Signifying on the Black Church
Charles I. Nero
HISTORICALLY, RELIGION HAS served as a liberating force in the African American community. According to Albert Raboteau, Black slaves as early as 1774 publicly and politically declared that Christianity and the institution of slavery were incompatible. "In that year," Raboteau notes, "the governor of Massachusetts received ‘The Petition of a Grate [sic] Number of Blacks of this Province who by divine permission are held in a state of slavery within the bowels of a free and Christian Country.’"1 In the petition, slaves argued for their freedom by combining the political rhetoric of the Revolution with an appeal to the claims of Christian fellowship.
Christian churches were some of the first institutions blacks created and owned in the United States. From 1790 to 1830 ambitious northern free black men like Richard Allen and Absalom Jones circumvented racism by creating new Christian denominations, notably the African Methodist Episcopal and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches.
The organized black church, however, has itself oppressed its constituents, as evidenced by its historical practice of sexism. In her 1849 narrative, Jarena Lee, a spiritual visionary and a free black woman, reported having her desire to preach thwarted by her husband, the Reverend Richard Allen.2 Lee, however, overcame the objections of men by claiming that her instructions came directly from God; thus, those instructions superseded the sexist prohibitions of men.
Sexism is not the only practice through which some black churches oppress their constituents; heterosexism is another. Leonard Patterson, a black gay minister, movingly wrote about how he was forced to leave Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, because he was openly gay. Patterson’s troubles at Ebenezer began when the Reverend Joseph Roberts replaced the Reverend Martin L. King, Sr. Roberts objected to the fact that Patterson’s white lover also attended Ebenezer. Patterson was guilty of not playing the game: "I was told, in effect, that as long as I played the political game and went with a person who was more easily passed off as a ‘cousin,’ I would be able to go far in the ministry. Perhaps I should even marry and have someone on the side. Apparently these arrangements would make me more ‘respectable.’"3 For refusing to play the political game, Patterson states that he was "attacked verbally from the pulpit, forbidden to enter the study for prayer with the other associate ministers, and had seeds of animosity planted against [him] . . . in the minds of certain members so that in meetings with them the subject of homosexuality would inevitably be brought up."4 Patterson recounts an extremely offensive remark made to him by a church member one Sunday: "If you lie down with dogs, you get up smelling like dirt."5 Patterson and his lover finally left Ebenezer. Although disillusioned with organized religion, Patterson writes encouragingly that what he and his lover experienced at Ebenezer has "given us more strength to love each other and others."6
Exorcism is another practice used to oppress gays in the church. The late Pentecostal minister and professor the Reverend James Tin – ney underwent an exorcism when he came out as a gay man. Tinney briefly mentions the experience in his essay "Struggles of a Black Pentecostal," which was originally published in a 1981 issue of Insight. Five years later, in Blackbird, Duplechan signifies on Tinney’s reflections on exorcism. The events that precipitate the exorcism are similar in Blackbird and in Tinney’s essay. Both Tinney and Duplechan’s protagonist, Johnnie Ray Rousseau, are aware of their sexual identity. Tinney writes that he was aware of his homoerotic feelings "even at the age of four."7 Johnnie Ray’s exorcism is preceded by an enjoyable first sexual experience with the older bi-ethnic Marshall Two Hawks McNeil, a college student. Publicly stating and affirming their sexual identity is what actually leads to the exorcisms. When Tinney announced to his wife of three years that he was gay, her reaction set into motion the events that caused the exorcism: "She immediately called the pastor and his wife and other close confidants to pray for me."8 Johnnie Ray’s exorcism was set into motion by two events. First, his confidential confession to Daniel Levine, the youth minister, that he had gay feelings. Then, Levine’s betrayal of the confidential confession to Johnnie Ray’s parents provoked the second event: the teenager’s affirmation of his sexual identity to his parents in the presence of the minister.
Tinney does not discuss the events of his exorcism, limiting his description of the actions of his wife, minister, and church members to one sentence: "Pray and talk and counsel they did."9 Tinney’s description of the exorcism is brief, but the event left him traumatized. The exorcism, he wrote, "was extremely painful to my own sense of worth and well-being. It was an experience I would not wish upon anyone ever."10
Duplechan signifies explicitly and implicitly on Tinney’s remark "Pray and talk and counsel they did." Explicitly, Duplechan "reads" Tinney by giving a more complete narrative description of the praying, talking, and counseling of the church people. Implicitly, Du – plechan’s "reading" of Tinney is a critique of the clergy and the values of the middle class. Further, Duplechan’s "reading" is an example of what Smitherman calls heavy signifying, "a way of teaching or driving home a cognitive message but. . . without preaching or lec – turing."11
Let us consider Duplechan’s "read" or "heavy signifying" of each of the three terms—pray, talk, and counsel—as they occur in the confrontation between Johnnie Ray and the church people—his parents and the youth minister. In an emotional outburst Johnnie Ray’s mother asks the teen: "Have you asked him? Have you asked the savior to help you? . . . Have you prayed every day for help? Every day?"12 Johnnie Ray answers "no"; his mother incredulously asks him, "Don’t you want to be normal?"13 Normality, which is conforming to existing value structures, is believed by the middle classes to be what will guarantee them success in the world. Johnnie Ray’s mother reveals that she is less concerned with his happiness than she is with his possibilities for success. To ensure his success, she and her husband must use talk, as a means of intimidation, to force Johnnie Ray to become normal. When Johnnie Ray claims that he has accepted it as a fact that he is gay, his mother intimidates him by "loud talking":
You probably think you’re real cute. . . going to Daniel [the youth minister] with this ‘I think I’m a homosexual’ crap, and now sittin’ here and tellin’ us you’ve accepted that you’re gay. . . . Lord ha’ mercy today! I don’t know what I coulda done to give birth to a pervert.14
While Johnnie Ray’s mother uses "loud talking" to intimidate her son, his father cries. When his father finally talks, it is a mixture of intimidation and compassion: "You’re no pervert," he says. "No son of mine is gonna be a pervert. You’re just a little confused." Finally, there is the expert, the Reverend Levine, who offers counsel. Levine, however, is a scoundrel. Although he has betrayed Johnnie Ray’s confidence, he sits throughout the entire family crisis "looking as holy and righteous at having done so as my parents looked utterly devastated at the news."15 Levine is able to sit "in beatific calm" because of the family’s unhappiness.16 In other words, the family crisis that Levine has caused proves that the ministry is necessary. Levine’s expert counsel to the family, which they reluctantly agree upon, is an exor – cism—"a deliverance from unclean spirits."17
By signifying on Tinney, Duplechan exposes an unholy alliance between the church and the middle classes. The church is eager to oppress gay people to prove its worth to the middle classes. For the sake of conformity, which, with hope, leads to success, the middle class is willing to oppress its children. The middle class, thus, is denounced for its willingness to use the church to further its ambitions.
In the short story "Cut Off from Among Their People," Craig G. Harris does a "heavy sig" on the black family that also signifies on strategies from slave narratives. The story takes place at the funeral of Jeff’s lover, who has died of complications from AIDS. Both the family and the church, two major institutions in the heterosexual African American community, are allied against Jeff. The lover’s biological family has "diplomatically" excluded Jeff from the decisions about the funeral. At the funeral Jeff is ignored by the family and humiliated by the church: the lover’s mother stares at him contemptuously; Jeff is not allowed to sit with the family; the minister chosen by the family only adds to Jeff’s humiliation by asking him not to wear his ceremonial robes but instead to wear an ordinary suit.
At the funeral, the "heavy sig" is accomplished through the irony of the minister’s homophobic sermon from the book of Leviticus:
In Leviticus, Chapter 20 the Lord tell [sic] us: If a man lie with mankind as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an
abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. There’s no cause to wonder why medical science could not find a cure for this man’s illness. How could medicine cure temptation? What drug can exorcise Satan from a young man’s soul?
The only cure is to be found in the Lord. The only cure is repentance, for Leviticus clearly tells us,” . . . whoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people.”18
After the funeral Jeff is abandoned without transportation to the burial site. His humiliation is relieved by a sympathetic undertaker, who offers Jeff a ride to the burial site. Ironically, it is the undertaker, the caregiver to the dead—not the minister, who is the caregiver to the living—who offers Jeff the compassion he so desperately needs. Denouncing both the family and the church, the undertaker’s remarks to Jeff become the authentic sermon in the story:
I lost my lover to AIDS three months ago. It’s been very difficult— living with these memories and secrets and hurt, and with no one to share them. These people won’t allow themselves to understand. If it’s not preached from a pulpit and kissed up to the Almighty, they don’t want to know about it. So, I hold it in, and hold it in, and then I see us passing, one after another—tearless funerals, the widowed treated like nonentities, and these ‘another faggot burns in hell’ sermons. My heart goes out to you, brother. You gotta let your love for him keep you strong.19
As a result of Harris’s use of ironic signifying, one is left to ponder the meaning of the story’s title, "Cut Off from Among Their People.” Who is cut off from their people? The story immediately implies that black gays are oppressed because they are alienated from their families. The opposite, however, is also true: black families are oppressors, are alienated from their gay children, and thus, suffer. Black families suffer because their oppression robs them of a crucial sign of humaneness: compassion. Through its oppression, the family of Jeff’s deceased lover has lost the ability to be compassionate.
Harris’s strategy—the cost of oppression is the loss of human- ity—signifies on slave narratives by authors such as Frederick Douglass. Slave owners’ loss of compassion, the sign of humaneness, is a recurring theme in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 narrative. Slavery, Douglass contended, placed in the hands of whites "the fatal poison of irresponsible power."20 Douglass gives numerous grisly examples of his contention: murderous overseers, greedy urban craftsmen, and raping masters. But perhaps none of his examples is meant to be as moving as that of his slave mistress, Mrs. Auld. She was originally a woman of independent means; Douglass describes her before "the fatal poison of irresponsible power" took full control of her:
I was utterly astonished at her goodness. I scarcely knew how to behave towards her. She was entirely unlike any other white woman I had ever seen. I could not approach her as I was accustomed to approach other white ladies. My early instruction was all out of place.
The crouching servility, usually so acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she seemed to be disturbed by it. She did not deem it imprudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the face. The meanest slave was put fully at ease in her presence, and none left without feeling better for having seen her. Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music.21
Mrs. Auld even disobeyed the law and taught Douglass some rudiments of spelling. However, Douglass states, "Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. . . . Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tigerlike fierceness."22
"Cut Off from Among Their People" is an extraordinary act of "heavy signifying." By using a strategy similar to Frederick Douglass’s, Harris equates heterosexism and homophobia with slavery. For upholding heterosexism and homophobia, the church and the black family are oppressors. As rendered by Harris, they are like the Mrs. Auld of Douglass’s narrative. They are kind to the black gay man when he is a child and corrupted by intolerance years later. Their oppression has robbed them of compassion. The black family and its church, thus, have lost the sign of humanity.
This essay is excerpted from "Toward a Black Gay Aesthetic: Signifying in Contemporary Black Gay Literature,” in Essex Hemphill, ed., Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1991).
1. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 290.
2. Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (Philadelphia, 1849), in Ann Allen Shockley, ed., Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933 (New York: New American Library, 1988).
3. Leonard Patterson, "At Ebenezer Baptist Church,” in Michael Smith, ed., Black Men/White Men: A Gay Anthology (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1983), 164.
4. Ibid. at 164-65.
5. Ibid. at 165.
6. Ibid. at 166.
7. James S. Tinney, "Struggles of a Black Penecostal,” in Michael Smith, ed., Black Men/White Men (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1983), 167.
8. Ibid. at 170.
10. Ibid. at 170-71.
11. Geneva Smitherman, Talkin’ and Testifyin’ (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 120.
12. Larry Duplechan, Blackbird (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 152.
13. Ibid. at 153.
14. Ibid. at 151.
15. Ibid. at 150.
16. Ibid. at 152
17. Ibid. at 155.
18. Craig G. Harris, "Cut Off from Among Their People,” in Joseph Beam, ed., In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1986), 66.
19. Ibid. at 67.
20. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (New York: NAL-Dutton, 1968), 48.
22. Ibid. at 52-53.