So what’s the draw? The Sisterhood creates a conflict between public politics, private realities, and personal taste. However, this war between the emperor’s coat of high culture and the everydayness of his nakedness is nothing new. This ongoing juxtaposition highlights the ever-increasing tensions between the “cultured” and the “ratchet”: the former drawing attention to so-called taste, tact, refinement, civilization, and genius, and the latter calling attention to the so-called vulgar. While the former is purported to arise out of the Geist–the intellectual inclinations–of our times, the latter is purported to spring forth from the worst of black culture. However, what better communicates the spirit of the time than the ratchet? And no, I don’t mean the ways that ratchet gets deployed to project a collage of derogatory meanings onto black women’s bodies. I’m referring to the ways that ratchetness often undergirds the ricocheting of raw emotions and missiles of unfiltered truths.
To uncritically bash The Sisterhood is to toe the expected party line. To demonize the show is not only an attempt to maintain a position of moral superiority, but an assay to construct and limit meaning for the audience—an audience that may, in fact, connect with the human qualities of the ratchetness therein. And trust me, I get the critiques regarding black female representations in media. This needs to be called out every day, all day—but not while asphyxiating black women’s complex identities with mythological notions of black women’s heroic genius. In short, binary oppositions don’t work. They set up “us”-versus-“them” politics, which are both totalizing and reductive. I think a better suggestion might be to think about the heroic qualities of black women’s genius–that is, if you buy this argument–as at times being a bit ratchet. Identities and tastes shift in shades of grey, not monochrome. That said, we don’t need another schemata. And we damn sure don’t need another exceptionalist social fiction to cancel out our complex subjectivities, which can neither be packaged nor wholesaled, by the way.
The Sisterhood is evidence of our obsession with brown women’s lives and our pornotropic desire to lift their curtains and see everything. In addition, it’s evidence of the fluidity between religion and culture and the myriad ways that each cross-pollinates the other, thus broadening, limiting, and confusing all kinds of meanings. An example of this is the construction of the “first lady” concept for the show, a Black Church conception structured in both politics of respectability and patriarchal dominance, aimed at constructing alternative identities–distinct from the hypersexual/sexual-savage trope–for black women, particularly during the early twentieth century. As with the FLOTUS, it’s a title of respect for wives in religious contexts that are often theo-socially hostile to women in general. With regard to black women, there’s a long history here apropos race, gender, sex, sexuality, respectability, and wifehood. However, I’ll save the politics of race, ladyhood, and wifedom for another day.
The Feminist Wire’s (and Racialicious Crush alum) Tamura Lomax applies her brilliant mind to giving a greatly nuanced—and humanizing—analysis of TLC’s The Sisterhood on the R today!
Anthony Heilbut has been a leading producer, reviewer and historian of black gospel music for nearly a half-century. During that time, he came to know many performers who were gay or bisexual, and he treated their private lives as private. Mr. Heilbut’s authoritative book “The Gospel Sound,” published in 1971 and updated several times since then, contained just one sentence about homosexuality.
Anthony Heilbut’s new book intends to expose what he calls the hypocrisy of the black church’s opposition to gay marriage.
Now, amid the volatile national debate about same-sex marriage, Mr. Heilbut has thrown the doors open to what he calls the “secret closet” of gays in gospel. In a lengthy chapter of his forthcoming book, “The Fan Who Knew Too Much,” he not only pays homage to the artistic role of gays and bisexuals, but also accuses black Christians, clergy and laity alike, of hypocrisy in opposing same-sex marriage while relying on gay people for much of the sacred music of the black church.
The timing of Mr. Heilbut’s book, and the intensity of his argument, has thrust it from the dusty corners of arts criticism into the heat and light of the political arena in a presidential election year. Same-sex marriage, more than any other issue, has forced the black church as an institution to try to reconcile its dueling strains of ideological liberalism and theological conservatism. At the congregational level, it has meant the awkward coexistence of gay musicians and antigay preaching and casual ridicule.
“The family secret has become public knowledge,” Mr. Heilbut writes in his book, “and the black church, once the very model of civil rights, has acquired a new image, as the citadel of intolerance.” Left unchecked, he continues, the trend “would introduce an ugly but not uninformed term, ‘black redneck.’ ”
While Mr. Heilbut’s book is only beginning to be widely distributed and read, his contentions have provoked vigorous dispute from some black clergy members. Their complaint, interestingly, is far less with Mr. Heilbut’s assertions about the significance of gay performers in gospel music than with that fact’s relevance to same-sex marriage.
“Ludicrous, outrageous and nonsensical,” said the Rev. Emmett C. Burns Jr., the pastor of Rising Sun First Baptist Church near Baltimore, who is a prominent opponent of Maryland’s new law permitting same-sex marriage. “The black church respects the talents of musicians who have gay and lesbian tendencies. But the church never gives up its beliefs that such persuasions are anathema to individuals within the church and in direct conflict with the Bible.”
Days after the president’s statement, one of the most influential young pastors in America, the Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, spoke from his pulpit in defense of gay rights, including the right to marry.
His reasons for breaking his silence are partly practical. Many of the musicians he identifies as gay or bisexual — James Cleveland, Alex Bradford, Clara Ward, Sister Rosetta Tharpe — are now dead, and in Mr. Cleveland’s case, dead from AIDS.
In the book, Mr. Heilbut recounts a conversation with another gay musician, Charles Campbell, shortly before his death. When Mr. Heilbut asked if he could “tell his story and quote him,” Mr. Campbell replied: “Sure, baby, I think it needs to be told. It all needs to be told.”
“Using Gospel Music’s Secrets to Confront Black Homophobia,” New York Times 6/1/12
As an African-American faith leader who pastors a black church, and who co-chaired DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality, I am heartened that this historic affirmation of same-sex marriage emanated from our nation’s first black president. For far too long, many have assumed that all black people are hopelessly homophobic and that black churches are united in their opposition to marriage equality. The truth is that neither the black community nor the black church is monolithic. Like others, we are diverse human beings who hold a rich diversity of ideas, opinions and points of view.
President Obama’s “constantly evolving feelings,” that have culminated in his current position on this subject, reflect a gradual process of discernment that is paradigmatic of what other African Americans are also experiencing. Because we are all products of a culture that is saturated with anti-gay rhetoric, bigotry, and discrimination, it is not unusual for any of us — whether gay or straight — to struggle with the prospect of disentangling ourselves from the hatred and intolerance that have been instilled within us.
When to that already toxic infusion we add historical layers of biblical fundamentalism, the perpetuation of sexual stereotypes, the emasculation of black men, the devaluation of black women, and the continuing quest of black people for acceptance, civility, and respectability within a racist society, it is absurd to think that African Americans would not struggle to embrace same-sex marriage. For instance, although my own liberation from homophobia occurred long before I entered the pastoral ministry, it did not occur overnight. As with President Obama, my conversion experience was also a gradual, evolving process in which I eventually became convinced and convicted that injustice, discrimination and oppression of anyone, no matter whom, is simply wrong.
Now that Obama has made his stance on marriage equality clear, we in the African-American community — regardless of our personal opinions — must allow others the necessary time and space to evolve in their own understanding of, and response to, this issue. According to the Pew Research Center, statistics reveal that an evolution is taking place. In 2008, for example, only 26 percent of African Americans favored gay marriage whereas 63 percent opposed it. In 2012, however, the number supporting gay marriage has increased to 39 percent whereas the number against it has decreased to 49 percent.
Hence, while opposition to gay marriage continues to run deep among African Americans, and especially among those who belong to a church or some other community of faith, a change is clearly taking place. This evolving reality is one of the reasons that the 2009 fight for marriage equality in the District of Columbia was so successful. Not only was this effort supported by the city’s black mayor, but also by seven out of nine black members of the D.C. City Council. As I spoke to ministers throughout the city, I also observed that several of my black clergy colleagues were seriously and genuinely struggling with this issue.