Lifting Voices in the Key of Blackqueer YES
By Ashon T. CrawleySeptember 22, 2020
Speaking in tongues always felt like this deeply personal and intimate but also communal practice. It was joyful and joyous. The first time I did it I was in the midst of the congregation — in Philadelphia, at True Holiness Temple, where I was a musician at the time — and the saints praised with me. There was collective effervescence, social joy. I called my parents ecstatic. I felt new.
I no longer attend churches. These days, I find my community with agnostics and atheists and spiritual folks, with Christians and Muslims and Buddhists, with believers and nonbelievers. My friend calls me an agnosticostal. Still, I do believe in what I learned from those church experiences: that my daily posture and practice should reflect what I say my beliefs are, and that my beliefs should be practiced in and through my flesh. And I believe in, and say yes to, blackqueerness.
There was a debate in 1906, the founding of the modern Pentecostal movement. And the debate was about the nature of speaking in tongues. Some believed it to be what is called glossolalia — speaking heavenly language, non-representational language, language that does not have a use value in the world beyond the praise and worship it produces in believers. But there are others that believed speaking in tongues was what is called xenolalia — speaking the language of another region or culture without knowing that language. So, for example, some folks believed their gift of tongues was to speak Hindi or Spanish, and they would use that gift to travel to remote locations and preach to folks with hopes of converting them.
The thing about xenolalia is that it is a speaking in the language of the other without having to think in that language. It’s a kind of speaking that would not adulterate the speaker with having to be converted to the linguistic patterns and forms of speech and the grammatical imagination that go into the making of that language. It is a kind of dismissiveness while attempting to be in relation to that other, that difference. It makes that language to be of no value at all to the speaker, only a technology to be used to convert others to the speaker’s mode of thought and imagination. It’s a colonizing logic.
I remember my high school Spanish teacher telling me that it’s difficult to know a language if you don’t think and imagine and dream in that language. One needs intimacy with it, really. And with intimacy, one is changed.
I’m thinking of xenololia and refusals to think and imagine and be affected because of the way we say no to forms of life — like blackqueerness — because intimacy terrifies so many of us. This terror shows up in silences and gaps and unkindnesses, in violence and violation directed at the flesh of folks carrying difference. It’s the way some use queer folks as objects to verify their so-thought progressivism, transforming queer possibility into inert objects lacking the capacity to transform who it is we think we are.
Folks will, for example, quote Audre Lorde or James Baldwin, will wear T-shirts with their names on them. Yet these same people will remain steadfast in not having their language, way of life, and imagination transformed by the language, way of life, and imagination that made Lorde’s and Baldwin’s work possible. They refuse the queerness even though the queerness is enmeshed with their blackness. It’s an aversive logic, a refusal to contend with and say yes to life. What made possible the thoughts and imaginations and powerful writings of Lorde and Baldwin was saying yes to blackqueerness.
It never starts that way, with the aversion. It almost always begins with joy. Perhaps even friendship. They are people that you have come to trust and share space with. And if not trust, then perhaps at least a professional camaraderie.
It’s like the one who said to me, “I could never do that to my family.” The “that” was attempting to be open and honest about his queer desires and practices. He was responding to how he thought I lived, too out and too proud. The implication, of course, was that he cared for and cares more about his relationship to his family than I to mine. But it began with playful flirting and hanging out too late at night and text messaging all of the time. It began with joy but ended in renunciation.
And it’s like the one that told me the only reason people read my work and refuse to engage critically is because I’m gay. He said this the night that he took me out for my birthday, a presumed friend that I’d eaten with and shared joys and sorrows. He told me academia is harder for a cishet black man than a gay boy like me, that it welcomes with open arms queer folks. But beyond academia, his claim was about who I was, that all I am is reducible to who I fuck. But he, too, is someone that I considered a friend. It began with joy but ended in renunciation.
In both cases, and in so many more cases, blackqueerness was a yes they considered but ended up refusing. Refusing because the implications of its force and verve would have meant a reckoning with who it is they were thought to be. Not about biology or DNA and unalterable genes that betray the logic of sexuality. Relationship opened up possibility. But instead of saying yes, they renounced friendship. But maybe we can say YES, a collective breath. Maybe we can think about the YES as a blackqueer enactment of an otherwise possibility.
Harriet Tubman guides me, in dreams, in visions. I think about how, for her, freedom was not a kind of identity to claim but was a practice that was fundamentally collective. Freedom for her was relation and relationship. Her refusal to sit still in Philadelphia, her movement back into the space and place that bound her, was a critique of modern liberal philosophical and theological concepts for freedom as primarily an individual act. She, instead, breathed the strange utterance of otherwise possibility, liberation in the flesh. She learned and thus practiced the fact that freedom, if it was to mean anything, would have to be about the relations in the social world we cultivate.
She dreamed dreams. And in such dreaming, allowed for worlds to emerge and unfold.
I have been bothered. Bothered and sad. Sad and dejected. Dejected and really attempting to figure out a way to practice critique, to really practice it as a form of relation. Can critique be a material rip into our normative world? Perhaps walking down the street, breathing, is its own criticism.
I’ve been thinking about Dominique Rem’mie Fells. And I have been thinking about Riah Milton. And Tony McDade. And Islan Nettles. And so, so, so many others. In their walking down streets, in attempting to breathe and live and practice joy, in acknowledging their transness, they enact a vital critique of normative strivings. Perhaps we don’t know what gender is, perhaps we have to rethink it. And it is not the brutality but the joy of black transpeople and gender nonconforming people — their art and delight and dance and laughter, their friendship and poetics and love — that is the gift of critique. They practice an intimacy with their flesh that we would all do well to attempt to cultivate. It is the livingness of blackqueer folks that we must honor with urgency. I have been thinking about the ways living life, inhabiting and practicing a blackqueer YES, leaves people exposed to cisheteropatriarchal violence. Black transpeople that practice a YES to their flesh, that find joy in their living, are exposed to brutality.
And that’s because we do not think of life with Tubman’s theory of freedom in mind. I think of Western philosophical and theological ideals for what it means to be a proper human, how we think of freedom as the effect of an individual’s rights. And so, the liberal response to blackqueer life, to Fells and Milton and McDade and Nettles, is to say something like, They should be able to live their lives however they choose to. And the liberal response to blackqueer life, to Lorde and Baldwin, is to say something like, Their sexuality doesn’t threaten mine. And this, it seems, is not untrue.
Yet, such claims emerge from a philosophical inheritance that includes John Locke’s notion of natural rights, possessive individualism, and private property ownership. These ideas set the stage for the genocide of Indigenous people, for the stealing of their lands, and for the theft of Africans and forced labor in the so-called New World. Natural rights, possessive individualism, and private property ownership, together, produce a white supremacist concept of personhood, one that includes gender and sex, precisely because what is valued above all else is the so-called individual freedom of the one.
These utterances — they should be able to live their lives however they want to and their sexuality doesn’t threaten mine — are xenolalic. They are assertions about the autonomous, free individual that refuses intimacy that would change the one making the assertion. It is a speaking in the language of the other without having to reimagine one’s own language and practice and form of life. Colonizing logic. What such xenolalia disallows is a consideration of how a decolonized relation would have us think gender and sexuality as a spectrum, as a practice, one that necessarily exerts a force on us as much as it exerts a force on the ones we consider queer, on the ones who say YES. It is not enough, in other words, to say people should be able to live their lives however they choose on account of their individual freedom and practice of identity as private property. What we must do, instead, is allow the practice of blackqueer dissidence to have us interrogate who it is we think we are, to push us to imagine and dream in the language of blackqueerness, in the sound and rupture of the blackqueer YES.
And this is why we have to attend to the violence that attends blackqueer folks. The ones enacting such violence know that what is unsettled is not only the one saying YES to rethinking gender and sexuality as expansive and capacious. They know that the unsettlement is more fundamentally with their own sense of gender and sexuality as stable, coherent, unalterable either through religious rhetoric, social norms for the family, or biological reasoning. Attending to that question would give us a more robust concept of violence, too.
In X — The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought, Nahum Dimitri Chandler argues that when folks like Thomas Jefferson argued about the nature of Africans, Negroes, Blacks, what was also being thought about, but veiled, was the nature of European or white existence. The attempt to figure out what Africans were, what type of creaturely status they occupied such that they could be enslaved, was more fundamentally the question of what, exactly, it means to be European, to be white.
“On what basis and in what manner can one decide a being, and its character of existence, as one kind or another?” Chandler asks. Much like the argument about the nature of tongues — glossolalia or xenolalia — the affirmation of whiteness attempted to produce an impure existence against which the pure identity of whiteness could be articulated. Chandler, again: “A concept of the purity of identity as a fixed, natural (physically or ‘biologically’ given), even metaphysical, character is operative here.” When thinking gender and sexuality, what the blackqueer practice of living allows is a disruption to the assumption that gender and sexuality are only in-process, and thus impure, for the ones that aren’t “normal,” for the ones who practice queerness. What is called into question is the very idea of a fixed, natural, or metaphysically pure — which is to say, normative — sexuality or gender identity.
The problem with the blackqueer YES is not only the individual freedom of the ones attempting to live, attempting to walk down the street without being harassed, attempting to practice relation in dense and full and expansive ways. The problem with the blackqueer YES is that it sets loose a set of propositional concerns and questions for the ones that assume, and need for there to be, a purity of identity that is fixed and given, for the ones who believe they know what gender is and its horizon and thrust, for the ones that think they know the limit of possibility.
The blackqueer YES is something like the relationship between Arthur and Crunch in Baldwin’s Just Above My Head. Singing together in a quartet, they made song for religious folks and churches were delighted. But they sought one another. And, yes, there were hesitance too. Their hesitance with finding pleasure in the flesh of one another because such pleasure could and would be deemed sinful did not, however, stop them from pursuing it, emerging from sex and holding one another with a new sound and song. They said YES to being unsettled. And their friends Peanut and Red, also members of the quartet, began calling them “Romeo and Romeo” and “lovebirds,” allowing the tenderness and joy Arthur and Crunch experienced to make them, too, tender and joyful. The YES expands our sense of the possible.
Growing up in the doctrinally — and religiously — conservative world of Blackpentecostalism, we thought and talked and preached and sang about heaven and hell, about the rapture and revelation, a lot. But the idea of eternal life always made me more than a bit unsettled. When I would think of the idea of eternity — world without end, amen! amen! — it would rock my stability and sense of calm. It’s hard to describe but I will try.
I would close my eyes, shut them very tightly, and try to imagine this unending world. But I would see darkness as expanse and a spiral that had origin but no end. I’d keep trying to think toward this movement, this unending thing to the point that I’d almost shatter my sense of self and existence. Whatever I thought about this unending thing could not be contained to thought, it would keep happening beyond my ability to think it, overwhelming my senses, beyond them. I think that, for many, imagining saying YES to blackqueerness produces a similar kind of existential dread and discomfort.
We are finite creatures, you know; everything comes to some kind of end eventually. Endings feel like a curse but also curiously are comforting.
What the blackqueer YES tells us is this: gender identity and sexual orientation are only ever openings into a possibility against limit, rather than an enclosure on thought and practice. Or they should be. The desire for normative biologies and genetics and doctrines and theologies aim, ultimately, at an end to the possibility of thought, of imagination; so often they are used to tightly shut the mind, like my kid eyes, from thought itself.
There is, as so many decades of queer theory and often our own lived experience tells us, no essence of gender identity. This is so unsettling to so many of us because we have been indoctrinated into the idea that gender actually has meaning, that it is a closed case, that there is a “natural” construction of one’s body, and that such “natural” construction means something in terms of relations between the human and the divine, or the relations between humans and other creatures, or relations between humans. Gender is supposed to tell us something about strength and weakness, about intellectual capacity and emotional inclinations, about good and bad, about colors and toys, about shirts and skirts. Why do we allow the idea of gender to produce inclusions and exclusions? Why do we not allow it, and sexuality, to be the site of an unfolding and flowering possibility?
To live in the along, as poet Gwendolyn Brooks offered, is to say YES. YES is a poetics. It is a form, a way, a method and a strategy.
How does one say YES as a practice? How does one practice an openness and vulnerability and receptivity of the YES? How does one say YES, to let YES be when such a saying-YES can lead to existential dread? To say YES to blackqueerness would be to allow gender to be an always unsettled question, to be always on the move. To say YES to blackqueerness would be to allow for relationalities to emerge and unfold without regard to the bodies that are supposed to allow or disallow such flourishing. In a world of the blackqueer YES, our yearnings for relations can be explored with consent and care as the grounding principle. There would be no violence against transpeople because we all would be questing for gender as relation.
Blackpentecostals sing the words “Yes” and the phrase “Yes, lord” during intense moments of fervent worship, ecstasy, and praise, chanted at different moments of a church service as the spirit leads. This chant is a six-line melody with the word “Yes” and phrase “Yes, lord,” ascending and descending the musical scale to the key’s resolve only to begin again. Punctuating the chant are hand claps, foot stomps, hollers, moans, pleas, orations; sometimes speaking in tongues, sometimes the quiet unheard hush of tears streaming down faces, or the buzzing sound of low humming. This song is, and is about, praise, is, and is about, worship. It is about surrender, release.
The blackqueer YES is the practice of relation. Relation is movement. Philosopher Édouard Glissant said relation is “totality in evolution, whose order is continually in flux and whose disorder one can imagine forever.” Relation is the practice of openness and vulnerability, and black life, queer life, is the fact of encounter with livingness and refusing to renounce relation to fragility and contingency. It is, in a word, the posture and practice of YES. The blackqueer YES is not identity one can claim, it is only a relation one can practice. Queer folks, too, have to interrogate and unlearn antiblack racism, sexism, misogynoir, transphobia. So blackqueer practice only ever points to the possibility of the blackqueer YES, but it can also be rejected by people along various identity constructions. It is a yes to life, to and toward relation. This is the mysticism of saying yes to life, to relation. And this against structures of domination that attempt in violent intensity to interdict our desire for life and joy and abundance.
And the saints of Blackpentecostalism teach me about a gesture, a posture, of release, of the saying-YES.
In the practice of praise, the saints often throw their hands up, arms raised, hands open. They say this is a demonstration of surrender. The praise in the flesh with hands raised teaches me about welcome, openness, vulnerability, porosity. Can one surrender through and to desire, can one surrender as a kind of weakness that is not about the antithesis of, and thus an ableist response to strength, but can one surrender as accepting the vulnerability of existence, a delightfulness in having need, having want?
There’s something so steady and joyful and gentle about the raising of hands in praise, the surrender and openness and being moved and needing to underscore this feeling with the flesh. It happens, the raised hands, reflexively almost without the thought of it, because it’s what feels right to do each time. Like intimacies that happen even if they are disclaimed and renounced.
To say YES is to ask the question of possibility even when rejection and renunciation happens, keeps happening, will likely happen again. Imagination for the possible, the practice and posture of YES, blackqueer living, is not easy or frivolous. It is urgent. Black trans women, for example, say YES, live life through a kind of surrender that would free us all if we say YES to their YES, to their letting/be.
There is dread because there is possibility in the YES. It might feel like an unmooring and unsettling, like the reaching for heaven and imagining worlds without end. Returning again to Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, one recalls when Crunch says to Arthur, “You think, just because I’m bigger than you that I can’t be in love?” This question of bigness and love is also the question of fear and possibility. Because what Arthur was questioning was the possibility of love beyond fear. Crunch responding about bigness and love is also him saying that he fears too. Crunch knowing his bigness — or, really, his vastness that is not about weight but is about magnitude — means knowing that love can be expansive and produce existential dread. But he, they, have courage. He, they, say YES. To say YES is to find rest and refuge in the impossibility of stability and purity and limit. To say YES is to practice the sacral nature of black social life.
The blackqueer yes is not only about personal pleasures in the flesh. Though it emerges from the same concern for living otherwise, the blackqueer yes is not reducible to queer sex or identity. It’s also Marsha P. Johnson, her yes to a political economic disruption. A founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a space that provided for material needs like housing, the 1970 manifesto she helped to write included demands for the right to dress freely as one desires and for personal adornment; the end to police violence and brutality; the end of job discrimination; and for all people to have free education, health care, and housing. This blackqueer yes is about imagining a world otherwise.
Living is such a fragile thing, such an unguaranteed thing, such a beautiful thing. Living with the fragility and vulnerability and fear and a sense of smallness can open us up to beauty not as the opposite of something horrible or the terrible or the dreadful, but beauty beyond measure, beauty that is immeasurable and without value, without price and only is had through sharing. The beauty of breath. And stardust. And joy.
The blackqueer YES can walk with us, can allow us to practice welcome and invitation and solicitation. The blackqueer YES allows us to accept the vulnerability and fragility of creaturely existence, to find refuge and shelter and home and love in such an existence. Living the blackqueer YES is not existence without fear or unsettlement or dread or uncertainty but is a life that is lived against that fear, that refuses to allow fear to be that which constitutes relation. It is possible only because it is imagined, and after imagining, then practiced, as possible. It flowers. It unfolds. It blooms.
Ashon T. Crawley is a performance based and visual artist, and curates audiovisual, choreosonic events globally. He is author of Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press) and The Lonely Letters (Duke University Press). All his work is about otherwise possibility.
Featured image: "YES" by Ged Carroll is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped and saturated.
Banner image: "Purple Black" by Stinging Eyes is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.
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