Jennifer S. Leath
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive
So what, I'm gay! It don't matter. God ain't made you no betta than me; when I pray he still answers; maybe you need to get on your knees. No weapon shall prosper; no weapon shall prosper. Your sin ain't no betta than my sin; your skin ain't no betta than my skin.—Jamal Lyon, "So What," Empire
The songs of praise from the rose garden celebrating the Supreme Court's approval of same-sex marriage and the songs of grace from Charleston's TD Arena honoring the lives of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and those with whom he was slain in Emmanuel AME Church cannot be distinguished altogether. In both contexts, President Obama appealed to the freedom, equality, and dignity of all people—created with the purpose and right to love one another. Meanwhile, many of us still gather under the shadowy debris of Baltimore's fumes and ashes where communities continue to respond to the particular injustice of Freddie Gray's murder and to the ongoing systemic injustice pervading the Baltimore area and beyond; we reflect and organize together on the streets of New York and Ferguson, where the bodies of Eric Garner and Michael Brown lay long after their final exhalations.
The disproportionately high impact of police brutality and vigilante violence on Afro-Diasporic people and communities in the United States is both undeniable and abominable. Against such a backdrop, the most difficult and demanding task is not explicating the relationship between "Black" and "queer"; rather, it is exploring the relationship between "Black" (or "U.S. Afro-Diasporic," a term I use interchangeably with "Black" to signify the complexity and diversity of Black bodies in the United States) and "justice." It is in this relationship between "Black" and "justice" that we are reminded of historical and present injustices, and we are reminded that the linguistic and existential assertion of Blackness (in the face of systemic efforts to annihilate or neuter Black people and communities) is an act of justice making. In fact, such assertions can be expressions of restorative, distributive, and procedural—if not also retributive—justice. The very subject of Blackness reveals an ontological claim that, when challenged, demands defense, demands justice. This is an old, but true and present Black.
Thus, even as this essay begins to unpack the provocative question—"Is Queer the New Black?"—I am mindful of the ways in which this question is already answering itself in the hearts of those who struggle as a matter of personal ontological integrity, and those whose work is to understand "the metalanguage of race" as it operates in and beyond the United States.2 For some, race, racial injustice, and the attendant demands for racial justice are a clear priority; for others, it is sufficient to assert that race, racial injustice, and the attendant demands for racial justice are distinct from other cultural categories (such as sexual orientation and gender identity) and from the injustices and justices that characterize these expressions. Whether distinct and the highest priority, or simply distinct, to the extent that race, racial injustice, and demands for racial justice still present theoretical and material crises, Black is still Black.
I argue that while "queer" is not the new "Black," and thus does not supplant racial discourse, we might strategically and occasionally conceive of it as another Black—or (alternatively) a Blackness. Similarly, Black might be conceived of as another queer—or a queerness. I agree with Terrence Johnson that "[i]f we engage race in contemporary debates on religion in the formation of justice, the themes of the conversations will broaden, and our ability to deepen public life will increase substantially."3 I would add that "queer" cannot pass unnoticed. Taking Blackness and queerness together—as they are in many material bodies as well as in many contemporary theories of race and sexuality—I posit that the deliberate and strategic work of quareing justice is the essential task of contemporary theorists of and activists for justice (in general); and so, a U.S. Afro-Diasporic sexual justice emerges.
The word "quare" was introduced to black queer studies through E. Patrick Johnson's 2001 essay, " 'Quare' Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know about Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother." There, he offers the following " 'Quare' Etymology (with apologies to Alice Walker)":
Quare (Kwâr), n. 1. Meaning queer; also, opp. of straight; odd or slightly off kilter; from the African American vernacular for queer; sometimes homophobic in usage, but always denotes excess incapable of being contained within conventional categories of being; curiously equivalent to the Anglo-Irish (and sometimes "Black" Irish) variant of queer, as in Brendan Behan's famous play, The Quare Fellow.
—adj. 2. a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered person of color who loves other men or women, sexually or nonsexually, and appreciates black culture and community.
—n. 3. one who thinks and feels and acts (and, sometimes, "acts up"); committed to struggle against all forms of oppression—racial, sexual, gender, class, religious, etc.
—n. 4. one for whom sexual and gender identities always already intersect with racial subjectivity.
5. quare is to queer as "reading" is to "throwing shade."4
If we accept the possibility of "quareing justice" as an essential task of contemporary Black religious and sexuality studies, it is necessary to describe the particular work that "quareing" does in general, and to justice in particular, when "quare" is transformed from a noun to a verb—and "quareing" becomes an act or set of acts that one can perform.
Given Johnson's definition, to "quare" justice, normatively speaking, is to awaken visions and expressions of justice that insert off-kilter blue notes, troubling epistemological and ontological certainties or arrogances with primary perspectival regard for the subjectivity of LGBTQ persons of color who love other people and appreciate Black culture or community. And it means to do this in a way that is holistically committed to the struggle against all oppression, in a way that reflects the connection between gender, sexuality, and race, and in a form that engages situations deeply instead of "throwing shade."5
To engage in a project of quaering Afro-Diasporic religion, it is helpful to recollect the familiar (and troubled) terrain of Black religion as Christianity. An overwhelming majority of Black folks identify as Protestant Christians, and many of us take for granted the fact that the majority of these Afro-Diasporic Christians are members of historically Black churches and denominations. However, Albert Raboteau reminds us that the prevalence of Christianity among Africans thrust into diaspora in the United States—even after generations of slavery on this soil—was far from inevitable. Raboteau notes that even as late as the second decade of the nineteenth century, "[t]he majority of slaves . . . remained only minimally touched by Christianity."6 This critically important fact must contextualize any constructive work with respect to contemporary Afro-Diasporic Christianity or religion within the United States. On the one hand, it invites us to explore the ways that Black religion as Christianity echoes the paths of moral surveillance and the centralization of sexuality within Christian ethics. On the other hand, it invites us to explore the ways that Black religion is more than Christianity, such that an alternative telos of Black religion is revealed—one that is not a merely Christian telos. Such an alternative telos emphasizes the material significance, the mattering, of Black subjects as human with an emphasis on the ways that being is doing—and that both together are justice-making acts.
Religious scholars who focus on Afro-Diasporic Christianity as it is manifest in the United States cannot avoid a robust account of the category and significance of race. The hope that Mark Jordan observes for Christian teaching about sexual matters is closely related to the hope for Christian teaching that takes responsibility for speech regarding race. In other words, whether or not U.S. Afro-Diasporic religion is cast in terms of a Christianity of liberation, it is an inheritance that has points of origin and has evolved (being formed and deformed) according to social processes, including, but not limited to, "secularization."7
Whether religion is conceived of in terms of creeds, codes, cultus, and community8 or in terms of multiple cultures or identities, the question of "is-ness" or ontology9is at the heart of Black religion and its study, but only insofar as it is inseparable from the dual task of: 1) constituting, reconstituting, preserving, and reproducing Black (and otherwise opaque) subjects (individually and collectively); and 2) serving as an ethical (i.e., just) contra-offering, rejoinder, and corrective to oppressions and subjugations of theoretical and practical natures that have been brought to bear in death-dealing, isness-denying ways on various social subjects (including, but not limited to, contemporary human beings of African descent). Both of these tasks can be understood as expressions of justice, but I assert them here as expressions of the existentially redeeming work of Black religion—work that troubles too-quick classifications of religious projects as matters of either creed, code, cultus, or community or of cultures and identities—or even various admixtures of these.
"Homosexuality" as a term for both nonnormative and same-gender sexuality is even more recent, taking linguistic root in popular American parlance during the early twentieth century. And, as Siobhan Somerville's work suggests, there is a co-development of—or even a co-constitutive relationship between—race and sexuality discourses in the United States.10 Johnson's term, "quare," identifies and challenges the old of old terms, the old of new terms, the new of old terms, and (exceptionally) the new of new terms for the sake of unveiling a truth that contravenes the most insidious fictions and myths of Afro-Diasporic sexual economies and ontologies. Whether Negro, Christianity, or homosexual, whether Black, religion, or queer, whether Afro-Diasporic, ancestral homage, or quare—every term and its contentis subject to quareing for the sake of a truer realization of justice. At its best, "quare" is more concerned with its methodological contribution to justice making than it is with its epistemological foothold. Thus, quareing justice emphasizes method (i.e., the method of "quareing") as prior to being (i.e., being "quare").
What I appreciate most about the possibility of "quareing justice" is that it honestly responds to the echoing voices of womanist scholars who insist upon the importance of beginning with the truths of one's own experience and subjectivity in doing womanist theoethics. E. Patrick Johnson theorizes, performs, and practices out of his self-articulated particularity as a Black gay man. Such practices of committed self-awareness and strategic self-disclosure are important to the Black religious work of "quareing justice" insofar as they deepen the prospects of building communities of understanding. I learned this lesson firsthand through my research with Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) in Brooklyn, which campaigned for childcare workers rights between 2005 and 2009. My work engages the voices of Sandra Nnamani and Velotis Jenkins (pseudonyms), two activist organizers involved in FUREE's work to organize childcare providers in Brooklyn for better pay, better benefits, and fuller state recognition.11 These two women not only embody a "Make a Difference" ethic, they reignited such an ethic in me.
I first encountered Nnamani, one of the organizers of this campaign, in 2010, and I immediately noticed her critique of other FUREE staff members, which included making disparaging remarks about the sexuality of two of the other staffers (a gay Jewish man and a queer Black woman). Nnamani chastised these activists for the ways that they failed to connect with the community, explaining that they seemed scared or disinterested when it came to the work of going door-to-door to mobilize people for protests and various justice campaigns. Her critique included homophobic slurs that she softened with stories of how supportive she was of her gay nephew and his sexuality, and how there had been other queer organizers at FUREE who had done much better.
However, the complexity of Nnamani's perspective on sexuality did not fully unfold until, after many interviews and extensive time together, she asked me one day: "So what about you?" Once I indicated that I was queer and dated mostly women, Nnamani opened up, "Oh, yeah. I have a girlfriend." She explained that she had a female friend with whom she occasionally has sex, saying, "sex is one way to access or embody friendship," having already described a male friend in similar terms. Several weeks later, over the phone, she lamented choosing primarily heterosexual intimacy: "I think I would make some different decisions if I could do it all over." The way that she described her sexual fluidity was fascinating to me, but it was sobering to hear her refer to her sexuality as a choice already made, as if her sexuality was fixed by the various and consistent choices she had made over time. These conversations demonstrated to me that her homophobic language and ideas could not predict her sexuality, nor did they reflect an essentialist perspective on sexual formation.
Because there was intellectual and emotional room for me to respond to her with integrity, this made a difference to the quality and integrity of her voice. Quareing justice asks how much room we have to respond with integrity when we are questioned about our particularity and the motivations behind our inquiries. The participant observer is invited to be in full presence, without overshadowing those whom she wishes to study. It was the voices of those I engaged that revealed the new possibilities of quareing justice; it was my job to see, hear, and reflect back images and voices of the "hyper(in)visible" and "hyper(in)audible."12
Another activist, Velotis Jenkins, describes herself as "Cathlish," by which she appreciates some of the rituals of Catholic tradition that connect her to relatives in New Orleans, such as occasionally making sacrifices during the Lenten season (though rarely attending church). She also harkens back to certain aspects of her childhood experiences worshipping in a Baptist church in California. Consider how she approaches religion and culture in the following:
My dad is paranoid schizophrenic and has created his own religion that he wrote on index cards. [Sigh. Smile.] I have looked at it, but I don't really understand it. [Sigh. Smile.] Umm, but that's like . . . But I have several stories like that about my father. [Laugh.] . . . He got sick recently so he was like, "Promise me you'll take this up." And so I was like, "Okay." So, and he says it was passed down from his Godparents and it's like their . . . they managed to preserve their religion, umm you know like since . . . like through slavery. And, this that and the other. So, that's not how I understood it as a child. I understood it as: my dad wrote a religion down on index cards in pencil. But I c- . . . I, . . . now I'm like fundamentally confused: like, Oh my God! That's amazing! Like, it's not like just random, you know, rantings. [In a whisper] So, I don't know; I have to figure it out.
Jenkins's voice sounds out values or virtues of family (i.e., history, ancestry, and present connection), creativity, curiosity, cognizance of a racial and slavery-inflected socioeconomic legacy, and a regard for the complex religious heritages she has inherited.
With respect to the intersection of religion and sexuality, Jenkins's voice reveals a broad moral landscape:
So, I feel like fundamentally, for me, religion has been this thing I've created that I love where my God umm . . . loves that I'm gay, thinks it's awesome when I have really good sex, and a lot of it with as many people as I want [Laugh], umm . . . wants me to push myself to be a good person and a better person and a growing and learning person. . . .
Audible here is a sex-positive approach to life and faith; Jenkins gives voice to a self-affirmation and dignity in and through her sexual identity and expressions. Her theological sensibility includes a creative role in making God, and appreciating the benevolence of God as a primary attribute of the divine. Again, she shows her commitment to intellectual growth and development and considers them to be reflections of human goodness.
Finally, consider what Jenkins has to say with respect to the intersection of her daily justice work, race, and sexuality:
I've been talking to Black folks about queer stuff since I was like eighteen or nineteen and the thing I start with is not making it all about queer stuff [Laugh]—and usually making it about Black stuff. So, I think there's a particular way that . . . queer and trans folks have operated in the Black community that's not always about like . . . talking about it all the time in a particular way, but existing as who you are comfortably and clearly as where you are. . . . So, there's like an inherent privilege in how I can decide to have that conversation. And I can decide to bring it up or not. Right? But, umm I do think that . . . for the other . . . person who wasn't super out and all that stuff—it was race stuff too. So, I think . . . it could be so many dynamics happening around how you . . . how explicit you are about your sexuality or not when you're not a person of color. So, I don't . . . I did not assume that people were fundamentally homophobic—or that people could not handle my sexuality. I just felt that. . . I wanted to engage in conversations about sexuality in a formalized way. Like I wanted us to have a training on it or a this or a that. . . .
Here, we begin to come to terms with the distinctions and connections between "Black" and queer. They are similar, but not the same. Through Jenkins's embodiment, experience, and convictions, Blackness and queerness are both worthy categories around which to reflect, organize, and teach, but they require careful navigation. And there are ways that Blackness is inescapably prior.
Quareing justice demands that we are committed to the work of uncovering, listening to, and expanding the archive of data from which we draw and create knowledge to spaces that have been made hyper(in)vis/audible. I take my cue from Evelynn Hammonds, who writes:
in overturning the "politics of silence" the goal cannot be merely to be seen: visibility in and of itself does not erase a history of silence nor does it challenge the structure of power and domination, symbolic and material, that determines what can and cannot be seen. The goal should be to develop a "politics of articulation."13
Quareing justice is the work of reading the hyper(in)vis/audible into the record. It is refusing to allow such visions and voices to be eclipsed, and recognizing the force of light that presses through the veil.
To use Charles Long's haunting phrase, the task of Black religion is a task of "crawling back."14 I would argue that this is a task of crawling back into the justice of Black lives, subjugated lives, all lives mattering. This, however, is a quare task. Long argues: "The oppressed must deal with both the fictive truth of their status as expressed by the oppressors, that is, their second creation, and the discovery of their own autonomy and truth—their first creation."15 The discovery of one's autonomy and truth—dignity, if you will—is characterized as an oppressive aspect of the process of religion, because it has been channeled through languages of sin and shame, but it might be more aptly described as "a sense of absolute dependence and humility in the sight of the divine and one's fellow human beings."16 Long has crawled back, not only toward a question of human origin but toward an origin of belief about oneself. In part, this is a belief about our deviance, a particular quareness, similar to (yet not) what Deleuze might term différence,17 to which all of us who are opaque or of the opaque theologies belong. In various ways our deviance is part of both our first and second creations—our antefreedom and free selves, our unfree and our postfreedom selves.
Johnson articulates a quared Black Christianity for those who would quare justice and Black religion through believing, being, and doing deviance. He demonstrates the extent to which Black churches authenticate Blackness. At the same time, he exposes the ways that LGBT-Quare Blacks consistently participate in "Black church"—including their simultaneous disruptions and confirmations of "Blackness" through reinventions of "Black church" and their thinly veiled presence in typically heterosexist Black churches. Black church, as Johnson imagines it, would not celebrate a "queering of hegemonic sexuality" but would be transformed into "a descriptive 'space' rather than a pre-scripted 'place,' where the expression of nonnormative gender and sexual identity is accepted and embraced by all members."18 In Johnson's vision, Black religious spaces could celebrate and expect nonnormative gender and sexual identity—not only as a diversity but as an expression of spirituality that has theological and sociological import.
Ultimately, though, I contend that Afro-Diasporic/Black religion is quare religion. Navigating the waters of race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, religion, and political status is never easy. When intersecting identities reveal a complicated weave of subjugated conditions, the best that most people hope for is majority status, or an empowered position with respect to at least one of their identities. Normalcy, respectability, and privilege seem to be the objectives. But queer theory teaches us that the pride of the pariah is fundamentally distinct from the pride of the token or the exceptional. This is a "dignity in shame," to borrow from Michael Warner,19 and when individuals and communities discover their "first creation," it results in an avowedly "quare" religion.
Cathy Cohen notes the distinct, cumulative social stakes when the question of dignity goes beyond "sex." She does not, however, recommend that those whose behaviors or identities marginalize them within the Black community reconcile themselves and their behaviors to the identity and behavioral parameters of the majority of Blacks. To the contrary, she calls on scholars to "take up the charge to highlight and detail the agency of those on the outside, those who through their acts of nonconformity choose outsider status, at least temporarily."20 Cohen advocates for "an intentional deviance given limited agency and constrained choices," a deviance that is for the sake of the sociopolitical integrity of people and communities. Beyond this, she envisions "a politics where one's relation to power . . . is privileged in determining one's political comrades. . . . a politics where the nonnormative and marginal position of punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens, for example, is the basis for progressive transformative coalition work."21 My vision extends even beyond such a coalition, to a piecing together of a new historical archive of hyper(in)vis/audible voices and data that make manifest our hopes for our futures.
Building upon Iris Marion Young, my vision of "quareing justice" begins with a concern about the social conditions of "women, Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and other Spanish-speaking Americans, American Indians, Jews, lesbians, gay men, Arabs, Asians, old people, working-class people, and the physically and mentally disabled,"22 among others. Young's theory of justice begins among these groups because they experience what she calls "the five faces of oppression": exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence.23 She builds a theory that cannot be primarily founded on distributive principles; such an approach to justice can be reborn as "quareing justice."
In this spirit, I turn finally to the Harlem Renaissance autodidact Joel Augustus Rogers. In the foreword to the first volume of his three-volume Sex and Race series, he writes:
We shall see that mankind began as a single family; that the family circle widened and widened until it broke into segments, and with that came the illusion that the segments were no longer parts of the circle. But thanks to mechanical progress and the spread of knowledge the segments are coming together again; the various ends are being united; the cycle is being completed; and a single understanding family is once more being formed.24
Rogers's words drip with purpose, committed to demonstrating that we are, finally, all "one blood"—albeit mixed. But to make this claim, Rogers must pass through a threshold of origins that challenges human belief (or faith) even into the present day. Accordingly, his second chapter begins: "Which Is the Oldest Race?" Here, Rogers reminds us of a fundamental double question that haunts the study of religion, a question that embodies different, but no less significant, specters in Afro-Diasporic and sexuality studies: Where do we begin—and what is the significance of (our) origins?
Remembering the depth of our ancestral heritage regardless of "race," Rogers asks: "And what was the moral calibre of all these millions of ancestors?" To this faux-rhetorical question, he replies: "The race purist never stops to ask." Quareing justice necessarily pauses to ask this question of "the moral caliber of all these millions of ancestors"—and to consider the virtue of balancing theories of justice with quare theories, sensibilities, and embodiments as integral for the most productive futures of Black being, Black doing, and Black religion. Ultimately, quareing justice leads to this clarity: Queer is only ever the new Black to the extent that justice and justice making is the defining virtue and teleological aim of Queer, Black, and Quare at their best.
- "A Litany for Survival," from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (W. W. Norton, 1997), 256.
- Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, "African-American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 17, no. 2 (1992): 251–274.
- Terrence L. Johnson, Tragic Soul-Life: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2012), 159.
- E. Patrick Johnson, " 'Quare' Studies, or (Almost) Everything I Know about Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother," Text and Performance Quarterly 21, no. 1 (January 2001): 2.
- "Throwing shade" is projecting dismissive or disrespectful attitudes toward that with which one disagrees or which one dislikes, usually in a public way.
- Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (Oxford University Press, 1978), 149. Raboteau's Slave Religion is a seminal text in Afro-Diasporic religious studies.
- To quote Jordan: "Theology needs to tell where the inherited categories have come from and how far they have been deformed in being 'secularized.' " Mark D. Jordan, The Ethics of Sex (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 149.
- Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions and Religion (Wadsworth, 2006), 10.
- "Is-ness" is Emilie Townes's term. See her In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Abingdon Press, 1995).
- See Siobhan B. Somerville, Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (Duke University Press, 2000).
- The anticipated title of my first monograph is " 'Make a Difference': Afro-Diasporic Ethics of Childcare Work and Activism." The women whose voices are included here are among those interviewed for this work.
- Katie G. Cannon notes the ways that Afro-Diasporic or Black women's bodies are particularly visible as abject objects to be targeted for oppression and incomprehensibly invisible as subjects deserving dignity and respect. In my work, I hope to respond to the "hyper(in)visibility" and the "hyper(in)audibility" of these same women. Katie G. Cannon, "Sexing Black Women: Liberation from the Prisonhouse of Anatomical Authority," in Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic, ed. Dwight N. Hopkins and Anthony B. Pinn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
- Evelynn Hammonds, "Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality," differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6, no. 2/3 (Summer-Fall 1994): 141.
- Charles Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, 2nd ed. (The Davies Group Publishers, 1999), 9.
- Ibid., 184.
- Ibid., 164.
- With gratitude to Janet Gyatso for reminding me of this important interlocutor: Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (Columbia University Press, 1995).
- E. Patrick Johnson, "Camp Revival: Performing Sexuality in the Black Church," unpublished essay (University of California, Los Angeles, November 2011).
- Warner offers a helpful distinction between dignity that concerns itself with honor, rank, nobility, and bourgeois propriety and a "modern and democratic" dignity that is "inherent in the human." He builds a case for this latter form of dignity, relating it to sex and calling it "dignity in shame"; Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (Harvard University Press, 1999), 36.
- Cathy J. Cohen, "Deviance as Resistance: A New Research Agenda for the Study of Black Politics," Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 1, no. 01 (March 2004): 27–45.
- Cathy J. Cohen, "Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?" in Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (Duke University Press, 2005), 22.
- Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton University Press, 1990), 40.
- Ibid., 49–64.
- J. A. Rogers, Sex and Race, vol. 1, Negro-Caucasian Mixing in All Ages and All Lands: The Old World (Helga M. Rogers, 1968). This first volume was originally published in 1941, at the height of World War II iterations of Nazism and Fascism.
Jennifer S. Leath is assistant professor of religion and social justice at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. This is an edited version of the lecture she delivered at Harvard Divinity School on April 28, 2015, during her residence as a 2014–15 research associate in the Women's Studies in Religion Program.