"The Black Church and the Blues Body"

Kelly Brown Douglas delivers third annual Boswell Lecture

"Everybody cryin’ mercy;tell me what that means.

Everybody cryin’ mercy; tell me what that means.

If mercy means feelin’ good, Lord have mercy on me!"

-- Ma Rainey


Kelly Brown Douglas, an Episcopal priest and Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professor of Religion at Goucher College delivered the third annual John E. Boswell Lecture, an endowed lectureship at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, on April 30, 2010, to an enthusiastic audience in PSR’s Doug Adams Gallery. Co-sponsoring the event along with CLGS were the GTU Black Seminarians, GTU Women’s Studies in Religion Program, and PSR’s Dismantling Racism Committee.

Douglas’ theme, “The Black Church and the Blues Body” was a prophetic message critiquing the Black Church’s, “Outspoken and influential tendency…to view the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) body as a sinful body, one not as worthy of respect as other bodies.” (Douglas was careful not to identify the Black Church as a single, monolithic entity, but rather as a patchwork of traditions and rituals, over the breadth of which she would be discerning certain patterns for critique.) She placed all bodies of African Americans, but particularly black LGBT bodies, and black women’s bodies, under the rubric of “blues bodies,” that is, bodies that “contest white, patriarchal, heterosexual, middle-class standards of propriety,” comparing these bodies’ resistance to similar forms of resistance women blues singers were known to practice in their lives, music, and lyrics.

Quoting blues verses from singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox, Douglas stated that, “Blues is more than a music form; it is a story of black living.” She continued, “Blues bodies are non-bourgeois bodies; they are the bodies of the black underclass,” as well as those of greater education and opportunity who choose to “identify with the struggles of blues bodies and blues people.”

Douglas contrasted the liberty of the blues body with the strictures of the Black Church. “The blues body is not ashamed of itself,” Douglas said, “blues women sang unashamedly about their intimate sexual needs, including their homoerotic feelings.”

In the attempt to overcome dominant white cultural narratives that portrayed African-Americans as hyper-sexual, animalistic, and dangerously seductive, however, the Black Church adopted a “hyper-proper” narrative of middle class black respectability when it came to sex. This took the form of rejection of women’s bodies as dangerous to the purity of the community and demonization of the concerns of LGBT members of the church and the larger society as “a trap by white society to link black bodies to the hyper-sexual stereotype.”

Douglas pointed out, however, that this rejection of the “blues body” is destined to fail. Blues bodies exist in the Black Church, and make themselves known in rituals of music, dance, and preaching in the church. “Try as it might to keep the blues out of its holy place, the blues is present in the very bodies of the people in the pews.” Furthermore, any attempt to create a “hyper-proper” sexual narrative only feeds into the racist, patriarchal, homophobic structures created by the dominant society, as if the sexuality of black people is in need of special attention, policing and censure.

Douglas called on the Black Church to listen to the blues as a “prophetic and pastoral practice… a signifying lament of the Black Church’s treatment of blues bodies, providing guidance toward a new narrative.” She encouraged the Black Church to develop a “crossroads theology.” Explaining that “the crossroads” in some traditional African religions is a mysterious place where the Devil, or at least mythological trickster spirits, were to be found, it might also be seen as a location that recognizes the “dialectic nature of life,” presenting not an either/or moment, but a both/and. Douglas suggested there was something blues bodies know about crossroads locations that make them a place where spirit and body can exist together rather than in opposition. She called crossroads theology “incarnational and playful,” comparing it to the contradictions inherent in the person, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Finally, she called on the Black Church, and all churches, to realize that “the sanctified soul resides in a sexual body.”

The John E. Boswell Lectureship is made possible through a special endowment fund initiated by CLGS to honor the life and scholarship of John Boswell, one of the 20th century’s most important historians of LGBT people and religion. The lectureship brings a leading scholar in LGBT religious studies to the PSR campus each spring semester for a lecture and symposium to foster groundbreaking scholarship in the mold of John Boswell.

The inaugural Boswell Lecture was delivered in 2008 by Dale B. Martin, of Yale University, and in 2009, Virginia Burrus, of the Theological School at Drew University, delivered the second annual Boswell Lecture. Video and audio recordings of the annual Boswell Lecture, as well as transcripts, can be found on the CLGS website (www.clgs.org).

The John E. Boswell Lectureship is made possible by the generosity of our donors. Click here to make secure online donation to this endowed lectureship.