[BT 10.3 (2012) 321–327] http://dx.doi.org/10.1558/blth.v10i3.


ISSN (print) ISSN (online)

1476–9948 1743–1670

527 Madison Street Brooklyn, NY 11221 USA mooredarnell@gmail.com

This brief article examines the ways in which the ideological and theological understandings of some Black churches and the conservative Right in the USA cohere to form a heteronormative agenda which is used to police queer sexual expressions and familial formations. The article begins to explicate a disruptive political and theological frame that transgresses heteronormativity. Keywords: Queer; queer failure; Black church; conservative Right; USA; lesbian, gay; bisexual; transgendered; queer; heteronormativity.

… there is something powerful in being wrong, in losing, in failing, and that all failures combined might just be enough, if we practice them well, to bring down the winner. Let’s leave success and its achievements to the Republicans, to the corporate managers of the world, to the winners of reality TV shows, to married couples, to SUV drivers. —Jack Halberstam, from The Queer Art of Failure.3

The politics of failure may seem to be an unusual starting place for a meditation on queer subjectivities, Black Christian thought and politics in the context of the United States. This is especially so when such talk tends to pivot on the ideas of pragmatism and success. To move quickly to my concluding argument

1. Another version of this article appeared in the form of remarks prepared for the Religion and Politics in the USA panel presentation hosted by the Center for Humanities and Arts at Tufts University on March 29, 2012. 2. The author was a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University from 2010–12. 3. Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 120–21.
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Black Theology: An International Journal

for a moment, failure might just be the revolutionary political intervention of our times. In the following, then, I consider failure as a queer intervention; that is, I imagine failure to be a modality that might allow for the radical transformation of those Black churches in the US context whose heteronormative frames seem to disallow the possibility of forming fully welcoming, participatory, and beloved communities where all bodies can be free to worship. What follows is the beginning of a longer meditation on the liberatory potential of a queer politics that subverts sexual and gender hegemonies. It represents a turn away from hegemonic practices and movement in the direction of different and unconventional forms of meaning-making within worshipping spaces. These spaces are ones that seek to “construct,” order, and other the sexed and gendered selves of worshippers. First, I consider the seemingly contested alliances between Black churches and the conservative Right. These two entities are bodies whose theological and ideological frameworks often cohere in this historical moment to form a heteronormative agenda that is used to surveil and police certain forms of sexual expressions and familial formations. Then I consider the ways in which failure, as theorized in Jack Halberstam’s brilliant work, The Queer Art of Failure, may be instantiated as a subversive posture of radical protest: a pushing against, a reimagining, and/or tearing down of the normal. This is a reclaiming and an envisioning of the abnormal as sites of possibility for being and living. It is a political and theological act that centers on the agency of the subjugated, state subject and othered member of some Black churches in the USA. On Black Churches in the USA Over the past few decades,4 an emergent level of interest has been ignited within Black churches regarding advocacy and public policy aimed at revitalizing what some understand to be the rise of “troubled” African American families. For example, Revd Eugene Rivers stated during a 2005 interview on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, “I have seen the complete unraveling of what has been understood for all of our history in this society to be the black family.”5 Similarly, journalist William Raspberry, writing in The Washington Post in 2005, suggested that “what is happening to the black family in America is the sociological equivalent of global warming: easier to document than to reverse, inconsistent in its near-term effect—and disastrous in the long run.”6
4. The time frame for this is contested depending on how one reads the movements and thoughts perpetuated within Black churches throughout US history. 5. “SPECIAL SERIES: Faith and Family in America, Part 3: African American Families,” Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, available at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/ week911/special.html, November 11, 2005. 6. “Why Our Black Families Are Failing,” The Washington Post, July 25, 2005.
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Moore Contested Alliances


As a result of this urgency, organizations like the Detroit-based “Institute for Black Family Development,” which was created in 1987, have been developed to “equip pastors, youth workers, and churches to meet the spiritual needs of African American families.” In addition, church leaders and public servants have met to discuss public policy issues and their impact, or lack thereof, on the African American family. This has found expression in the briefing on the Restoration of the Black Family held in 1991, which included nearly 150 African American pastors as well as President Bush, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, and members of Congress. However, emphasis has also been placed on the church’s responsibility to serve as the teacher of “dignity and value of human life, marriage, family, and community” and as a “strong witness” on behalf of “God’s design for marriage, family, and community.”7 The aforementioned words, stated by Anthony Bradley, appeared in an article on the “Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Society” website in 2003 titled, “Devaluing the Black Family.” Moreover, Black churches have seemingly connected the problem of, what some deem to be, the disintegration of the African American family to the gnawing statistics that point to the increasing number of single-parent led households, minimal percentage of married households within the African American community, and the social issues which plague African American males. The 2000 US Census, which set the alarm for those Black religious advocates doing this work in the early part of the millennium, reported that 41.6 percent of Black or African American men reported that they never married; similarly, 39.7 of Black or African American women reported that they never married.8 In contrast to their counterparts, both Black and African American men and women maintained the highest percentage of those who reported to have never married. In addition to the dwindling popularity of marriage, many list the number one priority, as it relates to the plight of the African American family, to be the reclamation of the African American male.9 For many within the Black religious community, and without, the threat of the extinction of the African American male seems to pose serious anxiety, so much so that articles with daring titles like “African American Males: Soon
7. “Devaluing the Black Family,” Acton Commentary, December 12, 2003, available at www.acton.org/pub/commentary/2003/12/17/devaluing-black-family. 8. US Census 2000 data can be accessed through the US Census Bureau gateway at www.census.gov/main/www/cen2000.html 9. See, for example, “The Black Family—Changing Church Confronts the Changing Black Family: Religious Leaders Call for New Spirit to Deal with New Problems and Opportunities of Parents and Children,” interview, Ebony Magazine, August 1993; Kimberly Jane Wilson, “Black Men and Families: What’s Going On?,” New Visions Commentary, 2001; and Herbert A. Sample, “For many blacks, gay fight isn’t theirs; Civil rights analogy is widely discounted,” Sacramento Bee, March 16, 2004.
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Black Theology: An International Journal

Gone” have surfaced in publications like the Journal of African American Men.10 Thus, many see same-sex partnerships, especially that of male partnerships, as a direct threat to the sustainability of the Black family. On the Conservative Right I want to now consider conservative political/ideological thought in relation to similar understandings maintained by some within Black churches. I am using the term “conservative Right” to foreground traditionalist conservatism and Christian conservatism. I want to begin with President Ronald Reagan, a pioneering figure of the conservative movement, who wrote, “The family has always been the cornerstone of American society. Our families nurture, preserve, and pass on to each succeeding generation the values we share and cherish, values that are the foundation of our freedoms.”11 Government is deemphasized, or muted altogether, in Reagan’s pronouncement, underlying the importance of nongovernment intervention and individual responsibility as markers of freedom. While some Black church leaders may deviate from the conservative push for smaller government and, therefore, limited government intervention in the social and economic life of the citizenry, some (if not many, as evidenced earlier) conceptualize the family (that is, a man and woman, husband/patriarch and wife who procreates) as the cure for communal and societal uplift. Marriage, then, becomes a central feature of the project of familial formation, community-building, and nation-building. According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff,
In conservative family life, the strict father rules. Fathers and husbands should have control over reproduction; hence, parental and spousal notification laws and opposition to abortion. In conservative religion, God is seen as the strict father, the Lord, who rewards and punishes according to individual responsibility in following his Biblical word.12

The centralizing figure within this formulaic motif of normalcy (whether framed within the Black Church and/or the conservative political matrix) is the patriarch, the father, the husband, the head, God! Thus, those who advocate on

10. See Napoleon Bryant’s “African American Males: Soon Gone?,” Journal of African American Men 4, no. 4 (2000): 9–17. 11. George Lakoff offers a useful analysis of the moral systems that ground conservative politics in his blog piece, “What Conservatives Really Want,” which can be accessed at http:// georgelakoff.com/2011/02/19/what-conservatives-really-want. 12. These words opened Proclamation 4999—National Family Week, 1982, signed by President Ronald Reagan on November 12, 1982. The text can be accessed at www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws.
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Moore Contested Alliances


behalf of an imagined “traditional family” (read, a construct of heteropatriarchal imaginary) and heterogeneous marriage, connect social problems like the legalization of same-sex marriage and single-parent (non-fathered) households to the decline of values, the marring of our nation’s moral character, the fracturing of our economic stability and the diminution of our freedom. Interestingly, the conservative Republican Newt Gingrich suffered opposition from pro-family groups and ministers after having “come out” about his own marital infidelity and other moral failures. That is good failure, if I may say so myself. On Queer Failure So what about those of us who exist outside of the domain of normalcy? What of the non-heterosexual? How do we consider the non-married heterosexual and/or homosexual? The persons who do not have two parents or have not been parented in two-parent home spaces? What of those who refuse the mother–father dyad? What of the non-procreative? Or of those who are differently abled? How do we perceive the transgendered? What of the single mother or single father or single grandparent or fictive parent? What of the adopted youth who is a ward of the state and living in transitional housing? Or what of those folk who exist outside of the realm of the so-called trajectory of morality, tradition, and such concomitant, natural arrangements? What of all those who do not fit the traditional boxes? What of those queer individuals whose beings, senses of self, social locations, and choices consign us to stricture because we obviate structure? What of those of us who have perfected queer failure by obstructing the rules of heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy as manufactured by the church or the state, Black church or conservative Right? What are we to do in this moment? How might we assess these times? How might we undo the grips of modernity and illuminate new ways of being in our now? My response is that our non-obeisance to the heteronormed rules offered us is the revolutionary act: the radical act of loving and/or being sexually intimate with someone of the same sex. It is the refusal of individuals to marry another and the formation of different relationship configurations. It is the refusal to bear children even if you can. Our ability to fail at that which is deemed right and successful by churches (Black, White, Brown, Catholic and Protestant) and/or the state (whether by way of a conservative administration or a liberal one) is the radical act. If, indeed, the Black church (and many other iterations of the Christian community) and the conservative Right desire a certain type of legibility, namely one of the obedient subject, then failure might be what we need to enact as a refusal of legibility. By doing so, we may frustrate heteronormativity in ways that acknowledge the agential potential of queer bodies, which may in turn, make space for new ways of being.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2013.


Black Theology: An International Journal

Our acquiescence to respectability, in the cases when respectability denies the varied ways we are sexed and have sex, will not make space for the human and sexual diversity represented across church communities. Thus, disrespectability, or rather our intentional non-acquiescence to normative boxes, might be the liberatory act. When speaking of the women’s movement in the Black Baptist church between 1900–20s in her book, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880–1920, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham had this to say about the respectability and the political mores of Black religious women:
The black Baptist women’s opposition to the social structures and symbolic representations of white supremacy may be characterized by the concept of the “politics of respectability.” For the Baptist women respectability assumed a political dimension … While adherence to respectability enabled black women to counter racist images and structures, their discursive contestation was not directed solely at white Americans, the black women condemned what they perceived to be negative practices and attitudes among their own people. Their assimilationist leanings led to their insistence upon blacks’ conformity to the dominant society’s norms of manners and morals.13

I wish to build on Higginbotham’s claim and argue for a counter-hegemonic politic. This is an act of disrespectability, which is a critically analytical way of thinking and being within the Black church. It is a move that traces its moral commitments to a project of assimilation to racialized and classed ideas embedded within “dominant society’s norms of manners and morals.” We must assess the extent to which those norms have failed us and do something about such failure. A Coda or a Beginning When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (Jn 19:30). It could be argued that Jesus practiced queer failure, or rather he catalyzed the failure of the State. The failure that Jesus enacts is evidenced not so much in his obedience to death, but rather in his subsequent resurrection. His radical living and new becoming distorted the empire’s desire for his disembodiment and invisibility. The empire’s desire for the death of his subjective/embodied self is thwarted through his resurrection, which might also be read as his refusal to have his desires, volition, and body colonized and deadened. His living signaled the failure of the empire. To put it another way, the empire desired his death, his illegibility, but Jesus resisted by living. In doing so, his self was animated and became legible. The state’s attempt
13. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 186.
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Moore Contested Alliances


to control his desires and embodiment was finished. Likewise, queer subjects, those other Christs, are expected to deny their subjective selves and are expected to mutilate their desires. Tragically, too many feel the need to kill themselves and many often do. In these times, in these days, when we often mourn the deaths of LGBTQ people, young and old, we need not offer up a theology that lifts up self-sacrifice as the route to freedom. Thus, we should be ever careful to remind those within our various communities that self-sacrifice/suicide corresponds with the desires of those who refuse our full becoming. To resist invisibility and illegibility, then, we (like Jesus) must live. Our living is radical resistance.

Bryant, N. (2000). “African American Males: Soon Gone?” Journal of African American Men 4, no. 4 (2000): 9–17. Halberstam, J. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Higginbotham, E. Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

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