Black Church, Black Patriarchy, and the "Brilliant Queer": Competing Masculinities in Langston Hughes's "Blessed Assurance".
Langston Hughes advises the writer who delves into politics that it may cost him his audience. He knew only too well. By 1964 he had suffered through the harsh critique of New Negro politics, treated as suspect because of his communist and socialist sympathies, and questioned by the U. S. House Un-American Activities Committee. His desire to be "with and for his people" often drew the ire of his critics and eventually limited his publishing opportunities. The epigraph is from an unpublished manifesto about the role of the artist in society that was discovered after his death. The manifesto was written a year after he published "Blessed Assurance," which is his only short story that deals directly with black male homosexuality. The appearance of this tale might seem significant simply because it could offer insight into the rumors that Hughes lived a closeted "gay lifestyle." His love life seems mysterious mainly because, although he never identified as homosexual, Hughes also never married or publicly partnered with a woman. Yet "Blessed Assurance" is not mysterious or closeted in dealing with black queer masculinity. Instead, Hughes creates a politicized spiritual space for addressing black queer masculinity by offering a tale narrated by John, an aging father struggling to accept his son Delmar's sexuality. Arnold Rampersad, one of Hughes's biographers, characterizes the narrator as a "sophisticated voyeur" (334) who "neither criticizes nor endorses the son or his organist-admirer" (334), but the gender politics conveyed through black fatherhood and black worship are anything but neutral. Throughout the story, it is these cultural milieus that allow Hughes to hang himself in his own words. While we may never know if Langston Hughes considered himself to be a "brilliant queer," the publication of "Blessed Assurance" serves as evidence that he considered black queer manhood an important representation in his dedication to depicting myriad black people and experiences. Equally important is the way this depiction anticipates shifts in post-civil rights discourses surrounding sexuality and religion beyond homophobia.
A review of Hughes's commentary on black culture is timely because in the last two decades or so, scholars have begun to catch up, if you will, with Hughes and expand the discourse of sexuality in religious studies by interrogating church doctrine, the sexual attitudes and practices of church folk, and the variability of human sexuality. In 1993, James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore brought together various perspectives in the anthology Black Theology: A Documentary History (Volume Two: 1980-1992), which includes ministers with nonnormative sexual identities. For example, Elisa Farajaje-Jones, who is bisexual, outlines an "in the life" theology which "grows out of the experiences, lives, and struggles against oppression and dehumanization" (140) of nonheterosexual religious folk. More recently, Michael Eric Dyson makes the case for a "theology of eroticism" that resists "extreme self-denial that has little to do with healthy sexuality" (91, 93). "Mere repression is not the proper perspective," Dyson argues. "We've got to find a mean between sexual annihilation and erotic excess. Otherwise ... [Christians] will continue to be stuck in silence and confusion" (101). He stresses the links between spirituality and sensuality, and makes particular inclusion of homosexuality in this divine connection. Similarly, Kelly Brown Douglas broadens the scope of spiritual liberation in Sexuality and the Black Church (1999) by asserting that an anti-homophobic "sexual discourse of resistance" is necessary to "disrupt the terrorizing manner in which black people have used biblical texts in regard to homosexuality" (107). Also, Anthony Pinn and Dwight Hopkins assembled the anthology Loving the Body: Black Religious Studies and the Erotic (2004) "because liberation must not only involve the restructuring of socioeconomic, political, and cultural space, it must also involve an appreciation of the body and the pleasuring of the body" (6).
While Hughes's text is not an academic endeavor, it is a relevant engagement with the complex relationship between religious expression, sexuality, sensuality and ecstasy. Importantly, his focus on the homoerotic within the spiritual realm links him to the black queer epistemology that includes James Baldwin, Ann Allen Shockley, Randall Kenan, and Alice Walker. With humor, sarcasm, and a poet's keen ability to capture truth in tiny snippets, Hughes illustrates E. Patrick Johnson's observation that "the body is the one organizing site of multiple and competing signifiers within the black church service" ("Feeling" 92). Indeed, the spectacle of Delmar's queer body signifies the multiplicity of black identity, resistance and spirituality in his performance of sacred music.
Religion scholar Johari Jabir supplies a proper framing for this analysis. In a panel presentation entitled "Preachers and Punks, Sissies and Saints: Constructions of Black Religious Masculinity in the Climactic Moment of Black Worship," Jabir argues that in the theater of traditional black churches, the performances of the male preacher and the male musician construct a hierarchical masculine/effeminate binary that privileges the preacher by placing him in the masculine space. "In the context of black worship, these two masculinities cooperate and collaborate to construct each other's masculinity through two of the most essential material aspects of black worship--the pulpit and the Hammond B3 organ" (4). Jabir's formulation identifies the literal space of creativity and authority each man occupies, but oversimplifies their duality. In theatrical terms, the musician, also called the Minister of Music, is the opening act. The title can comprise as many roles as choir director, lead musician, vocalist or songwriter. The production of music or song in the service of God is considered a type of evangelism, for he/she surrenders to the Holy Spirit and serves as a vessel of that Sprit; his/her talent is considered an instrument of God. The minister's talent is his ministry. Still, in the greater scheme of the church program, he is the sub-minister, patially, he is the director in the orchestra pit who provides the soundtrack to the Minister's center-stage monologue. Although men and women serve as ministers of music, this position is feminized because it is historically a woman's supportive "place" in the church (along with teaching, while men are conventionally pastors and deacons). So as it is with other feminized occupations--hairstylists, fashion designers and dancers--a male pianist/organist is always already sexually suspicious; because of the musician's feminized masculinity, the preacher is the alpha-male almost by default. Despite this fact, however, the intrinsic role of music and singing in the (traditional Protestant) black worship service places even the most flamboyantly gay and gifted musician upon a high pedestal in the community.
Jabir's commentary also points to the conflict within the "preachers and punks" dynamic. As the Word from the pulpit and the musical "word" of song rise and fall against each other in dramatic pursuit of the emotional/physical/spiritual release of the audience, the moment of "sermonic climax" is a moment "simultaneously cooperative, collaborative, and contesting" (Jabir 4). The sacred nature of the pursuit is unquestioned. But in their separate aesthetics and performances of "black religious masculinity," these actors disagree, he explains, "not about the goodness of God but about the meaning of what it means to be a man" (Jabir 4). Jabir's queering of the ideological tensions that can exist between sermon/song and preacher/ Minister of Music in black church spaces sets the stage for the Hughes short story. "Blessed Assurance" expands and revises the preacher and punk dyad into a triangulated, overlapping connection of relational forces: black patriarchy, black gay men and the institution of the black church. In doing so, he also illuminates the transgressive and subversive possibilities that still exist in religious music performance.
The story begins with John, who represents black patriarchy and the first point on the masculinity triangle. We learn in the opening sentence that John is facing the fact that his only son Delmar is gay. The narration seems sympathetic to John's homophobic resignation that "to [his] distrust of God[,] it seemed his son was turning out to be a queer" (58). Not only is Delmar a queer, he is also the most controversial representation of black male sexuality. Delmar is a sissy. The early passages supply a catalogue of Delmar's "sweet" characteristics: he performs his chores without complaint, washes dishes "too easily," does not antagonize his younger sister, played with dolls in his childhood and wears "exaggerated ornamental" eyewear that makes him look like a girl. His preferred sport is tennis, not his father's game of football, and he is a member of the glee, French, and drama clubs. We are given this list, ostensibly, as proof of Delmar's sweetness, his failed masculinity, and of John's rightful parental embarrassment. But we soon learn that these passages are not really about Delmar, but rather are about John's failure as patriarch.
John has fathered an intelligent, talented and likeable son. He is described as a brilliant queer because as his social resume reveals, he is well rounded and excels in high school. He is on the honor roll, is ranked highly in his class and has avoided the allure of street life. "No juvenile delinquency, no stealing cars, no smoking reefers, ever" (58). However, Delmar's brilliant queerness is, for John, testimony of his inability to transmit "proper" masculinity to the next generation. Delmar is a brilliant queer in terms of his physical appearance and mannerisms. As is expected, John has attempted to guide his son toward what he considers more appropriately gendered behavior. The author tags the synonyms for "sweetness" or "queer" with italicized emphasis:
That Spring he asked, "Delmar, do you have to wear white Bermuda shorts to school? Most of the other boys wear Levi's or just plain pants, don't they? And why wash them out yourself every night, all that ironing? I want you to be clean, son, but not that clean." ... Another time, "Delmar, those school togs of yours don't have to match so perfectly, do they? Colors blended , as you say.... The boys'll think you're sissy." ... Once again desperately, "If you're going to smoke, Delmar, hold your cigarette between your first two fingers, not between your thumb and finger--like a woman." (59; original italics)
Here his brilliance is physical; his is a shiny masculinity, marked by its flawed motion among other black male bodies. Delmar's brilliant queerness is his ability to highlight his nonconformity to working-class masculinity: his affinity for white(ness) or bourgeois sensibility, a level of cleanliness usually associated with women, a keen sense of fashion, and a cigarette reference that suggests he imitates movie starlets. In other words, Delmar lacks a cool pose, a mask of tough posturing defined, in part, by restrained and aloof masculinity associated with African American men, constructed to hide sensitivity and express power (Majors and Billson 5). John's explanations for his criticism tie into his desire for Delmar to be read as cool by other men. He wants Delmar to meet a particular standard set by him ("I want you to be clean"), his male peers at school ("the boys'll think") and societal norms ("not ... like a woman').
Assuming the plot is set in Hughes's contemporary moment of the 1960s, John may represent the Black Power paradigm which generally views sexual queerness as incompatible with the building of a Black Nation. In this nationalist framework, an effeminate man is often regarded as the weakest link in the fight against white supremacist mythologies that have naturalized black sexual deviance since slavery, and since this is a father-son relationship, Delmar represents a generational shift away from those values. (1) While historical context is always an important aspect of understanding literature, further suppositions about the Black Consciousness era's influence on Hughes's anti-homophobic project will not substantially change the reading of this text or add greatly to Hughes's possible motivations. Heterosexism, the homosexual taboo in black racial politics, and the constant suspicion of Hughes's homosexuality all predate the 1960s. Throughout the post-emancipation history of black people in America, there has been cultural pressure to properly represent the race. Sissies and punks--and dykes, for that matter--have always been positioned rhetorically outside the bounds of proper representation. E. Patrick Johnson concurs in describing heteronormative cultural pressure as the constant imposition of "hegemonic blackness," wherein maleness, strength and overall leadership ability are qualities equated with hetero-butch masculinity:
The representation of effeminate homosexuality as disempowering is at the heart of the politics of hegemonic blackness. For to be ineffectual is the most damaging thing one can be in the fight against oppression. Insofar as ineffectiveness is problematically sutured to femininity and homosexuality within a black cultural politic that privileges race over other categories of oppression, it follows that the subjects accorded these attributes would be marginalized and excluded from the boundaries of blackness. (51)
In other words, the feminized man is generally an unacceptable representative of black leadership and strength, as is evidenced by Hughes's own sexual ambiguity. His personal life remains shrouded in mystery, presumably to maintain his respectable position as folk laureate of black America. (2) In a similar cautionary vein, the narrator states that John is more concerned about his son's transition into adulthood because "the boy is colored [and] Negroes have enough crosses to bear" (58). John is aware that black men's dreams can be thwarted by the obstacles of racism alone without the additional fallout from the homophobic surveillance of sexuality in and outside of black communities. To be black and identifiably queer is to be marked for social (and sometimes physical) crucifixion. John is thus concerned about the weight of the homosexual stigma for Delmar and, more crucially, for himself, because Delmar's improper performance of masculinity reflects directly upon him as the patriarch. In spite of his efforts to dull it with normative correctives, Delmar's queerness remains radiant.
John is also a failed husband. He lost his wife to "another man who made more money than any Negro in their church.... Owned a Cadillac. Racket connections--politely called politics" (59; original italics). That John is unable to maintain a cohesive family unit is another mark against his manhood. The mention of the other man's political and financial clout suggests that John may have lacked in his role as breadwinner or simply that the new man's income dwarfs John's. He also calls his wife's new lover "burly," revealing that he is also physically larger than John. In the patriarchal paradigm, these features combine to construct the new man as the alpha-male and John as the punk. John's issue with Delmar's masculinity is thus intertwined with his own sense of displacement and deficiency. He finds some relief in Delmar's wish to attend the Sorbonne in Paris. Like most parents, he had hopes his son would attend his alma mater, Baltimore's Morgan State University, but that too has changed. Now John simply wants Delmar out of the way because he will soon host a reunion with his fraternity brothers. The historically black college and the black fraternity are (individually and collectively) enclaves of coercive heteronormative African American culture that will not easily accept Delmar.
"[I]s the Sorbonne like Morgan?" John ponders. "Does it have dormitories, a campus?" (60). He considers Delmar's future and well being, but the admission of his probable homosexuality never firmly settles in his mind. To acknowledge to himself the motivation behind his sudden advocacy of the Sorbonne is to acknowledge other truths as well. As John meditates, the narration tumbles into stream-of-consciousness to demonstrate his ambivalence. "In Paris he had heard they didn't care about such things. Care about such what things didn't care about what?" (60). Time and again John struggles with denial. In the most provocative passage, as he seems to come to terms with Delmar's sweetness, his mental process begins to break down:
"God, don't let him put an earring in his ear like some," John prayed. He wondered vaguely with a sick feeling in his stomach should he think it through then then think it through right then through should he try then and think it through should without blacking through think blacking out then and there think it through? John didn't. (59-60)
The repetition of the phrase "think it through" is significant. What will happen if John can think this situation through to its logical conclusion? Can Delmar be queer and still be considered a legitimate extension of John's manhood? As the symbol of black patriarchy, John clings to a self-destructive macho ideology that insists he expel Delmar from the community. The other embedded question is, should he (and we) think this through "without blacking out?"
Blacking or blocking out is a mechanism of mental self-preservation in which the unconscious protects the conscious from painful realizations; that is, information is literally set outside the reach of memory to prevent further trauma. John's attempt to "think it through" launches him into mental and emotional vertigo. In order to avoid the implications of the truth, his inner voice gets stuck like a needle on a scratched record, skipping back to its starting point so that the same word is repeated without progression: "with a sick feeling in his stomach should he think it through then then think it through right then through should he try then." "Blacking out" also symbolizes the African American politics of extracting, obfuscating or otherwise suppressing information of possibly "deviant" behavior of its brightest and most influential members. "Black sexuality is considered politically, morally, and spiritually correct if it expresses itself in patriarchal, religious-based constructions of family, politics, art and culture[, and] any variance or transgression can cause one to be burdened with shame" (Hemphill 182). Barbara Smith highlights these "blacking out" campaigns in her 1995 commentary on black historians' treatment of lesbian subjects. Smith found that "[t]he themes of uplift, of social validation, and of prioritizing subject matter that is a 'credit to the race' have burdened and sometimes biased black historical projects" (89). John is the voice of the old guard black politics of his day as it confronts the shifting landscape of black representation that emerges in Delmar's generation. He must choose whether to "think it through" or "black out."
John's desire to keep Delmar hidden from black institutions illustrates the nexus of contradiction that is the sissy's existence: his sexuality renders him unseen in the landscape of black male-authored masculinity; yet his feminized presence in black communities, albeit despised and perceived as emasculated, is hyper-visible. Delmar must be removed because his "sweet" masculinity is spectacular and therefore alienating. Yet there is another dimension to John's hope for Delmar's future in Paris.
Paris holds symbolic and historic freedom in the lives of many African Americans. It was an "American colony in France" where many generations of black artists (of all sexual orientations) and white homosexuals fled to escape the tyranny of racism and sodomy laws in the U. S., including Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Richard Wright. Hughes first encountered Europe as an impoverished dishwasher aboard a ship, but he would eventually return several times as a famous author in search of sanctuary. To suggest it as a site of particularly gay refuge evokes Baldwin's tragic novel Giovanni's Room (1956). (3) More important is Delmar's unwillingness to exercise caution in the face of this cultural pressure to deny or suppress his difference. Instead, Delmar, with the aid of his church's Minister of Music, acts out his queerness in a particularly Christian spotlight.
Manley Jaxon is the Minister of Music at Tried Stone Baptist Church, and Delmar is a member of the choir. As discussed earlier, in this profession Jaxon's queerness and his queering are overdetermined from without. It is a space marked as queer, even if the male occupant does not exemplify any tell-tale signs. Hughes relies on this assumption; he expects his black church folk to know that he is marking Jaxon as queer simply by having him occupy that space. Perhaps with this connotation in mind, Hughes names the minister Manley. This could be read ironically or as a hint that Jaxon's masculinity should be distinguished from Delmar's (he's manly as opposed to girly). This is supported by the fact that Delmar's nickname is Delly, an evocation of Dolly, or Nelly (a colloquialism for sissy).
Manley's site on the competing masculinities triangle introduces what Roderick Ferguson calls "ruptural possibilities" into Jabir's preachers and punks scenario. Ferguson convincingly argues that queer characters can disrupt heteronormativity by supplying an oppositional voice that expands the construction of blackness within the narrative. The presence of these "nonheteronormative racial formations" serve as discursive "ruptures, critiques and alternatives" (18) to regulatory and heteronormative discourses. As a sub-minister in church, Manley competes with John's influence in Delly's life. It is thus meaningful that as part of his masculine instruction he composed a song based on the Bible's Book of Ruth, dedicated it to Delmar and, "without respect for gender" (60), assigned Delmar to sing lead. The decision to have Delly sing lead provides the first part of the ruptural, critical formation within the traditional church performance. A religious program generally serves to reinforce the church's investment in conventional moral binaries. The custom in which male performers exclusively perform male characters in serious biblical presentations or religious ceremonies is openly defied. This defiance, as well as the preacher's role in the triangle and the transgressive possibilities of religious performance, can be seen in a pivotal scene featuring Delly's and Manley's church concert.
Queering the Spirit(ual)
The bible story they musically reenact establishes Ruth as Jesus's ancestor through her celebrated relationship with her mother-in-law Naomi. Ruth and Naomi simultaneously lose their husbands to some unnamed catastrophe and, according to Hebrew law and custom, are expected to separate and find new husbands to support them. However, instead of moving back into her father's house until she can remarry, Ruth defies tradition by moving with Naomi to Bethlehem and supporting her "better than seven sons" (4:15). Her loyalty is considered exemplary because she chose to leave the family, culture, and religion of her birth for Naomi. In Lethal Love, Mieke Bal observes that the verb used to describe Ruth's attachment, "to cleave," is the same one used to refer to the matrimonial bond in Genesis (72). Ruth pleads, "entreat me not to leave thee ... for where you go, I will go ... your people will be my people, and your God will be my God." This moment is heralded as the greatest proof of Ruth's love and devotion towards Naomi and her Hebrew God.
When Manley assigns Delmar to quote these words as lead vocalist, he asks Delmar to perform as Ruth in the musical (imagine a man singing of Eve's experience with the serpent). The effect of having him do so transforms the church into a queer space in which two men can vocalize their devotion to each other. Meanwhile, "[a]s the organ wept and Delmar's voice soared above the choir with all the sweetness of Sam Cooke's tessitura" (61; italics added), Manley fainted. When the music stops unexpectedly, "Amens and Hallelujahs drowned in the throats of various elderly sisters who were on the verge of shouting [and] swooning teenage maidens suddenly sat up in their pews ..." (61). By fainting, the musician interrupts the women's pleasure--the "sisters" and "maidens"--as he succumbs to his own. The sweetness of Delly's voice creates a male-to-male connection that supersedes that of male-to-female communication implicit in his role as musical foreplay to the preacher's soulful penetration. It would be a disingenuous stretch to imply that men do not faint or respond with emotional exuberance in church, yet it is more commonly depicted in literature as a feminine reaction to the "touch of the spirit." Poet Pat Parker illustrates it thusly: "Daughter of Ham lies on a church floor / filled in orgasm with her Maker / a spent lover ignorant of a hard bed" (55). Similarly, Nella Larsen's Quicksand narrates "the writhings and weepings of the feminine portion [of the congregation], which seemed to predominate" (141). Protagonist Helga Crane observes that
Behind her, before her, beside her, frenzied women gesticulated, screamed, wept, and tottered to the praying of the preacher.... The women dragged themselves upon their knees or crawled over the floor like reptiles, sobbing and pulling their hair and tearing off their clothing. (141-42)
Hughes's portrayal revises the heteronormative scene into a spectacle of queer disruption. Manley is a sight because he "gets happy" so quickly and in so feminine a manner. Still, the program is far from over, as the energy of the show is further channeled into and onto the continued queer spectacle of Delly and Manley. When Manley collapses, their duet (the sweet voice accompanied by the "weep[ing]" organ) becomes Delmar/Ruth's serenade.
When the organ went silent, the choir died, too--but Delmar never stopped singing. Over the limp figure of Dr. Jaxon lying on the rostrum, the "Entreat me not to leave thee" of his solo flooded the church as if it were on hi-fi.... Finally, two ushers led [Manley] off to an anteroom while Delmar's voice soared to a high C such as Tried Stone Baptist Church had never heard." (61)
Delmar in the lead role is the first transgression in the conservative church space. The second is that they display a homoerotic spirituality. They are able to express an unsanctioned same-sex love through their holy worship. Rather than choosing unambiguous sides in the "punks/preachers or sissies/saints" conflict, they blur the lines and become sissified saints and preaching punks. The text queers the notion of the soul by allowing queer bodies to become sanctified through nonnormative religious performance.
As in the cunning routine of dual coding in slave culture, their song is duplicitous, for it is as much a spiritual as it is a love song. Delmar as the singer is the soul's mouthpiece, the passageway through which the soul's desire is manifested as breath, tongue, and vocal chords. Manley, in his role as the organ(ist), is a natural accompaniment to the lyrics. When the mouth moves, the organ surrenders or, as Deimar's sister explains to John: "Some of the girls say that when Delmar sings, they want to scream, they're so overcome, but Dr. Jaxon didn't scream. He just fainted" (61). They utilize the space in religious rhetoric for transgression and subversion. Delmar and Manley's close relationship is made evident through both the song dedication and mention that they broke away from the group to visit Greenwich Village together during a choir trip to New York. If we believe that Manley and Delmar are romantically involved, the religious song can then be interpreted to serve dual rhetorical purposes. First, when he sings "over" Jaxon, the lyrics declare his emotional loyalty. In light of his possible departure for France, Delmar may be using the song--already understood as a same-gender sentiment--to express his desire to remain close to Jaxon. Second, in his role as soloist he is also the vessel through which the Word as lyric is projected into the world. His song refers to family loyalty as a metaphor for Christian devotion to God. A traditional reading might assert that the gender of the lead singer should be overlooked and the moment understood only in terms of his role as a Christian singer, but the narrative makes clear that this exhibition, for John at least, is "perverse." Together they raise a praise-song to the heavens and to each other. They expand the traditional interpretation to vocalize that if Ruth and Naomi's "cleaving" is a worthy, holy celebration, so too is theirs.
The preacher's reaction is to assume control of the service, at which time the triangle of competing masculinities comes sharply into focus. The preacher's pulpit masculinity is at odds with the singer's masculinity, whose performance, in turn, scandalizes the father. "Dr. Jaxon has only fainted, friends," Pastor Greene assures the startled crowd. "We will continue our services by taking up collection directly after the anthem" (61). It is unclear if he is directing the choir to finish the song without Jaxon or announcing the end of the anthem. But John believes it is a signal for his son to continue his indecent lyrical drag show. Five times he orders Delly to "shut up." For a moment there is silence and the next voice is Reverend Greene's. "We will now lift the offering.... Deacons, raise a hymn. Bear us up, sisters, bear us up!" (62). In the effort to put the derailed program back on its heteronormative track, the pastor enlists other, more traditional men to take control and the (biological) women to assist in their long-established secondary function. As Johnetta Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall write, while "Christianity is not the sole source of Western gender-role ideologies for Black Americans, it is a major one ... [it] is certainly the case that patriarchy is a protected modus operandi, a visible if unacknowledged tradition, and one of the most cherished and tenacious values in the Black church" (Gender Talk 160). The choice of language is telling, for it is couched in terms of physical labor. Hegemonic blackness tolls to veil or close the fissures through which nonheteronormative formations emerge. Deacons are told to "raise" a hymn, to lift a song over any remaining echoes of Delmar's high C, while the women are instructed to "bear up"--carry, endure, hold--the men. Even the change in the musical genre, from the improvisational gospel/spiritual style to the follow along compositions of the hymn book, suggests an effort to control the environment. It is not enough.
The next voice is not that of a deacon or a woman. It is Delmar's. His voice "boom[s]" through the cultural pressure to return to the group's idea of natural order. He does switch to the hymn "Blessed Assurance," from which the title of the story is taken, but it is in the spirit of resistance. He refuses to be silenced by the voices of normative masculinity. In fact, the hymn further demonstrates the space in religious rhetoric for dual coding and double consciousness. Delmar sings the first two lines alone: Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine! Following his lead, the congregation "swung gently into song": Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of the Spirit.... When Delmar transgresses the restrictions of patriarchal gender performance, he "negates [Christianity's] attempt to censure his presence, to erase his [queer] body, to deny his legitimacy as a child of God" (Dyson 235). More conflict follows. At that moment, during the pause between lines, John's voice bursts through in an irreverent ad lib. "God damn it!" he cries twice. Hughes places this outburst immediately after Delmar claims to be "born of the Spirit" because this is precisely what is contested. Can Delly be "unnatural" and a holy heir? The long-held interpretation of the Old Testament is that God condemns men who "lay with men," and in his frustrated shame John cites this wrathful decree. "God damn it," he repeats with emphasis, as he is still unable to "think it through" beyond the implications of his own masculinity.
Fortunately, Delmar gets the last word, as he sings along with the other saints that he too is "born of the spirit and washed in His blood ..." (62). The story ends with his triumphant claim over John and Reverend Greene's dispute. Yet the ellipses at the end of the last verse signify the unfinished or omitted ending of the actual song. The lines that follow Delmar's last comprise the chorus, the meaning of which deserves attention. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. Whose story is this, really? The narrative begins with John's depressed interiority, but it is quickly hijacked by Delly's sweet expressions of individual will. We are never allowed inside Delly's head, perhaps because Hughes's project is to engage and dismantle the homophobic perspective. Delly does not produce a counter-argument via conversation or interior monologue; rather, he embodies a disruption of normative discourses. He is the singer and the song.
Whose song? The author's, whose autobiography is described as "a tour de force of subterfuge" in which "deeper meaning is deliberately concealed" from the reader (Rampersad xvii)? Ultimately, this line of analysis raises more questions than it could possibly answer. What we do know is that Hughes's sissy successfully transforms his gender transgression into a critique of heterosexism and hegemonic blackness, while he claims validation through the same Bible whose prohibition his performance defies. If we are to believe the epigraph in which Hughes implies that his most dangerous politics are embedded in his art, we can say with some surety that he is invested in unveiling and antagonizing the cluttered contradictions and ironies that exist in the triangulated relationship between homosexual men, black patriarchy and the historic institution of the black church. Indeed, this is the blessed assurance for black queer spirituality, this is the promise of liberation to which the title refers: Delly's Christianity, his blackness, and his queerness exist within and are articulated through one song and one faith.
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Baldwin, James. Giovanni's Room. New York: Dell 1956.
Berry, Faith. "Breaking Silence: The Meaning of Biographical Truth." Appendix A. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Citadel P, 1992. 359-67.
Cole, Johnetta Betsch, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. "Black, Lesbian, and Gay: Speaking the Unspeakable." Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women's Equality in African-American Communities. New York: Ballantine, 2003. 154-81.
Douglas, Kelly Brown. Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.
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Ferguson, Roderick A. Aberrations in Black: Toward A Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004.
Hemphill, Essex, ed. Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Boston: Alyson, 1991.
--. "Looking for Langston: An Interview with Isaac Julien." Hemphill, Brother to Brother 174-80.
--. "Undressing Icons." Hemphill, Brother to Brother 181-83.
Hughes, Langston. "Blessed Assurance." 1963. Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African American Fiction. Eds. Devon W. Carbado, Dwight A. McBride, and Donald Weise. San Francisco: Cleis P, 2002. 56-62.
Jabir, Jahari. "Preachers and Punks, Sissies and Saints: Constructions of Black Religious Masculinity in the Climactic Moment of Black Worship." Summary Report of The Second National Conference of the African American Roundtable: Souls A'Fire 2. Project of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion: June 23-25, 2005 Chicago, Illinois. 14 Oct. 2007. <http://www.clgs.org/3/331.html>.
Johnson, E. Patrick. Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.
--. "Feeling the Spirit in the Dark: Expanding Notions of the Sacred in the African-American Gay Community." The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities. Ed. Delroy Constantine-Simms. Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2000. 88-109.
Larsen, Nella. The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand and The Stories. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.
Majors, Richard, and Janet Mancini Billson. Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Parker, Pat. Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker, 1961-1978. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1978.
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--. Introduction. The Big Sea. 1940. By Langston Hughes. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. xiii-xxvi.
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(1.) The themes of homophobia and sexism in Black Consciousness/Black Arts expression are well documented. Some prominent examples can be found in the work of Amiri Baraka, Eldridge Cleaver, and Manning Marable. Baraka and Cleaver are cited most often for equating black homosexuality with racial betrayal and male "softness" with whiteness. Specific critiques of texts and their influence on black popular consciousness abound in the work of Phillip Brian Harper, Hemphill, bell hooks, Johnson, June Jordan, Marlon Riggs, Smith, Michele Wallace, and others.
(2.) For details of the controversy surrounding the Hughes legacy and the Hughes estate, see Hemphill and Berry.
(3.) In Giovanni's Room, David, a white American, travels to Paris believing he was in love with his female fiance, but discovers through his tumultuous romance with a man that "the [homosexual] beast which Giovanni had awakened in [him] would never go to sleep again" (111). David is able to confront his attraction to men in ways he could not as a teenager in Brooklyn, New York. The irony is that for David, Paris turns out to be only a pseudo-sanctuary from homophobic aggression. The room is a metaphor for suppressed emotions and a truly claustrophobic space in which the greater part of their secret affair takes place. While John may be reassured by the possibilities of Delmar's (and his own) impending freedom through travel Hughes suggests that this is only an illusion.
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|Author:||Moore, Marlon Rachquel|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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