Credo: By Way of Introduction
I meant breath.
Few times in life do I feel more misunderstood, taken out of context, unread, than through the formational systems of Siri, the autocorrect.
No, that was supposed to be breath.
My frustration and indignation are most frequently made mute when, in earnest, no, ‘duck’ was not what I meant to say. And despite the way I could make it preach, no—‘Amen’ is not my first name. And choose and chose and no I know know no now know the difference between there their they’re and really?
“Mind your breath.” Every yoga class, meditational workshop, spiritual retreat, religious-adjacent ice breaker I have ever attended has come back to the breath. To the center. To my being. We are in a world inundated with chaos and destruction and amnesia and callousness and shallow visions of ourselves and one another and Instagram.
It is killing us all.
How do you heal the lung capacity of the world?
That was supposed to be breathe.
With an e.
Sometimes what I want is not the noun, not the thing. But the verb or the action or the movement. When I feel anxiety cinge the edges of my mind I tell myself breathe. When I recognize the same look of terror the eyes of my eldest daughter whom I met when she-was-already-seven, I remind her to breathe. In everything from my back squat to my downward dog to my therapist’s instructions to my acupuncture preparations to my running group to my writing group I am constantly being reminded to breathe. To take pause. To pay attention.
Every day in my classroom I ask my students to take theology seriously as a means of studying the world, of thinking in and through and with and by themselves and their communities, about thinking about what they say they believe, about what constitutes their belief, to measure the distance in and between the commitments of their minds and the commitments of their actions. You don’t just believe belief—you live it, you enact it, you breathe it, you do it, you are it.
[I want you to mind your breath.]
Every day in my classroom I ask my students to pay attention, paraphrase the ways Simone Weil described attention as sacrament, insist that on this note she was right. Because seeing is often believing and theological study is about the ways we see and don’t see or unsee or make invisible or make plain or perpetuate privilege per our preferences. And theological thought requires us to think about how we see the world and ourselves in it and decry myopia and find redemption within that sight.
[I want you to see your breath.]
Because sometimes what I want is not the noun, not the thing. But the verb or the action or the movement. And this is my haste.
Because the breathing, we think we know. It is unconscious. It moves and is and was and is to come. So often we want the action and the enactment and the enfleshment and the activity.
This is not to mind the breath. This is not to mind that the movement, the breathing itself, is not what constitutes the breath. That perhaps the movement is only that which draws our attentions to what was there all along, a substance, a condition, a possibility, enlivened by the “choreosonics” of capacity, something like the thentherealreadyyetnotareshallbeis.
I do not know how to describe well such a work of shining ephemerality, of gorgeous ineffability, because content summaries do Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility no justice. There is no clean summary for a work that is an act of incarnation, that makes visible the invisible, the writes the icon of things unspoken and unsaid. It excavates the underthought in Christian practice—specifically practices historically dismissed or undermined because of the black Pentecostal socialities from which they emerge—to lay claim to that sense of profound reality that comes in clapping and joy and breathing and shouting and noise and life—that inherently undermines a systematics of recognition or respectability before anyone or anything.
This is not a book you read. It is a book you feel. It draws our attention “otherwise,” the existing notion to the now, the corollary that is not reactive but claims existence. Yes, Crawley’s notion of the “otherwise”—cited, or far too frequently, not—has been taken up by so many thinkers, theological and more, in a moment where the mattering of black life is an exigent concern. But moving too quickly—and not reading, not feeling with Crawley carefully, is in haste. Through attention and care to blackpentecostal practices Crawley guides us to the ethical crisis of our times: “What to do, how to move, in such a world wherein your resistance against violent conditions—resistance as prayer meetings or protests, resistance as simply wishing to breathe—produces the occasion for violence?” (23)
But to mine the answer, you have to hear Crawley, who minds the breath we may not have named. Who minds the breath we may not have known we relied upon. Violence is not the grounds of our justice; oppression and social death are not the grounds for our resistance. Rather, the breath—black breath, blackpentecostal breath—is why we live and move and have our breathing. It is a conundrum of possibility, black life irrepressible.
Don’t skip to the breathing without the acknowledgement.
Our breath is black.
This symposium then is an invitation to a collective sigh, a collaborative sound—of joy, of relief, of anticipation, of remembrance, of tarrying, of asking, of shouting, of responding—that shines through the voices of this panel. This is not a gathering solely of writers and thinkers, of intellectuals and critics. They are, of course, that. But this is a gathering of people who are so much more—of artists and thinkers, of partners and friends, of dreamers and enactors and practitioners and lovers—whose intellectual work is imbued with their own aesthetics, with exhalations of possibility, who all bring to this conversation so much more than textual criticism.
They honor Crawley’s work, and have taken the time to dance, to shout, to breathe, to speak the vicissitudes of a project that pushes us toward the recognition of love and generosity and resistance and black life that has historically been, that is happening now. It is evidenced even in the enfleshment of this sacred circle, a ring shout of black women—still so often erased or unwritten or plagiarized—centered as discussants and respondents in the life of this work.
Sofia Samatar ushers us through the arch of the subjunctive, the tensions held out through synoptic moments of tarrying and togetherness. She spins silken webs of breath not only through her reading of Crawley, but through her habitation, her tabernacling of, with, within Crawley’s own modality of penetrating correspondence, living out on the page what she finds in Crawley’s work: “philosophy mouth to mouth.” Katherine McKittrick suggests for us the “livingness” of this resuscitation, of Crawley’s mode of placing us in the church even when we may not be of the church (or for some of us, vice versa). She pulls us to Crawley’s notion of “aesthetic vitality” (235) of blackpentecostal practices that “[draw] attention to an expressive way of living with and against racial capitalism: pushing the air out, bringing air in, grooving, feeling sound physiologically, enunciating the unspeakable and unspoken.” It is what Crawley’s response cites as our “collective air,” the particles of sociality that make us survive, the particles of sociality that mark our insistence to thrive.
Amaryah Armstrong presses the question of enfleshment, the space of black bodies, the incalculability of black life, cutting us more deeply into the sinews of Crawley’s words in light of a broader black theological project. In a moment where justice for black people seems so opaque, their conversation provokes us to inhalation, repetition, and return, for the clarity we seek is the clarity we need to act. Shawn Copeland further speaks to Crawley’s conjuring of the theological (perhaps all the more precisely because of his atheological critique). Placing Blackpentecostalbreath against the backdrop of Longergan, she escorts us to the floor of Crawley’s working, to the “nimble blues prose” of Crawley’s working on, and dare I add the working out of the problem of an inherent antiblackness embedded within theological-philosophical enterprise. In conversation with Copeland’s own notion of “enfleshing freedom,” she urges that: “To follow the lines thrown out by Blackpentecostal Breath is to plunge into a deep, black, fleshy pool of signification. Underneath and throughout this remarkable work, black questioning anticipates, black thought lives and vibrates …”
In this vein Keri Day makes heard the “sonic beauty” held out through passing out to the warmth of God encircled in white sheets. Day’s imagery and remembrance draw us deeper to Crawley’s text and project by pressing the “alternate genealogies and inheritances” within theological discourse. Crawley writes not to easily eschew or dismiss, but to hold accountable all the work that a theological task manifests, and Day asks the questions all theologians must now take to task. She names why Crawley could easily be described as one of the greatest theological thinkers of our time—“this is what Crawley ‘gifts’ to the field of theology: a prophetic warning to reckon with itself as a colonial project rooted in the exclusion and expulsion of black flesh.”
Nicole Ivy catches us in the break, aligning us to the ways “direction(ality) matters” to black life. She twirls the degrees and patterns in Crawley’s descriptions onto the soul line dance floor, marking time in, with, and through “the chanted geometries of black movement,” the carrying on of presence and possibility, the insistence of sociality: “I want to suggest that the ecstatic sociality of soul line dancing is created by the anticipation that line dancers have for each others’ movements, by an expectation of fellowship and shared exhaustion that is born of practice and, yes, signaled by bated breath.”
At last Imani Perry brings us to the altar, to the call of the “gloriously promiscuous,” an “architecture of relations that are vital and travel in multiple ways: back, up, in out, and around in circles.” Her conversation with Crawley holds our hand through the sense of loss that imbue our capacity, that are not necessary for but productive toward the deeper ease, the greater exhale, into the embrace of the flesh. That the story of black life has a multiplicity of tellings and is itself the aesthetic of possibility witnesses through the blackpentecostal ways, as Perry describes, we are “chorally connected.” Indeed, “Blackpentecostal Breath insists upon what Crawley calls otherwise possibility not as doctrine but in the doing.”
The creative and generous engagements of Blackpentecostal Breath hum, too, in your chest. Should you allow them. Their movements sing shadows of the spectres Blackpentecostal Breath reminds us of—the can, the could be. Indeed, this text is one that reads us and our times, but it is a call to make a joyful noise. It is a reminder of a memory black flesh knows to be real. We should be haunted, as the unrelenting sociality of black life must stalk our dreams, imprint our imaginations, accelerate our resistance, and change our world. Crawley does not mean to proselytize, but this work is an act of conversion. Credo, indeed. That we all might believe.