— Ocean Vuong
… everywhere they go, Mariam and Micaela are Black women who survive violence and oppression by loving other women.
— Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Ezili’s Mirrors
SOME OF MY most lucid memories are from my time growing up in a Baptist church in Detroit — a city with no shortage of Black spiritual institutions. My family and I weren’t devout church attendees, but nonetheless our Sunday mornings often involved waking up early, sliding into tight, itchy stockings and a dress that I didn’t want to wear — gathering a version of myself to be ushered into mahogany pews at the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church.
One Sunday in the late 1990s, my family and I were seated in the Tabernacle pews on the right side of the pulpit, where we often sat as slightly latecomers. I recall the smell of mildew that pervaded the old building, along with a pungent scent of women’s perfume. I tapped my shoes on the scarred black linoleum floor while the reverend preached fiercely. Something stirred within me; it was one of the first moments that I felt a visceral response of joy and revelry, inspirited by the rapid music, the soaring voices of the gospel chorus, the “amens” that jumped out from the congregation, and the intrepid cadence of the preacher who commanded it all like a divine conductor. That day, at the age of seven or eight, I pulled myself up out of the pew by a conviction that did not feel entirely my own. This force carried me to the altar where I announced that I had been saved, and sought the rite of baptism. The lights landed on my body, causing a flush feeling to ripple its way through my body — warm, thick, encouraging. Soon after, and to the delight of the entire congregation, my father — a former Catholic altar boy, then a self-proclaimed agnostic — followed, joining me in our public admission of Christ. While the encounter seemed random, the church would later claim that what happened to both of us that day was a divine calling, predicated on the belief that our bodies were sought out specifically to be used as sites for God’s will.
That morning at Tabernacle was the first time I committed myself to a public testimony, to a public claiming of a spirit and faith. It was the first time I’d see a person sanctified, or possessed by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, over several years during my engagement with the church, I would experience a litany of rituals that remind us we exist, rituals that remind us to continue doing so. The corporeal movements, the sounds, the feeling, the tableau of such rituals all remain indelible. Liturgical dancers dressed in white, representing scripture and gospel through animated gestures. Women in large, brimmed hats and shiny skirt suits who capitulated with force, collapsing their necks, heads, and backs. People falling out as if everything else around them didn’t matter, as if they were suspended between two states, between two worlds. Other women who ran to provide tissue and fans for the fallen. A preacher conceding to an omnipresent spirit while consoling the congregants’ possessed bodies from the podium. Witnessing the way that my fellow congregants gave up their bodies to the Holy Spirit manifested an unrelenting curiosity in me: How could you commit to a fall without knowing if someone would catch you? What are they feeling in that moment of collapse? Where do they go? What comes to them? From the outside looking in, and even on the very edge of this witnessing, where I have felt the hum of the spirit circling my own body, this was the closest thing to freedom I had ever felt.
In recent years, I’ve come to realize that these experiences, associated with certain denominations of Black Protestantism (such as Pentecostal and Apostolic faiths) that have origins in African traditional religions, were inadvertent lessons in vulnerability. I’ve become enamored with this state, one in which we are exposed, open to some unforeseeable spirit. Scholar Ashon T. Crawley beautifully describes the aesthetics of “Blackpentecostalism” as “operat[ing …] through irreducible openness, never adhering to containment, to producing specific performative behaviors during specific, predetermined moments of church services.” Church was the first place where I clapped, shouted, cried, and expressed myself without feeling the impulse to police my body. The more audacious your movement was inside this spiritual space, the more vigilant you were perceived to be, and thus, the more worthy of blessing.
Yet, as I grew older, I became more aware of my queerness in and outside of the church. From the unanswered questions I asked about conflicting narratives in the Bible, to the budding love I had for other women that I couldn’t quite reconcile with this space that was fundamentally structured by a patriarchal and heteronormative order. All the things I found myself drawn to, the things that secretly brought me pleasure, the things I tried so hard to extinguish but could not, were named and condemned from the pulpit. The closer I got to myself, the further I drifted away from this sacred space, finding refuge in other forms of communion.
I was still chasing that ecstatic experience, that hum in the spirit. I found it in relation with other women, in nightclubs where house music is played, in all the places where those marginalized from their orthodox upbringings retreat to find peace, pleasure, people. “The ‘party’ is about a moment of suspension,” Sable Elyse Smith explains about the phenomenology of queer nightlife. “Feeling a rigorous sensation in the body, a pulsating tip to tip […] and sometimes just to be a body feeling is revolutionary.” Ironically, I would later realize that these disparate spaces — the church and the club — were similar; each providing opportunities for somatic surrender. At the time, I did not have the language to describe this connection, but it was a connection that was felt.
On a visit to the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles in 2020 — the largest LGBT archive in the world — I found an article in the June 1990 issue of BLK that connected Pentecostal, sexual, and spiritual enlightenments through personal testimony written by Blackberri, a self-proclaimed member of the radical faerie tradition, a queer spiritual community grounded in secularism. Blackberri’s first-person account marks the distinct bodily gestures that connect Westernized Christian beliefs, as practiced by Black folks, with the African traditions that were suppressed through colonization and chattel slavery. “That summer night I lay on the floor of a small Pentecostal Church: trembling, shaking, and speaking in a language I had never spoken before,” Blackberri recalls, before recounting his experience as a Yoruba initiate in 1984. “At my first Bimbe [celebration for God or Goddess], the spirit moved amongst the people. Listening to the drums, the singing, the dancing and seeing spirit possession took me back to my Pentecostal experience[.]” Blackberri’s testimony represents the complexity and layering that structures African spirituality in the diaspora, but one expressing itself in the fluid medium of a queerness that enacts some kind of freedom on distinct terms of its own.
When applied to religious practices, queerness’s fluidity gives us expansive ways to consider the fluidity of God: the many forms this spirit may take, and the places we might take them. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the reader is brought into the experience of narrator and protagonist Celie through her epistolary communications with her God. As Celie speaks to the spirit, her perception of God changes from a centralized, white, male deity to an omnipresent force, a shift that runs parallel to, and ultimately informs, her severance from the Black nuclear family and her abusive husband, Mr. ___. Celie’s spiritual and personal evolution is fostered through her relationship with the fierce Shug Avery, a sexually liberated queer entertainer who is eventually Celie’s eventual. “[T]ell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did,” Shug tells her, going on to declare that “[a]ny God I ever felt in church I brought with me.” God is in the church. God is in the Juke Joint too. God, like Celie and Shug, becomes queer. To invoke Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s definition of queer divinity, we might see this divine presence as “queer in the sense of marking disruption to the violence of normative order and powerfully so: connecting in the ways that commodified flesh was never supposed to, loving your own kind when your kind was supposed to cease to exist.” Shug determines when and where and how she encounters the Spirit: a communion made by choice, not by happenstance. Through Shug’s eyes, God is in all places, at once sacred and secular.
I can articulate these connections now, but it would not be until I visited Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, to attend the New Waves! Dance and Performance Institute in 2018 that I would witness God’s queerness so fluidly across sites of religious ecstasy and hedonistic abandon. It was during that trip that I realized I could take queerness and my God (in all their forms) with me, wherever I go, without shame or consequence. I’d come to the institute in 2018 intending to observe — a collaborator of mine, a choreographer, was there participating in the daily movement workshops — but my plans to be a passive gawker were immediately thwarted: I was told that observation without participation was not permitted, and deeply “colonial.” The New Waves! founder, Makeda Thomas, has been facilitating the Institute for several years and the space — exclusively dedicated to African and Caribbean futurisms, ancestral spirituality, embodied practices, and most importantly, Black liberation — required collective fellowship in corporeal movement as a central part of its practice and operation.
The first workshop I participated in was led by Haitian movement artist Jean-Sebastien Duvilaire. It began with chanting, song, and call-and-response praise in Kreyòl. Duvilaire taught us about the break, a corporeal state which originates in the heart or the head. The break at the head produces a jerking of the neck so that the head falls back, eyes rolling with it, face looking to the sky. A break in the head causes an equilibrium shift, while a break in the heart allows the center of the body to collapse, trembling. Both enable an opening, or what practitioners call an exposure. The front of the neck, the chest, and the pelvis are projected and pronounced, as the back bends (the form referenced in the “break”), creating a rupture in position that is an opening to the spirit, to something and somewhere else. We will know that we are doing it correctly, Duvilaire tells us, if we feel somewhat out of control. It is a physical act of submission; an opening up to let spirits in that is called dispossession. I thought about those church ladies in the aisle of Tabernacle breaking their backs, letting the spirit in, relinquishing control. I thought about queer nightclubs: the closeness, the sweat, and the flexed and opened chests. I think now about Blackberri’s queer, African, and Pentecostal spiritual trajectory; and I consider how Black people became and still become liberated through somatic dispossession in various places of worship and reverence.
During my visit to Trinidad, I was encouraged to participate in what is referred to as a dotish tour: a 12-hour tour of Trinidad’s Indigenous land and history which begins around 9:00 p.m. and extends well into the late morning. The term dotish is a colloquial Trinidadian term that (as I would find out through firsthand experience) translates as a state of being dumb or forgetful. In other words, the all-night tour elicits a state of incoherence and fogginess for the attendee that is an opening to spiritual rapture. I attended on the eve of Emancipation Day, which called for a very special tour through an Orisha shrine and breakfast with representatives of descendants of the island’s Indigenous people.
I took a cab to the departure destination, where food and coffee were offered to begin the night. About an hour later, roughly two dozen of us crawled into two vans and journeyed into the bush. Perhaps I should’ve been afraid — I’d known my companions for a day or two, at most, and was in an unfamiliar city, far from home — but I was the calmest I had probably ever been in my life. We arrived first at an Orisha shrine in a private home: a tent lit with inviting scents traveling along the percussive rhythms of drums. A woman carried a small man over to the side of the enclosure to rest, his energy depleted after a spirit mounted then left his body. Throughout the night, priests and priestesses reminded us that it was the eve of Emancipation Day, that we should shout, clap, dance to honor those who endured the Middle Passage and the chattel slavery that followed for centuries on Trinidad.
A short, older Black man with a lengthy rope dangling from his waist tossed rum across an altar installed in the middle of the tent, inviting women to dance with him. Whether because the site was new to me and the dynamics of engagement deeply heteronormative, or because practicing worship movement had been so buried in my past, I felt the need to retreat to the perimeter of the space to avoid the invitation as much as I could. I watched as almost every woman I came with obliged his outstretched hand. He eventually made his way to me. I refused to commit to what felt like an extreme exposure. I recalled Duvilaire’s lesson in focusing on the heart and head to allow for the break. Yet, I was paralyzed, too cerebral, and my heart continued to cower in my chest.
I remembered my time in Tabernacle church, fascinated by my willingness to surrender to the feeling of spiritual worship at such a young age. Marveling at the dancers and those carrying the Orisha, I remembered those women who allowed themselves to be touched by the Holy Spirit. I could feel the breath of the haints in the space circling around me (it wouldn’t be the first time I refused to be touched), and I immediately felt myself resisting the possibility of opening up to it. Later on, I realized that the pleasures my body experienced in dark spaces where queer people gathered and the desires I had for incarnation as a child were eerily similar. In this Orisha shrine, I was contending in real time with this epiphany and yet stuck at the threshold of the break, suspended in the space between competing desires to give myself over and to hold back, to stay safe. What happens when we can’t break? How can I return my body to that adolescent spiritual memory in order to open up to a mode of bodily and spiritual surrender — to yield control? I could not find a way to give myself over in Trinidad that night. However, the desire to get there, to get free, became emboldened. That day, on that Emancipation Day, I made a commitment to locate and uncover the freedom that my adolescent body seemed to move with inherently.
In the days that followed, I sought to take up the practice of bodily submission in the dance workshops. I promised myself I’d carry those cues beyond the island, committing to a perpetual openness and exposure. On one of the final days, I submerged myself in the Atlantic Ocean in the presence of friends, promising to maintain a practice of vulnerability, as I did that day under the bright lights of Tabernacle church as a child, as I have done in dimly lit clubs.
This journeying back to that adolescent body, a body open to collectivity and omnipresent subjection, has become a ritual of daily desiring. It looks like a goddess pose, like crying in public when I need a release. It looks like exposing myself during fellowship with friends; dancing until I feel safe, free, and held enough to be irreducibly open. It looks like perpetual body scans to make sure my heart and head are available for exposure — allowing for the break, allowing for whatever needs to be let in.
The concept of exposure perhaps seems antithetical to this pandemic moment (even potentially fatal), but this practice has grown even more significant as opportunities for touch and proximity become distant memories. In the fleeting moments of my practice — where I work to abandon thought, to let my body lead me into the unknown — it feels like a brief edging toward a specific kind of freedom that has been there all along. Not a sovereignty that is perpetually evading capture, but rather a release that is always assured, always mine.
This essay was originally commissioned for SF MoMA’s Open Space, edited by Claudia La Rocco and Gordon Faylor.
Taylor Renee Aldridge is the visual arts curator and program manager at the California African American Museum (CAAM). She is the curator of Enunciated Life, currently on view at CAAM, which explores many of the themes in this essay.
Featured image: "Concert Music Crowd Dancings Edited 2020" by M. Johnson is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.