of judgments, proclamations and disapproval, we are taken on a journey into Jinx s past. Her thoughts on church launch her into a humorous memory that represents the heralded institution of the black


58 church as more preoccupied with superficiality than in saving s ouls. In doing so, according to the analysis of black womens traditions given by Mae Henderson, she challenges the material and discursive elements of oppre ssion and, at the same time, provi des a model of liberation through re-telling.5 Thirty five years earlier, she and Grace at tended an Easter service to appease Graces cousin who accused the couple of being unnatura l and sinful and a disgrace to her family (294). Even then there was no real conviction in their surrender: So Grace and me finally conspires that the way to get her off our backs is to give her what sh e think she want (294). They conspire to display a cultivated butch/femme aesthetic in order to defy the regulation of gender roles imposed by religion.6 Jinx donned a mans suit pressed fresh and a brand new narrow-brim dove gray Stetson hat (294) for th e occasion. The cultural context of this coming out is a crucial element in understanding this as resistance and count erdiscourse. The Easter celebration observes the death, re surrection and ascension of the Christian messiah; it is the doctrinal centerpiece of the religi on. This holiday in the African American protestant tradition is second only to the Christmas celebration in term s of its heightened ceremony. Generally, new clothes, shoes, (men and womens) hats and elab orate hairstyles are on parade. Family gatherings are common and the church building, as the s ite of communion, is us ually overflowing with visiting/returning family and friends. It is lik ely that Grace and Jinx pa rticipated in Easter programs as children; yet, even if they had not, they would be aware of its grandeur. So perhaps what Graces cousin think she want is to over whelm the lesbian sinners with the message of the holiday (the suffering of the Christ, his victory over physical death, and the promise of eternal life) and the scrutinizing gaze of th e larger black heteronormative community who represent proper black families and n atural gender alignment. Accordingly,


59 [A]s soon as we get in the door, this kinda sedate commotion break outall them good Christian folks whispering and nudging each other and trying to turn around and get a good look. Well Grace and me, we used to that. We just finds us a nice seat in one of the empty pews near the back. But this busy buzzing keep up, even after we seated and more blended in with the crowd. And finally it come out that the point of conten tion aint even the bottom half of my suit, but my new dove gray Stetson. (294; emphasis added) The first component of Jinxs resi stance is as the storyteller, fo r she assumes full interpretive control of the dynamics of this scene. Her vers ion is that the commotion is sedate and that eventually they are more blended in. Still some thing remains amiss. They learn precisely what when an elderly man in thick glasses is turn ing around and leaning way over the back of the seat, whispering to Grace in a voice plenty loud enough for [Jinx] to hear, you better tell your beau to remove that hat, entering in Jesus Holy Chapel. Jinx implies that his old age and sight impairment contribute to a misreading of he r masculinity as maleness. Jinx complies. Immediately, from behind, a woman grumbl[es] that Jinx has no respec t at all. Oughta know you sposed to keep your head covered, setting in the house of the Lord. This woman, on the other hand, recognizes the transg ressive body before her. Both are spokespersons for the churchs and the broader black communitys insistence upon static, normative representations of men and women. The commotion then, according to Jinx, is that the congregation cant make up its mind whether Im supposed to wear my hat or I aint. That is to say, they cannot easily categorize her bodily performance and, therefore, cannot decide which gender norms to enforce. From then on, the entire church servi ce is made to be a joke on the spectators. I couldnt hardly keep a straight face all thr ough the service, Jinx fondly reminisces, because every time I catch Gracie eye, one or the other of us catch a sight of my hat, we off again. I couldnt wait to get outa that place. But it was wo rth it. Gracie and me was entertaining the gang


60 with that story for weeks to come (295). On the surface this scenario is humorous, but when we consider the facts by themselves we can see that by controlling the narrative, Jinx has turned a situation fraught with anxiety, alienation, and vulnerability into a story about the folly of Christian folk. To resist any complicity in the labeling of her lifestyle as sinful and shameful by Graces cousin, Jinx refuses to tone down her butchness. This is an act of self-revelation in a procession of normative expressions of gender. Ma linda Kanners research into the semiotics of butch reveals that the butch aesthetic is always interpreted as a distinc tly sexual signifier. Her sexuality is always salient Ka nner reports, whether the contex t is sexual or not (28). With Grace at her side as the site of her lesbian desire, Jinxs butch identity is further reinforced. Such reinforcement is not necessary though. Irrespective of the imagination of the observer, the butch lesbian has stood out as the clear, visually decl arative statement of attr action to other women, Kanner continues, [because] the butch woman l ooks like who she is (28). That is to say, by choosing to wear a mans suit and hat, Jinx intentionally looks like a woman who desires women. Thus when they enter the church space t ogether, they perform a refusal to disguise the nature of their relationship. Jinx narrates the tale in way that empowers her subject position and protects the audience from knowing the isolation she most likely experien ced. Their entry was met with a bristling that rippled through the roompeople were visibl y nudging each other, whispering audibly, and turning in their seats. This is the epitome of alienation for the black que er: their blackness allows them full access into the cultural ceremony yet they are shunned within the group. For, as Sally Munt reminds us, the heterosexist gaze is intend ed to mark [them]: the glance is a strike (6). They are an unwelcome spectacle, even if, as Jinx retorts to soften the blow, that they are used


61 to that. Actually, the fact that they are accust omed to being stared at further underscores their general sense of self-conscious outsider status and does not necessa rily diminish the weight of the churchs gaze. Outsider status simultaneous ly speaks sexuality and silences it, as the protagonist is defined, and then deletigimated (Munt 5). To detract from the feelings of exposure they must have felt, no mention is made of the actual Easter program. The church space is the ultimate site of validation for the homophobic, heteropatriarc hal standpoint. Direct quotes of Gods repudiation of sa me-sex sexuality abound in this space with cr itical impunity. What did the minister say? Did he take this opportunity of having vi sible lesbians in the audience to admonish their homosexuality? The blind old man and grumbling woman were attempting to chastise and shame Jinx by signifying on the placem ent of her hat. Were there any more direct or oblique remarks made about Jinxs devian t performance of femaleness? We cannot know because Jinx refuses to acknowledge the oppressi ve weight of the gaze by zooming in on the scopic exchanges between her and Grace. Her power lies in how the story is to ld. The narrative view is pulled into a tight close-up of their loving, accepti ng, and protective gazes upon each other, which effectively occludes and delegitimi zes the master narrative and punishing gazes. This strategy denies the audien ce the opportunity to identify with the oppresso r. It is alienation turned inside out. This is an empowering reje ction of the rhetorical tools of her oppression. Besides her counterdiscourse, Jinx made rete lling this story to the gang a means of empowerment for her lesbian community. The church public, with its reliance on bourgeois notions of propriety and ingrained reliance on bi ological gender, is cast as disorientated and unsophisticated when confronted with butch female ness, and is situated in direct opposition to Jinxs counterpublic of lesbians who completely identify with the outsiders. Each act of retelling minimizes the penetr ating gaze of the church until finally the judgmental crowd


62 disappears altogether, eclipsed by Jinx and Graces concentration on each other. This limits the audiences ability to comprehend how harsh th e situation may have been for them. Although some anxiety is revealed in the statement, I couldnt wait to get outa that place, their vulnerability is countered with the fact that they found a way to make the whole scenario entertaining for weeks afterward. This is a sign ificant resistance to sham e. By retelling this story this way, as (Jinxs) testimony and (Graci es) witnessing, it becomes legend: the heroic butch/femme lesbians laugh in the face of the men acing church folk. The church is rejected as a legitimate authority on proper gender performance. Particularly striking about this scene is that it is told from a butch lesbians perspective, one who cannot be fully integrated into the ch urch setting precisely because of her butch aesthetic. This feature sets In the Life apart from similar fictional c onfrontations. Ann Allen Shockley courageously conceives of a black female minister whos e religious fervor is also a magnetic lesbian energy in the novel Say Jesus and Come To Me. Protagonist Myrtle Black is striking, elegant, poised, and a passi onate orator with a natural fa cility for dramatics (78). She is as majestic as a black queen with long wavy hair and in excellent shape for her 40 years. Her love life is quite closeted, yet she has perf ected a seduction techniqu e that begins from the moment she enters the pulpit. The story chroni cles Black falling in love, having the possible revelation of that relationship threaten her ministry, and her eventual coming out to the congregation using bible verses which support her point that every creation is all made of God and accepted by God (280). The lesbian politics in Say Jesus are similar to In the Life because Rev. Blacks status as a minister threatens the patriarchal order and she uses her platform to advance feminist causes. Africanity is also a large part of Shockleys construction of Blacks appearance and her consciousness. Th e foot-stomping, earsplitting, body-shaking (7)


63 Pentecostal enthusiasmlong esta blished as a surviving African trait in black American culturesis a routine part of the services over which Black presides. During one dance of delirious holy flight, she imagines herself an ancient Hausa queen performing religious rites around a fire in the African thicket (7). U ltimately though, Rev. Black intends to change the churchs posture towards homosexuals from he r place within the culture. The bible is not undermined and the church remains the central site of her spiritual engagement. Similarly, Laurinda D. Brown has published a series of lesbi ans in the church novels in which the closet narrative is the least of the drama. Brown integrates lesbian motherhood, intrafamily rape, bisexuality, and same-s ex domestic violence to portra y fuller lesbian lives and to engage complex networks of black female oppression. The subversion of heteropatriarchal doctrine is not a central concern; mainly, it is about the womens search for solace within religion in spite of its decrees against them. This is not the ca se for Becky Berthas lesbian character. We will see in the next section that the churchs authority on the spiritual side of things is displaced by Jinxs expe riences in her domestic space. In the Life constructs the church space as an unusable and/or hostile environment, which amplifies the affirmative positioning of the gard en as a site of secula r spirituality. As such, the garden is also the crux of the neospirit-narrative. Melvin Rahmings study of pan-African spirit-centered literature is supportive here. He defines such literature as concerned with spiritual cosmology and its organi c relationship to individual a nd cultural circumstance (2). Rahming aptly argues that the sp irit-narrative is rec ognizable as such because it holds up a mirror to human and cosmic spirit and to the spec trum of possibilities th at emerges from human and cosmic interaction; [and it] testif[ies] to the authors fecund awareness of cosmic interrelatedness, the unbounde d locus of spiritual ac tivity (2). To that e nd, Birthas narrative


64 upends the notion of the church as the spiritual center for all members of the black community and, especially, rejects that notion (of central ity) for the nonnormative in dividual experience. Jinx memories of churchset squarely in the middle of the pres ent tense narrative of spirit visitationenable a dichot omous reading of the church/garden scenes as closed/open, inside/outside, and constricted/fl ourishing in terms of the queer s ubjects spiritual strivings. The storys main frame is Jinxs developing med itation on her own impending death and, arguably, the illustration of her crossing ove r. Hers is a journey towards acceptance of deaths inevitability and the spiritual growth that acceptance entails When she begins, she speaks of her failing health and emotional status as analogous to the garden. Gracies poor bedr aggled garden is just struggling along on its last legskin da like me. I aint the kind to complain about my lot, but truth to tell, I cant be down crawling around on my hands and knees no more (291). The garden was Graces project and, in her 13-year absence, it has lost some of its liveliness. It parallels Jinxs weakening abilities to produce (energy, stre ngth, desire, etc.) and the dwindling amount of light that falls on her lot is a metaphor for her emotional demeanor. Cant enjoy the garden at night proper nowadays, nohow, she laments, Since Mister Thompsons land was took over by the city and they built them housing projectsyou cant even see the moon from here Dont no moonlight come in my yard no more (291). This mulling over of the state of her being via the garden is initiated by Graces visitation discus sed earlier; in fact, she followed Grace there. Once near the garden she is enveloped by nostalg ic melancholia. This is the low point in the chronicle of her spiritual journey. We get a better sense of her fore boding when, immediately after closing the church tale, she begins to speak more candidly about her thoughts on dying. Indulging in a bit of sign ifying she assures us, Far as life everlasting is concerne d, I imagine Ill cross that bridge when I reach it. I dont see no reason to rush into things. I know


65 Old Man Death is coming after me one of these daysBut I aint about to start nothing that might make him feel welcomeIt might be different for Gladys Hawkins and the rest of them church sisters, but I got a w hole lot left to live for. When you in the life, one thing your days dont ne ver be, and thats dull. All these years I been in the life, I loved it. And you know Jinx aint about to go off with no Old Man without no struggle, nohow. (295; original emphasis) Jinxs discourse and spiritual ph ilosophy are steeped in African American oral traditions. Her semantic style relies on proverbs and plays with shades of meaning; meanwhile, it reveals her belief, to return to Rahmings theory, in a sp iritual cosmology and its organic relationship to individual and cultural circumstan ce. To the familiar listener, Ill cross that bridge is an unmistakable proverb. Yet there is another adage embedded in the line I aint about to start nothing. She cites a variation of the saying dont start no mess, w ont be none, alluded to here to mean that prolonged contemplation of an id ea/mood can manipulate the spirit world, so that the thought/act is manifested in the physical world. This is partly what Rahming means by human and cosmic interaction. According to this worldview, focusing on death can tip the balance of the universe towards that outcome. Jinx uses humor to mask her uneasiness, but her fear is betrayed because the act of dying is couched in the language of abduction. Death is a leering man, awaiting his chance to pounce. This construction reflects her various states of being: emotional/spiritual unwillingness to succumb to death, her physical vulnerability as an aging woman against the strength of a man, and her steadfast self-respect for her lesbia n identity. Linguist Geneva Smithermans thorough analysis of the stylistic pattern s of black language further clarifies Jinxs articulation: The speakers imagery and ideas cen ter around the empirical world, th e world of reality, and the contemporary Here and Now. Rarely does [s]he drift off into esoteric abstractions; [her] metaphors and illustrations are commonplace and grounded in everyday experience (65). Jinx


66 contrasts her everyday experience of being happ ily in the lifean idiom used to connote nonheteronormative sexual identities and behaviorsw ith the church sisters who are, presumably, more sexually repressed and considered more ge nder-appropriate than she. Time and again she emphasizes her lack of remorse for being the kind of sexual being she has been/is, in resistance to the contrition expected by the church comm unitygenerally, the lost are presumed to harbor secret shame and/or fear of meeting an an gry god in the afterlife. By loving the life Jinx simultaneously professes her will to live and reiterates the joy and love she maintains in the lesbian community. This resistance notwithstanding, Ji nx realizes that she is not immortal. To tell the truth, though, sometime I do get a funny feeling bout Old D eath, she confides, Sometime I feel like he here alreadybeen here. Waiting on me a nd watching me and biding his time. Paying attention when I have to stop on the landing of the stairs to catch my breath (295). This funny feeling continues the spiritual narrative, the description of a deeper, soulful knowing, that is both physical and eerie. The phrase been here is what Smitherman designates a grammatical intensifier in Black English, as it modifies and emphasizes the preceding statement here already. Not only does Jinx feel death approaching because of her age and ailments, but at times it is a lurking, familiar presencein perpetual travel and always already arrived. Eventually, Grace will displace Old Man Death as a sp irit-companion who will lead Jinx towards a peaceful, gleeful anticipation of her metamorphosis, and the gard en will reflect as much. Grace appears twice more and, ominously, the garden/backyard space becomes a more prominent feature with each encounter. The first instance occurs on the even ing of her talk with Gladys about church. Jinx is ly ing in bed awake when she hear s sounds coming from the kitchen downstairs. Soon the sounds move into the bedroom. Somebody tippy-toeing real quiet,


67 creaking the floor boards (295) a nd crossing several times between the closet and dresser. When Jinx finally opens her eyes, Gracie stands before her. This seems absolutely normal to Jinx. Where you think you going in your house coat and bandana Jinx teases her, and it aint even light out yet. Come on get back in this bed (295) Grace replies that she is just going out back a spell. They engage in a flirtatious exchange about insects and weather, and Grace promises to be back before you even know Im gone. Jinx waits patiently until the s un rises in her window. Eventually she becomes impatient and goes to the window to ask Grace to come back inside, only to be hit right in the face with two reality checks: Grace is not there, and neither is the sunlight; it is blocked by storm clouds and the ho using projects. The dreary sight and realizations trigger an awful funny feeling and the need to see whats what (296). Again Jinx is led into the garden to fellowship with nature. She sp ends time in the garden picking peaches and tomatoes until it begins to rain. The final visitation occurs the very next night and, therein, all the elements of the story meld together. Jinx has spent the evening with friends who are co llecting stories from the old days of lesbian bar culture. The rain has pour ed continuously since th at afternoon. When Jinx returns home, she realizes the front door is unlocked. Believing th at whoever had broken in was still there, she began scooting from room to room, snatching open cl oset doors and whipping back curtainsflicking on lights real sudden (2 99), but nothing is out of place. She finally gives up her search but remains guarded. She ech oes her earlier thoughts in that, without any visible proof, she know somebody or something done got in here while [she] was gone. And aint left yet (299). Finally, she appears: The next thing I know Gracie waking me up. She lying next to me and kissing me all over my f ace. I wake up laughing, and she say, I never could see no use in shaking somebody I rather be kissing. Descriptions of this vi sitation are rich with


68 an erotic sensuality that is absent from ear lier ones. I can feel th e laughing running all through her body and mine, she gushes, [ and] my whole body is all a shimmer with this sweet, sweet craving (299). Jinxs sexual ar ousal is punctuated by the weathe r. While her blood is racing [and] singing, the sky is wide openthe storm is throbbing and beating down on the roofpressing its wet self up against the window And I run my fingers down along her breast, underneath her own nightgown (299-300). The chur ch scene is mirrored here as Jinxs night began with her in an anxious, fearful state and leads to her vulnerabil ity being buttressed by a scopic exchange. Grace lies beneath her, smiling up at [her] through the dark, and her eyes is wide and shiny. The paragraph ends with ellipses, an indication of the un-narrated but continued lovemaking. The imagery in this scene is akin to one in evangelist Rebecca Cox Jacksons autobiography. She records a dream of her companion, Rebecca Perot: I saw [my friend] coming in the ri ver, her face to the east, and she aplunging in the water every few steps, head foremost, abathing herself. She only had on her under-garment. She was pure and cleanShe looked like an angel, oh how bright! (qtd in Kilcup 54). As it was for Jinx, Jacksons angel appears with water in a dream that is a projection of her erotic desire. Jacksons vision of Perot merges the spiritual bath of baptism with the sensual pleasure of seeing her abathing her nearly naked body. Also like Jinx, the object of Jacksons desire is her roommate. The story picks up again in the post-coital moment. Jinx wakes up alone and it is still dark outside. The downpour of rain is also a me taphor for sea change, for her emotional status and attitude about death have reversed since its passing. She in terprets the experience as a glimpse into the afterlife, one th at she wishes to join sooner than later. Death is no longer an old


69 man coming to steal her soul, but an erotic intermingling of the elements, the universe wrapping her and Grace in its embrace, and baptizing them in its wetness as they sh are in each other. Like a flash Im across the room, Jinx says, knowing Im going after her this time (300; italics added). The knowing in this scen e, as with the others before, is a statement of her spiritual growth. This is her acceptance, without reluctance, of literally following Grace into the earth, into another mode of being. The sensuality remains as heightened as the urgency to find Grace in the garden. The carpet threads is nubby and rough, flying past underneath my bare feet, and the kitchen linoleum cold and smoothI push throug h the screen (300). The garden is now a luxuriant environment, no longer the bedraggle d, suffocated lot we encountered earlier. The storm is moved on. That fresh air feel good on my skin through the cotton nightshirt. Smell good, too, rising up outa the wet earth, and I can se e the water sparkling on the leaves of the collards and kale, twinkling in the vines on the bean poles. The moon is riding high up over Thompsons field, spilling moonlight all over the yard and se tting all them blossoms on the fence, to shining pure white. (300) Jinx is undergoing an epiphany induced by a return to her erotic knowledge, as Audre Lorde defines it. According to Lorde, this is a true knowledge, the intense psychic and emotional energy that heightens and se nsitizes and strengthens al l [our] experience[s] ( Sister 56, 57). Jinxs sensual contact with Gracie caused a surge of spiritual clarity that is inextricable from her wide-eyed appreciation for the beauty of the landscape. The erotic is not a question only of what we do, Lorde theorizes, it is a question of how acute ly and fully we can feel in the doing (54). The skys orgasmic fervor has settled into a gent le caressing of the eart h. The air, water, and light fondle the foliage to illustrate the various stag es of life, the ways separate entities work in concert to form wholeness through a cycli cal, symbiotic, nurturing relationship. Jinxs connection to the universe calms her. As the earth sparkles, twinkles, an d spills about her, Jinx


70 becomes serene and contemplative. Im just gonna stay right here on this back porch she decides, And hold still. And listen close. Cause I know Gracie in this garden somewhere. And she waiting for me (300). The finality of this last knowing suggests th at Jinx may already be dead when the story closes. As Gracies touch m oved past the layers of Jinxs clothing, perhaps she was removing barriers of th eir body/spirit separation which a llowed Jinx to fully open herself to the experience of dying. When considered fr om that angle, the lovemaking is the act of crossing over into the afterlife. In this wa y the story illustrates Lordes erotic knowledge pushed to its fullest extent. Jinxs death is a return to life, a re connection to being in the life with Gracie, as opposed to letting go of it in exchange for a Christian heaven. This is very similar to anot her one of Jacksons journal en tries. In the account of her conversion, Jackson testifies that she was called by lightening. Until th en, shed had a lifelong terror of thunderstorms. She was awakened by a storm and walked the floor back and forth wringing [her] hands and crying und er great fear, and then she heard a voice say this day thy soul is required of thee (qtd in Bassard 119). Af ter a submissive prayer, her phobia is vanished and she has a completely different relati onship with the elements. Jackson recalls: My spirit was light, my heart was fi lled with love for God and all mankind. And the lightening, which was a moment ago the messenger of death, was now the messenger of joy, and consolation. And I rose from my knees, ran down the stair, opened the door to let the lightning in for it was like steams of bright glory to my soul (qtd in Bassard 120) In her study of the autobiography, Katherine Ba ssard assesses that s ome concept of the relationships among the natural, spiritual, a nd physical is operating here that goes beyond Christian understanding of an i ndividuals conversion(121). This is also true of the conversion scene in In the Life. The garden also allude s to the biblical Garden of Eden, interpreted by some as an actual heaven-on-earth before Adam a nd Eves fall from grace. Birthas tale queers


71 the garden mythology. In Christian teachings, it is widely interpreted that Adam and Eve were immortal until their first act of willful dis obedience. Their lives were shielded by Gods unlimited goodnesshis graceuntil they sought unsanctioned knowledge (to know what God knew). Knowing meant that they became awar e of each others bodies which, subsequently, inflamed their sexual desires. It also meant a di sjointing from their intimate relationship with God because disobedience is an act of betrayal. So mankind is obligated forever more to prove its loyalty to the Creator through st rict adherence to (hetero) sexual roles and rules. In the Life flips this scenario on its head. Grace is em bodied by a lesbian woman who bestows sexual spirituality upon her lover in an act of sacred unio n. Sexuality is the bridge to the garden and to grace/Graceknowledge does not send one away from blissful cosmic interaction, it pulls one in deeper. Birthas spirit-narrative co nstructs a critical spirituality that aligns itself with an African American orality and an insulated (from white ness) belief system that critiques white supremacist, Anglocentric discourses. This self-centered, nature-l oving, ungodly theology presents a critique of religion similar to the one put forward in the ministry of Alice Walkers bisexual character, Shug. God is (a) Pussy: Homoerotic and Masturbatory Spirituality in The C olor Purple Preach the blues, sing them blues, they certainly sound good to me Moan them blues, holler them blues, let me convert your soul Bessie Smith, Preachin the Blues Shug Avery is many things to many people in the novel The Color Purple To Albert, she is the love of his life, an unf inished love story. To the men a nd women who are threatened by her sexual independence, Shug is a nasty woman, a w hore. For the jook-joint crowd, she is a sexy songstress, beloved for her soul stirring renditio ns of popular blues balla ds. Most intriguing is her role in Celies life as a spiritual guide, de fined here as blueswoman evangelist. The moniker


72 blueswoman evangelist unifies the multi-layere d, intersectional relationships between Shugs private life, the public ministry of the Blues music she performs, and he r influence as Celies spiritual guide. Shugs ways of seeing and bein g in the worldblueswoman and evangelistis a dialectics: they form and inform the content of the other. Shug embodies a blues consciousness that liberates her from the strictures of the wh ite normative, hetero supremacist, patriarchal, and sexually repressed teachings of Christianity. To fully describe the blues consciousness, we turn to Angela Davis Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. Davis reminds us that there were three area s of African American life that were transformed dramatically in the post-Emancipa tion experience: the possibilities for travel, individual education and the freedom to choose sexual partners. Because of these profound changes in the life of the black masses, travel and sexuality are ubiquitous themes in Blues lyrics. So blues consciousness was shaped by and gave expression to this social transformation. Furthermore, because the Blues is an aesthetic of the psycho-emotional life andcomposed of moans, hollers and a churchy toneit is consid ered the secular counter point to spirituals. According to this logic, if the Spiritual is G ods music, then Classic Blues, its musical twin, belongs to the Devil. In women s Blues particularly, the represen tations of love and sexuality often blatantly contradicted mainstream ideol ogical assumptions regarding women and being in love (Davis 8-11). The lyrics speak of womens frustration w ith cheating men, the loneliness and jealousy of being the other woman, good and ba d lovers, domestic violence, homosexuality, suicide, violent revenge, drunkenness, incarceration and poverty. They often speak of romantic love but not in the idealized te rms of mainstream love songs. Blues women represent unchaste, unholy, nasty womanhood.


73 Walker situates Shug in the blues tradition by linking her to Bessie Smith, the first real superstar in African American popular cult ure. First Shug sing a song by somebody name Bessie Smith, Celie writes, She say Be ssie somebody she know. Old friend (72). The invocation of Smiths legacy is key to unders tanding Shugs position among the other women in the story. Smith is known in folklore for her in discreet romances with women and men, her high tolerance for alcohol and her f earless fighting attitude. These un womanly characteristics in no way diminished her status am ong working-class African Americans. As Richard Wright poetically illustrates, she was held in highest regard by the folk: Bessie Smith might have been a Blues queen to the society at large, but within the tighter Negro community where the Blues were a total way of life, and major expression of an attitude toward life, she was a priestess, a celebrant who affirmed the values of the group and mans ability to deal with chaos. (qtd in Crockett 321). It seems that Smiths appeal is the audiences ability to conne ct to the cultural values she conveys in her songs. According to Davis the atti tudes of the female subjects in the songs Smith sang encouraged black women to be as strong a nd independent as they were loving and caring (143). These secular spirituals touched the emo tions of its audience and expressed sentiments and situations that were of ten denounced by the church. Consistent with Bessie Smiths blueswoman lifestyle, Shug revels in the street life of a traveling musician. Although sh e does marry once and cohabitate s with Celie for years, Shug maintains her autonomy and rejects idealized notions of motherhood. My kids with they grandma Shug confesses, She could stand the ki ds, I had to go (50). This stance places her outside of normative white femininity and beyond the pathologized Strong Black Woman who may have a profession, but whose identity is absorbed into he r work and whose passions are gratified by motherhood and service. Shug is unwomanly because, like successful men, she does


74 not allow her parental status to hinder her pursuit of the goals that sati sfy her need for selfexpression and individual identity. The communitys moral leader, the chur ch pastor, holds Shug up as the antithesis of Christia n womanhood. Celie recounts that Even the preacher got his mouth on Shug Avery He dont call no name, but he dont have to. Ev erybody know who he mean. He talk bout a strumpet in short skirts, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin. Singing for money and taki ng other women mens. Talk bout slut, hussy, heifer and streetcleaner. (44) His diatribe against Shug hits upon every aspect of her gender transgressions. Her revealing clothes and multiple partners make her a slut. Her careless attitude toward the rules of proper (hetero) sexuality and femininity marks her as animalistic. Not only are tobacco and alcohol indulgence prohibited, they are sinf ul in the eyes of the religious community. Yet there is yet another facet of Shugs un-womanl iness that Davis highlights in Blues Legacies Women like Bessie Smith andby extension, Shugwere secular ministers who preached the blues and therefore, represented a direct competition and contestation to th e moral authority of the church. Davis put this tension in historical context: The most pervasive opposition to the blues, however, was grounded in the religious practices of the historical community responsible for the production of the blues in the first place [impoverished African Americans] The blues were part of a cultural continuum that disput ed the binary constructions associated with Christianity. In this sense, they blatantly defied the Christian imperative to relegate sexual conduct to the realm of sin. But precisely because they offer enlightenment on love and sexuality, blues singers often have b een treated as secular counterparts to Christian mini sters, recognized by their constituencies as no less important authorities in their respective realms. However, from the vantage point of devout Christians, blues singers are unmitigated si nners and the creativity they demonstrate and the worldview th ey advocate are in flagrant defiance of the communitys prevai ling religious beliefs. (123-24; my emphasis)


75 The religious practices of the historical co mmunity are the African the belief systems and traditions in which songs matter-of-factly represen t every aspect of life. In the United Stated, European traditions relocated black religious expression into the church which, effectively, created a specious separation betwee n sacred and secular expressions in black life. Christianity hierarchizes sexualities and partitions sexual ac tivities into the blessed/damned. The preachers harangue against women like Shug is representative of mainstr eam cultures restrictions on female pleasure. In Blues doctrine, sexual rela tionships are not separated into right/wrong or good/badlovers are. As Wright describes it above, Blues reflects back to people, nonjudgmentally, their assorted painful and pleasurable realities, while Christ ianity seeks to tame and tidy up certain sexualities, while completely demonizing others. If blues promotes any worldview, it is the blurred line between pleasure and pain. The preachers sermon reflects a Christian code of morality which privileges spiritual pursuits over the bodys desires. S hug, the symbol of blues discourse, promotes another ranking system altogether. In their deep ly emotional and erotic relation ship, Shug encourages Celie to envision God as part of herself and persuades her to revitalize he r spirit through fellowship with nature. In Shugs theology the church space is an ancillary variable instead of a requisite for communication with God. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me, Shug reasons, And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God (193). As her lover, Shug facilitates Celies sexual self-discovery an d, as her evange list, she endows Celie with a pleasure-based, cor poreal theology. A woman in touch with her sexuality, according to Shug, is a woman intimate with God. Singing and dancing and fuckin: The issue of pleasure is at the base of the sacred/secular debate an d of Shugs construction of the essence of God. The difference, as Shug


76 bluntly states, is that the Blues performance puts singing and dancing and fucking together. Thats the reason they call what us sing the devi ls music. Devils love to fuck (115). In her assertion that devils fuck, sh e connotes the wildne ss of the jook-joint atmosphere, and those who unabashedly bask in sexual energy are the loose or nasty women who frequent them women who represent unfettered an d, therefore, reckless expression s of desire and gratification. She highlights the rhetorical lines drawn in main stream Christian cultures between the sensual pleasure one can experience while dancing and si nging in church, and the pleasures associated with singing and dancing in a dimly lit, sexually-charged club atmosphere. Shugs statement reveals how sexual energy is ve iled or denied in the church. Singing and dancing and fucking revises the church perspective in which singing and dancing and praising/praying go together. Yet, if one could observe the scenes of comm unal jubilation sideby-side, the jook-joint atmosphere can mirror the emotionalism a nd physical release of church. The wildness is similar in that flamboyantly dressed women in heavy make-up (looking their Sunday best) are inclined to flai l about uncontrollably, as they s hout and dance in the name of the Lord. Some people fall to the floor in a trance -like state and speak in tongues. Others flinch spasmodically, apparently in the grip of the Holy Spirit, until they are physically spent. In many churches, these scenes can begin during the p raise and worship portion of the program in which the locus of activity is the music. Singing leads to dancing, which leads to the ecstasy of being touched by God, a spiritual submission to the bridegroom ma de manifest on the body.7 This does not seem to be a very far stretc h from putting dancing and singing and fucking together. The difference lies in th e discourseerotic energy in chur ch is not recognized as such, while the spirituality of sexual energy is presum ed in the Blues. Angels and devils are both spiritual beings, after all.


77 The preacher and and the blueswoman evange list, with their conflicting messages, are also connected by their shared audience. That is why Celie can say with confidence that without the preacher mentioning Shugs re turn to town, everybody know w ho he mean. This is because secular and religious music cultures are in constant dialogue. For example, the influence of blues stars Ma Rainey and Bessie Smiths performance styles turn up time and again in the memoirs and biographies of gospel-turned -secular artists. Notably, even Mahalia Jackson, who famously refused to perform jazz or blues on the grounds of her Christian convictions, cites Ma Rainey as an irresistible indecency she secr etly indulged in when she could (Mahalia Jackson ). It is from this context that Shugs theological perspe ctive is formulated. Shug embodies a blues consciousness which enables her to locate a sacred plane within corporeal pleasure. Celies religious upbringing has taught her to think of the world as a temporary but inevitable state of suffering, and meeting God is something to look forward to in the everlasting afterlife. This life be over soon she consoles herself, but heaven la st all ways (42). Shug insists on the sacredness the Here and Now and Gods presence in the physical world: Heres the thing, say Shug. The thin g I believe, God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. Dont look like nothing, she say. It aint a picture show. It aint something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everythi ng, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. A nd when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, youve found It. (195) This pronouncement brings Heaven down from the skies into Celies immediate surroundings and her eternity. Celies past, pres ent and future potential are all in the realm of the godly. If God is everything, then God is no longer The Father in Heaven, but a force, an energy that moves through and around her. This idea is expounded upon in The Temple of My Familiar the sequel to Color Purple where Shug publishes her version of the Beatitudes (also known as Jesus


78 sermon on the mount in Matthew 5). In The Gospel According To Shug, she teaches: Helped are those who love the entire cosmos rather than their own tiny count ry, city, or farm, for to them they will be shown the unbroken web of life and the meaning of infinity ( Temple 288; emphasis added). So life, death and love are cyclical, se lf-perpetuating and non-hier archical. If Celie can imagine a god that is not spatially above her or se parate from her, she can rely on her spiritual power to become an agent of change in her own life. This type of intervention is exemplified when Celie describes the God of her imaginatio n as tall and graybear ded and white, and Shug insists that she must git man off [her] eyeb all before [she] can see anything atall ( CP 197). She gives Celie permission to abandon that image for a more inclusive and affirming one. In this spiritual model God is all bodies and, simultane ously, disembodied and inanimate; prayers can be directed toward rocks, trees and flowers. This gesture not only de-genders God, it releases Celie from the doctrinal pressures to please G od through ritualized acts like attending church and finding salvation. In effect, God is as present as ones awareness of It. God is because she is. Shugs gospel, derived from her blues consciousne ss, the sin/salvation and body/soul binaries do not exist. The absence of Christianitys overarching narratives of restraint and guilt creates space for the exploration, affirmation even, of Celies burgeoning lesbian identity. Shug also reconfigures the Creator as an It. In doing so, she discursively evaporates the patriarchal justification for womens bodies and loyalties to always be under control of men, whether those men are their husbands, fathers, or the masculine Holy Trinity. Men and their religions have tended to make love for anyt hing and anybody other than themselves and their Gods an objectionable thing, a shame Walker writes elsewhere, But that is not the message of Nature, the Universe, the Earth or of the uni ndoctrinated Human Heart, where everything is profusion, chaos, multiplicity, but also creativity, containment and care ( Same River Twice 171-


79 2). It is Walkers interpretation of the message of Nature [and] the Universe that Shug brings to Celie in a way that equates sexual ecstasy with spiritual ecstasy, a message that includes homoerotic and masturbatory experiences. God is (a) Pussy: Shug testifies that when she found It it was on a day when she was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, wh ich I was, [and] it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything (195). It is a testimony of emotional development. The confession of being a motherless child underscores Shugs st ate of disconnection: she is motherless metaphorically because of her nasty woman out sider status in the community. That she was sitting quiet suggests a meditati ve or prayerful state during whic h her connection to and clearer understanding of her inextricab le link the Universe descende d upon her. Shug laughed, cried, and run all around the house (196), behavior that evokes the religious ecstatic moment described above, in which a person catches the spirit and runs down aisles, shouts, or burst into tongues. Next, Shug echoes her singing and dancing and fucking association by insisting that the spiritual breakthrough (to find It inside and around oneself) feels sort of like you know what [as she is] grinning and rubbing hi gh up on [Celies] thigh (196 my emphasis). For Celie, this description enables a particular ly lesbian interpretation of god s presence. This becomes clear when one considers where Shugs hand presumably points to as she caresses the thigh, and, equally important, how Celie knows what the what is. To be clear, this is not an argument for a reading of Shug as a lesbian character; however, Shugs analogy of spiritua l ecstasy and orgasm introduces the notion of the clitoral orgasm pleasure that emanates from the pussyas consecrated, transcendent pleasure. This notion elevates their lesbian sex into the realm of worship.


80 The use of the vernacular for female genitalia pussy, is a resi stance tactic on two political fronts. First, it is cons istent with the language of the novel, and to obscure Celies lower class vernacular would support a politics of respectability whic h the novel deliberately operates against.8 Second, Alice Walker imagines Shug as an outlaw, renegade, rebel, and pagan; [with a] zest in loving both men and women ( Same River 35). The outlaws influence on her surrounding company is inherently transgressive and controversial. While pussy may make some readers uncomfortable because of its mi sogynist connotations, its usage here reflects multiple, crisscrossing features of femaleness: it s soft ,firm, protruding, vulnerable, sensitivity and, to borrow Audre Lordes characterization, the s liding, folded, tender and deep nature of it. As demonstrated, it is Shugs renegade nature, her willingness to love women in a woman-hating culture, which destabilizes or fully reconfigures many masculinist representations of the world. It is in that spirit that pu ssy is asserted here. To return to the task of unp acking you know what, we examine an earlier scene in which Shug introduces Celie to the prospect of clitoral orgasm: Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and hotter and then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she say. Lots of su cking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue work. (77) This conversation marks the beginning of Celie s journey into claiming her body for her own sexual pleasure. The homoerotic co nnection is already established by this point in the friendship. Celie documents a few occasions upon which her body responds to Shugs beauty or scent, consistently couching her langua ge in religious terminology. Wh en she bathes Shug, where she thought [she] had turned into a man (49). [When] I wash her body, she recalls, it feel like Im praying. My hands tremble and my breath s hort (49). Also, she becomes aroused while


81 watching Shug perform. All the men got they ey es glued to Shugs bosom Celie observes, I got my eyes glued there too. I feel my nipples harden under my dress. My little button sort of perk up too. Shug, I say to her in my mind, Girl, you looks like a real good time, the Good Lord knows you do (81). With Shugs aid, Celie has had a glimpse of what a real good time can look like between women and, after their first nigh t together, she says that sleeping with Shug feel like Heaven (114). Significantly, there is lesbian potential in Shugs descripti on of orgasm. The omission of gendered pronouns in this definiti on creates imaginary space for Celie to insert Shug as the somebody to do the finger and tongue work in her pussy. Yet, Celie will be the first to actually touch herself there. Later that night, Celie tearfully masturbates while listening to Shug and Albert make love (79). The first time the wo men actually engage in se x, the details are left out. Celie simply says they kiss and touch each other. So, for Celie, the only logical reference to you know what when Shug rubs her thigh is the little button at the tip of Shugs fingers. In this way Shug constructs a sexualized spirituality in which the fire of the Holy Ghost melts the little button during orgasm. For Celie, the ecstasy of knowing God can be found through her familiarity with her pussy. Finally, Shugs sermon about God and pleasure elevates lesbian sex into the realm of praise and worship. In light of their lesbian relationship, Shugs a ssertion that you have to git man off your eyeball to see anything atall takes on dual meanings. On one level, she is suggesting to Celie that her fee lings of alienation and abando nment by God are related to her views of God as an anthropomorphic, white patern al figure. Because of the brutal racism shes witnessed and her traumatic experiences with ma le domination, this is a god with whom Celie cannot truly identify. Shugs blues ministry mold s the universe to include her black, female and


82 her sexual selves in order to find peace in it. Bu t this introspective get ting man off the eyeball doctrine could also be perceived as reclaiming fema le sexuality from the male gaze. It is both the breaking of taboo and the reject ion of a compulsory [heterosexual] way of life. It is an attack on male right of access to women, a form of naysay ing to patriarchy, an ac t of resistance (Rich 239). Once Celie understands her life and her body as always already blessed by God, when she can disarticulate her sexuality from her past with men, she is free to settle into a spirituality that allows her to praise god by liking what [she] likes. Furthermore, by touching Celies thigh during this sermon, Shug invokes the sexual pleas ure Celie associates with those hands and claims that pleasure as an act of thanksgiving a nd praise to the holy give r. This is how Shugs blues ministry constructs prai se and worship as indulging in those things that one finds delightful. This is a stark contradiction to the Christian dictum to deny yourself in exchange for sanctification and happiness in the afterlife.9 The narrative shatters the ideological barriers between nonnormative sexuality and spirituality and struggles to undo antagonisms between bodily pleasure and spiritual strivings. Shugs bl ueswoman evangelism liberates black female sexuality through resistance to he teropatriarchy, it reconciles th e bodys desires to the souls needs, and it expands the spiritual possibilitie s of all who seek God within themselves. The ungodly theologies of In the Life and The Color Purple construct black queer liberation as the restoration of spiritual possibilities to the queer subject. Walker and Birtha advance a vision of human connection to the divi ne that reflects spir itual transformation as occurring outside of organized religion. Individual tr uths and folk knowledges are privileged over heteropatriarchal Christianity in a philosophi cal direction that moves farther away from the tradition within which the sanctified sissies in Chapter Two work. Chapter Four considers


83 matters of the soul from a different angle. It situates black queerne ss on the other side of mortality. NOTES 1 Mullen makes a similar rhetorical move by listing contemporary writers Toni Cade Bambara, Octavia Butler and Ntozake Shange and many others as part of the extensive genealogy of writers and artists in whose works and texts it is possible to read the persistence of vision (639). Douglass-Chin devotes two chapters to the daughters of spiritual autobiography: Toni Morrison, Zora Neal Hurston and others. 2 Henry Louis Gates coined this term in The Signifying Monkey to mean a representatio n of the speaking black voice. The sentence structures, idiom, and sometimes spelling combine to talk to the reader in ways that capture the sound of a linguistic community. 3 This is not to say that lesbians are not allowed to pa rticipate in traditional church communities. Generally, they may do so as long as they deny, repress, or profess to be healed of lesbian desires. 4 For further reading: Slave Culture by Sterling Stuckey, Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thompson and Mooring & Metaphors by Karla Holloway. 5 In her analysis of Dessa Rose, Henderson writes, In flight then, Dessa challenges the material and discusirve elementsof her oppression and, at the same time, provides a model for writing as struggle (359). Birthas narrator goes beyond struggling in her struggle; she finds a space to claim liber ation from the dominant homophobic narrative. 6 Graces femme qualities are established in earlier depictions of her night-on-the-town wear: s ilk dresses, fur stole, pearl necklace, long gloves, etc. 7 The imagery and symbolism of marriage is applied to Chri st and his followers. Christ, the Bridegroom, has chosen the church to be His bride (Ephesians 5:25). Her responsibility is to be faithful to Him (2 Corinthans 11:2; Ephesians 5:24). At the Second Coming of Christ, the church will be united with the Bridegroom, the official ceremony will take place (Revelation 19:7). 8 Politics of respectability are black middle-class values in which emphasi s is placed on manners and morality deployed to counter negative racial and lower-class stereotypes. 9 Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23


84 CHAPTER 4 HOMOEROTICS OF TALK IN THE GILDA ST ORIES The transition from slave to free woman did not liberate the black heroine or the black woman from the political and ideologi cal limits imposed on her sexuality. Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood The trope of queering the soul has been repres ented in earlier chapters as the duplicitous use of sacred music and as the articulation of a holistic theology. T hose examples contain figurations of homosexual desire in religious rituals and are expressions of inclusive spirituality. Queering is enacted by characters whose (homo)sexual lives are guided by their spiritual beliefs or whose homoerotic ecstasy is expressed through religious rhetoric. As cultural products, those narratives reflect some of the ways African Am ericans locate divinity in the self without necessarily excising Africanity or suffocating their physical needs in the name of a Christian God. Now the conversation tu rns to notions of life in the afterlife and portrayals of immortality. How do writers imagine the life of the soul after it has left the body? Does the soul maintain a queer essence as is suggested in Becky Birthas short story? How does sexuality play a role in the ancestors function as spiritguide? How are concepts of community and culture integrated into the discourse of immortality? These quest ions are taken up in th is chapter through an examination of the interventions Jewelle Gomez makes in her vampire novel The Gilda Stories Gomezs plot, narrative techniqu e, and cosmological framework construct a world in which community, sexual expression and spirit are gui deposts in the queer characters quest for wholeness. As it was in the 19th-century when black women began to shift from autobiographical forms to employ the novel as a form of cultural and political in tervention in the struggle for black liberation from oppression (Carby 61), Gomez participates in the white male-dominated field of vampire fiction in or der to invent a black lesbian heroine who transcends popular


85 ideologies. Vampire fiction, like other forms of fa ntasy and surrealism, allows a writer a sense of wish fulfillment. For Black lesb ians, the wishes are larger and richer than most people have been able to imagine, Gomez insists, and In our speculation about the future[,] the vision of the struggle is often quite brutal, bu t the vision of the triumph is equally fantastic (Speculative Fiction and Black Lesbians 955). Struggle, trium ph, desire, fulfillment, sanctuary and threat are circulating themes that encompass Gomezs vision in Gilda Stories. In the struggle against oppression, she writes the black lesbian a/into community. It is a vision of community that privileges womanhood and female bonding, and in which myth, storytelling and memory all function as history. According to Lynda Hall, th e novel interrogates patriarchal discourses that presume a woman always forms her identity in relation to men. The dominant patriarchal discours esthe bible (she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man), Freud (penis envy), Lacan (Name-of-the-Father), and Lvi-Strauss (exchange of women between men)are interrogated here by the predominancy of womens names, bodies, and voices, and by womens active agency in creating family and in determining their own future. (396) Indeed, this novel is antiracist feminist discourse of kinship, autonomy, and eros. It speaks a desire for an egalitarian society in which love, loyalty, and re verence for life are paramount. These virtues are also emphasized in depicti ons of the erotic bond between black women and other people of color. Gilda, the protagonist, travels through erotic relationships with three women and a man in which her conversational ex changes critique the selfishness and emotional manipulation that can occur in relationships. To extend the discussion of queering the soul, this analysis will focus on the ways these themes inte ract with spirituality and lesbian desire in a homoerotics of talk. The chapter is broken in to three parts. The first section presents a conceptual framework for a discussion of black fe male homoerotics as liberational discourse; in


86 the second section, three major interpersonal re lationships examined for the ways the plot constructs black lesbian desire through conversation; and the concluding section summarizes how homoerotics is a queering of the soul. Black female homoerotics: The concept of a black female homoerotics is guided by two theoretical principles. The first is Audre Lord es description of the erotic as an inherently political force that is the combination of emo tional, intuitive, experi ential, and intellectual knowledges. Lordes views in the essay, Uses of the Erotic, articulate and enact her lesbian feminist, warrior-poet politics. She argues that wh at women know/believe on their deepest levels of being is erotic knowledge, and is what compels them toward activism. The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros the personification of love in all its aspectsborn of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce [sic] of women; [I speak] of that creative energy empowered. (Lorde 55) This definition identifies a specifically female pow er to love herself to the point of acting with passionate agency on her own behalf This is not to say that Lord e believes that only women can obtain and wield this type of pow er. Rather, she speaks from a femi nist perspective that focuses on the sensuously intimate relationships th at develop between women as a way to reconceptualize those relationships as something beyond sexual indulgence. Lorde urges readers to consider how a homoerotic bond is also a useable source of political power. She advocates for an understanding of same-sex desire as foundationa l in feminist community building and in the formation of political alliances against oppressi on. Her articulation of erotic bonding challenges the dominant patriarchal narrative in which female sexual energy is benign when shared with other women; and is a source of shame when wielded too confidently; or, if acknowledged as power, is restricted to sexual si tuations; and is controlled through compulsive heterosexuality so


87 as to funnel it solely to ward the pleasure of men.1 By calling it lifefor ce, she makes a case for the erotic as synonymous with sp irit. In other parts of the e ssay Lordes discourse further disintegrates traditional divisions between the intellectual/emotional/sexual spheres and seeks to dislodge the erotic from the realm of the pornographic. The pornographic realm, Lorde maintains, emphasizes physical sensation without f eeling (54) to the extent that it represents the suppression of true feeling (54) and is a p lasticized, exploitative substitute. So that in a pornographic experience a woman can feel yet re main detached from her emotions, while the erotic is the lifeblood of emoti on. It is spiritual intensity. To complete her endorsement of homoerotic energy, Lorde delineates a variety of the energys uses and effects. When a woman allows he rself to fully explore the erotic in her life, it functions in multiple ways: a bridge to sharing d eeply any pursuit with another person (56); a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens experience (57); a deep and irreplaceable knowledge of [her] capacity for joy; and a reason to stop being satisfied with suffering and self-negation (58). Her list of the uses of the erotic describes nothing less than soul-deep, consciousness-raising pote ntial. In effect, she extends th e basic feminist premise the personal is political to include: a nd the political is spiritual. So Lorde theorizes a politicized spirituality, a womans creative energy empowered that is connected to, driven, and enhanced by her knowledge of what brings her pleasure. On es capacity for joy is, according to Lorde, the true [self] knowledge, a kalei doscopic lens through which a woma n can colorfully interpret her world and her role in it. In one felled swoop, sh e proposes a significant in tegration of female political, spiritual, and sexual selfhood that recognizes the po ssibilities wrought by pleasure, desire, and creativity in liberational wor k. This supposition leads to the second guiding theoretical principle of this chapter: Karla Kaplans erotics of talk.


88 In The Erotics of Talk: Womens Wr iting and Feminist Paradigms Karla Kaplan builds upon Lordes foundation as she introduces the trop e erotics of talk, a feminist narrative technique that ties pleasure, de sire and liberational work togeth er in fiction writing. One aspect of the erotics of talk is how a protagonists imagining of and/or s earch for her ideal lover is also an allegory for her finding, imagining, or proj ecting ideal listeners (Kaplan18). The ideal listener is the sine qua non of [the protagonists] sexual and individual de sire (18) because it is a listener who will assume the speaker is an equal, will be a fully engaged hearer and, therefore, appropriately responsive. The fictional conversa tion is ideal in that it contains a level of reciprocity, fairness, and justice that is lacking in the characters life and it directs the readers attention, Kaplan argues, to what may be missing from the authors real life cultural conversations. The protagonists talk with individuals in the narrative also speaks to power structures, social movements and other texts. Kaplan demonstrates how Zora Neale Hurst on highlights black female marginality and a desire for equity through her character, Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God Janies ideal listener is Pheoby, her kissin-friend who, when Janie is longing for self-revelation, is eager to feel and do through Janie (Hurston 6, 7 emphasis a dded). Within the dynamic of their conversation, Janies longing to represent her re ality is met with her lis teners equally intense eagerness to know the sights and so unds of the journey, to feel and do it in her imagination. Thus the kissing metaphor is not only a descripti on of a deeply intimate relationship, but it also signifies their mutual cultural, gender, and emotional literacy. W ith Pheoby, Janie can feel the full capacity of conversa tional joy because there is no cultural or intellectual gap to overcome; they live in the same symbolic universe.


89 The main framing of the novel is Janies sh aring with Pheoby her journey wherein she struggled for self-determination and self-expr ession. Theirs is a c onversation about failed conversations. According to Kaplan, it is a key political strategy that Phoeby is the single listener with whom Janie is satisfied b ecause it highlights Janie dissatisf action with other conversations. Insofar as that imagined ideal listener is both gendered and limited (eith er to one person or one instance of fulfilling exchange), finding ones idea l listener/lover works to criticize the cultural conversation these texts both emulate and disrup t (Kaplan 18). In other words, Hurstons characters speak her racial, gender, or sexual desires into the cultural fissures so as to demonstrate that the fissures exist and, perhap s, to impact the cultural conversation through consciousness-raising. From this point in Kaplans analysis, our values and concerns as critic s diverge. Kaplan is discomfort[ed] (119) by the implication in Hurs tons text that Janies ideal listener is not someone who masters discursive fa irness or learns the skills nece ssary to recognize the concrete particularity of someone who is different (119) but rather is someone practically interchangeable (119) with herself. Ultimat ely, Hurstons ideal listener/lover/reader is southern, rural, black and female Kaplan complains at length: But remembering that Hurston allego rizes such a reader as not only Black, female, from the same background as Janie and with similar experiences, but also as operati ng from a position of sympathy[,] sensuality and erotic openness to Janie[,] generosity and nurturance[,] protectiveness an d, finally discursive passivity (the willingness to remain a listener, not to demand an exchange of places, not to insist on telling her own story as well), we must conclude that her depiction is an exaggerated idealization just as all objects of romantic desire and fantasy are exaggerated and idealized. (118; my emphasis) Curiously, Kaplan attempts to tone down her re jection of Hurstons desire by describing it as equally exaggerated and idealized as any other romantic fantasy. The repetition of the phrase


90 only makes her rejection all the more obvious. If idealization is inheren tly exaggerated, for Kaplan to deem this particular figuration as redun dantly so, reveals that as a scholar she may be able to recognize the concrete pa rticularity of black women, but is limited in her appreciation that two black women who sh are the same socio-economic geographic and linguistic background may find in each other a mother-lover bond in which they also may also alternate between dominant/subordinate erotic roles. It is not an uncommon oth er as self model in African American womens litera ture. Kevin Quashie has called this identification a girlfriend selfhood. The girlfriend is the other someone who makes it possible for a black female subject to bring more of herself into consideration (Qua shie 18) and the other who is so much the self that the boundaries between the two become fluid and sometimes collapse (Quashie 19). Phoebys interchangeability is the reflection of self that validates Janies formulations about southern, rural, erotic womanhood. Perhaps for Kaplan, Hurstons girlfriend pol itics are negatively g endered and limited whereas, from a queer standpoint, those politics cons truct a liberated homoerotic space. It is my supposition that while the tr aditional husband/wife dynamic within Janies meta-narrative leaves much to be desired for Janie, the pleasure of th e oral/aural consummation of the main frame with Phoeby leaves both women satiated. This is evidenced by the following narration: So Ahm back home agin and Ahm satisfied tuh be h eah (182), Janie says in conclusion, and Pheoby breathed out heavily, Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus listen in tuh you, Janie (182). Their relationship is the homespace in which they both experience spiritual intensity and freedom, and are both lo ver and the beloved. In this oblique manner Erotics of Talk connects to Uses of th e Erotic since it reveals how Hurstonin highly sensual language pinpoints her own desire for black female


91 readership/companionship, and identifies the sa me-sex bond as a space of egalitarianism and multi-layered gratification. For it is the profound familiarity between the women that forges the erotic bond. Hence, all of the other conversations in the novel are inferior when held to the standard of this one. It is, as Lorde surmises, the acquisition of erotic knowledge that creates such a standard because it changes ones expectati ons of the height and depth of all feeling and doing: For the erotic is not a question only a question of what we do; it is a question of how acutely can fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we ar e capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us clos est to that fullness. (Lorde 55, my emphasis) Lordes philosophy intersects with Kaplans feminist narrative theory in womens novels that illustrate the desire for female listener/lovers. This intersection of the political erotic and discursive erotic encoding can be more precis ely identified as a homoerotics of talk. Kaplan provides a model for understanding the kinds of conversation Jewelle Gomez imagines she is having with her readers. What does it mean for a womans creative work to foreground her desire to be desired by a black female reader? What cultural conversations does Gomez reconstruct and critique in a novel that spans 150 years in the life of an African American vampire? What are the terms by which she formul ates the ideal listener/lover? What images does her desire conjure? If desire is shaped differently according to gender and sexual orientation, then it may differ in respect to other criteria as well. As the terms multiply, so do the operations of desire (Roof qtd in Kaplan 17). It is the various operations of desire that will drive this analysis. I will argue that Gomezs Gilda Stories queers the soul through a black female homoerotics of talk and an intense focus on the spiritual, infinite nature of that desire.


92 Reciprocity as spiritual ideology: Traditionally, the vampire character is representative of middle to upper class status. In a capitalist syst em they are the corrupt but admired persona. Their physical prowess is a metaphor for soci al and economic power. The powerful social position of the vampire, according to Judith Johnson, is no accident. It tells us that part of the inherent metaphorical material in societys dreams of vampire na rratives is social, and involves questions of social justice, power, exploitation, race and class, as well as the more obvious gender conflict (Johnson 75). Gom ez takes up all of these issues and asserts an ethical solution to the problem of power in a hierarchized society: reciprocity. This is the core thread and major spiritual philosophy at work in the text. My working definition of spiritual ity comes from Judylyn Ryans study, Spirituality as Ideology in Black Wome ns Film and Literature : consciousness, ethos, life style, and discourse that privileges spirit as a primary attribute of se lf, and that [which] defines and determines health and well-being (23). While the vampire species as an archetype is always soul-less, Gomez infuses her undead characters with intuitive, emotional, and psychic abilitiesa spiritual foundationby which they are held to a moral code, or a politics of exchange. They insist that the taking of blood from a human need not be a murd erous or purely selfish ac t. It is an ethical form of power. As you take from [humans] you must reach inside Gilda is told, feel what they are needing, not what you are hungering for ( 50). This model of exchange that attends to the health and well being of both parties is a lesson in friendship, love, and how power relations should be negotiated. Gilda is taught to be consci ous of energy/life-force/ spirit and to always give in the measured act of taking. A feeding should leave [the human s] with something new and fresh, something wanted. Let their joy fill you. This is the only way to share and not to rob. It will also keep you on your guard so you dont drain life away (50). To s hare and not rob is


93 a core value and spiritual principl e that underlies all majo r relationships in the novel. This desire for a more ethical power relation is a basic one to understand, especially in the context of the black peoples experiences in the US. The spiritual principle takes on different shapes in each of the conversations or (homo)erotics of talk between Gilda and other characters. The first few relationships identify those which lack the qualities of the ideal listener/lover. By the end, we find that Gomez/Gildas desire do not diffe r much from that of Hurston/Janie. How to love a revolutionary: Community building and kinship networks are intrinsic to Gildas spiritual life. Her relationship with Bird, a fellow vampire and member of the displaced Lakota tribe, is not in the girlfri end aesthetic, yet Bird is the ch aracter with whom Gilda shares the most enduring relationship. Gilda was a runaway slave at age fourteen who found refuge in the brothel owned and operated by Bird and he r white female lover. Bird befriended and mentored Gilda, taught her to read and write in English and French, and to speak the Lakota language fluently. Bird had opene d herself to her as she had w ith no one else (28). It was Bird and her lover who brought Gilda into their vampire family in the 1850s. The blending of who/what family means to Gilda occurs in thes e scenes. As Gilda is being prepared for the crossing over into a state of the undead, she feel [s] herself opening to ideas and sensations she had never fully admitted before (43). She is told to think of people she loves in order that she become hopeful about immortality. As she recall s memories of her biological mother, the thoughts mingle with her budding feelings for Bird. Her mothers hands reaching down to pull the cloth up to her chin as she lay on the mattress filled her vision. Her mothers darkened knuckles had loomed large and solid. Something she had not articulated her love for. She reme mbered hearing Birds voice for the first time in the house announcing the entertainment. The deep resonance sent a thrill through her body. (44)


94 The deep resonance of her desire for Bird is a vibration that Gilda wi ll entertain throughout her lifes journey. Because Bird is the vampire to wh ich she is bonded in blood, they are essentially committed to be together. Yet Gildas first lesson in the life is that being together has many meanings. With Bird, she learns to feel clos e to her lover in spiritby remaining in sync psychically and emotionally. It marks the be ginning of her developing erotic knowledge. Bird dedicates her life to the repatriation of land to the dispossessed Lakota tribe. There is only slight mention of this politi cal work which requires her to travel for years at a time. Birds extended absences create a dynamic in which phys ical contact becomes an elusive desire or short-lived encounter and forces theirs to become a mostly sp iritual connecti on. After Gildas initial feeding/exchange which turns her into vampir e, they live together for 40 years but then are separated for over 60 because of Birds life of activism. It is th e beginning of Gildas separate journey into self. Without Bird she was floating out of control on a dangerous sea. Once again she needed to give shape to a world that was beyond her comprehension, much as she had been forced to do when her mother died (111). When th ey reunite, the reader l earns that so far the women have not taken each other in as fu lly as they could (1 39). This particular feeding/exchange introduces er otic expression into their bloo dletting relationship. The narrator describes Birds yearning: This was a desire not unlike their need for blood, but she had already had her share. It was not unlike lust but less single-minded. She felt the love almost as motherly affection, yet there was more. As the blood flowed from Gildas body into Birds they both understood the needit was for completion. (139) This bloodletting occurs after they have already fed on humans. So the sharing of bodily fluids is unnecessary except to satisfy othe r needs. This is a decision to further expand the meaning of love and family in their relationship. Completion means they will be cementing their family


95 bond (139) through an erotic exchange as well. Their reunion creates ener getic ripples as The ancient rhythms of the Lakota and Fulani people s vibrated the air around them as they rocked together in each others arms (137). Bird strokes Gildas face and neck, sparking a tingle inside her thighs (139). She whispers in a m esmerizing tone as she spoke of her life and aloneness, her fear of being wit hout anyone, always pushing away t hose she loved (139). Bird is candid in a way that is not a requ ired part of the physical vulnera bility that is inherent during feeding/exchange. The text narrat es a desire for confessions of the fragility one feels when loving another being. Bird admits to the lone liness of the migrant activists life and the dread/desire of needing another person. While vampire feeding is generally an eroticiz ed scene, in this case sexual curiosity is intermingled with the blood exch ange. Soon Gilda drank eagerly, fi lling herself, and as she did her hand massaged Birds breast, first touching the nipple gently with curiosity, then roughly. She wanted to know this body that gave her lif e (140). Life takes on multiple meanings hereactual blood and also life-force, the inte gration of her political, spiritual, and sexual selves. She wants to know the woman who initiat ed her vampire/lesbian awakening which has allowed her to carry her fury and trauma and memo ries of slavery from the 1850s into this scene nearly one hundred years later. Gilda feeds from an incision made below Bi rds breast, in the fold of skin that is exposed when a woman lies on her back. As they act on multiple levels of their desire, the blending of em otions and bodily fluids is likened to the labor of birth. To an outsider, the sight may have been one of horror: their faces red and shining, their eyes unfocus ed and black, the sound of their bodies slick with wetness, tight wi th life. Yet it was a birth. The mother finally able to bring her ch ild into the world, to look at her. It was not death that claimed Gild. It was Bird. (140)


96 This scene captures their ascent into profound ways of knowing and seeing between the women. They have spent decades building a friendship, sharing family history, taking long walks, embracing each other, but only pondering the sexual energy that flares between them. Playfully mimicking traditional narratives of motherhood, not penetration, the vampires suck at a delicate slash just below the breast of her/his beloved, giving birth to immortality through a deliberate mixing of blood and blurring of race (Shannon Winnibst 13). Birth is also the erotic bond. For they are feeding on the energy, taking it in their mouths, allo wing it to absorb into their spirits, and digesting it. The slickness of their bodies creates a sound, a sly suggestion of sexual friction, the gaining of car nal knowledge. The phrase, tight with life implies something beyond full bellies; perhaps they ar e also tight with lifeforce, mu scles contracting and releasing, each woman nearly bursting from the energetic fl ow. They are seeing each other from the inside out, through openings of all sorts in their bodies, minds and spirits. As the vampires search for completion in each others bodies, the reader is presented with a conversation about the presentabsence Bird represents. Where have you been? [Gilda asked.] Ive always been behind you. I re turned to those of my people who survived the terrible years. Offering my knowledge and strength where it might help, relearning how to be with my own people. How to be alone. Even there on the plains I listened for you. (141) Birds listening is a key aspect of her loyalty. After this mome nt between them, their connection privileges spiritual well-being. In times of trouble or doub t, Gilda hears Birds voice or feels her presence near her. Gilda constantly yearns for her but is almost always without her. Without realizing it, she is also learni ng from Bird how to be alone. Still something is amiss between them. The spiritual visitation eventually is enoug h to ease her troubled mind, but Birds absences


97 are so sharply painful for Gilda that theirs is a cultural conversation that falls short of Gildas ideal. The loss of family is a major thematic in Gomezs homoerotics of talk but it is paralleled by an equally powerful focus on the erotic bind of the created family. Their relationship is a meditation on the difference between actual loss and a form of att ached separation. All of Gildas childhood traumas, the death of her mother, the leaving behind of he r sisters, the near rape by a white man who discovered her in his barn were all suffered in silence and isolation. But throughout her vampire life, as she encounters de ep-seated fear, faces gut -wrenching devastation, or considers entrusting someone w ith the truth of her vampirism, Bird sensed Gildas need and appeared in some form to provide counsel or companionship. On one such occasion Gilda realizes that she, too, is a wanderer who has distanced herself from those with whom she identifies the most. She longs for intimacy with other African Americans. The severance from her biological family made any re-connection w ith African Americans an emotionally daunting option for her. But in 1955, an obvious reference to the beginning of the modern uprising for black civil rights, she finds the courage to allow deep connections with them. Its been my one-hundred-year journeyaway from my people into the world, Gilda said. Only now have I felt like I could retrieve them, touch and be touched by them as I was before. In the [beauty] shop Ive grown to understand the rhythm of their lives, their desires. (157) Gildas re-immersion into the black community and Birds passionate strivings for justice for her tribe is a narrative assertion that they are not altogether each othe rs people. More to the point, Gildas alienation and isolation is more than a philosophical journey into the human condition. These women have dissimilar ge ographical, racial, and economic circumstances that become keen points of departure in their lifestyles. Gilda, a Fulani descendant, was an illiterate fugitive


98 while Bird already held a financ ially independent, proprietary status when they met. And since Bird is a sojourner, Gilda was left to her own fi nancial and social devices. Their meeting place is a shared history of slavery and dispossession, as well as an understandab le distrust of white humans. This mother-lover relationship leaves sp ace for something more tangible in Gildas life because the principle to share and not rob appl ies to them in the sense that love, time, blood, and even rescue is given and taken sparingly. Ne ither partner has an upper hand as it relates to their power dynamic. Bird is just as emotionally involved and lonely for Gilda as Gilda is for her, yet she also balances her ti me for grassroots work and self-refl exivity. She shares of herself without robbing any of her lifes priorities of th eir deserved attention. As one friend tells Gilda, You think of it as runni ng away from you. For [Bird] it may simply have been running to other things that are most important (177). Another important aspect of their relationship is reflected in the fact that at the end of the novel in the year 2050, when Gilda is fleeing from human vampire hunters, it is to Bird that she escapes. Gilda, miserable and fatigued, contemplates suicide on the journey to Bird. In her usual fashion, Bird enters Gildas mind and converses with her: Ah, so finally you come to me in a place Ive made home, Bird said. And we can leave this world together. Gilda heard her response as if shed spoken aloud. No, my girl. I think not. I have fl own from nest to nest since [the brothel]. And weve not had time enough to know this world together. Gilda felt protest welling inside of her. The Hunters would be relentless[]. She knew no reason to remain. [Bird:] We remain because this is our home. We both have lost land here. Should we leave it all to them? I will not. (250) Even in this moment it is Bird who supplies Gild a with lifeforce. Because when Bird refuses to submit, Gilda is lifted out of her depression into a more determ ined and resistant state of mind.


99 What Bird represents as a liste ner/lover is one who can be em pathetic to other racialized communities; who can provide a sensual sanc tuary in dangerous times; and can supply inspiration when a loved one is spiritually deflated. She is the mother-lover who lingered over [Gilda] as she would a child. She whispered sweet words to her as she might a lover (140) and who fiercely protected Gilda from the evil intent of humans, other vampires and, at times, Gilda herself. Still Gilda seeks something more. Electric avenues: The novel constructs a remarkable conversation betw een Gilda and a politically conscious heterosexual man that serves to reflect true revolutionary potential. Gilda met Julius in 1971 and they bonded over memories of sit-ins and the recent death of activist George Jackson in prison. Jacksons death is a deliberate context for their meeting, for it marks the downswing of the black nationalisms mascu linist sway in the popular consciousness. The preceding decade was the moment of The Black Man. Now that freedom, equality rights, wealth, [and] power were assumed to be on their way, Michele Wallace remembers in Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman [the black woman] ha d to understand that manhood was essential to revolutionunquestioned, uncha llenged, unfettered manhood (13). This meant that the agenda to end racial oppression was defined by men and obscured any gender-specific issues that women faced. Wallace continues: When she stood by silently as he became a man, she assumed that he would grant her long overdue womanhood []. But he did not. He refused her (14). It was a political betr ayal that fueled bitterness along gender lines in coalitions and organizations. The result has been calamit ous. The black woman has become a social and intellectual suicide; the black man, unintrospectiv e and oppressive (Wallace 13). By the end of the 1960s, women had begun creating segregated soci o-political spaces as a strategy to combat male supremacy as well as other interlocked systems of oppression. They began to define

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100 revolution for themselves. The seventies ushere d in a new paradigm in which men were the enemy of womens liberation. This is the context, as their references to nation-building and dashikis folded at the bottom of a trunk (169) allude to, in which Julius and Gilda met across lines of struggle and distrust. Their story begins when Gilda rebuffs Juliu s sexual advances. Gilda found her comfort with women. Thats just the way it was (174) In spite of herself, she is lured by the gravitational pull between them and is confused by it. It was certainly not the first time a man had propositioned her, the narrator explains, She had passed o ff their suggestions so easily, though, that they usually never remembered they had made them. What was upsetting her then? (174). She realizes that even t hough she has constructed her privat e life in a way that generally excludes men of any species, she is still joined to them. As thoughts of Julius reached out to her through the night air (174) she ope ns herself to the idea of bringing him into the life. But first some ground rules have to be set. Gomez constructs Julius and Gildas conve rsation as one in which people with a revolutionary consciousness live up to the unifying ideals forged in organized resistance. Gilda makes it clear that she wants nothing more than friendship, which is an attempt to move away from his objectification of her. Julius quickly releases his initia l ambition and admits that their attachment is much more valuab le to him than sexual conquest. I cant imagine life without you somewhere near me, Julius pleads, If its as a fr iend and not a lover, then let it be that (184). As she succumbs to her feelings for him, she defines the companionship she can offer. It is commitment as youve always fantasized itin college dormitories when you talked of revolution, in the theater when they speak of ch anging the world, Gilda promises, The reality of it can never be as one imagines (191). The key terms in this pledge are commitment and

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101 revolution. As a vampire she has lived many lives: sl ave, fugitive, activist, cosmetologist and, in 1971, a theater owner who authors and produces musicals. She has acquired wisdom beyond her apparent years. Becoming intimate with Julius br ings back painful memories of betrayal and failure. Gilda recalls that Most of the men we marched with ran out of liberation ideas. They had a big dream about black men being free, but thats as far as it went. They really didnt ha ve a full visionyou know, women being free, Puerto Ricans being free, homosexuals being free. So things kind of folded in on top of themselves. (170) This conversation educates Juli us through a critique of the mo vement. What if, after things folded in men began to appreciate the frus trated voices of the women who had marched with/for them? What if women, when given the opportunity to speak to a man about male domination, choose not to recede into a traditional role of silence or to rely on separatism? Writer activist bell hooks conced es that this kind of talki ng back was never collectively undertaken by feminists. The ne xt stage would have been the confrontation between women and men hooks writes, the sharing of this new a nd radical speech: women speaking to men in a liberated voice. It [is] this c onfrontation that has been to a gr ave extent avoided (129). Gomezs characters do not avoid the opportunity for conf rontation and, furthermore, her rendition of it complicates the black lesbian feminist stance so that she is portrayed as openly loving a heterosexual black man. It exemplifies what bell hooks characterizes as a varied and multidimensional longing between men and women. W henever this longing to love exists there is present the possibility that th e forms of discourse within patria rchy that estrange and alienate women and men from one another ca n be resisted, that a context fo r dialogue can be created, that a liberatory exchange can take place (hooks 131). When Julius accepts Gildas proposal (for friendship and the vampire life) th ey become a model of liberatory exchange in that the share

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102 and not rob principle negotiates non-domination and reciprocity. Also, in the act of feeding/exchange with Julius there remains an erotic layer: She opened her eyes and her arms; Julius lay in them like a child. She ran her finger gently over his face and neck, enjoying the softness of his skin She encircle d him with her arms, kissing his eyes and nose. She felt his pulse begin to race as she passed her hand over his chest. She pressed her lips to his in a gesture that was full of the excitement shed held inside herself for so long. It was a kiss both passionate and chaste, leaving Julius feeling like a child in her arms, yet still a man. [] He began to suck at [her] blood insistently, finally understanding the power that moved between them. Electricity surged through him. (192; my emphasis) Both characters allow themselves to fully i ndulge their longing for love. Gilda is full of excitement and Julius feels the surge of electri city. This is a portrait of how a lesbian can embrace a heterosexual man in a passionate, lib erated exchange of power, respect, and uninhibited affection. The current th ey share exemplifies the synerg etic possibilities of coalition building. They power that moves between them is an unlimited (and potentially infinite) space of liberated consciousness. This passage also serves to reinforce Gildas desire for a female lover. Her insistence that theirs be strictly a platonic bond is an expression of her lesbian identity that leaves the female reader at the center of desire. As Kaplans re search proved, the quest for an ideal lover requires the failure of those that precede that lovers appearance. The narrative arc in Gilda Stories follows this logic and the reader is re warded with Gildas ideal listener/lover, Ermis, in the last few pages of the novel. Shes not heavy, shes my lover: We must continue to insist th at being a lesbian is larger than simply what we do in bed Gomez proclaims in Forty-Three Septembers that it has pervasive social and political im plications (135). The social, po litical and sexual implications are intertwined in Gildas companionship with Ermis, the black woman who emerges, finally, as the ideal listener/lover. The year is 2050 and, in a resource-drained, unhealthy ecosystem in

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103 which all humans have low life expectancies, the immortal vampire is a vital commodity. Humans have abused the Earths re sources to the extent that it is now wasteland country (234) and the wealthiest class of humans, called Off-wo rlders, live in space stat ions that hover above the planet. Those left behind must suffer th rough injurious ecological systems that have decreased the life expectancy of all life forms in major industr ial cities and th eir immediate surroundings in the US. As was mentioned above, the humans have discovered the reality of vampires and pay Hunters to capture them for th e regenerative powers that can be obtained from their blood. The vampire populations are in consta nt migration for fear of being captured for profit and forced to reproduce for/with the owner class. There were many rumors: the life being offered was service, not servitude or destruction but Gilda, having been the hunted game of bounty hunters before, knew This horror was slaver y come again (235). So Gilda is again in hiding from the constant threat of patrollers using telepa thy, sonar body tracers, and decoy tricks (238) to enslave her. Gomezs narrator articulates the perceptions of African Americans who retain cultural memories of slavery, p attyrollers shar ecropping, lynchings, and other vestiges of their people having been the hunted game of bounty hunters before. She iterates a strong distrust of what is often seen as the parasi tic nature of institutional services in relation to black bodies, such as the military, sports, and hea lthcare. Gildas situation reminds us (in Stuart Halls words) that the past continues to speak to us [and] it is al ways constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth (395). One hundr ed-fifty years after he r escape, slavery is the lens through which institutional intent is filtered. It is in this context that G ilda flees to the thirty-sixth fl oor of an abandoned penthouse. As she hides, she senses Ermis in the room with he r, dying from an intentio nal drug overdose. Ermis is an important character because she is a black woman who has given up on life. Gilda feeds on

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104 Ermis and resuscitates her through the exchange. Her intent is to satisfy her hunger for blood but as she does so, a homoerotic desire is kindled. S he was appalled by the th rill of pleasure that shot through her at the warmth of the woma ns mouth [A]nd her own breasts pulsed with excitement, desire, and shame (244). The shame is prompted by her uncertainty. Gild a has learned the lessons of her mentor(s) very well and is habitually contemplative. So in deciding to not simply feed on the body of a dying woman, she has to question her motivation fo r denying that woman her decision to die. What is her intent in keeping a woman alive who has every right to end her life? Is she intuitively sharing or selfishly indulging? Is she robbing Ermis of her decision to rush to death in a decaying world? Gilda acts on her erotic knowledge and once Ermis is fully revived and thirsty for blood, she did not wait but pulled Gild a to her on the wide living room floor beneath the starless sky (246). Their feeding/exchange is a sexual union. This time Gildas lips explored the whole of Ermis body shamelessly be fore sharing the blood that gave them both life (246). They become lovers and partners on the run fo r freedom; theirs is a journey fraught with danger. Yet, it is a spiritual journey that bonds them beyond the blood. Their conversation reflects alternating periods of strength and wea kness in each of them. During a resting period, they were ambushed by Hunters and Gilda was pierced with a tranqu ilizer gun. Ermis carried Gilda strapped to her back for several days. Your courage is great Gilda compliments her. Ermis replies: I couldnt leave you any more than you could leave me, referring to their initial introduction in the penthouse. In these few phrases, they are acknowledging how each has rescued the other from the ultimate surrende r and pledging a devoti on that does not exist between Gilda and her other kindred. They repr esent the other as self in black female

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105 homoerotics. To paraphrase Quashie, black woman loving black woman is serious, dangerous, necessary and revolutionary business (28). They connect in several ways that idealize their coupling. The first is how the black music tradition is such an intrinsic part of th eir beings. Upon a visit to the opera, Gilda could only think of the monumental rhythms and the urge ncy (93) of the plantation music she left in her past. Also, one of Gildas personas was a ja zz singer/songwriter. A few pages of the novel are dedicated to a moment in which the pie rcing notes from a cornet player wrapped themselves around her body (122) and induced a feeling of oneness with the black humans in the room and in general. The web of musi c bound them through the ages, through the dark, until there was but a single future for them (122). For Ermis, the 21st-century African American, the sacred music tradition is the most readily available. In one of the first conversations they have, Gild a reminds Ermis that she is not obligated to remain physically close to her or to remain alive. Vampires do have the option to die. I believe Ill run on, is Ermis reply, a reference to the gospel song made popular by the group The Mighty Clouds of Joy. Mo re of the lyrics include: I believe I'll run on/ See what the end will be/ I believe I'll work on/ Find out what's waiting for me ./ I see ten thousand stories / And glories and dreams/ I see ange ls right here on Earth/ I see laughing and growing and loving/ And knowing what life is worth Gomez signifies on the eternal life of the vamp ire species and the Christian paradigm in which the end is the after life with God. Ermis quotes it as conf irmation of her willingness to seek happiness in a future with Gilda. She expounds upon how much a part of her immediate heritage this use of double entendre is when she reminisces about her parents. They had not been religious folks but were often sighted crooning Steal Away to Jesu s, snuggled together on the front porch swing as if it was a romantic balla d (252). Just as her parents had, the vampire

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106 couple makes a slight interpretive adjustment to fit their context. They are the hunted species, forced to steal away in the cover of night, pushed further u nderground in order to keep the threat of (in)humanity at bay. Th e closing vision is a fantasy of a queer eternity. As they reach the horizon of safety, they are greeted by the si lhouettes of Gildas circ le of friendsthe nonnormative kinship of a Euro-American gay male couple, Julius, and Birdthe network she has created in the course of the nove l. While it is not clear how long they will be safe from the Hunters, the scene suggests that homespace is constructed by the fluidity of the love bonds that have sustained Gilda, and it is now complete d by her coupling with an African American woman. Vampirism as the practice of freedom: Through an explora tion of the major relationships or talk in th is novel, I have argued that Gilda Stories envisions the spiritual life of the black lesbian as ultimately engaged with a l ove of self. Black female homoerotics articulates an ethic of socio-political a nd erotic solidarity with black women and black culture, and in coalition with other minority cultural movements. Gomez character izes how religion informs but does not direct her sense of sacredness. The pass ion of faith stayed with me over time even if Catholicism did not, she e xplains, The church mythology, deeply embedded in my imagination, depicted a passionate commitment to a higher power. That passion was transformed into a belief in human rights and the interconnection of a ll living things ( Forty-Three 72). These passions are conveyed through the tr ials and lessons in Gildas lif e. Gilda is a queer soul in search of love, community and r eciprocity. In her world, morality is measured by how one values the life of others and all life is sacred. Nonetheless, the closin g passages suggest that sometimes escape is the solution if ones environment is t oo phobic, too parasitic, or too hostile to the marginalized subject. Gildas decision to flee ex emplifies Jose Munozs disidentifying subject

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107 who spends much time seeking cultural, material and psychic survival in spite of oppressive regimes but, ultimately, cannot fly above the a tmospheric force field of [xenophobic] ideology (161). She flees into the horizon of othern ess. The black queer soul must fly free. NOTES 1 This is also a way to acknowledge and iden tify the positive potential of lesbian relati onships in feminist organizations, an ov ert connection to womens liberation and th e gay & lesbian liberation movement.

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108 CHAPTER 5 THE EROTIC COMMUNION OF BROWN HEATHE NS, BLACK QUEERS AND ANCESTRAL SPIRITS IN BY THE LIGHT OF MY FATHERS SMILE Because our family was such a mixture of I ndian, Mexican, and white I was acutely aware of the inherent conflicts betw een Indian and white, old-time beliefs and Christianity. But from the start, I had no use for Christianity because the Christians made up such terrible lies about Indian people that it was clear to me they would lie about other matters also. Leslie Marmon Silko, Yellow Woma n and a Beauty of the Spirit This discussion is a logical ex tension of Chapter Fours e xploration of the sources and articulations of queer soul in speculative fiction genres. Chapter Five will identify and analyze the assertions the text makes as they relate to sexuality, metaphysicality and the amorphous space of being called blackness. I will focus on two main arguments in By the Light that will contribute considerably to our understanding of how a writer can qu eer the soul. The first claim is that Christianity is a destructive, alien(ating) force in the lives of th e descendants of heathen cultures. The first of the two epigraphs that fram e this chapter (Jesus mi ght love you) is an example of the kind of irreverent interplay of sexual language a nd religious critique that abound in By the Light and sets up the binary of Paganism/Christi anity (or truths/lies) that is Walkers most apparent agenda in the novel. The second cl aim I will analyze is that healing is possible through a re-indoctrination to the organic, erotic wisdom of paganism. Erotic wisdom, when embraced, returns a suffering person to a fuller, more sensual and divine connection to the Self and the Universe. Ultimately, I argue for a readi ng of this work as a declaration that black freedom hinges upon a sexual freedom that queers the soul. From the Black Power era setting in the novel Meridian, to her recent collection of spiritual ruminations entitled We are the Ones Weve Been Waiting For Alice Walker and the scholarship on her work have well documented th e influence of Native American as well as African oral traditions on the authors writing. In fact, Walker is not convinced that their

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109 (traditional) influences are se parable. While study ing Cherokee folk culture, she made the astonishing discovery that th e animal tales, commonly known in North America as Uncle Remus stories, which [she] grew up listening to as a childcould as easily be Cherokee, since the very same tales abound in their folk literature ( Living by the Word 43). Indeed, historical accounts of the absorption of enslaved Africans into Native cultures supp ort this probability. Nonetheless, other historical re alities have set the two cultures on different paths of absorption and assimilation in the US. In the novel By the Light of my Fathers Smile Walker imagines an encounter between an African American family and an isol ated Native village, an encounter that reveals which peoples Walker believes ha ve strayed farthest from their roots. By the Light is narrated in part by a recently dece ased spirit who observes and sometimes guides his two daughters as they liv e out the end of their lives. On his way to the final eternity, the father-spirit is also under the tutelage of a more knowledgeable spirit, who patiently imparts truths about the world of the li ving. The triangulated connection of the characters relationships and identitiesparents, children and lovers is a chaotic overlapping of energies and experiences that is as much a spiritual jour ney as it is a spatial one: the narrative moves backwards in time through the recollection of memo ries, in between the world of spirits and of the living, Mexico, Greece and Ca lifornia; and rotates through multiple perspectives. This structure is also a common aspect of Walkers literary aesthetic. Lindsey Tucker noted in her study of Walkers Meridian that this formation is informed by the Cherokee concept of the circle. The circle is not to be taken as a static confi guration, Tucker writes, it is often better represented in a dynamic wayas a spiral (9). An important illustration of a spiraling narrative in Tuckers essay is a quote from Cherokee author Dhyani Ywahoo in which she says, The circle teachings represent the cycle of all things that spiral in the ever-m oving universe, a process

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110 of constant movement and subtle change in harmony together (Tucker 10). Connectedness is the root and tree of Native American cosmologies an d is evident in many tribal oral and literary traditions. By the Light of My Fathers Smile also weaves a web of laye red realities that may be better explained by what Pueblo sc holar Leslie Marmon Silko. Silko id entifies an aesthetic in her Laguna culture in which one tells a story within story (50). Silko theori zes that The idea [is] that one story is only the beginni ng of many stories and the sense [is] that stories never truly end (50). Just as all living bei ngs, plant life, and astral beings constitute a universal body in a continuous cycle of birth and rebirth, the performance of st orytellingthe extension and (re)creation of narrativeenacts th e connectivity of life. This is so because storytelling comes out of experience and an understandi ng of that original view of Cr eationthat we are all part of a whole; we do not differentiate or fragment stories and experiences (Silko 50, my emphasis). Walker, a Cherokee descendent, employs this traditi on to tell a story about patriarchy and female sexual freedom from a brown heathens perspe ctive (the term taken from Walkers essay discussed below), which is also the story of the intricate ties that bind African American and Native American (cultural and material) bodies ancestral spirits, and ideologies. For the cosmology of interconnectedness is also representative of the Africanity in By the Light. A traditional West African worldview is concerned with the spiritual forces at work in the lives of people. This cosmology encompasses the belief in a kinship network of the living, dead and unborn. [K]inship and communication between the living and ancestors are neither ruptured nor interrupted by death; [and] ever y aspect of human activity i nvolves spiritualityWithin this cosmology, the expression of spir ituality is not restricted to religious praxis (Ryan 24).1 By the Light combines these paradigms in a way that honors and exemplifies the shared spiritual beliefs among them and constructs paganism as the natural sanctuary for brown and black peoplea

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111 sanctuary within which they are shielded from th e destructive lies of Euro-American Christian religion. Walker expounds upon her affinity for heathe nism in the essay entitled, The Only Reason You Want to Go to Heaven Is That You Have Been Driven Out of Your Mind (Off Your Land and Out of Your Lovers Arms), wh ich offers an important pre-text to By The Light The lengthy title is not so much an attack on the believer, as it is a catalogue of the material/psychological brutality of Euro-American imperialism and slavery that accompanied the promise of a Christian heaven. She reminds us that African and indigenous American cultures each had a God uniquely perceived by themselves (16). Their belief systems were deemed heathenish by the European colonizers and subjug ated in the name of Christian salvation. Walker believes that Christian monotheism, with its inherent racial and sexual hierarchies, and sexual restraints, is the lie to ld in the name of colonization. She argues that the subsequent generations who are cut off comple tely from their ancestral religi ons are empty, lonely, without [their] pagan-heathen ancestors [and] have [since then] been beggars at the table of a religion that sanctioned [their] destruction (25). In shor t, Christianity is not their spiritual home because it denies their true heritage and suppresses the Self in destructive ways. By the Light illustrates this destruction of the organic Self and offers a path to hea ling through spiritual re-membrance.2 If, as Toni Morrison claims, the novel has al ways functioned for the class or the group that wrote it, then By the Light blurs the spiritual and physical worlds as a strategy for confronting the lies at work in the lives of Walkers audiencean audience that she imagines as a community of spiritual expatriates. What a burden to think one is conceived in sin rather than in pleasure, Walker ruminates, that one is born into evil rather than into joy (Only Reason 4). To ease this burden, she offers Native/African mythologies as road maps to the

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112 homeland. To this end, the narrativ e wields philosophies that affirm the characters interpretation of their lives. The stories they hear in ch ildhood and the views constructed through community rituals provide explanations for events/observatio ns that otherwise seem unconnected to those rituals. This is an important function of mythology for the ki nd of community building (or community interpolation) that Walker seeks th rough this text. In her study of black womens writing, Karla Holloway asserts that Myth vitalizes language, givi ng it presence outside of the interpretive mode and forcing its significance to a level where the communitys shared meanings are the basis of its understandings and interactions with both th e spiritual and the physical worlds. Myth is neither one of these worlds; it is both of them (31). For example, the myth of ancestral presence serves layered functions with in and without the margins of Walkers novel, because the father-spirit is a shared mythologi cal figure between the African American author, her Native/African American char acters, and the audience she imagines. Neither alive nor yet delivered to his final eternity, the father-spi rit exists on the bridge between the living and the afterlife within the text, and he exists to r econnect the reader to their pagan ancestry. So following Morrisons logic, By the Light is a text written by and for the spiritual expatriate. It is a type of spiritual historicism, wherein voi ces of both the present a nd the past texture the narrative structures of the novel and culminate in a resonant c onfusion of mythology and reality (Holloway134). As I will argue later, the narrat ion provided by the father-spirit represents the expatriated soul on the path to recovery from cultural lies. Importantly, black womens sexual and gender queerness are also part of this novels righting of spiritual wrongs. Walk er identifies as bisexual and, as a rhetorical strategy, often inscribes gender, sexual and phys ical variability into her representations of black womanhood. Her female characters range from the conventio nally passive heterosexua l lady, to the outspoken,

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113 sexually aggressive woman who loves women. In a 1973 interview, Walker describes her imaginative preoccupation with black women: I am preoccupied with the spiritual survival, the survival whole of my people. But beyond that, I am committe d to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black womenFor me, black women are the most fascinating creations in the world (OBri en 331). Each representa tion carries a message. For as Mae G. Hendersons work has established, African American women writers often speak to, through and against multiple traditions and di scourses. Black women writers enter into testimonial discourse with black men as blacks, with white women as women, and with black women as black women, Henderson asserts, At the same time, they enter into a competitive discourse with black men as women, with white women as blacks, and with white men as black women (351). To extend Hendersons thesis, Walker converses as a queer person to other queers of color and as a bisexua l to heterosexual folk. Queerness is embodied by the daughters in the African American family. They represent the black queers in the chapter title and their journeys offer reasons for and remedies to inhib ited/subjugated female se xuality. True to all of her cultural and political affinities, Walkers tale in By the Light is interwoven with testimony, refutations, (re)visions, and the assertion of paga nism/ heathenism as the natural, most selfloving way of life. Fractured spirits & bulwark bodies: Through metaphors of brokenness and dismemberment, Walker argues that the illogical restra ints of hegemonic Christianity produce a psychospiritual disconnection in the believer. In fact, millions of people were broken, physically and spiritually, litera lly destroyedas the orthodox Ch ristian church saved them from their traditional worship of the Great Mystery they percei ved in Nature (Only Reason 17). The narrative landscape of By the Light is strewn with damaged people, each in their own

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114 way suffering from a fragmented sense of self. Disfigurement and mutilation are physical manifestations of their spiritual condition. These broken bodies are marked as sites of ideological conflict. The ideological conflict begins in the 1940s when two anthropologists, a married heterosexual African American couple, secure f unding to study the Mundo people. This village is the last known of its kind and is important to the scientists because the inhabitants forged combined indigenous Amerindian, African and Mexi can culture in which folk beliefs and other aspects of their traditional culture are st ill maintained. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, the anthropologists, are unable to obtain funding by c onventional means, so they agree to work as Christian missionaries in exchange for support from a church. The Robi nsons move their two young daughters, Susannah and Magda, with them to the mountainous region in Mexico. This is how the (male) Dr. Robinson became Pastor Robi nson. The acquisition of a false persona and the ripple effect of suffering this fraudulent self creates are the co-premises and major metaphors in the texts argument against Christianity. The im position of Christianity manipulated [people] away from a belief in their own judgment and fa ith in themselves (Walker, Only Reason 4). Pastor Robinson represents the cross and swor d approach of European colonizers whoalong with brutal violencespread Chri stianity through cultu ral genocide. His disguise as pastor and his hidden agenda as anthropologist represent religious and scientific imperialis t regimes whose ideas contaminate his intuition and self-knowledge. It is his missionary wo rk that is his undoing, his disfiguration. One of his first lessons is that his missionary work made of him a conduit and victim of Christian ideology. [O]nce I took the churchs moneyit was as if I died to myself, he explained retrospectively in the spirit world, I was sponsored by something I didnt believe in.

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115 I thought I could live that way. What a fool! (1 55). The man was agnostic when he accepted the position; as pastor he became consumed by the costume and dogma of his role. This is the first example of an unnatural and, hence, unhealthy splitting of the Self. He recalls: There was something in me, I found, that followed ideas, beliefs, edicts, that had been put into practice, into motion, before I was born. And this something was like an internalized voice, a voice that drowned out my own. [] I t hought of myself as having been spiritually neutered. (30) The use of the term neuter deliberately connect s ideas, beliefs and edicts to sexuality. To neuter means to remove sex organs; and to be on e is to be asexual, or to lack qualities that indicate the specific sex of a pe rson. To say he is spiritually neutered announces a castrating affect on his whole self, the sexual self that is informed by the spiritual self. As Monique Witting has argued, discourses, despite th eir abstract nature, create realities; they produce ideological forces that act materially and actually upon our bodies and our minds (qtd in MermannJozwiak 194). As he took on the ro le of arbiter of Christian disc ourse, he became more and more occupied by its power, to the extent that he fe lt he lacked agency and volition under its reign. Under the occupation of Christianity, Pastor Robins on is said to have been sucked into the black cloth. Again, the word choice is telling. To be sucked in means to be overwhelmed by an oppositional force. The voice that drowned out [his] own was an ideology that dictated his stifling of his daughters sexual ex pression and curiosity; a contradiction to the sensual, animated affection he shared with his wife. As in much of Walkers other writing, conventional Christianity is associated with reinforcement of existing power structures and resistance to social change (Conrad 23). Pastor Robinson does not become a believer per se yet he acts as the dominating enforcer of the ideas beliefs, edicts of female containment and male supremacist discourse.

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116 From the age of fourteen, the oldest daught er Magda was learning about love and sex through her relationship with a Mundo boy, Manuelito. We were e qually brown, equally bold of dark and reckless eye, Magda narrates, Wed been twin spirits since th e day I arrived (24). The narrative constructs their bond as inherently spiritual and c onnected to nature. We did not speak of loving each other. No. That was not our way at all, the adult Magda reminisces, We instead discovered birds nests together, abandoned trails, poisoned wells, vulture feasts []. All these we shared wordlessly (24). As they roam the wilderness on horseback and into hidden caves in which they built their love nests, their wordless understanding is described as a series of erotic vibrations, auras, and scopic exchange s (seeing and feeling seen). For example, when Manuelito whispered [her name] like a prayer against her clitoris, Magda felt her whole self seen (25); when he fingered a strand of her curl y hair it was felt as something alive, curling, electric, as far down as my toes (24); and the depths of trust and desire caused her to feel innately holy and worshipped (25). All of this passion, curios ity and freedom threaten (what he believes is) Pastor Robinsons standing in the church. Claiming her societal status as a ministers daughter as the reas on, he seeks to contain and cont rol Magda. It seemed to be necessary to tame her (18), the father-spirit explains. Pastor Robinsons phrasing, it seemed to be necessary, expresse s a lack of security (he doesnt say it was necessary) in his views. Of course, th is part of the narra tive is his reflecting upon the past, when he feels quite regretful about his decisions. Th e pastor is led by the external voice to snuff out Magdas masculinity. The hete ropatriarchal logic he has adopted makes it seem necessary to enforce compliance to gende r norms. Once she began to develop breasts, the natural wildness of her childhood be came a privilege only afforded to the boys in Magdas peer group. If adolescence for boys represents a rite of passage and an ascension to some version of

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117 social power, for girls, adolescence is a less on in restraint, puni shment, and repression (Halberstam 6). Her continued tomboyishness after puberty is a queer gender presentation in relation to her sister and the well -behaved Indian girls, especially for a middle class black family in the 1940s. Yet Magda remains true to her nature at first. In spite of her fathers order to avoid Manuelito, she follows her own desires; she liste ns to her inner voice a nd defies him. As the symbol of coercive patriarchy in womens lives, the pastors reaction is excessive and violent. He lashes her with a belt in a scene reminiscent of a slave whi pping. Besides the visible bruising and bleeding it caused, the beating upset their en tire household because the couple had agreed to avoid corporal punishment. We had discusse d it thoroughly over years the father-spirit recalls, By beating her eldest daughter I had betrayed [my wife] completely (31). This betrayal has a ripple effect on relationships in the family. Several types of disfiguring o ccur at once in this part of the story. As his daughter is finding her Self, Pastor Robinson is becoming lost. He mutates into a patriarchal male who brutalizes his family in the name of the morality his missionary status represents. The Christian bible organizes the universe hi erarchicallyGod is supreme, man is his mortal image, and women answer to both. Robinson betrays their family law based on discussion and non-violence with the biblical law of female submission and obedience.3 Or, to use Davita Carters characterization, Pastor Robins on is reorganizing the family through an alpha male perspective, which is based on his role as father of the church. Likewise in the congregational fa mily (patterned after Ephesians 5:53), the alpha male is the pastor/husband to whom wives must submit as the church submits to Christ. Males must identify with God as father figure who is al l-knowing, all-powerful, angry, and needs to control all other members in the family. When queers infiltrate the so-called church fa mily, they disrupt the Victorian family model, which always requires disciplini ng and correction. (11)

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118 Though Carter is speaking about disruptive queer manhood, her expl anation is applicable to Pastor Robinsons attempt to tame Magda thro ugh violence. This is the source of other disfigurements that occur in his story. One such disfigurement is psychological. Violen ce acts as a mask that swallows the face of the father the girls had always known. He becomes for them a stranger and a monster. Who was this man, masquerading as a priest? Magda asks, Who was this man, suddenly fixated on the evil in me? I did not know Not knowing, I was always afraid (72). Susannah, the younger child, is equally traumatized. Witnessing the event of her sisters beatingand family violence for the first timewas a moment of horror and disbelief for her (27). Or as Magda describes it, It was as if shed peered into our simple, gi rlish bedroom through the keyhole and witnessed her gentle, compassionate father turn into Godzilla (27). The sist ers became united by the break in their relationship with their fath er and the twisted notions of prob ity and sexuality that they learn from him. So says Susannah: [Magdas] brokenness lived next door to mine (74). When he beat Magda with the belt Manuelito made, Pastor Robinson turned the symbol of their love into a weapon of abuse and shame, and asserted his ownership of Magdas body as pastor/patriarch. Significantly, th e beating occurred immediately after an especially ecstatic encounter between the lovers. His suppression method was successful. Magda became socially withdrawn, which is her spiritual disfigurement. She [became] a silent, brooding young woman whose pleasure lay, almost exclusively in reading. I [her father] liked this. Not the silence, or the brooding, but the calm. Reading at her desk or in the shade of a boulder in the yard, she seemed, especially from a distance, quite ladylike demure. Because she was less active she began to gain weight, and to acquire a lumbering tilt to her gait; a condition that worried [her mother] but did not particularly bother me. (20; emphasis added)

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119 By insisting on a ladylike wo manhood, the Pastor neuters Magda. This act is evidenced by her sudden docility, which directly contrasts the wild freedom she experienced in the mountainside with her friends. By disrupting her sexual deve lopment and controlling her gender presentation (he insists that she wear long conservative dres ses), Pastor Robinson al so dislocates Magdas sense of entitlement to pleasure and being wo rshipped. During the painful thrashing, Magda sent her spirit flying out the window (26) so th at she could withstand the beating. While the statement reflects the common occurrence of ps ychological dissociation as a self-defense mechanism in a time of trauma, Walker is also making a larger argument about what happens to a womans spiritual condition when pleasure becomes connected to shame and punishment. Magdas state of brokenness is her estrangement from the pleasure of sexual expression and her wild self, which also means a loss of spiritual w holeness. Christian theologian Kelly B. Douglas agrees that an inhibited sexuality limits ones ability to fully connect with God. The quality of a persons relationship to God, th erefore, hinges in many ways on her or his awareness and appreciation of her or his own sexuality Douglas writes, To be estranged from ones sexuality in all of its dimensions portends a diminished relationship with God (85). From Walkers pagan stance, access to the sacred can be found through in teraction with the physical environment. So the cutting off of Magdas identification with bird s nests, horses and boys is just as spiritually injurious. Anglican ethicist Toin ette Eugene concurs with this expansive view of spiritual interaction. Spirituality is no longer identified simply with asceticism, mysticism, the practice of virtue, and methods of prayer, says Eugene, Spirituality, i.e. the human capacity to be selftranscending, relational, and freely committed, encompasses all of life, including our human sexuality (108). Though Magda is emotionally bent by the experience, she is not broken. Black

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120 queer womanhood is resilient! Magdas queer Se lf is not completely sublimated by her disfigurement; its energy has been redirected into her aesthetic. Magdas clothing and hair styl es represent an intersection of desire, pain, resistance and inhibition. She develops into a morbidly obese adult who inflicts suffering on her body through compulsive piercing (73). Contrary to feeling her whole self seen as when with Manuelito, the adult Magda imagines that others misconceive her as Aunt Jemima disguised as Punk Dykewiththrice-pierced nose, green hair, an d jelly-plump arms (69). Magdas brokenness is illustrated here as doubleconsciousness. She embodies conf licting or competing aesthetics: that of the docile, servile, sexually undesirable fat black mammy; and the rebellious, confrontational, anti-establishment style, know n as Punk. The invocation of the pancake icon could suggest Magdas self-loath ing. Aunt Jemima emerged from the history of slavery and colonialism in the U.S. as one of the most pervasive, devalued images of black womanhood. Before being re-imaged in the 1990s, Aunt Jemima was pictured as a fat, shiny, dark-faced woman with glowing white teeth. Her head was covered with a scarf knotted in the back, and the white collar on her polka-dot dress served as a support for her double chin. With her sparkling ey es, unpointed nose, and dimpled jaw, Aunt Jemima was said to symbolize the congeniality of the antebellum servant and the surrogate mother to slaveholders and their children, acting as satisfied slave or a satisfying mammy. (Griffin 75) The scarf alludes to the photographic images of the wrapped heads of slaves who worked in the fields (of sugar cane, corn, cott on, indigo, etc., de pending on region).4 In the 1960s, hand kerchief head became a political slur against th e earlier generation of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Even though Magda expresses this image as a projection onto her body via stereotype (she says, Im sure my students must think this), it is arguably a confession of her internalized self-image. She carries the weight of her childhood pain in the bulkiness of her

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121 lumbering gait. She is not unaware that her body is a visual and palpable testament to her oppression and a material reminder of her internal suffering (Shemak 88). In one scene, a doctor recommends that she lose weight. Her respons e: But my memories are so heavy (124). While the compulsive overeating suggests self-destructiveness, her Punk aesthetic expresses a non-normative asserti on of individuality, a queer resi stance to ladylike behavior. Punk culture is broadly defined as one of high speed, frenetic energy, an ti-authoritarian, angry, ironic, and full of anomie and disillusionment (Thompson 47). Punk began in 1970s British culture, as a class-based rejection of mainstream capitalist music, fashion, and musical production/distribution. Cl othing was intentionally torn, an archy symbols and slogans, and images of controversial European figures (Stali n and Karl Marx, for exam ple) were prominently displayed on tee shirts. Eventually this move ment caught on across the Atlantic Ocean. In an essay analyzing the mainstreaming of U.S.-based punk rock, the music produced in/by the subculture, Brian Cogan says [T] he American version of punk rock can be seen not simply as a reaction against the decaying econo mic system of Great Britain, but also as a self-conscious attempt to identify one as outside the mainstream (What Do I Get?). Punk is social critique and a politics of self-margina lization. Punk women symbolize a critical resi stance to the hegemonic discourses that regula te womens bodies through the th reat of alienation and stigma. Many rebel against stereotypical im ages by combining clothes that are delicate or pretty with clothes that are considered masculine. This aesthetic reflects th e endurance of Magdas rebellious nature. She is a professor at a large eas tern university who stands before her classroom showcasing green hair and nose rings as a rejection of the polished professional look. Meanwhile, beneath her clothes sh e wears chains on her nipples a nd a crucifix on her labia. As

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122 Aunt Jemima/Punk Dyke, she embodies the competing discourses. Her material body and overall sense of Self are crisscrossed with compliance, contradiction, irony, assimilation and disruption. Susannah, the younger daughter, presents a bulwark body of a different type. By all appearances she is the good daughter. She b ecomes a successful novelist, well rounded, well traveled, and is an attractive woman who enjoys romantic relationships with men and women. When Magdas spirit went flying out the window when she was being beaten, Susannah is said to have suffered a spirit fracture (201) for having witnessed the brutality. If there was any wildness in her personality, it wa s exterminated in that moment. Susannah is someone who left her body long ago, when [she was] quite young; that is why [she walks] with such grace and stateliness. [She is] a statue really (62). B ecause she is detached from her emotions and somewhat alienated from her body, she is likene d to a carved, sculpted, molded or cast representation. She stiffened herself against he r fathers affection, which also kept her emotionally trapped and, therefore, unable to forgive him or to love others freely. So the root of everyones problems is the a lien(ating) doctrine. Th e anthropologists were atheists, so there was no previ ous religious foundation, no other ruling gods in the childrens consciousness. Christianity is po rtrayed as an external voice th at dissuades the recognition of multiple divine truths or the acceptance of unbridled female expression. The women and their father go through their lives suffering because they moved in spiritual misdirection. The theological principle asserted by th is outcome is the need for an or ganic spirituality that affirms rather than denies multiplicity. The counter na rrative and site of re-membrance is Mundo spirituality. Weaved into their tale of suffering is the voice of the Mundo spirit-guide, who delineates the heathen/pagan belief s, and the Americans own memories of Mundo folklore that eventually lead to spiritual healing and reconciliation.

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123 Christian Lies The Mundo belief system is set up in opposition to the restraints of Christianity, as w ell as its focus on doctrinal authority. Mundo cultu re advocates the acquisition of sacred cosmological truths through Nature, cultural trad itions, dreams, visions, experiential revelation and trusting ones intuition. The an tagonisms in the text are concer ned with the external versus internal, or the indigenous versus the imported, as it relates to self-knowledge and cosmological understandings. The Mundo people were not passiv e receptacles of the gospel according to Christianity. Even after decades of missionaries streaming into their village and preaching what thus sayeth the Lord, they were always able to maintain their beliefs, which also facilitated a critical distance from each ministers teachings. This is evident in Past or Robinsons recollection of the visual contrasts in the in terior and exterior of the missi on building, which from the outside is a small white chapel, the inside of which startled vis itors with its vivid blue and green and yellow murals. Its starry sky ov erhead. Its fields of corn with rows marching into each window. Its big green watermelons painted, with red insides drippi ng and black seed s painted like eyes, just above the pulpit. No one ever took credit or responsibility for painting the insi de of the church, which was as different from the outside as night from day. Yet the paintings were never allowed to fade. Wh en my supervisors from Long Island came to see the state of my mission they were dismayed by it. Heathens, they sniffed. (22) This mural is not even minimally similar to the conventional decor of a Christian church, wherein the iconography is related to biblical character s and stories. This mission is the pagans Sistine Chapel, a nature-worshippers shrine to the vibrancy of colo rs, textures, scents, and tastes of the living, breathing, life-giving immediate e nvironment. The ceiling opens the imagination and the building into the twinkling stars of th e visible heavens; the eyes of the dripping watermelon peer over the pulpit to meet those in the pews on an even plane of mutual

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124 recognition; the marching fields of corn represent a valorization of the da ily recompense of toil and respect for what feeds the body. The mural expr esses the voice of the folk which rejects the intermediary (between humanity and divinity) re presented by the minister and his savior, for neither has a place in the Mundos artistic rendition of a sacred space. For the Earth and all of its yielding are intrinsic parts of their spiritual inheritance. The Mundo people listened to the Christian version of reality but, in doings so, were not dispossessed of their own. This representation of the indigenous resilience in the face of the relentless brutality of American colonization revises history somewhat. The late 1800s and early 20th-century is a sad record of the U.S. Governments interference with every aspect of Indian life, especially through the missionary agent. Native re ligions were outlawed, and t hough this violated the First Amendment provision for freedom of religion, Indi ans were not citizens and, thus, had no such freedom. Anthropologist Walter L. Williams study of the impact of western culture upon Native views of sexuality found that along with the government agen t, it was the missionary on the reservation who held the real power over Indian peoples liv es (181). He goes on to say The missionaries were characte rized by a strong belief in the superiority of their own way of life. This meant the missionary actually went into Indian areas with two goals: to teach the Christian religion, and to westerni ze the way of life. In its most extreme ethnocentric form, ever ything Western was sanctioned as the will of God, while everyt hing belonging to the indigenous culture was evil. The introduction of Western values, technology, and material culture rapidly challenged the traditional order of life. (181) While many of the old ways of different Native cultures do still exist, forced assimilation, such as boarding schools and restricti ons on the speaking of Native langua ges, suppressed much of the traditional beliefs. Fewer people are fluent in thei r ancestral language. Indian women declined in community status as their me n adopted Christian patriarchy.5 Ceremonial cross-dressing and

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125 same-sex coupling became shameful. According to Williams, nonwestern peoples who came under colonial control often felt disillusioned with their traditional religio n. The religion of the conqueror seem[ed] more powerful, and therefore [was] attractive as a means of absorbing some of the power of the white man (189). More often, the old ways and the white mans ways exist side-by-side in the life of the community. Les lie Marmon Silko recalls that in her childhood in New Mexico, she was always conscious of the Ch ristian and nonChristian elements in her life. The mesas and hills loved me; the Bible meant punishment. Life at Laguna for me was a daily balancing act of Laguna beliefs and Laguna ways and the ways of the outsiders (17). Intentionally of course, this is not the case in By the Light The novel is a praisesong for the lost cultures and their subs equently lost people.6 The indigenous ways are kept safe within the Mundo tribe in the hills of Mexico. The Mundo people have a critical consciousne ss that allows them to reflect upon and reject Christian patriarchy and misogyny. They examine biblical explanations of the natural order of human relationships in search of the main unraveling of the missionaries world: There was a saying among the Mundo : It only takes one lie to unravel the world. And when our father, wearing his preachers hat, said God had said man had dominion overall the earth, the Mundo men had declared this could not possibly be true. Perhaps, they had said, stroking their bearded chins, it is the one lie that has unraveled your world. [] They had never understood how woman could be considered evil, ei ther, since they considered her the mother of corn. (81 my italics) For the Mundo, it is the western culture that has lost its way. This is why they pondernot if but which lie has undone human and cosmic relations in the white world. The church mural expresses their belief in the sa credness of their immediate surroundings. So corn is represented as a sacred crop and a major symbol of sustenance for the village. To be the Mother Of Corn is to be both creator of life and dependent upon th at creation for life. It speaks of humanitys

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126 symbiotic relationship with natu re and the interdependence of male and female livelihood. These are the kinds of truths that must be realized in the lives of the R obinsons in order for them to find healing. Heathen Truths In direct contrast to the answers provided by the bible, the Mundo prefer to adm it ignorance and imagination. No one among the Mundo believes there is anyone on earth who truly knows anything about why we are here, says Manuelito, Tha t is why, instead of ideas, the Mundo have stories (193). Folk knowledge is as important to ones navigation through life as the acquisition of facts and empirical data. It is the building upon previous village stories, the adding of ones voice to the inherited imaginings of the ancestors that keep the culture alive in the people. Silko recalls a si milar tradition in her community. At Laguna, when people asked you how you had been lately, they expected to hear all the news and gossip you knew, she writes, then they would tell you all the funniest, most shocking, or sad news they had heard (91). She remembers that no matter what the situ ation was under discussion, there was always a story from the past that could put it in its proper perspective. T he storytelling had the effect of placing an incident in the wider context of Pueblo history so that indivi dual loss or failure was less personalized and became part of the villages eternal narrat ives about loss and failure, narratives that identify the village and that te ll the people who they are (91). Community and identity are a part of the story vs. ideas logic in the Mundo cultu re as well, but storytelling is explained in more spiritual te rms. Manuelito continues: It is as if ideas are made of bl ocks. Rigid and hard. And stories are made of gauze that is elastic. You can almost see through it, so what is beyond is tantalizing. You cant quite make it out; and because the imagination is al ways moving forward, you yourself are constantly stretching. Stories are the way spirit is exercised. (194)

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127 In other words, people who rely only on ideas can become as intractable as the ideas they enshrine. This is commentary on th e hardening effect of the ways th e outsiders ideas resulted in a stagnant imagination and uncompromising belief s. Conversely, stories a nd storytelling promote openness, playfulness and reinven tion. Yet not any story will suffice. Bible stories left [them] cold (155), for they didnt correspond to the value system or cosmology around which they organized their identiti es. Whereas Hughes and Baldwin stay within the narratives of black Christian discourses and Gomezs novel goes be yond and outside of it, Walker blends nonWestern spiritual narratives to write against a Christian perspective. Stories that build the community exercise the spirit. The bible is full of lies. The Mundo beliefs and the magical aspects of the plot reflect that ancestors, benevolent spirit-guides, and all the elements of Nature are direct sources from which humans should seek direction and healing. This is a re ciprocal relationship in which the spirit world is affected also. For example, when the reader first encounters Pa stor Robinson, he is in limbo between physical death and the final eternity because he still owes his daughters something. He cannot progress and neither of his daughters ca n find closure in the living world. Susannahs journey to revelation and healing is as much th e spirit-fathers as it is hers. In fact, it is only in the afterlife that he can access and comprehe nd the confusion and trauma he caused when he unleashed his reactionary violence. As a spiritual presence, he can see that having enforced a patriarchal ideology in their home crippled [her] in a plac e where she should be fr ee (28). But unlike the Christian paradigm, he is not beyond redemption just because he is no longer in a material body. As an ancestor he continues to learn deeper truths about the un iverse. The dead are required to guide back to the path someone you left behind who is lost, because of your folly; [and] host a ceremony so that you and others you have hurt may face eternity reconciled and complete

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128 (148). The ancestors role is central in Walk ers cosmology. Yet ther e are other spiritual principles in the novel that also have a reparative essence. I will discuss each principle and, when relevant, the overlapping role of the father-spirits quest to heal and guide his daughters back to the path. The first spiritual principle in By the Light is emotional knowledge. It is steeped in the belief that accessing and succumbing to ones emo tions is imperative to spiritual health. The phrase is paradoxical in western thought because emotions are treated as separate from and sometimes antagonistic to the intellect. An em otional person cannot rationalize but is moved by what feels right in the moment, while a rational thinker is on e who depends on empirical data or complex thought processes to deal with a prob lem or situation. In US culture, emotionalism is treated as a feminine trait while men are presum ed naturally rational. This separation of the spheres of decision-making has been the patriarchal justification for denying women leadership opportunities and the undervaluing of feminine asp ects of culture. The sp iritual principle of emotional knowledge does not necessarily attempt to reconcile the spheres; rather, it constructs emotionality as a vital engagement with the Se lf. It reflects balance and harmony within ones being. For example, in an annual Mundo hallucinogeni c ritual, the village consumes herbs in order to lose their minds. Ins tead of thoughts, we have visions, Manuelito says, and that is how we guide ourselvesIt is a way of saying you must not lie too much in your headreminding you to stay in your emotions...It is also a way of saying craziness has its value (93). The use of organic hallucinogens is an an cient ritual among many Eastern cultures and the Native cultures of North America as a way to connect with the me taphysical plane. Some of the known effects of hallucinogenic plants/herbs/dr ugs, besides hallucinati ons, include highly

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129 abstract thinking, an enhanced empathy, and th e plunging into either extreme joy or terror (depending on ones general state of mind). Walker sets this ceremony in ideological opposition to the Christian ecstasy of catching the Holy spir it, which is also an altered consciousness, but one in which the believer seeks to connect with the external spirit of God. The Mundo belief that we guide ourselves is a paradigm in which the visionary experience is a projection of what is already in ones consciousness. One contemporar y practitioner claims that during the highest height of the experience One di rectly perceives the unity of the cosmos, and ones place in this unity. For all practical purposes, this is indeed seeing God (DeG racia). Losing oneself is a way of securing unity, balance and harmony; ther efore, craziness has its value. The Robinson daughters, despite having sp ent part of their childhood in Mexico, represent western reason and they did not seek to experience th is particular kind of altered consciousness. Yet what happens to them is easily explained by the Mundo ritual. The Mundo perspective is the operative logic of the text and is, therefore, the readers main interpretive tool. So when Manuelito explains the importance of the communal ritual, which foreshadows Madgas succumbing to her own cra ziness, it opens up the text for an alternative reading of her behavior. Their conversati on occurs after the couple is re-introduced as ad ults, decades past their Mexico romance. Manuelito is a disabled Vietnam War veteran (his limbs are literally held together by wires, nuts, and bolts) and Magda is the obese Jemima/Punk Dyke professor. Their reunion is brief; Manuelito is ki lled within a few days of them having made love only once. Shortly after his death, Magda has a nervous br eakdown during an argumentative discussion with Susannah concerning their upbringing. Susannah bl amed Magda for the emotional rift between Susannah and their father. For it was in solidarity with Magda that Susannah held back her own love from him. You never let me forget I wa s sitting on the lap of a monster she solemnly

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130 remembers, because of youI lost one half of the love that was due me in this world (118). Grief is the portal to all Magdas pent up pain; so when she allows herself to stay in her emotions she lunges at Susannah (who she believes is the more beloved daughter), chokes her, and bites a chunk of the skin out of the arm Su sannah raised in self-defense. I had plunged headlong into the tunnel of my own throat, Magda narrates, A ll that I was, was scream. I screamed and screamed and screamed (119). Uncontrollable screami ng is not socially acceptable behavior for an adult under any circumstances in U.S. culture, but from the Mundo perspective, it is a necessary loss of control th at leads to a greater gain. The submission to craziness for Susannah feels like com[ing] hom e (119) because she has unlocked the private, vulnerable self that was hidden so long beneath obesity and a rebe llious, hardened exterior. It was a return to a more vocally expr essive Self. It is after this incident that the sisters reach an emotionally honest plane in their relationship and when Susannah s uggests that, since all the pain is out in the open, they try to help each other heal (123). Susannah, whose bisexuality marks her as queer, has an emotional breakthrough via a break down When she finally allows herself to grieve for the loss of her father, she cried until she could cry no more. She speaks prayerfully to th e spirit that she feels so near to her. Daddy, Daddy, Im sorry, she whispered tiredly. I didn t know what it meant to give you upwhat it meant not to forgive (171). In order to acce ss her emotional knowledge, Susannah must first relinquish her statuesque posturing and indulge her grief. This is her version of guiding herself to her truest desire. The repetition of Daddy is an in tonation that invokes he r fathers presence. Soon after she called out to him, she felt Peace it self enter the room (171). Peace is personified as a dark-skinned man holding a bouquet of pe acock feathers (171) that glides through Susannahs room. The feathers are rich in sym bolism. In many ancient cultures, including Native

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131 American symbology, the peacock represents guidance, watchfulness, wholeness and immortalityall important elements in this no vels expressions of sacredness and spirituality. Peace and his bouquet symbolize Susannahs spiritual expansion, as this is her first conscious encounter with the supernatural. Peace is also th e resolution to her hidden emotional torment. By staying in her emotions Susannah invites an im mediate reconciliation w ith her Self and with her father. Peace has entered her emotional room. As a spiritual principle, Erotic Communion is the dominant discourse and overarching concept of the novel. It is defined here as an act that promotes, facilitate s or otherwise recognizes the intimate, sacred bond of se xual energy between beings. Just as ones participation in the Christian ritual of Holy Communion (or Eucharis t) symbolizes a shared sense of religious identity among believers, there are acts in By the Light that represent th e sacredness of the bodys sexual nature, as well as the purposefulness of the erotic for ce that draws beings into each others livesacts which symbolize a shared sens e of oneness with the cosmos. Erotic force is the energy that integrates all other planes of experience and existence. The notion of Erotic Communion, though not mainstream, is part of a liberation movement to empower individuals through the transcendent power of sexualized/eroticized spirituality in group settings. In A Taste of Erotic Rites sex educator Loraine Hutchins presents the main aspects of this movement. She argues that the trends toward self-loving, embracing otherness, and mutual ministering are all key building blocks of the erotic community our culture needs andwe can apply lessons from these trends wherever we eroti cally and spiritually find ourselves. Hutchins facilitates workshops and studies the histories of ancient sacred sex systems as a basis and means for enlightenment. One of the biggest conundrums in the pursuit of feeling connected

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132 with the oneness of the universe is transcending separation, the feeling of self and other, she further explains, Within the heterosexual paradigm this transcendence is taught as identifying with ones opposite, be coming one with ones love. But how do we getfrom individuality to oneness? Identifying with the other certainly helps. So does seeing sex as the precious erotic stuff of life, whether or not it expresses through a reproductive act. (A Taste of Erotic Rites) The aim of the kind of erotic community that Hutchins works to build through sacred sex skills is to dissolve th e self-hatred, fear, anger, and intern alized oppressions that interfere with experiencing full erotic power (Taste). Hutc hins advocates cultural work engendered through erotic polyamorous communities in which queer and heterosexualidentified folk work across gender, sex, and bodily differences to locate, share, and celebrate their erot ic powers. Feminists and queer friendly forms of sacred sexualities broaden the range of possibilities by emphasizing an increased attention to erotic communion expressed through the interp lay of a multiplicity of genders, and of going beyond gender, beyond interc ourse (Taste). Hutc hinsons involvement in sexuality studies is part of a greater gras sroots effort to revolutionize the way people understand their sexual and spiritua l selves. These kinds of sociopolitical aims align with the radical spirituality at the center of Walkers novel. First, Erotic Communion is e xpressed as a spirit-genital c onnection. This connection is explicit in Mundo folklore and, li ke the usefulness of craziness, is also absorbed through life experiences by the African American characters. I t is understood that spirit uality resides in the groin, in the sexual organs, Manue lito elucidates, Not in the mind, and not in the heart. It is while fucking that you normally feel closer to God (111). Erotic vibra tions are released as sexual energy into the body and sp reads to the rest of the Self. In other words, sexual energy is the lifeblood of the spirit. Magda s description of her time w ith Manuelito exemplifies their

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133 spirit-genital connection. When his feathery breath caressed her clitoris, Magda says she felt Everything in me, including everything in my soulrun into his arms And the light and the mountains and bluebellsall of it was us (25). This sentence is full of movement meant to signify a transcendental state. Manuelitos breath (a symbol of life-force) travels Magdas clitoris; in turn, Magdas ener gy flows through the genitals and extends to her lover and the landscapelight, earth a nd foliagejoins the union. Orgasm is brought into a communal context and is the opposite of lo calized genital pleasure. All of it was us is another way of saying that in the moment of spirit-genital connection, we were one with all there was. Susannah and her lover Pauline also experience transcendence and discover parts of their innermost selves through Erotic Communion. Paulines memory of her first orgasmic experience involved the kind of affectionate sex that seemed designed to reconnect me to myself, to keep me alive (132). Once she realized her orgasmic fr eedom, she was reborn. It is a birth of consciousness and pleasure because she had always believed orgasms belonged to the male domain. Pauline situates her orgasm in a broa der relationship with the cosmos: I was not forgotten by Creation; it meant I was passiona tely, immeasurably loved (133). Creation, another way of saying all thi ngs, is endowed with gift -giving powers that have a transformative impact on how one interprets the world. The sexual ecstatic moment is a crossing over into Life that is an alternative to the Ch ristian paradigm of being born again. Susannahs spirit-genital narrative situates er otic bliss in a more explicit opposition to that paradigm. Communion with Pauline feels like sitting butt naked on the earth (110) and being kissed so hard you star t to think about Sunday school: Jesus might love you, this you might know, but being made love to by a woman like Pauline puts the love you fantasized about then in new perspective. Obviously Pauline is doing loving like Jesus couldnt and wouldnt. At least not in the version handed down to

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134 the adoring and gullible. After be ing made love to by Pauline you didnt say as the hot Christian ladies do, Amen; no, you said what the wild Indians say after a powerful prayer: Ho! (110) The descriptors wildness and powerful are contrasted with the adoring and gullible female sexuality endorsed by heteropatr iarchal Christianity, which is represented as a repressed, civilized sexuality that keeps the genitals separate from the life of the spirit. The love of Jesus is not interpreted in terms of heightened sexuality ; it is supposed to height en ones very separate spirituality. Conversely, sex with Pauline, the kind of loving between women that is condemned by Christianity, is constructed as a consciousness-raising experien ce. Lesbian sex is constructed as a light that reveals the noti on of love that is missing from Sunday school and transforms it into an earthy/Earthly (as opposed to Heavenly) kind of naked trut h. Significantly, lesbian sex is aligned with the powerful prayer of Earth-wors hippers. The genital-spirit principle dissolves the false separation of the sexual self from the spiritual self, and the Self from Creation. At times, the father-spirits narration perfor ms a variation of Erotic Communion as he observes and interprets his daughters sex acts. As he hovers over their naked intertwining, he has omniscient access to their deepest thoughts a nd feelings. In the following scene, he watches Pauline sexually dominate Susannah: Between Susanahs breasts sweat fl ows, which Pauline laps like a dog. Between her legs where Paulin e has insinuated her hand there is, already, a stream of wetness. She feels Paulines fingers, first one, then two, then three enter her with authoritative firmness. She is embarrassed to hear herself moan and shamed to hear Paulines grunt of conquest. Susannahs body starts to move against the womans hand. Oh, she says. And oh, and oh, and oh. (9) At the end of this scene, as Susannah nears or gasm, the spirit realizes that unbidden, in that moment, she thinks of [her father] and he r mother (13). In this way, Communion is constructed as the uni on of memory, desire, bodily fluids and the unobstructed gaze of the

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135 ancestor. Interestingly, Magdas se x scene is treated much differently. When she is reunited with Manuelito, the father-spirits narration is joyful a nd, yet, regretful of the pain he caused them as adolescents. As the couple walked hand-in-hand, the spirit was shivering [with heartbreak] on the bridge over which they passed (83). When they returned to her apartment the father-spirit is so ashamed of his past crimes against their l ove that he chooses not to witness their sex. He makes himself a barrier that prevents any further intrusion upon their bliss: A student came to my daughters door to bother her with work. I placed myself between her and the door. She knocked and knocked on my chest, the sound killed by the deadness of myself as space. When she left, I sank to my knees and, as wind, began a gentle breathing of apology upward and over the transom of [Magdas] locked door. [83) The absence of the fathers narration suggests that the obese body and Manuelitos complex disabilities render the writer speechle ss. What would the father have to say about the fatness of his daughter and the inflexible, creaky body that she was pressed ag ainst? The reader does not find out. Instead, Magda describes some of the de tails to Susannah later. We learn that it was difficult for them because though they were the sa me people inside, their bodies were strangers to each other. After some licking and kissing they became very tired and so abandoned strategy. After a nap, Magda claims it seemed to me the energy of the apartment had changed. When we left my bed hours later, both of us were satisfied (86). The absence of detail suggests that the scene is unnarratable for any number of reasons. Still, the principle of Erotic Communion applies because we can infer that the change in energy was the manifestation of the fathers apology. Peace enters this room as re newing energy, blown in as wind. The spiritual wind enables a clearing of the air between the w ould-be lovers, so that their bodies would know each other again, as their spirits already did. Afterwards, Magdas spirit-genital enlightenment is interpreted by Susannah as a visible ethereal radiance (89).

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136 Erotic Communion is also exemplified in th e birthing and mourning rituals of the Mundo. When a child is born it is kissed by both its parent s in all the places that let in the light (162): ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and groin. This is a meditation on the body that combines an awareness of its physicality and its spiritual po tential. When one imagines the parents kissing these places, many of them erogenous zones, it is conceivable that outsiders, anthropologists and missionaries and such, could misconstrue this scene as an incestuous one. W ithin the logic of the novel, the Mundo culture possesses the purer, more authentic moral wisdom and spiritual knowledge. As such, their ritual serves to defy the boundaries in American culture that posit the genitals and groin area as always already eroticized and ta boo between family members. Ultimately, though, the Mundo people render this i ssue moot because they do not require the absence of the erotic in order to access the sacred realm. The body is sacred in its entirety and should be treated as such, through erotic comm union. When a person dies, those who intimately love her or him will do the same (162). This ritual is mirrored in the afterlife when those in the erotic bond are reunited. The fath er-spirit locates his wife; Magda and Manuelito reunite at the mountainous ritual ground of their childhood; when Susannah join s them, it is from the ethereal sidelines of her memorial service. Pauline is the only major character still living at the end of the story and she places one of her cut dreadlocs on Susannahs dead body, suggesting that they, too, will have an eternity together. Conclusion or, Wrapping It up in Queer Soul In the broader context of this pro ject, Walkers rhetorical technique is a queering of the soul because it supposes same-sex desire and er otic bonding as transcendent and transformative experiences in the lives of black women. One critic argues that oral tradition and cultural memories embedded in the everyday are central to Walkers project. As far as Walker is concerned Maria Lauret writes, anybody who is willing to question the hegemonic Western

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137 tradition which produced slavery an d colonialism as well as rationality and scientific progress must subject himor herself to such a pr ocess of re-education ( 127-8). The re-education experienced by the African American characters creates sexual equilibrium by illustrating an empowering and enlightening potenti al in all erotic experiences, which expands Audre Lordes uses of the erotic.7 In Living By the Word Walker assures us that T his feeling of being loved and supported by the Universe in general and by certa in recognizable spirits in particular is bliss. No other state is remotely like it. [] The spirit of our helpers incarnates in us, making us more ourselves by extending us far beyond (98). Inherent in the texts thrust for justice and reparative spirituality is the necessity of sexual empowerm ent and erotic freedom. Trust thy Self, Walker preaches, because sacred truth is evident in ( your) Nature. The necessity of a conscientious relationship with the voices of the ancestors a nd the sense that they can make humanity more ourselves by extending us is the novels thesis. The ancestors are also benefitted by this relationship through their dutiful acts of atonement to the livi ng. So harmony and balance flows both ways through the cosmos. By the Light is an exploration of female oppression, the acquisition of spiritual knowledge, and the reparative th erapy of Erotic Communionall of which queer the soul. NOTES 1 For a thorough rendering of native African religions and cosmologies, begin with E.B. Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition ; Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro American Culture and Philosophy. 2 Re-membrance is hyphenated to emphasize a prior attachment of memory and physical contact to spiritual these concepts. Precedents to this usage include Remembering the Body: Body Politics in Toni Morrisons The Bluest Eye by Elisabeth Mermann-Jozeiak; Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation by Toni Morrison; and Remembering Hispaniola: Edwidge Danticats The Farming of Bones by April Shemak. 3 See Genesis 1:26-8 and 1 Corinthians 11:6-8 4 The head scarf actually derives from several African cu ltures and was reclaimed in the Soul/Black Power Era as part of the Black Aesthetic. My statemen t reflects the advertisers use of the image as a nostalgic allusion to the mammy of the Old South. 5 The idea of a gender equal society in pre-colonial Native cultures has been critiqued as romanticization. Native writers disagree on the extent of the positive female-cen teredness of the ancient cultures. For example, Paula Allen Gunn sees her writing a return to God as a grandmother. Meanwhile Chicana feminists Cherrie Moraga and Gloria

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138 Anzaldua have written about misogynist mythologies that permeate their cultural understandings of gender relations. Relatedly, anthropological studies have been under (discipl inary) fire for their role in proliferating misconceptions about institutionalized gender and sexual freedoms within reservation cultures. For more info, one could begin with the work of Sue-Ellen Jacobs. 6 Some Native people take offense to the characterization of lost to describe what for them are visibly resilient cultures. Walkers text suggests that it is the African Am ericans that have lost their Pagan past. The novel offers Native culture(s) as a model or a space wherein blac k people can reclaim their Earth-loving selves. 7 While two-spirit people is a concept that dominate s discourses of Native American sexualities, it is not represented in this novel or mentioned. None of the Mundo characters exhibit same-sex desire or discuss it.

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139 Where Do We Queer from Here? Rebecca Cox Jacksons record of he r life of holy celibacy, which was also filled with visionary encounters with Shaker deities, raci al tension, and erotic dreams of her female companion, clearly demonstrates that representa tions of an interlocked racial, spiritual and (homo)sexual negotiation have existed since the ear ly periods of African American Literature. James Baldwins treatment of this theme in the so cial realist genre is st ill a cultural landmark because his work placed these themes in a broade r framework of civil rights and the progress of civilization. Baldwins successors, in what is ca lled the post-Civil Right s Era, continue to struggle through changing socio-pol itical landscapes. As they do so, they also indulge in fantasy, science-fiction, and other speculati ve fiction genres as a way to reconceptualize ways of being and argue for justice and freedom. Yet queering the soul is more than a literary device. It entails signifying, disidentification, and the performance of black multiplicity. It is a claim to sacredness and an invocation of spirit(s). It is a rejection of an ti-homosexual rhetoric and self-denial. It is an embracing of the kinky, freaky, monogamous or nonmonogamous, orgasm-seeking, nurturing, yearning, truth-loving self. It is the manifestation of voluptuous love. As such, acts which queer the soul are evident beyond fic tion genres; in fact, they exis t across the landscape of black cultural production. Musicians Me Shell Ndegeocello and Prince; poets Lenelle Moise and Stacey Ann Chin; filmmakers Tyler Perry and Maurice Jamal; and other performance/visual artists provide fertile soil for the growth of this research. Also, pastors, evangelists, prophets and healers (from every belief system) who are in-the-life embody queer soul. Their writing, speeches, sermons, and ceremonies are all important avenues into black consciousness, identity and sexuality. Are any of those cultural agents in dialogue with or informed by the ideas and

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140 concepts presented in this research? What know ledges do they rely on? Or produce? The work must be done to find out. A cultural studies approach as described a bove would have to engage other cultural politics. For example, do articulations of postsoul and post-black cont radict, ally, expand or critique theorizations of queer soul? What dimensions would a di asporic scope possibly add? Is the African diaspora not already implied in the definition of soul put forth in Queering the Soul? These are some of the issues that must be grap pled with when one asks, where do we queer from here? Hopefully, these and other broader, more imp actful concerns will be pursued in the future. In the meantime, may we all know the glory an d power that is within and before us.

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141 WORKS CITED Althaus-Re id, Marcella. Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Bal, Mieke. Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Baldwin, James. Giovannis Room New York: Dell Publishing, 1956. Just Above My Head. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc, 1978. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 New York: St. Martins Press, 1985. Berry, Faith. Breaking Silence: The Mean ing of Biographical Truth. Appendix A. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. By Berry. New York and Canada: Citadel Press, 1992. 359-67. Birtha, Becky. In The Life. Black Like Us: A Century of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual African American Fiction. Devon W. Carbado et al Eds. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2002. Brand, Dionne. Bread Out of Stone: Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics Toronto: Coach House Press, 1994. Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Religion : Studies in Logology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. Calhoun-Brown, Allison. No Respecter of Pers ons? Religion, Churches and Gender Issues in the African American Community. Women and Politics 20.3 (Summer 99): 27-44. Cannon, Katie G. Sexing Black Women: Libe ration for the Prisonhouse of Anatomical Authority in Pinn and Hopkins. Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emer gence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987. Clarke, Cheryl. The Days of Good Looks: The Prose and Poetry of Cheryl Clarke 19802005. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2006. Cobb, Michael L. Pulptic Publicity: James Baldwi n and the Queer Uses of Religious Words GLQ 7.2 (2001): 285-312. Cohen, Cathy J. The Boundaries of Blackness : AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics Chicago: UP of Chicago Press, 1999.

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142 Cole, Johnetta Betsch and Beverly Guy-Shefta ll. Black, Lesbian and Gay: Speaking the Unspeakable. Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women s Equality in African-American Communities New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 2003 Conrad, Linda. Religion and Social Change: The Fiction of Flannery OConner and Alice Walker. Social Alternatives 7.3 (1988): 21-25. Constantine-Simms, Delroy. Ed. The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities New York: Alyson Publications, 2001. Cooper-Lewter, Nicholas C. Soul Theology: The Heart of American Black Culture. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1986. Counterblast.org: the E-journal of Culture and Communication. http://www.nyu.edu/pubs/counterblast/punk2.htm. Accessed November 4, 2008. Cvetkovich, Anne. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. DeGracia, Donald J. A Short Guide About Hallucinogenic Dr ugs For the Explorers of Inner Space. http://deoxy.org/psyguide.htm#6. Accessed 11/15/08 Douglas, Kelly Brown. Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective New York: 2003. Douglas-Chin, Richard J. Preacher Woman Sings the Blues: The Autobiographies of Nineteenth-Century African American Evangelists. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Duncan, Carol B. Aunt(y) Jemima in Spiritual Baptist Experience in Toronto: Spiritual Mother or Servile Woman? Small Axe 9 (March 2001): 97-122. Dyson, Michael Eric. Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line New York: Random House, Inc., 1996. Edelman, Lee. Homographesis: Essays in Gay Litera ry and Cultural Theory New York and London: Routledge, 1994. Eugene, Toinette. While Love Is Unfashi onable: Ethical Implications of Black Spirituality and Sexuality. Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection. James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow, Eds. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994: 108-09.

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149 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Marlon Moore received her B.A. in English fr om the University of North Florida in 2001. This was soon followed by the com pletion of an M.A. and Ph.D. in English at the University of Florida. She specializes in 20th-century African American literature, gay/lesbian studies, and women writers. Currently, Marlon is an Assistant Professor of Englis h at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.