Symposium Introduction

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?

 

  Sorry…breath!!!

 

“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.

 

Shallow breathing.

It is killing us all.

Softly.

 

How do you heal the lung capacity of the world?

 

That was supposed to be breathe.

With an e.

Yes! Finally.

Breath.

No!!

BREATHE.

 

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.

Sofia Samatar

Response

Tarrying Together

In Blackpentecostal Breath, Ashon T. Crawley invokes the “atheological-aphilosophical” as a mode of being otherwise: otherwise than a theology grounded in the western logic of disciplinary boundaries, otherwise than a philosophy that rejects the flesh and blackness as flesh. His project is precisely one of enfleshment: in studying black church practices he pursues the communal breath, the collective shout. His atheology-aphilosophy is a “meditative performance”: meditative connoting interiority and the suspension of time, performance demanding exteriority and historical time. This inside-outside, timeless-timely, imaginative performance is the practice Crawley identifies as Black Study.

I want to enter there. My doorway, offered by Crawley’s text, is an arch formed by two words: tarrying and together.

Tarrying

Blackpentecostal Breath does not so much arrive at conclusions as it tarries with concepts,” Crawley writes (3). Tarrying is an active form of waiting. To tarry is to wait with intention, to abide with expectation, as, during William Seymour’s prayer meetings in Los Angeles in 1906, the congregation would “tarry—wait with fervent prayer and song—intensely for the experience of Spirit baptism” (10). In “tarrying with concepts,” then, Blackpentecostal Breath waits on these ideas with fervent prayer and song. This is a powerful way of conceiving of study, and especially Black Study, which must engage the then and now while holding the possibility of the not yet.

At the same time, there’s something strange about this notion of tarrying, of waiting intensely with prayer and song for some kind of arrival, in a book written against teleology and western linear thinking. Surely there must be something beyond then and now and yet to come. I think this is where Crawley’s idea of the otherwise becomes most important, for the otherwise, he insists, exists outside of time. It’s neither past, nor present, nor future, but subjunctive. In Blackpentecostal Breath, you can see the effort he makes to open a space for the otherwise in his writing. This is a difficult task (one of two tasks of near-impossibility Crawley sets himself in this book—I discuss the other below). Writing, after all, is experienced in a line from beginning to end: its performative aspect binds it to linear time. To subvert the line of writing, to bend it out of its straight shape, Crawley employs backward leaps through history, moving, for example, from current practices of Blackpentecostal shouting, to the nineteenth-century “Ring Shout,” to older Afro-Arabic Sufi traditions. He seeks constantly to undermine cause and effect, always insisting that what we see and experience as forms of resistance precede instances of violence, that we—that is, that black people and cultures—precede violence, that we are not produced by violence and are in no way beholden to it or held captive to its force. He also—and this to me is his most energizing move, his most precious intervention—weaves personal memories, correspondence, and art projects into his text. These different modes of thought produce otherwise moments. They are springboards out of time, and teach us, with their riffs and elaborations, their enthusiasm, their brilliant excess, what atheology-aphilosophy might be.

And so I return to tarrying and its teleology. Is it possible to tarry without expecting a certain end? If so, tarrying would be something like the phrase by Gwendolen Brooks that Crawley quotes: “to live along.” It would be to live alongside, to embrace repetition and ongoingness, to sit with things, to get along, to get by. It would offer a sort of twist on the idea of sankofa, which Crawley also invokes: the concept, derived from Akan philosophy, of “go back and fetch it.” “Go back and fetch it” is often taken to mean that one must look back into history in order to find what one needs for the present and future. But the idea of the otherwise might teach us to go sideways and fetch it, or stay put and tarry with it: to find what we most need in the experience of what’s already here.

Together

Two near-impossible tasks, I said. If the first derives from the linearity of writing as performance, the other comes from its meditative solitude, its silence, its distance from the breathing presence of other people. As a book about breath, song, shouting, and speaking in tongues, Blackpentecostal Breath is a contradiction. The “joyful noise” of black congregants, their “tarrying praise,” Crawley admits, “is anything but easy to recount through writing” (166). Such enunciation “avoids its own representation.” And since avoidance is a key term in Blackpentecostal Breath, a strategy of resistance, it would seem that Crawley offers here a critique of his own project, or at least some concern about the effort to represent in writing a noise that resists such treatment. If enfleshment, as he maintains, is distinct from embodiment, a movement of a collectivity rather than the production of the body as a subject, then there is a risk involved in writing, in being a body alone and writing rather than part of a congregation enfleshed in song.

Well, I don’t really believe that, to tell the truth. I almost wish he hadn’t gone there, in the direction of a kind of hand-wringing, a sighing over the limitations of writing, except that I guess it was necessary to mention the difference between his chosen mode of expression and those he studies. I suppose he had to mention it, or someone else surely would. But I want to think about the way he defines Black Study, as a “methodological mode of intense, spiritual, communal intellectual practice and meditative performance” (8). Blackpentecostal Breath engages and names an intellectual community that includes theologians, poets, and key voices of Black Study, the ones I think of as the musician-philosophers, the griots: James Baldwin, Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers, Fred Moten. More: Crawley opens himself to the voices of his archive, not only quoting them but channeling them, particularly the poet Nathaniel Mackay, in his intellectual lyricism, his use of colloquial language, and his sensuous outpourings of memory. This is breath: “the space between script and speech” (220). This is philosophy mouth to mouth. This is where Crawley departs from academic respectability, from the maintenance and policing of borders, and is enfleshed in the collective singing. It’s infectious, too. Read this book and then see how you write in your journal. It’s an experience of exteriority, like the shrieking of a camp meeting where, it was noted, people “catch from one to another, till a great Part of the Congregation is affected” (187).

 

*

 

so i read blackpentecostal breath and loved it so much and tried to write about it, i don’t know, i wrote like a poet not a theologian but what can you do? but anyway i wrote about tarrying and being together and it made me want to ask you about forgiveness. i feel like forgiveness is pulsing so much about this text ashon . . . forgiveness as healing and the coming-into-being of community . . . but sometimes it’s just not there, and you say it too, that you know the church isn’t utopia, it participates in sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia. and yet you write “something is there, in the aesthetic practices,” that is working for us, all of us. no matter what, the music is on our side. it’s so beautiful when you write of touching that other boy in the bathroom in the church basement, it’s like you are, you’re both, in that moment, forgiving the church.

 

i’m reading a lot of mennonite missionary stories these days . . . stories of my family, kind of . . . you know my mom was a missionary in Somalia, and that’s how she met my dad. and reading what you wrote about Sufi tradition it made me think of how the missionaries viewed, and maybe still view, Somali Sufism. there’s this idea that sufism is less violent and extremist than other forms of Islam, and that for this reason, it’s a good entry point for christian missionaries, like you can get close to a sufi mosque, get people to talk to you, get inside. I really can’t help seeing this as imperialist! so it’s painful, you know? and it’s like—how do you tarry together with that—how to live along? i keep thinking of jacob and the angel: “i will not let thee go unless thou bless me.” that struggle, that wrestling, that tarrying, active waiting. and what if the blessing never comes? can we—i wonder, after reading your book—can we see the wrestling itself as a reconciliation? or an analogue to reconciliation, anyway, a tarrying despite everything, a sharing of the breath. this, it seems to me, would bust the whole notion of forgiveness out of time, and maybe return it to itself. to refuse to move on, to always be in a mode of tarrying, ceaseless movement, living and wrestling along. wrestling along, breathing along through racism, imperialism, homophobia, holding to the music. i don’t know, there are ways i don’t expect the church to bless me in this life and i don’t expect to let go either.

 

xoxo

  • Ashon Crawley

    Ashon Crawley

    Reply

    Poetics

    From where does blackness, does black sociality, emerge? Is it that which is a heading for that which violence and violation seeks to contain but exceeds every note and line and phrase and strategy of containment? This is what Blackpentecostal Breath is about, the question of blackness and its relation to creativity, blackness and its relation to violence. Is blackness the creation of violent encounter? Or is it the name and heading given to that which inaugurates violence, a mode of life that is resistant to the state and its concepts of the human, man, the citizen, the subject, that come after life is already lived. Sofia Samatar picks this up in her response to the work, with her saying:

    He seeks constantly to undermine cause and effect, always insisting that what we see and experience as forms of resistance precede instances of violence, that we—that is, that black people and cultures—precede violence, that we are not produced by violence and are in no way beholden to it or held captive to its force.

    This desire to undermine cause and effect is because I believe, and I know Samatar does too, that linear time is a major problem for, which is to say a major problem and force against, black life, blackqueer life, blackfeminist flourishing. What we are, what blackness is, exceeds every attempt for enclosure and containment. This, though western thought would attempt to harness and control blackness through the theological, the philosophical, the historical, the ethical, the juridical, the medical. And on and on. And so I wanted to write about and write in a way that could exceed containment of things like genre.

    Writing, after all, is experienced in a line from beginning to end: its performative aspect binds it to linear time.

    To write against linear time, to write against Newtonian physics and its linear trajectories for time and space, to write the thennowsoon and whenwhere each and every now and to transfer such force of atemporality into the reader by engaging the text is attempted in Blackpentecostal Breath. Sofia Samatar keys in on the idea of the problem, the failure, of the project before it begins, before its inaugural word, “I.” This problem, this failure, occurs because, as she reminds me, writing is experienced in line. We experience text through linearity but we are also very used to being confronted with kinds of writing that engage, elongate, expand, contract and make curious linearity, kinds of writing that explode expectation. This is where the text of what was once titled “Moth’s Powder,” what is now tentatively titled “The Lonely Letters,” comes in, what the text of semifictional, autobiofictional writing in email form, tries to perform with interruptive force.

    Dear Moth,

    […]

    I have not been altogether honest. You are not the only one that has tried asceticism, that has tried to renounce the world and the flesh for something higher and different and other. For a very long time, I thought I was to be celibate, thought my life was some sorta sacrificial example of how to move to the world without wanting, without desiring. Or, not really not wanting nor desiring but channeling want and desire into the direction of something bigger than myself. I let it put me on a pursuit to god, yes. You know that I wanted to be a preacher but you do not know that I seriously considered catholicism because of celibacy as a way of life. I’m older than you . . . by the time I was in college and considering seminary as a next step, you were—what?—just entering middle school?

    I don’t talk about that time of my life much because it is so difficult to recount. I was very conservative, would tell folks that they were hell bound for being queer, would tell myself most intensely of all. I remember when the college choir was asked to sing at an event for the yearly LGBTQ celebration week and I said to the board—since I was the choir director—under no circumstances would we sing for them. “We” don’t want to give “them” the impression that we are ok with their “sinfulness” is what I said. I was serious. The board argued with me, yes, but in the end, I persuaded them and we didn’t sing. If I try to recount now the kinda faces they made at me it was likely because they were thinking, this gay ass muthafucka or something similar . . . but, though contradictory—I’d go home and get on AOL and chat or call the party line and have someone come over late at night—I was still convicted that queer shit was sin shit. And I was convinced, above all, of my own need to reform lest I be hellbound.

    So maybe I was all into telling other folks about hell as an end because I was hoping to prove to god that I could be serious about my purported calling, that I could really be true and honest and pure, that I was serious about sacrificing all the shit I felt in order to be saved. And it seemed like catholic priests—even though I knew so little of catholicism—had done so much to control their flesh and I knew I needed a way too. So I started attending Saint Martin de Porres Church on Lehigh, would go there every Sunday for Mass and I’d leave there and go to Open Door. I’d arrive to Open Door late, of course, but because the service went from 11:30 until about 2 or sometimes 3, it didn’t matter much. I sat in the balcony at Open Door anyway, wanted to be anonymous as possible. They were very different kinds of churches in many ways but very black in similar ways too. One black catholic, the other blackpentecostal; one male priest, the other black female pastor.

    Anyway, I went to Open Door because it connected me to what I knew but Saint Martin de Porres I attended because I was seeking, seriously, another path and direction. I began talking to the priest there, going to confession and everything, hoping to get rid of what I kept feeling and desiring against desiring, what I kept dreaming for even though they were like nightmares. I tried to escape, was serious about the priesthood, so no, you’re not the only one that’s doing the thing you’re doing now. I read scripture daily, prayed the stations, lamented and praised, cried and wailed. I tried to perform what it’d mean to do this sorta serious thing that ascetics did. I wanted to retreat into my personal desert, retreat into my own catacomb. Maybe then, alone and in solitude, I’d find god and love him and do what was required and would be sheltered from my longing and desire for boys. And I thought I’d be, finally, united with someone—with god—and that would let me feel better about the world.

    And then, sometime later, I met you. And then, sometime later, that smile.

    Anyway, I guess I’m figuring out all over again that my search for connection with god didn’t dissipate the loneliness, that the aloneness I felt was a kind of isolation from the world, from worlds, that that isolation made me desire connection that always felt, and still today feels, thwarted. So I didn’t have to go into deserts or retreat from the world. I’d prayed alone and cried there so much, alone, for a change to come, for relief, for reprieve. And it wasn’t until I met you that I felt what I came to later read about and consider entanglement to be.

    My life, the way I have attempted to live it, has meant choosing queerness even if that, at the same time, has meant choosing loneliness. It’s really a variation on a theme because I was alone with god and then, again, away from it. And the loneliness didn’t go away when I chose queerness. It only seemed to dissipate when I felt that quickening in my heart and butterflies that time, that first time you smiled at me, for you. And you’re right, I guess I always try with boys because I always try with my parents, with the church. And my friend Sofia kinda put a name to it, said that it’s about a kind of forgiveness.

    She made me cry. She made me cry because each instance of attempting relation, I know now—I feel now—has been a certain kind of forgiveness, a way to reach for connection after its having been severed, a reach and desire for a different way to exist in the world. And one of the things that moves me about Sufism, I was telling her, is that there is a search for something that is connected to the search in Black Christianity, a search that I hear and smell and touch in blackpentecostalism, a connection that is not about Christianity, though it is found there. And I’ve been thinking that bringing folks together, bringing them in contact, is what I’m attempting with the art project, a way to do something like forgiveness out of time, forgiveness against normative time. Maybe wrestling itself is the tradition, wrestling as refusal, wrestling as resistance, wrestling as being discontent with the normative world, a refusal to be done with or satisfied by it.

    The sorta forgiveness we’re talking about cannot be formulaic at all, it cannot be demanded, it can only be offered. And it has everything to do with linear time. I taught a course last fall, “Cedric Robinson’s Thought,” and slowly read all his books. We took two weeks to read The Terms of Order and three weeks to read Black Marxism. While teaching, I detected in Robinson’s the way he wanted to think about spacetime and against linearity. And he writes so much about marronage, not as a rejection of the terms of order but a rejection to the terms of order. He’s interested not primarily in how a people can rearrange (of) the social but how they can produce a disruption against (to) it. This is another way to say he wants to think blackness as a critique of that which comes after it. Marronage—escape into the social, otherwise—offers an example of what that looks like.

    Being together, that tarrying with, is forgiveness in the flesh, is forgiveness that operates on a totally different level and out of a different ethics, an anethics, than normative Christian thought and western philosophy presume as necessary. It’s about being together, the way words are put together in order to approach meaning without ever reaching there, the irreducibility of translation as the nature of philosophy, Andrew Benjamin might offer. Such that a poetics also calls us to tarrying with ideas and concepts rather than arriving at conclusions that would have the text, and the ideas in the text, be hermetically sealed, enclosed, like a subject, like a citizen, like modern man—impenetrable, invulnerable.

    And one of the things that moves me about thinking Sufism with Black Christian practice is how tarrying is something that is deeper than specific traditions or confessions of faith or refusals of faith, that tarrying is about being together, being with, even against the imperialist impulses that bring folks together, that bring folks in contact, that have folks engaging and encountering each other. And I’m wondering if tarrying together has something to teach us about the particular moment in spacetime we occupy, a moment wherein—because of resource allocation, because of the lack of clean air and water, because of the lack of healthcare and equitable education, because of police violence and rapacious warfare and poverty—if we are not being compelled to offer to each other forgiveness in the flesh by tarrying with one another, by occupying the earch differently than how imperialist fantasies and capitalist capacities have indoctrinated us into.

    Perhaps tarrying isn’t about some simplistic notion of unity or togetherness but about a wrestling, as Samatar points us to. Can wrestling, can struggle, itself be reconciliation? Maybe wresting itself is the tradition of blackness, the tradition of black sociality, wrestling as refusal, wrestling as resistance, wrestling as a discontentment with the world, a refusal to be done with it, to be satisfied. “there are ways i don’t expect the church to bless me in this life and i don’t expect to let go either” . . . this is me, this is me in a phrase. Wrestling is a poetics, a practice, a way of living with another.

Katherine McKittrick

Response

Churching.

I do not remember going to the Protestant church my family attended on Sundays in the early-1970s but, according to stories I have been told, I was there. I went to church. My most vivid memory of church is not the infrastructure or the rituals, but instead the long and beautiful and scratchy coat my grandmother made by hand, using fabric that was supposedly patterned with the family (McKittrick) tartan; this coat was accompanied by a soft white faux fur muff. The soft muff was only to be worn with the scratchy coat and I wore both to church. When I received by copy of Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, by Ashon Crawley, I went to church. Again. And it was not easy. Situating his thinking in, with, and beyond the sounds of black theologies and aesthetics—whooping, noise, shouting, glossolalia—he offers blackpentecostalism, conceptually and empirically, as emerging from, yet refusing, the logics of white supremacy. The book is thick, bringing together black studies, queer and sexuality studies, studies of race, philosophy, religious and theological studies, and more, in order to imagine how blackness engenders what Crawley describes as atheological-aphilosphical practices. Atheological-aphilosophical practices hover outside and across normative theological and religious narratives, noticing not only how blackness and black belief systems are excised from normative monohumanist worldviews, but also how black life is in, but not necessarily of, the world (241). In and but not necessarily of: black life is thus a way of knowing and living and thinking and reading and hearing and sounding otherwise, where otherwise is illegibility (within the logics of colonialism) and, simultaneously, for many, a recognizable way of living black.

Crawley’s text works out how the brutality of anti-blackness and the violence of modernity produced the conditions through which black humanity tells itself outside normative modes of communication: in breath (pressure gradients between the lungs and atmosphere); in shouting (as choreosonic dance, moving together, moving with); in noise (decentered testimony, collective potential, joyfulness); in speaking in (glossolalic) tongues (incoherent spiritual reflection, endarkened logics). These alternative modes of communication privilege the unspeakable and the unwritten and 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. Blackpentecostal Breath is thus attentive to honoring the incomprehensibility of blackness as “aesthetic vitality” (235).

What is studied in Blackpentecostal Breath, I want to suggest, is livingness. The analytical sites in this text (breath, noise, ecstatic narrative, sound, movement) are, often, ungraspable. While Crawley certainly grounds his discussion a range of primary and secondary sources (archives, novels, scriptures, performances, theories, and so on), what he studies and what he wants us to dwell on, are the untethered contours of black life. Thus, the breath and the dance, the tongues and the joyful noise, are not always thick and knowable; the breath, dance, tongues, noise, are porous and unsettled. The porous and unsettled open up an ungrounded mooring. They move through and with the flesh and are thus sutured to blackness and black study and the density of collectivity and possibility. Put a different way, Crawley asks that we understand how resistances to racial violence, within the context of black religiosity, are ephemeral acts that signal deep sociality—deep sociality that is already practiced and always yet to come. Thus, the breath and the movement and the sound and the enunciations—unwritten and unspeakable ways of refusing white supremacy—map black life and livingness as the capacity to forge relational ties that are not typically honored within our prevailing system of knowledge. Here, the analytical move is to refuse a cosmogony (and analysis) of black breathlessness and expiration, and instead focus on how the production of black knowledge, all black knowledge forms, signal radical ways of living with. This attention to living with is threaded through the entire text—on my first reading I thought of it as a melancholic plea of (not for) life—and rests on understanding displacement ethically. And then, as one reads and scans and reads and rests, Moth’s Powder—an unpublished text by Crawley—interrupts. Moth’s Powder, where church’s infrastructure and architecture are undone from the inside, and it feels good (134).

Crawley put me in church. Not the infrastructure of church, but instead the aesthetic vibes that move outside and move through its walls. He put me in church by delineating an alternative (atheological-aphilosphical) belief system, one emerging from modernity, that is illegible and outside and elsewhere. In a world that despises blackness, in a world where so many poets and scholars and artists and writers and workers are scrambling to comprehend and talk through and undo the profound hatred for black, in a world that profits from circulating and analyzing obituaries (even our pleas for life are, it seems, undercut by death notices accumulating and assembling and then falling away). This is a frayed and awful world. The alternative belief system is a ritual of otherwise as an ongoing pronouncement of black humanity. Churching. To go to church is to go “where the love is felt” (22).

  • Ashon Crawley

    Ashon Crawley

    Reply

    Memory

    Just breathe. And then, again, just breathe. I sat with my eyes closed after reading the opening to Katherine McKittrick’s response to Blackpentecostal Breath and was moved. Moved in ways varied, in ways multiple. I was moved by the recounting of the story of the scratchy coat, how what is most remembered for McKittrick’s inhabitation of church is the way cloth felt. Cloth for warmth, safety, concern, care. The recall of church is to recall a range of senses, some related and others not at all, to ritual and restored behavior of sanctuaries. The coat recalls the family tartan, the grandmother, the scratch of cloth. It’s like that sometimes, what we recall, what we remember, is attached to the sensual capacities with which we’ve each been gifted in our individuality. I was moved to think about how church, for McKittrick, meant scratchy coats, how scratchy coat is the memory of church itself, how it is the potentiality for recall.

    And the word scratchy with the word church moved me, moved in me, moved in me to recall and remember who we called Mother Andrews at the church in which I was reared. Lula Andrews was her name and she passed away when I was quite young. I remember walking into the church and seeing her seated on the right side in the second pew, seated with a hat almost each time she was there—I don’t think she wore wigs; I remember the gray hair. She would, each time she saw me, take her fingers with long nails and scratch my head. I’d say ouch, I’d laugh, she’d smile.

    This was church for me, too. Before doctrines that I could understand—or reject—before theologies I would accept, then lament over, then interrogate, then refuse, there was the feel of it all. The smell of food cooking on certain Sundays. The sound of hand claps and foot stomps. The feel of the blue and yellow robes. The hugs and kisses. The walks to the corner store during the sermon when I was maybe three or four years old to get packs of Now-and-Laters (or, really, nah-layders . . . because who pronounces it correctly anyway?) and sneak them into my mouth once back in the sanctuary without getting caught. Church was the sociality of it all, the being together with others, a space of comfort and warmth and protection. Church was the shared space of two or more gathered together, and we were there, always there, gathered there, in the cause of being with each other. Some saints spoke in tongues and shouted, others wept and clapped, all were moved outside themselves, outpoured one towards the other in the space of black sociality.

    I appreciate McKittrick’s engagement with Blackpentecostal Breath because she highlights what was evident but perhaps should have been more specific. The text is about thinking the aliveness, the liveliness, of black social life, thinking against notions of social death as a position to which we who are black must submit ourselves. The liveness is an epistemological shift, it is an otherwise possibility realized in the flesh against notions of modern man, modern thought, modern ways of normativity. Blackpentecostal Breath is about the breath of life, the ruach, the pneuma, it is about fundamentally the shared breath, the collective air, we must participate in, we must practice, in order for us to have and share in life.

    And breathing is not just an abstraction from and for thought but is a material thing, it is the mix of air and particles into and out of the lungs. The text, then, is not attempting thought that is disconnected from feeling, thought that is dis-enfleshed, but is thought that emerges through touch, thought that emerges through feeling. The text is about how it is an impossibility, the divisional line between thought and flesh, that life in blackness prepares for us a way to think this relation of commingling, this relation of sociality.

    Put a different way, Crawley asks that we understand how resistances to racial violence, within the context of black religiosity, are ephemeral acts that signal deep sociality—deep sociality that is already practiced and always yet to come.

    Ephemeral acts, indeed. I think it’s important that McKittrick points to the ephemeral nature of the acts I attempt to discuss because Blackpentecostalism, I will say again, is no utopic space. Not only do I remember, fondly, the scratching of my head by Mother Andrews, I also remember the pit of my stomach when I first connected the preaching about “faggots” and “bulldaggers” with my own erotic emergences, my own erotic longings. The homophobia, transphobia, sexism and classism are also in these spaces which is why Blackpentecostal aesthetics mark otherwise possibility without ever making a claim that these are the things that should be performed or lived or believed doctrinally for liberation.

    Acts ephemeral, these performances signal to something, point to something ecstatic, attempt to illustrate the ways we can enflesh ourselves communally towards the realization of otherwise modes of being. In the case of Blackpentecostalism, what is rejected are the decorous, quiet-privileging, flesh-hushing practices of western Christianities that target the body as in need of stilling for worship and reflection. In simple terms, hopefully, Blackpentecostal aesthetics attempt to say there are other ways to do this thing called breathing, other ways to do this thing called living, that do not aspire towards the normativity of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and its articulations in theology and philosophy. And this living otherwise can be realized against the very doctrines and dogmas preached rhetorically by Blackpentecostal adherents. The possibility for liberation is in the ephemeral performance of the flesh, flesh that dances and sings and speaks in tongues, flesh that produces memory of alternative modes of life.

    I have often wondered if there is a secret of blackness broken up and carried in various traditions. This brokenness and carried variously as a gift because no one tradition should ever think it carries the whole lest it be in danger of thinking it owns blackness as a kind of graspable object, lest it think the secret place of lowliness, dwelling in the undercommons, covered with feathers of centrifugitive flight is private property. So maybe in the handclaps and footstomps and Hammond B-3 of Blackpentecostals; so maybe in the making dua and prostrations and the arpeggiated, melismatic rupture of the Blackamerican Muslim adhans; maybe in the critical questioning and disbelief of black non-theists in their poetics and power and conviction and—when not aspiring to western ideals of rationality, reason and humanism—care; maybe in the reverence of ancestors, in the memory and memorial, in the joy of being mounted, the quest and carrying of the cowrie in Ifa and Candomblé and Santería; maybe in the vivification and aliveness of blackqueer relationality; maybe in so many other meditative zones we do not know but sense and feel and perform; maybe therein are broken and gifted the secret of blackness.

    Brokenness does not imply damage or burden but, as Nathaniel Mackey lets us know, brokenness still allows for the emanation of the trace of perfume, Christian scripture tells us that brokenness in spirit is a blessed station. Maybe, then, the memory of blackness recalled by the way cloth feels, the way joy feels, the way congregation feels, is a brokenness against western ruses of wholeness, completion, doneness, resolve, enclosure. Brokenness calls to us from some deep beyond to link, to join, to tarry with together.

    It is what McKittrick calls a deep sociality. This deep sociality, McKittrick is correct to say, is already and yet to come, these practices are against linear spacetime propulsion that would have it future-oriented. These practices, otherwise lived in the flesh, isn’t new and isn’t future-oriented, because it is here, it’s been here, with us. We have been living in the fact of the ephemera, the fact of anaesthetic (rather than aesthetic) possibility.

Amaryah Armstrong

Response

Reading the Flesh

Otherwise Methodologies and the Possibility of a Black Theology

Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath is a text that eschews easy definition and labels. Convinced of the problem of categorical distinction, the argument for pure difference between categories of thought, Ashon’s writing plays in a variety of “zones.” In this sense, his contribution here might be thought as a thinking that inhabits a limit. And it is this ability to think blackness as a mode of being and form of thinking that emerges at and in the limit of certain modes of reasoning that highlights how, perhaps, that limit contains its own multiplicity—is a space in which to live and move and have being. For Crawley, the fact that the mastering discourses of theology and philosophy hit a limit in thinking black life means that thought and flesh are intimately related. Theology and philosophy attempt to subjugate and subject black life to forms of Western reason and knowing—attempt to capture the impossibilities of black life and flesh into respectably organized systems of thought. Against this subjection, Ashon argues for blackness as that which escapes this attempt at capture via the flesh.

The alignment of Ashon’s project with Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology (an alignment that is made explicit by the author), suggests we might consider Crawley’s work as a critique offered in the same spirit. What is both most striking and most exciting is that such an intellectual companion to Althaus-Reid is found in the work of one is who decidedly not a theologian, and yet who understands black religious practice as a text worthy of reading without diminishing its faith-claims. At the same time, he also refuses to subject black religiosity to the overdeterminations of reason as produced by Christian theology and secular philosophy—neither of which know what to do with black flesh. For these reasons, I’m interested in the reading methods in Ashon’s approach. Exhibiting a true clarity of vision and facility of style in how he structures Blackpentecostal Breath, Ashon enacts a performance of Black study in his reading of the flesh.

By organizing the text around blackpentecostal practices and using this enfleshment as the starting point for his thought, Ashon adeptly reinforces his central thesis—there are other ways to read and think the flesh. That these practices “yield a general hermeneutics, a methodology for reading culture” (4). Thus, in some sense, Crawley’s method of reading these practices is a repetition of them. He considers the flesh with an apophatic impulse, reading with a posture of unmastery and a deep sense of communion. This is Black Study. Study which is “a methodological mode of intense, spiritual, communal intellectual practice and meditative performance” (8).

Each chapter highlights readings practices that, rather that sublating the flesh into a higher spiritual meaning, take the flesh at its word—even an incoherent word. This ability to read the flesh as a text that may be confounding to Western reason is indebted to Hortense Spillers recognition of the hieroglyphics of the flesh. Crawley’s turn to blackpentecostalism is crucial here because it does not attempt to read the hieroglyphics of the flesh as completely decipherable within his thought or conception of black sociality. Instead, Ashon highlights how reading these hieroglyphics is not a matter of translating them into proper speech, but is a matter of reading them as an indictment of the violence that can only come into being as a response to the flesh and its social life which precedes such violence.

The danger of learning to read the flesh is how such learning can become an attempt to master the flesh. Crawley guides us here, though, showing how the desire for knowledge in itself misses the point of the flesh. Something other than the production of knowledge is happening. Something else is going on when flesh congregates, when voices gather, when hands raise and bodies move in unexpected ways. The thing about the flesh is that it is not about understanding, it’s about being together as noted in Solomon Northrup’s text 12 Years a Slave—a being together that, as Ashon points out, is diminished and erased in the film adaptation. (Another instance of a Western rationale attempting to make sense of enslaved flesh by erasing their having been together.) Being together is a way of being in the world that goes against being as centered on individualist desires for privatized forms of existence. Privatized thought worlds, privatized property, privatized spaces. Against this, Ashon invites us to attend to how the flesh pulses against attempts at capture and how this stealing away from capture and desiring to be together is not a final achievement, but a form of life. This form of life is why Ashon locates sociality in the breath and the capacity for breath. The animation of matter via the breath is the grounds of possibility for thinking and reading otherwise.

This capacity to produce otherwise is rooted in ongoing openness, a spiritual-material, atheological-aphilosophical vulnerability. This openness and capaciousness, however, does not need to rise to the level of visibility, does not need to declare itself for its affects to be made nor felt in worlds. Indeed, visibility can be a problem. (236)

And this is what I find useful about how Crawley both critiques black theology and constructs an otherwise modality of thought—what he calls an atheological-aphilosophical form of thought. Ashon manages to read blackpentecostal performances very deeply and in a non-instrumentalizing way. This alone is a significant achievement for any critical text. But Crawley not only performs such readings, he desires to share such vulnerabilities, reading practices—these otherwise methodologies—as the possibility of rediscovering something felt that we may have already known but forgotten. The fact that something else, something more, is happening in and through blackpentecostal movements and feelings of the flesh than is able to be articulated in coherent speech or registered in respectable, noncriminal movements, or captured by liberal critiques of such spaces’ lack of inclusivity is brought to our attention. Crawley highlights how one need not discard or disavow blackpentecostalism in order to get to a mode of reading that is not invested in “coherent thought, coherence itself, [which] emerges from the dislodging of difference as originary in the service of the search for purity” (42).

In moments like this, Blackpentecostal Breath reads like a necessary leap to the possibility it announces. Of course, much like other necessary leaps of thought, this leaping leaves some gaps that, while forgivable, require some consideration. While any overelaboration or attempt at explanation might border on betraying the point of a work like Ashon’s, I still think there are places to push for more clarity regarding what the flesh requires of us and our thinking and being together. And, I think such pushing opens onto how I understand the possibility of black theology.

One danger I see in Crawley’s work that can sometimes appear to undercut this radical revisioning of engagement with black religious spaces and performances is the repeated gesture to concepts of infinity and affirmation—cast as positive affects—as measures of sociality with little interrogation and elaboration. For instance, he frames Otherwise in terms of infinite alternatives:

Otherwise, as word—otherwise possibilities, as phrase—announces the fact of infinite alternatives to what is. And what is is about being, about existence, about ontology. But if infinite alternatives exist, if otherwise possibility is a resource that is never exhausted, what is, what exists, is but one of many. Otherwise possibilities exist alongside that which we can detect with our finite sensual capacities. (2)

Throughout the text, the affirmations of possibility for otherwise are dependent on these inexhaustible possibilities. While one might read this affirmation of infinity against the neoliberal slogan coined by Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative,” I have reservations about positing infinite alternatives, infinite resources, and infinite existence as Otherwise.

My critique here is not that infinity and affirmation are “bad” or simply “neoliberal.” Rather, my point here is that as norms of social life, infinity and the affirmation of infinity as desirable are too undetermined and thus are easily taken up in uncritical directions. Given that Ashon is invested in the possibility of a “critical academic” who can inhabit the university otherwise, being more discerning about what is held in otherwise being seems crucial for faithfulness to the flesh.

For instance, in what sense does having an infinity of alternatives actually help us discern what to do in a given moment—help us decide what is most just? It seems being able to affirm the flesh also depends on being able to say no to that which would subjugate the flesh to pure distinction. Is there a difference between the yes and the no that allows one to affirm the flesh and the yes and no that founds the desire for categorical distinction? Ashon argues that our sensual perceptions are influenced by epistemologies—that otherwise epistemologies guide our sensory perceptions. Yet how does one discern which epistemologies affirm the flesh? Indeed, tech companies like Tesla have no problem imagining infinite alternatives to our world, developing infinite and inexhaustible resources to power and affirm the value of difference as it is oriented toward ever-increasing knowledge of planetary systems, energy, and networks and drives toward infinite human life. These same companies also have no problem working with Donald Trump to ensure their vision. Thus, in many ways, the techno-capitalist vision of the future is not opposed or antagonistic to infinity or affirmations in themselves. In this case, how does one discern justice from the flesh?

This difficulty of discerning justice from the flesh is apparent toward the end of Blackpentecostal Breath. Arguing for the possibility of being otherwise, being critical academics in the university, Ashon writes of the “dark dense folds of plenitude” that affirms this possibility. Here, black sociality seems less helpful for discerning what it means “to transform the world” (237) given the fraught conditions we labor under in the academy. The opacity of the flesh (as Charles Long might put it), its unknowability, seems to obfuscate the matter of judgment that the flesh impels. Alongside otherwise being and sociality, what possibilities for judgment exist as something other than categorical distinction? That is, as important as the critique of knowledge and its production is, the possibility to determine the difference between the production of categorical distinction and the production of anoriginary difference in the flesh remains. Otherwise, we would only be able to understand Ashon’s production of knowledge here as a repetition of the desire for pure distinction. Judgment is necessary for justice and arguing for enfleshed and otherwise reading methods also requires a more careful elaboration of how justice is known and enacted, how it is different from Western conceptions of judgment and justice—even if it is not a pure difference.

It seems, by Ashon’s own account of the flesh, that one can have a robust conception of alternatives to existing orders without leaning into infinity, a concept tinged more by its absolute mystery, unknowability, and imperceptibility. But, in the case that one wants to turn to the infinite in order to affirm the flesh, the God-talk that Ashon is rightly suspicious of seems, ironically, more appropriate for thinking the relation between finitude and infinity than anything else. Without such theological reflection, it seems more difficult to get the critical leverage on infinity in order to make the yes or no distinction, the judgment calls, that enable Ashon to affirm the flesh against the violence of categorical distinction.

As someone who understands herself as a black theologian I find it necessary in the wake of Blackpentecostal Breath, to affirm the possibility of black theology, not as the desire for the proper—for the assimilation of blackness within theology in order to make blackness respectable to theology—but as the intensification of this immanent critique, the judgment that black flesh makes. For, to make such judgments is not to become legible to the legitimators of canons, but to continue to speak a word that cuts against the quick of white reason, undressing its appearance of decency to expose the violence of mastery and sovereignty it covers.

This undressing requires one understand black theology as a negative affirmation. One must press into the naysaying unsaying that marks the finitude of black flesh as a living in the face of white death dealing, impressing theological speech with the urgency of black life.

Announcing a no to white reason and violence is the only way to say yes to black life. One can say, then, that the impossibility of black theological and philosophical work means it is only possible to do black theology as this negating theology. As this simultaneous naysaying and unsaying. Affirming the possibility of impossible speech. Introducing incoherence into the purity of theological thought. It may be, then, that it is only through the introduction of the no from black theology, a critique that is immanent to the purity of theological thought, that Blackpentecostalism is able to intervene into such thought as atheological—is able to intervene into such thought as the exhalation of a yes. An affirmation of black flesh.

  • Ashon Crawley

    Ashon Crawley

    Reply

    Otherwise

    That there might be space between infinite and infinity is that to which I respond, a space of possibility, an opening, a gap, a fissure, a break towards which the work of justice and equity might be calling us. Another way to say it is that there might be a space between the adjectival and the noun, between a descriptive and an object. I appreciate Amaryah Armstrong’s engagement with Blackpentecostal Breath because the pushback regarding otherwise allows for some clarity, though not necessarily understanding. Armstrong has “reservations about positing infinite alternatives, infinite resources, and infinite existence as Otherwise.” I, too, would have reservations about existence as otherwise if it were to mark a mode of life we could achieve, a place we could inhabit, a form we could seize. But what I wanted to in Blackpentecostal Breath, and what Armstrong’s response helps me say with more force is that otherwise is not a place, it is not an achievement, it is not able to be seized.

    Otherwise as possible is not about infinity and its achievement, it is about the impossibility of achievement but the movement of approach, it is about ongoing unsettlement and refusal to be done with the world. Armstrong asks:

    For instance, in what sense does having an infinity of alternatives actually help us discern what to do in a given moment—help us decide what is most just? It seems being able to affirm the flesh also depends on being able to say no to that which would subjugate the flesh to pure distinction. Is there a difference between the yes and the no that allows one to affirm the flesh and the yes and no that founds the desire for categorical distinction?

    Otherwise is, in my estimation, a way of life, a kind of posture and mode of being with others in the world, in worlds, as a critique of the violence of normativity. A writing concerned with performativity, I wanted for otherwise to index the performance of queerness, of blackness, as a restiveness, as an ongoing unsettling of what comes to be thought, congnized, considered to be normal. Otherwise, in the ways I consider it in Blackpentecostal Breath, is apophatic insofar as it is the constant saying and unsaying, the constant doing and undoing, and this in the service of justice and equity, this in service of affirming the flourishing of the creaturely world, the flourishing of life.

    Ashon argues that our sensual perceptions are influenced by epistemologies—that otherwise epistemologies guide our sensory perceptions. Yet how does one discern which epistemologies affirm the flesh?

    Yet I would argue that the violence of western thought, the violence germane to theological-philosophical reflection that is grounded in pure difference, that is grounded in racial classification as the founding choreography that produces the occasion for western cognition of identity and difference, this violence is what acts against the full range of sense experience in the service of what Fred Moten and others would call ocularcentrism, the privileging of the eye above all other sensual capacities. If we were after otherwise sensuality, it would be non-divisional, it would be against the categorical distinction and the subsequent hierarchical ordering of such experience. Otherwise epistemologies could guide our sensory perceptions if we opened ourselves to the fact of the flesh, if we allowed ourselves to be open to Blackpentecostal aesthetic possibility, if we unlearned what western epistemic force and brutality attempts to train out of us all.

    To affirm the flesh is to affirm the interrelation—a fundamental, previous to divisional relation, a relation that is anoriginal—of what is called the five senses, the way sense experience always spills over and into what it should not contain. Light must touch the eye and the touching, the caress of light on corneas and through irises, then is registered in the brain as the touch of illumination. The taste of food, too, is dependent on the touch of textures to tongue. The sound of song, the vibration, the movement, of materiality vibrating with and against—touching and caressing—the eardrum. Sense experience even of one sense is grounded in the interrelation. The divisions are misnomers.

    The epistemological limits of western thought would have sense experience be discrete and I argue that otherwise epistemologies exist already in ways that affirm the fact of the flesh. I turn to Blackpentecostal practice—whoopings intentioned, loud breathing, shouting as choreographic and sonic, tarrying as noise, speaking in tongues as cognition—to urge against the founding violence of western thought.

    Such that being otherwise is not a thing one can possess—this is not Locke’s possessive individualism that is achievable—but is a continual unfolding through apophasis in the cause of living in the flesh, in the cause of undoing the founding and ongoing violence of western divisionality that presumes purity can be achieved and maintained. Being otherwise is a way of life that is in the posture of being undone, a posture of apophasis, is sacred because—like prayer—it is a petition, a plea, for joining in the sociality of capacious imagination. Otherwise is not about leaning into the noun—infinity—but about leaning into the adjectival—infinite. It is a difference that matters to me insofar as infinite is named alongside otherwise, is named alongside possibility, is named alongside alternative. It is not a thing to itself but a relation, in other words, infinite is not to mark a place or mood or zone but is to mark the necessity for relation, for refusing to be singular, for thinking possibilities for non-hierarchical intimacy.

    Alongside otherwise being and sociality, what possibilities for judgment exist as something other than categorical distinction? That is, as important as the critique of knowledge and its production is, the possibility to determine the difference between the production of categorical distinction and the production of anoriginary difference in the flesh remains.

    Categorical difference that can be maintained as pure is produced through the current episteme that is grounded in racial classification. Anoriginary difference is not produced but is, is what exists previous to classification. Categorical difference depends upon a fundamental purity, a fundamental essence that can be reached, grasped, possessed. Anoriginary difference marks the fundamental plentitude, the fundamental multiplicity of any ground. Essence is inessential, pure ground is impure. Here, I rely on Andrew Benjamin and his discussion of words, how the word—whatever word that might be—is “the site of this plurality precludes the possibility of posing the question of the origin of meaning. There is no-thing that is original. There is no origin. Plurality is therefore anoriginal” (37). The difference that cannot be maintained, the categorical coherence between categorical distinction and anoriginal difference is worked out on the ground of the first move, the first vibration, the plurality as that from which existence emerges.

M. Shawn Copeland

Response

Reading/Hearing/Imagining Blackpentecostal Breath

The Aesthetics of Possibility

Where there is no music, the Spirit will not come.

—West African Proverb

Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility stunned me: First came admiration, then search for adequate and appropriate reading hermeneutics, then some understanding, finally—joy! Quite honestly, this is the most difficult book I have tackled since first wrestling with Bernard Lonergan’s Insight.1 The difficulty of navigating Insight lies in actually and practically coming to terms with one’s self-appropriation, that is, one’s discovery of one’s self and of one’s own intellectual operations or activities as an inquiring, intelligent, reasonable, responsible human subject. Self-appropriation is grounded in an “eros of the mind, the desire and the drive to understand”;2 it is grounded in the dynamism of the human spirit, the desire of knowing, choosing, deciding, acting, doing, loving. The difficulty in navigating Blackpentecostal Breath lies in one actually and practically relinquishing hegemonic modes of discourse and understanding that are opposed to lived black experience or that negate or pathologize that lived experience prima facie. Crawley invites us “to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible”3 and, in this way, affirm what is “otherwise” and to allow ourselves to be caught up in its possibility of black beauty. By foregrounding Insight in my critical reading of Blackpentecostal Breath, I propose that these two very different and very demanding works are at one in apprehending the complexity and intricacy of the eros of the human spirit and its possibilities; foreground epistemology,4 ethics, and authenticity or integrity in advocating the unity of mind and heart and act; and seek ways to respond in love to the already gifted love of Divine charismatic initiative. Finally, in a Foucauldian sense neither Insight nor Blackpentecostal Breath is a theoretical work, although each draws upon various theories and may be said to advance a theory—of human understanding in Lonergan’s case, of aesthetic possibility in Crawley’s case. In a Foucauldian sense, each as theoretical is practical, is practice.5

Blackpentecostal Breath enfleshes four interlocking aspects of a blackpentecostal aesthetic—breath, shout, noise, and tongues, and, thus (re)orients theological performativity. In this regard, Blackpentecostal Breath recaptures, dances, plays with,6 “works” and “works on,” at least, three areas: (theological) method, church, and poetics.

To say that Blackpentecostal Breath “works” as well as “works on” signifies not merely Crawley’s erudition and originality, but his skill as conjurer. “The conjurer in Afro-American culture,” writes Houston Baker, “is frequently referred to as a ‘two-headed doctor,’ a person of double wisdom who ‘carries power’ as a result of his or her initiation into the mysteries of the spirit.”7 The conjurer “works” not so much to solve problems or resolve difficulties, although this is one recognized function of conjure. In Blackpentecostal Breath, Crawley discloses and interprets, makes the truth of the matter, the flesh of the matter visible. He follows in a “pharmacopeic tradition of practices”8 that evoke and sustain social-historical transformations as these materialize in “ritually patterned behaviors and performative uses of language and symbols conveying healing/harming intent and employing biblical figures and issuing in biblical configurations of cultural experience.”9 Crawley sets out not only an analysis and critique of Blackpentecostalism, but offers a performative-analytic exposition of its dynamic, expressive, fleshed and fleshly movement of and in spirit—spirituality. Blackpentecostalism appears, quite radically, as act. Crawley opens the eyes of the reader to see Blackpentecostalism’s fleshly acting out and acting out of spirit and to glimpse a spirit-infused, spirit-possessed aesthetics of possibility.

Blackpentecostal women and men yield to spirit’s gifts of holiness, of silence, of power and breathe: They commune in flesh, shout, dance, whoop, sweat, tremble, quiver, and tongue praise of the divine. Cursory and curious observers misrecognize, reduce, categorize, and objectify enfleshed blackpentecostal breath. They judge and dismiss this breath as immoderate and unnecessary excess, rather than enfleshed freedom yearning for the unseen, for possibility. Such observers do not understand enfleshed blackpentecostal breath’s healing surrender to spirit’s work and power and their embrace of the liminality and beauty of worshipful living—otherwise, nothing; otherwise, nonexistence.

By way of method, Blackpentecostal Breath mediates between a black cultural matrix and the significance and role of religion in that matrix;10 at the same time, this text incarnates and performs transdisciplinary discourse, effecting and signifying a dazzling unity of knowledge beyond any single discipline. Without dropping a beat, without reducing enfleshed blackpentecostal breath to abstraction or subjugating enfleshed breath to the numbing weight of oppression, the work unifies flows and overflows in open-ended, clear, rigorous, tightly skeined literary theory, theology, queer theory, sound and visual studies, musicology, and continental philosophy; in intertextuality; in contextual detail and depth; in beautiful, synthesizing, nimble blues prose (“always on the verge of lyrical scandal”)11 that is “multi-referential and multidimensional”12 and improvisational. As a work of transdisciplinary discourse, Blackpentecostal Breath “works on” theology by exemplifying what it might look like to take up an “iconoclastic role . . . to challenge both the dominant order of the world and theology’s own symbols and rituals for the sake of liberating them for play with God.”13 Crawley demonstrates just how “the aesthetic practices of Blackpentecostalism constitute a performative critique of normative theology and philosophy that precede the twentieth-century moment” (7).

Blackpentecostal Breath “works on” church by interrogating and antagonizing, disrupting and dis-ordering “not only racialist, classist, elitist ideologies of which whiteness serves as foundational, [but] interrupt[ing] black church aspirations toward respectability . . . because such aspirations are, at base, antiblack” (13). Blackpentecostalism, Crawley argues, is not “utopic, that is free of the problems of marginalizing” (24). The politics of respectability are alive, active in, and activate classism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. “But something is there in the aesthetic practices” and those practices antagonize “the very doctrines of sin and flesh” (24). Crawley maintains that Blackpentecostal aesthetic practices have the capacity to critique the ways in which sexism, homophobia, and transphobia and classism inform and shape the world. Moreover, such thinking “otherwise” affirms “an asubjectivity that is . . . about the open, vulnerable, available, enfleshed organism” (24–25). Crawley’s text calls the black church away from exclusionary practices of regulation and control, for such treatment disregards the central mystery of Christianity—Word made Flesh, Incarnation.

Still Blackpentecostalism subsists as the most fleshly expression of Christianity, and tongue or black orality remains the most fleshly and most spiritual attribute of Blackpentecostalism. Blackpentecostalism signifies linguality. The tongue, that necessary muscular organ of the mouth, not only contributes to survival—breathing, eating, drinking—it figures prominently in shouting, in noisemaking, in speaking. Metonymically tongue is language and speech. Speaking in tongues or glossolalia constitutes “a mode of contemplative, meditative practice, [and] is foundational for the Blackpentecostal imagination” (207). And that imagination seeks to enflesh truth (epistemology); to render, enflesh, and affirm black being and be-ing black (ontology); and to enflesh relations to the other (ethics).14 Crawley illustrates what Walter Ong means when he writes: “Sound is more real or existential than other sense objects, despite the fact that it is also more evanescent.”

Richard Kearney defines poetics broadly as “an exploration of the human powers to make (poiesis) a world in which we may poetically dwell.”15 Like Kearney, Crawley pursues a “critical poetics [that] transcend[s] both the empire of reason and the asylum of un-reason” in search of a new hermeneutic.16 Without adherence to any single set of poetic conventions, rules, or procedures; with charismatic, yet disciplined intuition that resonates time and meter, the poetics of Blackpentecostal Breath calls for a relational aesthetic that rises from intersubjectivity and builds a space which spirit inhabits and within which spirit works. That space may be religious or ecumenical or interfaith as exemplified in Crawley’s incisive and insightful critique of the New Atheist Movement’s hostility toward belief and its collusion in the general sentiment of antiblackness. Here Crawley links the dismissal of Islam’s public aesthetic-religious practice of wearing its belief “on the flesh” (my italics) in khimar, niqab, burka, and hijab with the racialization of flesh, “the wearing of belief in the flesh” (25, my italics). What is at stake is the other, relation, the human.

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: Black living thought captures the sound of black human transcendence tuned by the Hammond B-3; captures

tones that are not simply moving toward resolution but are on the way to varied directionality—not simply in a linear, forward progression but also vertically, down and up, askance and askew. What if, as open to openness, the sounds of the B-3 prompt in its hearers and intellectual practice of a reaching toward the beyond? Would not this reaching, this movement toward without ever seizing the beyond, instantiate ongoing anticipatory posture, an affective mode of celebratory waiting? (256)

What if? What possibility? Makes me want to shout!


  1. Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, 5th ed. (1957; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). And, that dynamism admits of tensions in grasping and choosing between what is limited and unlimited, inauthentic and authentic, transitory and Transcendent.

  2. Lonergan, Insight, 97.

  3. Of course, these are what Lonergan names as “transcendental precepts” (Method in Theology [New York: Herder and Herder, 1972], 55). These precepts are transcultural and although we often disregard them, their willful disregard or rejection spawns alienation that spurns individual and social corruption and decline.

  4. Lonergan frames the issue explicitly in cognitional terms both in Insight and in Method in Theology.

  5. Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, edited by Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 208.

  6. Wolfgang Vondey, Beyond Pentecostalism: The Crisis of Global Christianity and the Renewal of the Theological Agenda (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 115–40, 171–82.

  7. Houston A. Baker Jr., Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 77.

  8. Theophus H. Smith, Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 5. This is a brilliant and much under-read work.

  9. Smith, Conjuring Culture, 6.

  10. Lonergan, Method in Theology, xi.

  11. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 86.

  12. Basarab Nicolescu, “The Charter of Transdisciplinarity” (1994), http://inters.org/Freitas-Morin-Nicolescu-Transdisciplinarity.

  13. Vondey, Beyond Pentecostalism, 207.

  14. Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 111.

  15. Richard Kearney, Poetics of Imagining, Modern to Postmodern (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), 8.

  16. Kearney, Poetics of Imagining, 9.

  • Ashon Crawley

    Ashon Crawley

    Reply

    Practice

    Blackpentecostal Breath was an attempt to practice what is preached. But such a preaching was not foundationally about doctrinal adherence nor about confessions of faith, Blackpentecostal Breath was not an attempt to make space for queer people or women people or poor people within the space of Blackpentecostalism. It was, in some ways, an attempt to sense the space blackqueer, black feminist force made possible for Blackpentecostalism to flourish as a first move. It’s not to say that we’re here, we’re queer, get used to us as much as it was to assert the blackqueerness, the black feminist anethical force of Blackpentecostalism.

    So as an attempt to practice what was preached, Blackpentecostal Breath was attempting to approach the force and spiritedness of whooping, shouting, tarrying, glossolalia, it was an attempt to match something of the mood and movement I encountered, first at Bibleway Church of God in Christ, then at Memorial COGIC, then at True Holiness Temple, then at Open Door Mission True Light Church. I believed, surely, but it wasn’t until I spoke in tongues as the spirit gave utterance, it wasn’t until I really began to release myself to the dance—that we call shouting—that I really understood the fleshliness of what I was reared to understand cognitively. I did not know this movement until I let the movement compel in me vibration, until I allowed such vibration to speak out of me in my throat and tongue, with my feet and clapped hands. I did not know this movement until knowing meant the limits of cognition at the edge of flesh’s performance, another way to say practice.

    Practice. The word that I honed in on in M. Shawn Copeland’s generous and thoughtful engagement of Blackpentecostal Breath. Practice. This word, and her noticing of how the text was after a practice, a way of life, is precisely what I think calls we that are concerned about acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly, in order to walk lightly on the earth and struggle to alleviate suffering, must do. We must care about what we practice. The work that we do, the things we write, should exert a force on us, should compel us to practice how we live in the world otherwise than normative aspirations.

    Blackpentecostal women and men yield to spirit’s gifts of holiness, of silence, of power and breathe: They commune in flesh, shout, dance, whoop, sweat, tremble, quiver, and tongue praise of the divine. Cursory and curious observers misrecognize, reduce, categorize, and objectify enfleshed blackpentecostal breath. They judge and dismiss this breath as immoderate and unnecessary excess, rather than enfleshed freedom yearning for the unseen, for possibility. Such observers do not understand enfleshed blackpentecostal breath’s healing surrender to spirit’s work and power and their embrace of the liminality and beauty of worshipful living—otherwise, nothing; otherwise, nonexistence.

    Copeland keys in to the fact that practice is about dwelling, is about abiding, is about relation. Yielding to spirit’s gifts must be attended to through a sustained attention, through a desire to be there in the space with others. In order to not dismiss, one has to refuse the cursory though curiosity might be that which prompts a movement into noticing. In another register and key, in Blackpentecostal Breath, the critique of the cursory is through a discussion of the aversion to and for blackness, the aversion to and for black sociality, that I believe grounds the western theological-philosophical (and also, historical-ethical) tradition and its Man, its citizen, its subject. There is an aversion for blackness and black sociality that produces the occasion for aversion, for the cursory glance, that presumes such a glance has within it the capacity to grasp the whole of the scene, the whole of the vibrancy of life therein. It is an aversion for and cursory glance against practice, practice that is fleshly, practice that celebrates the fact of black being, practice that glories in blackness as a way of life.

    To work and to work on are two ways Copeland discusses how Blackpentecostal Breath practices what it attempts to preach. But these are not unidirectional but polyvalent, a plural in their movement. The practice of the text, I mean to say, at first worked and worked on me, the work and work in the text caused me and continues to call me to an account for how I want to live in the world, how I want to pursue justice and equity against the categorical divisions that have been created in order to keep creaturely life from flourishing and fulfillment. That is, categories of race, gender, sexuality, class were created and imposed on us by the state, by a political economy that needs stratifications for its maintenance, for its proliferation. Such divisions were to be internalized. Such internalization would produce in us a hierarchy of feeling such that feeling and thought would be at a distance, such that feeling would then be diminutive to thought, such that feeling would be degraded against thought that would be elevated.

    Blackpentecostalism taught me that what one confesses if not lived out in the flesh, if not enfleshed and practiced, is of no consequence. Blackpentecostalism taught me that there has to be a consistency with what one says and how one postures their flesh daily. It has to be a commitment beyond the rhetorical, beyond the written, beyond the cognized. It is a way of life in which one “plunge[s] into a deep, black, fleshy pool of signification,” in which one plunges and is baptized, one is plunged, baptized and made otherwise through accepting the fact of the flesh. And this acceptance of the fact of the flesh is in order to join in community against the violence and violation of the inaugural theological-philosophical thoughts that produce for us racial hierarchies and other modalities of categorization produced in the service of severing us one from another.

Keri Day

Response

Commentary on Blackpentecostal Breath

The organ is crooning. The mothers are wailing. Parents are raising their hands, speaking of God’s magnanimous power. Children huddled in the four corners of our small blue church, speaking in other tongues. I am sweating. Shouting. Shaking. Dancing. Crying out. My feet shuffle to the beat of the music, arms flailing around like a windmill set free. Ushers dressed in white, circle my little body. Nine years old. I feel the Spirit. It has gripped me, taken hold of me, will not let me go. The experience is strong. I pass out. The women cover me with white sheets. I feel the warmth of God.

 

This experience marks me, my black body. Yet, as I began studying for a PhD in religion, I became painfully aware that this kind of religious experience is held as suspect, excessive and irrationally superfluous, secondary to the primary work of rational philosophical argumentation and/or Christian doctrine. For certain, in large part, the problem I faced was bound up with the ways in which the theological project privileged theoria as the starting point in describing and legitimating doctrine and “proper” religious experience. As Crawley rightly intimates, this starting point has been grounded in the ideological project of whiteness, which is a way to think the world through the violation and “violencing” of non-European experiences and expressions.

Ashon Crawley’s book Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility not only captures the sonic beauty and intersubjective joy of black Pentecostal experience in the United States but also provides a prophetic paradigm for how we might think about the only future theology may have: a future that is rooted in the rejection of Kantian categorical distinctions and pure thought, a future that turns toward the celebration of black flesh in all its plentitude of meanings. Blackpentecostal Breath is about black religious experience as a collective expression, the shared work of what Robert Wuthnow refers to as the “production of the sacred.” Crawley’s text announces how the celebration of black flesh through aesthetic and sonic practices enunciates an expanded sociality that disrupts and ruptures the epistemologies and temporalities of philosophy and theology in the West.

Crawley challenges the very foundations of Christian theology in the West. He asks: “What counts and who decides what counts, as theological or philosophical thought?” Crawley’s text echoes black religious scholar Charles Long’s contention that the plurality of African-American religious experiences has yet to be captured in traditional theological modes. The black aesthetic practices (shouting, speaking in tongues, noise) that Crawley thickly describes move toward the “more” of black religious experience, experiences that have not been rationalized or systematized in Western Christian theology because theology labels such experiences as wild, uncouth, excessive, and demonic.

For instance, Crawley privileges the Azusa Street Revival of 1906 in his discussion of blackpentecostal aesthetic practices. However, he offers a de-colonial reading of Azusa. Azusa is not another instantiation of Western Christian pneumatology. No. Azusa can be interpreted as offering a performative imaginary that “thinks” new modalities of thought altogether, as Azusa is about how the spirit moves in and though black flesh (and all flesh) in enacting an egalitarian sociality that is unbounded, liberative, “bluesy,” and desirous of being with and for others who are radically different from oneself. In 1906, Azusa and its black aesthetic practices were labeled by many white ministers as “animal-spiritist,” wild, and non-Christian. These aesthetic practices were labeled demonic because these practices were carried in black flesh. For Crawley, blackness is a performative imaginary, an otherwise way to think the world, a way to implode the project of whiteness through generating new categories that can value and celebrate black flesh in all of its complexity and multiplicity. It is at Azusa that a new grammar of love and togetherness are performatively “thought.”

As a scholar in theological education, I want to emphasize that Crawley’s text has profound ramifications for theology. One can infer that he diagnoses theological education as unequivocally lost. This text should compel every theological scholar to confront an undeniable truth: theological education is on its deathbed, unless it transforms. The future of theology is dependent upon its ability to reconstitute itself from the ground up, away from predetermined colonial logics of subjectivity and pure thought and toward an aesthesis, which privileges subaltern religious experiences rooted in the fleshly, sensible world. “Life in the flesh” is about a togetherness that is imagined through somatic possibilities. As Crawley suggests, at Azusa, participants believed that one needed to be in the world as an agent of radical alterity, which is about a somatic openness to others while establishing one’s own claim to move through the world differently. Alterity is about how one thinks and enfleshes the relation of difference. Western systematized accounts of theology and their categories obtain and think difference by way of its exclusion, as difference is interpreted as an aberration of pure, normative thought. In contrast, radical alterity disrupts and ruptures this way of “thinking difference.” Difference is not something to be excluded or excised from pure thought or practice. Instead, the relation of difference is thought and embodied diasporically. As Edouard Glissant intimates, diasporic epistemologies have always acknowledged multiplicity in unity, a plentitude of meanings that can exist together, enlarging and dilating our view of ourselves, others and the world. This way of thinking and valuing difference is a spirited fleshly practice that enacts love, life and possibilities as a critique to a violent, violating world that seeks to expunge difference and consequently contract a sense of togetherness and expanded sociality. We must turn to these alternate genealogies and inheritances to discern our way forward within theological education.

There are a few lingering questions I possess after reading Crawley’s important text. These questions are not necessarily critiques and/or concerns in relation to his work. Rather, these questions continue to haunt me as a theological scholar after reading his text. When he speaks of his project as “atheological and aphilosophical,” how does this claim grapple with any perceived or actual benefits when speaking about categories such as “tradition” or “doctrine”? Within theology, might there be an account or idea of tradition/traditioning and doctrine that does not recapitulate to the violence and violation of modern colonial logics and categorical distinctions? Might this atheological project make room for tradition and doctrine or are both categories simply irredeemable? It seems to me that theology is deeply bound up with some explication of doctrine or tradition that clarifies its orientation toward the Divine and broader world. Is Crawley suggesting that these categories will always undermine the open-ended character of blackpentecostal aesthetic experiences or might there be an account of both existing together? If so, what might be the contours of this account? I recognize that these questions may not necessarily be within the purview of Crawley’s text. However, Crawley’s atheological and aphilosophical project compels theological and religious scholars to wrestle with how his project remaps the basic theoretical, methodological and political orientations of theology.

Despite these questions, 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. Yet, the specter of black flesh haunts the Christian imaginary. Crawley helps the theological scholar to see that theology indeed must decolonize or die.

  • Ashon Crawley

    Ashon Crawley

    Reply

    Free

    I sat in the car of a friend, a week or so before I was to move to Atlanta, a week before I was to begin seminary. I said to the friend driving the car, “I’m not going to think about or study pentecostalism ever again. I’m done with that.” I was, to be candid, very bothered by the incessant homophobia, transphobia, classism and heterosexism of the various church communities of which I was a part. I was fatigued by having to explain myself, by having to come out, by having to justify my existence as a blackqueer person to folks that I genuinely did love deeply. At that time, Blackpentecostalism was the culprit, that which was becoming a problem between myself and the various communities of care of which I was a part. I began coming out of the closet around about the age of twenty-three and by twenty-five, I was just about out to everyone that was important to me. So I sat in the car and told my progressive but Pentecostal friend that I was no longer interested in studying something so backward, so in the way of my own flourishing.

    “That’s the thing I’ve ever heard,” he said and, then also, “why would you not want to study what made you possible?” A sobering moment I was not prepared to answer because he was correct. But it is the response to Blackpentecostal Breath written by Keri Day that made me reflect on that moment on Broad Street in Philadelphia 2005.

    This experience marks me, my black body. Yet, as I began studying for a PhD in religion, I became painfully aware that this kind of religious experience is held as suspect, excessive and irrationally superfluous, secondary to the primary work of rational philosophical argumentation and/or Christian doctrine.

    The thing I was trying to escape at that time was the thing that marked my blackness, my flesh, as an aberration for thought but did not have the critical tools or thought in order to fully elaborate. I considered Blackpentecostalism to be anti-intellectual not because of the homophobia and general queer antagonism, though that was a foundation for the critique I had at the time. It was the flesh, the fleshliness, the noisiness of the practice that produced for me embarrassment. I wanted to escape away from the sociality of black noise, in other words, but had to discover that it was an escape into it that would produce the occasion to be free, to feel liberation, to practice and perform otherwise possibility.

    And this because of what Day asserts: in these hallowed halls of academia, the flesh is considered to be discardable in order to realize a rational, philosophical, theological—which is to say, a thinking—self. Such thought is ordered higher and thus against the flesh and its appetite, is ordered against the flesh and its feeling.

    The black aesthetic practices (shouting, speaking in tongues, noise) that Crawley thickly describes move toward the “more” of black religious experience, experiences that have not been rationalized or systematized in Western Christian theology because theology labels such experiences as wild, uncouth, excessive, and demonic.

    This, the refusal to rationalize nor systematize the practices of Blackpentecostalism will have turned out to be a gift. The gift is in allowing to be maintained through spectacular opacity a zone of inhabitation wherein otherwise possibilities as a way of life, as a choreosonic performance—not a place or space of utopia—can be experimentally experienced. The refusal to rationalize nor systematize leaves intact a method of engagement wherein escape into rather than away from the social can be possible. The zone of inhabitation is not a place but a method for engagement, a way of life. But this is key, the refused rationalizing and systematizing of Blackpentecostalism into Western theology and philosophy does not mean that Blackpentecostalism is only ever liberatory. I do recognize the ongoing and even more sustained and explicit homophobia, transphobia, sexism, misogyny and classism of the movement in our times.

    The liberation performed in the flesh through whooping, shouting, tarry noising and speaking in tongues is at odds continually with the degradation of the flesh that attempts to harness, control and discard the erotic experienced in the flesh if it does not cohere to very strict ideas of heterosexual monogamy post-marriage. The degrading and control of flesh happens by way of doctrine and theological elaboration, against the flesh as first contact of creaturely experience. This brings me to Day’s useful questions:

    When he speaks of his project as “atheological and aphilosophical,” how does this claim grapple with any perceived or actual benefits when speaking about categories such as “tradition” or “doctrine”? Within theology, might there be an account or idea of tradition/traditioning and doctrine that does not recapitulate to the violence and violation of modern colonial logics and categorical distinctions? Might this atheological project make room for tradition and doctrine or are both categories simply irredeemable? It seems to me that theology is deeply bound up with some explication of doctrine or tradition that clarifies its orientation toward the Divine and broader world. Is Crawley suggesting that these categories will always undermine the open-ended character of blackpentecostal aesthetic experiences or might there be an account of both existing together? If so, what might be the contours of this account?

    Tradition is a word, I will admit, that I am much more comfortable elaborating and situating the practice of Blackpentecostal aesthetics within than doctrine or theology. I believe the way of life I attempt to elaborate in Blackpentecostal Breath is one regarding a tradition of which the aesthetic practices—whooping, shouting, tarry noising and tongues speaking—are a part but not a whole. These practices were not created by but were harnessed to Blackpentecostalism in order to sustain and elaborate the fleshliness of them, in order to draw attention to that which is according to normative theology and philosophy discardable, the flesh of black being. So I believe the benefit is with tradition, not necessarily with doctrine because doctrine is that which so often debases the flesh.

    And it seems to me that the atheological project Blackpentecostalism approaches is important for the ways it can unsettle what are seemingly settled concepts, concepts that are the grounds for theology: what it means to be a human, a citizen, a subject, what it means to be sexed, sexual, gendered. As we move through worlds, as we continue to live and allow for flourishing, we will continue to discover forms of life that will need to be protected from doctrines and theologies that will seek such forms’ exclusions. And the difference between doctrine and tradition for me is found in the way Cornelia Bailey discusses life on Sapelo Island, Georgia, how though Christian through doctrine, the descendants of Muslim Bilali pray towards the east and have Islamic burial practices for the dead as tradition. Tradition is something below and beyond doctrine, something atop which doctrine may emerge but does not have to. Doctrine and theology would attempt to systematize the praying direction of Sapelo Island dwellers, would attempt to systematize and make coherent their praying direction and burial practices as something allowable in or some sorta syncretic form of Christian practice. But perhaps tradition isn’t concerned with the explanation that functions in the service of making clear to a governing rule, order or body.

Nicole Ivy

Response

Movement and Sound

On Traveling Choreosonics and Soul Line Dancing

There is a vibration, a sonic event, a sound I want to talk about, but its ongoing movement makes its apprehension both illusory and provisional. . . . It is a resource that is plenteous, that exists in plentitude, always available and split from itself, split from while transforming into itself. It is the gift, the concept, this inhabitation of and living into otherwise possibilities.

—Ashon Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath

 

Kick.

Kick.

Tap kick and cross.

—Spoken instructions to the Sakeem line dance

 

Ashon Crawley’s visionary work, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, argues—beautifully, complexly, carefully—against the violence of enclosure. The text performs its deep ethical and critical investments in the plentitude of black social life in and through the abundance of registers on which it vibrates. It is simultaneously epistle, provocation, and charge. It is fundamentally and irreducibly interdisciplinary, deploying phonetics, exegesis, archival exploration, and personal vignette among its interpretive technologies. It also signifies beyond its materiality as a book object. I carried my bound copy around with me for months: across at least eight states; on the train on my daily commutes; religiously to my favorite neighborhood coffee shop. While carrying—while toting—the text with me from place to place, people routinely engaged me in conversation about it. The cover image invites this exchange. A 1941 photograph of black Pentecostal worshippers in Chicago, Illinois, spans the bottom quarter of the front of the book. The celebrants pictured here, these black folks in thrall of Spirit, usher us into the fellowship that Crawley names as the otherwise possibility of black social life. The woman appearing at the bottom center of the picture plane offers an embodied invocation that literally and theoretically frames the book. Her outstretched arms reach across the edges of the cover. Her uplifted palms are plaintive and vulnerable, evoking the supplicatory pose of Jesus the Christ figured on a crucifix.

I linger here, on this cover and this woman’s two-handed entreaty, in order to emphasize that Blackpentecostal Breath is, in large part, a call. Indeed, as a lapsed member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a former minister of music, and a believer in the miracle of black people’s faith, I cannot help reading the text as an invocation. Crawley’s work is a hailing that at once queries and creates the possible worlds of love and non-harm that we might make together—and I am persuaded by the otherwise possibilities of everyday communion that are produced through others’ witnessing of the book itself. It is not surprising to me that toting this book around has caused me to name myself as a teacher, to respond to strangers’ requests for résumé help or career advice. It is no surprise that the very picture of black worship in public spaces generates stares, sparks conversation, and makes people want to ask who I am, what I do, and why I carry around a book like that.1 This essay is my effort to tarry with Crawley’s call, with the book’s charge to study black forms of world-making, and with commingled breath. In what follows, I tarry for a little while with the specific forms of invitation given and accepted by communities who create black social life within the improvisational practice of soul line dancing. Tap. Kick and cross.2

Direction(ality) Matters

Line dancing depends on agreement. A form of popular social dance, it “typically involves 24 to 64 beats of choreographed steps, consisting primarily of walking steps, turns, kicks, and sideways travel. Dancers arrange themselves on the dance floor in lines, all facing the same way.”3 This uniformity is indicative of the form: regularly arranged groups of people moving in a line is the visual hallmark of the dance. Even on a crowded dance floor, there is always the reasonable expectation not to be knocked about, or down. Even inside of choreography that calls for the constant travel of exquisitely long strides across the floor—or for full spins and rapid-fire kick-ball-changes—you are expected not to be in the spot where the dancer beside you will need to be. “Directionality matters,” Ashon Crawley asserts, “and it carries the material trace of the purposiveness of movement—turning, tuning, torque—toward social ecstasy.” 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.

Soul line dancing is a variation on the line dance form in which choreographed steps are backed by African American musics. It differs from the popular form of country line dancing in that its dances are set to zydeco, rap, rhythm and blues, reggae, and even gospel tracks. Its sonic origins lie in the rhythm and blues (R&B) music produced in the twentieth century by African American vocalists and instrumentalists. Innovated and performed primarily by African American dancers and choreographers, soul line dance has an international reach; its practitioners represent a diversity of ethnic and racial identities.

In the United States, soul line dance communities are at once hyper-local in scope and nationally connected, and they are characterized by mobility and non-ownership. Dancers convene for classes and parties in rented halls; in community outreach centers; in churches; in buildings belonging to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Soul line dancers also gather in large convention centers for a few days each year to give annual awards for choreography and for excellence in dance.[footnote]Since 2008, the Union Crew Star Awards gala has recognized soul line dance innovations from across the country. The traveling event bestows honors in such categories as East Coast Regional Dance of the Year and Choreographer of the Year. For more on the Union Crew Awards see http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.urbanlinedanceconnection.com/uploads/linedance/profiles/Union%20Crew%20Profile.htm.[/footnote] This mobility resists enclosure, gentrification, and the prerogatives of black capitalism’s fetishization of real estate. As Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, line dancer Ms. Elsie Jones succinctly observed when reflecting on her love of the form, “Nobody’s paying us to dance.”4 The DJs, event organizers, photographers, videographers, and other vendors round out a dance economy based on multiple meanings of travel: from venue to venue and from one place on the dance floor to the next. Often, they will leave their stations and join dancers on the floor. This, too, is a refusal of the categorical distinction that Crawley’s work enjoins us to resist; it marks a refusal to police the distance between seller, designer, and end user.

Soul line dance is part of the corpus of black vernacular dance traditions that dance historian Jonathan David Jackson defines as “a complex family of forms and steps that includes hand dancing, rhythm tap, stepping, and line dancing.”5 Soul line dancing—here, simply, line dancing—is an “intricately choreographed” dance form that relies as much on improvisation as it does on memorization of predetermined choreography.6 It is conversational. It requires the communal back-and-forth of bodies in motion. Through its emphasis on interdependency, the body/booty work of soul line dance bears out one world of “otherwise possibility,” one possible world of closely lived and irreducibly coterminous lives.

As a black vernacular dance form, soul line dance emerges out of the connections between sound and movement. John David Jackson explains,

One of the most important aesthetics of black music and dance is an understanding of the inseparability between music and movement. This inseparability does not always mean that particular music and dance traditions develop simultaneously. . . . Rather, black vernacular music and dance are conceptual and experiential partners that feed on the same processes for intervention.7

Jackson’s argument that “improvisation is choreography” profoundly names the correlation of improvisation and routine that is constitutive of soul line dance. Ashon Crawley’s excavation of the interdependencies of the choreosonic elaborates this conjunction. Crawley’s term, “choreosonic,” recognizes a “bridge between” concept that, in its grammatical coupling, “forces the consideration of the ongoing relation between choreographics and sonics, how they are constitutive of the other, how the distinction cannot ever be maintained, cannot ever be made pure, cannot ever be made to be categorical” (Crawley, 98). He reads Blackpentecostal shouting as a choreosonic practice, a practice that “undoes the distinction between movement and sound (Crawley, 28). Crawley assiduously details the choreosonic kind of sociality produced in the instance of the shout, inside the groans and wails and foot-stomps that Blackpentecostals produce in worship. Following Jackson, I want to offer back to Crawley’s text the improvisational choreosonics of “the wood,” the term that many members of the Philadelphia line dance community use for the dance floor, as another site wherein the conjoinment of movement and sound undoes the distinction between the two. I want to offer soul line dance as a space of choreosonic sociality in which the act of being together on the wood is both quotidian and holy. Soul line dancers do, indeed, empty (ourselves) out to each other in service of the creation of the social. Dancers embrace each other in sweaty hugs, share bottles of water and portable fans, knit themselves together through regular preparation in borrowed spaces. This sociality is, in fact, ecstatic. And this ecstatic sociality, in such a time as this, calls forth questions that test the limits of my critical faculties here: What miracles of safety, if any, does breathing together—sweatily and in regular revolutions—produce? What does it truly mean to be together in the sanctity of exhaustion? What might a choreosonics of friendship look and sound like? What happens when people move?

The Choreosonics of Black Friendship

I spent the three years between 2010 and 2013 living and working as a graduate student in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During those peripatetic West Philadelphian days, I was sustained, in large part, by the beloved community made by soul line dancers. I found sanctuary in the circuit of soul line dance happenings that traveled, quite literally, from Pennsauken, New Jersey, to Delaware and throughout greater Philadelphia. Among my regular haunts, perhaps the most regular of all was the midweek class and party at the Park Avenue Banquet Hall. These events—known popularly as “Parkside Wednesdays” or simply, “Parkside”—ritually transformed a multiuse building into a sacred space of dance fellowship from 7pm to 11pm each Wednesday night.8 By sacred here, I do not mean to suggest a practice that belongs to any specific religious tradition. Rather, Parkside is sacred in the sense that it is continuously sanctified, or made set-apart, by its revelers. In the space of the hall’s main ballroom, I have witnessed the deep friend-making enabled by social dance taking place among folks who identify as queer, as Christian, as Muslim, as poor, as middle class. These gatherings are inter-generational, imperfect, fundamentally and irrepressibly social.

Describing the impact of the Parkside community on her life, Elsie Jones recounts, “I find it uplifting to me to share these things.” She continues,

There are times when I want to sit in a corner and cry. [But] you have to do something for yourself. So we all decided that line dancing wherever we are is a safe place, a place to lay it down on the floor. There is somebody there who will become your sounding board or whatever it is that we need. Because we are a community, there is no need to feel like you are alone.9

Jones here contrasts isolated stasis, sitting in a corner and crying, with communal movement. We might read the act of “lay[ing] it down on the floor” as both an unburdening and a supplication. From its cover image through to its treatments of Blackpentecostal tongues and shouting, Crawley’s work gives us a mechanism through which we might see both Ms. Elsie’s laying it down and her community’s picking it up as a movement in/as the “fleshliness of black love” (Crawley, 76).

One of my favorite soul line dances is based on this kind of love movement. Entitled Sakeem, the dance was created as an act of friendship between legendary line dancer Dave Bush Jr. and his friend, dancer Sakeem Parks. Parks tells the story of the dance’s creation in a recorded interview,

The real story is Dave made that dance up for me. He called me over his house one day. I said, I’ll be there. So, I [go] over his house, I go in the basement and he says, “you got to learn this dance.” So I couldn’t catch it. Went back the next day, end up getting the dance. He waited till we got out in the club and told me, This is called the Sakeem. I was like, what? I was like, WHAT? I was like, he threw it on me just like that. I said, “you serious?” He said yeah. He gave that to me . . . [for] being a friend and bringing him in to the group . . . Love him, miss him. I can’t talk too much about him. I’m emotional about that man. Seriously.10

Threw it on me just like that. Parks’s comment vibrates at the frequency of Ashon Crawley’s “like that,” a phrase Crawley uses to elaborate the “intellectual work that is done through . . . form” (Crawley, 47). Dave Bush Jr.’s seemingly spontaneous gift reveals a flourish, a gifting like that. Reading through Crawley, we might consider the Sakeem as a dance “sent into the world . . . to make audible, visible, felt [and] known” the bonds of black friendship, the sounds and movement of black friendship (Crawley, 50). This friendship is world-making done to a beat.

To learn the Sakeem, you have to chant. Indeed, I learned it that way at West Philadelphia’s Sayre Morris Recreation Center some years ago under the tutelage of line dance instructor Gloria Kingcade:

Kick.

Kick.

Tap. Kick and Cross (step).

Kick.

Kick.

Tap. Kick and Cross (step).

Kick and cross (step).

Kick and cross.

The absence of lyrics in the song invites dancers to make vocal music of the dance’s instructions. People on the floor will frequently call out additions to the form between beats, yelling out directions for interspersing jumping jacks, push-ups, and low dips along with cries of, “Repeat that mutha.” The dance is performed to the song Plastic Dreams, a ten-minutes-and-fifteen-seconds-long instrumental house music track produced by Dutch DJ Jaydee. Driven by a Hammond organ, the song pulsates with the instrument’s unmistakable vibrato. Soul line dance DJs will often play Plastic Dreams in its entirety, pushing the crowd to endure beyond the three- or four-minute mark when many recorded soul songs end. We might ask, What is the friendship that comes after exhaustion? The dance calls for a series of counterclockwise rotations at regular intervals: first 240 degrees, then 180 degrees, then 90 degrees. This pattern (3/4 turn, 1/2 turn, 1/4 turn) is combined with syncopated footwork, adding to the complexity of the choreography. In just about every instance of the Sakeem’s collective execution, a low murmur can be heard: Tap. Kick and Cross.

There is arguably no real need for experienced dancers to chant the instructions. Few dances involve this kind of extensive directional repetition as a feature. Following Crawley, I offer that this chanting’s extravagance is, in fact, an “excessive force that constitutes the very possibility of meaning.” What I mean to say is this: in the chanted geometries of black movement, soul line dancers sanctify the spaces of their convening. This recalcitrant togetherness exists “in the along,” over and against forces of racism and capitalist enclosure that would name such communion as befoulment, as loitering, as useless noise and carrying on.11 At the meeting of improvisation and repetition, dancers move in and through a sounded sociality that rehearses friendship and looks like what we might otherwise call love.

 

Works Cited

Crawley, Ashon. Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. Fordham University Press, 2017.

 

Happy Feet Dance Network, https://syndicate.network.youtube.com/watch?v=FakUs9ym5Ys

 

Jackson, Harvey H. III Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, vol. 16. The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

 

Jackson, John David. “Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 33, no. 2, 2001, pp. 40-53.

 

Jones, Elsie. Personal conversation. 18 July 2017.

 

Malone, Jacqui. Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. University of Illinois Press, 1996.

 

Urban Line Dance Connection, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.urbanlinedanceconnection.com/uploads/linedance/profiles/Union%20Crew%20Profile.htm


  1. Discussing the vocal flourishes of black women Pentecostal preachers, Crawley notes, “The like that is a concern fundamentally about, and the intellectual work that is done through, form.” Crawley 47.

  2. In addition to a debt of love to Ashon Crawley, I owe Jonathan B. Adams for inspiring me to write about soul line dancing and its rented halls. I am also indebted to Brittany L. Webb and Brandi S. Hughes for helping me think through the uses of the sacred and to Ms. Elsie Jones for her candor and verve.

  3. H. Jackson 141.

  4. Conversation with Elsie Jones, July 18, 2017.

  5. J. D. Jackson 42.

  6. Malone 1. For a discussion of choreography and black social dance in community perspective, see Malone, chapter 2.

  7. J. D. Jackson 45.

  8. At the time of this writing, the weekly gatherings remain regular, capped off by an annual weekend bringing hundreds of dancers from around the country to fellowship.

  9. Conversation with Elsie Jones, July 18, 2017

  10. Happy Feet Dance Network interview, https://syndicate.network.youtube.com/watch?v=FakUs9ym5Ys, accessed May 2, 2017.

  11. Crawley 84. Discussing the unction to live alongside and with shared breath, Crawley sites Gwendonlyn Brooks’ poem, “Speech To The Young : Speech To The Progress-Toward” as he points toward its speaker’s mandate to “live in the along.”

  • Ashon Crawley

    Ashon Crawley

    Reply

    Choreosonic

    How to be together, how are we to be together, how are we to be together in a way that produces justice and equity? How to be together in a way that thinks relation and personhood in such a way as to refuse the logics of settler colonialism and antiblack racism? This logic shows up often as the requirement of or aspiration towards the renunciation of the flesh. The problem of modern thought is with the way it constructs the modern liberal subject. Possessive individualism, the idea of possession, grasping, enclosing as the grounds from which the individual subject is produced, is one anchor for this entity, this way to think relation.

    The modern liberal subject attempts to think itself alone, think itself singular, think itself individual. The modern liberal subject has been produced through a possessiveness of objects, an ownership of things, which at the same time requires a renunciation and warding off of sociality, a renunciation of the fact of the flesh. The modern liberal subject is created by becoming-individual, becoming-singular, becoming-subject, and this against sociality, against relationality. The modern liberal subject constructs itself by enclosures, by borders. The modern liberal subject is a cultural construction, what Sylvia Wynter would perhaps call an ethnoclass, a genre of the human called modern Man.<footnote>Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257–337.</footnote> This genre, this very particular way to be human, would come to overrepresent itself as the only way to be human.

    As a cultural construction, the thought-theological, the thought-philosophical that produces the occasion for the emergence of the modern liberal subject would likewise be the racialization of such warding off, the racialization of renunciation and its aspirational enclosure, the racialization of sociality. In other words, the modern liberal subject is produced through the racialization of practices—of ways of life—that do not presume the possibility of, nor a desire reaching for, asociality. The modern liberal subject has been produced by what it has relinquished and what it has relinquished is sociality, is relationality, is being together with others. This relinquishment has been called whiteness, has been called white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. This relinquishing is continual, is needed, for the structure of coherence, for the structure of institutions and systems of thought and practice. These relinquishments have been, and continue to be, in the service of becoming-individual, becoming-singular, becoming-subject.

    This becoming, then, is not “natural,” it is not how things are in their fundament and verve but this becoming is a learning, an epistemologizing, it is a way to think against relation, the social. This becoming-individual, becoming-singular, becoming-subject requires violence as its ground of operation, particularly violence against those that would come to occupy the space of the refusing-individual, refusing-singular, refusing-subject. They were not only denied such possibility for achieving such aspiration but anaesthetic productions in black point us towards how there can be a refusal of the very capacity for making a claim about genres of humans.

    This has everything to do with the dance, with the choreosonic, with the movement of black sociality. What Nicole Ivy offers in her response to Blackpentecostal Breath is, for a word of precision, moving to me. It is moving to me because it picks up on the refusal to produce the antagonism between choreography and sonicity, her response elaborates upon how these modalities are the same modality, the same enfleshment, when produced in black. What one gets a sense for, in the

    Kick.

    Kick.

    Tap. Kick and Cross (step).

    Kick.

    Kick.

    Tap. Kick and Cross (step).

    Kick and cross (step).

    Kick and cross.

    It’s the sound for the movement, a movement for the sound. Matter vibrates and it is the fact of the choreosonic as the way of life, the way life happens, the way life is audible and portable. That matter vibrates allows its being moved and heard and if we take vibration as the grounds for existence, then we have to consider and imagine and dance different relations to one another. One of the desires of Blackpentecostal Breath was to approach what a refusal of renunciation is like, what a celebration of the refusal of renunciation can teach us about inhabiting worlds otherwise, what these practices can teach us about otherwise possibility.

    What I love about Ivy’s response to the choreosonic, about her discussion of dance in its particular emergence in Philadelphia, is how it is consistent with what I wrote in a short essay titled “Otherwise Movements.”<footnote>Ashon Crawley, “Otherwise Movements,” New Inquiry, January 19, 2015, https://thenewinquiry.com/otherwise-movements.</footnote> There, I say,

    To steal away is the topical thrust, the undergrounded verve of black performance. The steal away is (to riff off Zora Neale Hurston) the unceasing theme around which black performance varies. It is a different relation to time and space, the grounds for, without being educated into, modernity. Thus the dance for us is an ethical demand to vary and antagonize, to be restless and restive against the dominant political economy and its ordering of the world.

    Ivy points to a different relation to time and space, too, in her remembering of the dance in Philadelphia. This relation of difference makes itself felt and known by laying it down on the dance floor, by coming together to relinquish, to renounce, the epistemology of Western thought, by coming together to relinquish, to renounce, the being-singular, being-subject, being individual in order to release together with others, to socialize, to sweat, to sway.

Imani Perry

Response

What Is This Blackness in Black Study?

A Meditation on Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath

I am a cradle Catholic. I treasure the social gospel, and find myself centered by words chanted in unison and the clang of the censer’s chain. I am one who leans in to catch a taste of wafting frankincense. The doctrine, however, is not my own. And like most Black American Catholics, however, I’ve spent my fair share of time in Protestant churches. Joyful noise is familiar and inviting if not regular in my life. Those doctrines are also not my own. But one afternoon was different. I went to the funeral of a friend’s mother. She was a COGIC deacon, and a community leader and lover of her community.

Afterwards, I tried to explain to Ashon Crawley what I experienced that day. I said to him, “I almost had a conversion experience.” But those weren’t the right words at all. They sat on my tongue after I released them, awkwardly. I disdained them. What I felt wasn’t an “almost,” and it wasn’t conversion. It wasn’t a desire to learn and accept doctrine or adopt the sect. But there was a there there. Now, having read Blackpentecostal Breath, I know now what it was that so moved and embraced me. It was the otherwise possibility in that space, it was blackness/breath/living in the along that resonated at my very core. It was ordinary virtuosity, the unexpected sounds that coasted into a collective composition, the hands of Black women reaching skyward, slapping, on keys stomping and caressing them, and the circling—a centrifugal force of resistance.

Resistance. That word doesn’t sit quite right either.

Ashon’s thoughts make you question each triteness, every cliché. Shorthands are not just insufficient as he shows us, they are ruses. The book is a direct confrontation with the philosophy of the enlightenment and a rejection of categorical thought. At every turn he shows us what they miss and how they erase, destroy or stunt. In these pages, for example he provides one of the most pithy and incisive critiques of Orlando Patterson’s Hegelian-rooted theory of social death. Ashon’s reading practices, of Black practices, is a testimony that other kinds of relations beyond those of domination, property, the law of the father can, must, and do matter.

Black matter is neither dead nor deconstruced. It is multidirectional and creative.

This is not a history of Pentecostalism. Ashon tells us that in the beginning. He writes in and of tradition instead. And it is gloriously promiscuous. Although his attention to the past and specific sites and moments that are critical to Pentecostalism is painstaking, he eschews the disciplining narrative of history in favor of an architecture of relations that are vital and travel in multiple ways: back, up, in, out, and around in circles. The conventional Black American axis of South to North, is complicated by the Islamic roots of praying to the East and Pentecostalism’s roots in migrants out West. The circling repetition of the ring shout is not separable from the pulsing improvisation of the shouting body.

And yet, and this is very important for this book, the composition is tight. This is not undisciplined work though it is an unflinching critique of dominant modes of inquiry in a series of academic disciplines: philosophy, theology, political theory, history. Methodologically, Ashon has woven together threads of a tradition in lieu of chronological narration and conventional exclusionary abstraction. The book is structured poetry: synchronic, diachronic, and spatially exploratory at once.

I was reminded of this truism: There are questions that, as a professor, you ask students because you want to defamiliarize their answers. The danger is, of course, that in the midst of the lesson you cannot make things cohere again. The questioning eats all answers. Here is one of the questions I have learned to hesitate before asking: What does it mean to be Black? It never goes according to aspiration. I should have long known this. As an adolescent I picked up a book about the subject, read a few chapters and cast it aside furious. The author had no idea. He wrote, with amusement, about the curiosity that very light skinned people who obviously had more European ancestry than not, were nevertheless considered Black, as though that were strange. How, I wondered, could someone so fail to understand that Blackness is in the doing and being, not the epidermis? That signification of skin color is a red herring born of the ascriptive not the collective. Blackpentecostal breath testifies that Blackness is in the flesh: how it responds, moves and the sounds it creates. This, I think, is what my students can read to catch a likeness of Blackness.

Ashon’s shift from the visual register to enlist other sensorium is essential for Black study and has large scholarly implications—What else might we open up? Where else might we go from here? Perhaps, I am inspired to think, to the feel of bare feet on dirt and then on wooden slats as the freedpeople built Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. Perhaps to the calloused fingers of sweetgrass basketweavers on the sea islands, callousing carried from Sierra Leone, or to the itchiness of indigo seeped into the hands, or the texture of yams on the tongue—the fueling of the body, the responses to the rain, the soreness of muscles, the intimacies of labor. Ashon guides us to explore the intellectual, spiritual and enfleshed story of Blackness. And in refusing categorical thinking, he recommends and models treating senses as they are, always in relation and connection. Sound is not separated from motion. We breathe air together, we feel it together, in the vibration in our throats and off our bodies and the landscape around us.

This is defiance. Choking, lynching, suffocating: the destruction of breath is White supremacy in action. But Ashon reminds us that stealing breath is not the only story. His black study takes us to the creative experimentation of breath and fleshly experience that abandons all Cartesian anxieties: we are chorally connected, mind body/self/other. Hence, Blackpentecostal breath insists upon what Ashon calls otherwise possibility not as doctrine but in the doing.

By disentangling himself from the privileging of the visual in scholarly inquiry, as well as linear time, the register of sensual immanence comes to the fore in Ashon’s thinking. There he is attentive. Settling in a given moment he witnesses a host of things: fugitivity, memory, and desire. Though discipline is rejected as an academic vanity, this is disciplined reading. In these encounters Ashon enlists varying resources: physics, composition, poetry, song, footage, to reach for a telling of Blackness that is vital rather than categorical.

One day, waiting for my son’s game, I sat in on a basketball practice at a school for the deaf that serves Black youth. The girls played hard. They sweated and laughed and signed to each other with breadth and gracefulness. I am a hearing person and I was captivated by their sound. The slap of feet in a saunter or a pose, a guffaw, a play fight, a running holler at something uproariously funny. The shifting rhythm of a crossover. I knew all of these. They were very Black sounds. These sounds of Blackness, as it were, were made by the patterns of their breath and movement. Aha, I thought, this is what Ashon is unearthing. Black sounds were not predicated on hearing (or seeing) oneself, “be Black” they were produced by a praxis of Blackness in breath and motion. Ashon explains panoplies in Black spaces such that this moment has become one that I would be loathe to think of as “odd” in the sense of unusual, though it was, for me uncanny—it was the familiar unfamiliar that brought further clarity to what is in Blackness, not unlike the Pentecostal funeral service I attended. I was not converted. I was in that number.

Blackpentacostal breath, though it dwells specifically in spaces built by a religious tradition, is a theory of Blackness more than it is a theological or religio-historical inquiry. The word theatrical is also too small a reference, but I use it to describe what he presents as sites for imaginative activity that open up philosophical prospects that come from enfleshed exploration rather than abstraction. His contemplation of suites of sounds, movements and moments in churches provides moments of inquiry and theaters of possibility. This book is an altar call with no pieties, a mode of study with no doctrinal requirements.

In that vein, towards the conclusion Ashon turns the idea of “loss” (lost home, lost language, lost tradition) so prevalently enlisted in how we tell the story of Black Americans on its head. Ashon embraces the nowhere. Statelessness, internal colony, a nation on no map: these ways of naming Black life on these shores too easily capitulate to the very order the question. Ashon treats nowhereness not as shame but as the inflection point of possibility. This is instead, as he says and I paraphrase, a love letter in favor of the social. The social is prioritized over the territorial, over the settlement, over the border drawing.

For instance, in his exploration of speaking in tongues he brilliantly marks the distinction between describing tongue speaking as an experience of fluency in a coherent received and enclosed language, and as glossolalia, ecstatic utterances outside grammars and rules and “knowing” in the sense we usually apply to language. This latter realm of plenitude and indeterminacy is mystery and potentiality at once.

Blackpentecostal breath is scholarship yet it is also political work, though that might not be readily apparent to one disciplined in the ways of political science or theory. Stepping away from religious doctrine and stepping away from academic disciplines are similar moves. Words like recognition and citizenship aren’t here, neither are extended discussions of church rules. It is a work of the inside-out, rather than the theory-laden material of Western social theory. As an example, Ashon weaves a story and it is illustrative of the entire text, about learning to draw. In the beginning he was taught to start with a hard outline and color within. As a student of architecture, he was encouraged to begin with shading, and to allow the form to follow. It is the moment of encounter, the shadows not the frame, that pulls in his care and contemplation. That is ultimately the recommendation or better yet the sermon, that we learn from the together—sharing air, harnessing air, making noise, shaping it, sounding with one another—how to be instruments of ethical relation.

  • Ashon Crawley

    Ashon Crawley

    Reply

    Loss

    Blackpentecostal Breath is about loss, it is a desire to decipher what one has both before encountering doctrine and theology and philosophy and history, and what one has if one gives such things away. It is a writing that desires to elaborate that which can be given away and that which remains that causes us to move. It is often allowable with music but I wanted to know if it can be in disorganized sound as well, in that which we call noise? And I wondered about the capacity to be moved and the ways we train ourselves out of being moved for fear of being thought irrational, emotional, without reason or pure judgment.

    Blackpentecostal Breath is a personal writing, is a love letter to a tradition, in the most robust and caring sense. It is a space that made possible my thinking sense experience in ways that I came to find were not normative, I came to find were not celebrated but often shunned. But, as I’ve already written in other responses to this text, blackpentecostalism is no utopic space of inhabitation but is likewise compromised by practices of exclusion and violence. So what’s the point? The point is that something is there in the practices that produce in me the feeling of loss when I ponder how I left spaces like Bibleway Church of God in Christ, like Open Door Mission True Light Church.

    Loss is about emptying. But emptying creates room for filling, for indwelling, for otherwise possibility. Loss is not, in other words, the only story. Relationships, friendships, severed because of self-declared blackqueerness as celebratory, as a way of life that has transformational capacity, is one experience. I miss lots of people, yes. But I also discovered sociality otherwise, dense and thick and intense friendships, family otherwise, once opening myself and making myself vulnerable to thinking the plentitude of queer possibility. I had to begin to embrace that which—according to normative blackpentecostal theology and doctrine—was degraded, that which was considered discardable. It was the embrace of the flesh, the escape into the dense social field of the excluded, the marginal, the blackqueerfemme world I once myself shunned. And once dwelling there, realizing the possibility, the alternative forms of life as gifts to the normative world.

    Imani Perry’s meditation on Blackpentecostal Breath caused me to think about loss, caused me also, yes, to think about capacity. And not just the loss of the personal. What can loss produce in terms of sociality? What if we lose the concepts that have proven, in this long episteme, to produce violence, exclusion, violation ongoingly? What would be the result of such an epistemic loss, what could such loss open up to us, make us open to?

    At every turn he shows us what they miss and how they erase, destroy or stunt. In these pages, for example he provides one of the most pithy and incisive critiques of Orlando Patterson’s Hegelian-rooted theory of social death. Ashon’s reading practices, of Black practices, is a testimony that other kinds of relations beyond those of domination, property, the law of the father can, must, and do matter.

    I think, what if we lost this concept of social death as the organizing principle for understanding black life and sociality? I wonder, for example, if social death names an epistemic limit, an epistemic desire for coherence and stability within a given set of strictures regarding domination, property, law. What if such limit and horizon were given over to loss? How would we then think black life, black sociality? This is not to say that Orlando Patterson’s work is discardable—any scholar that wants to think blackness must contend with the important work—but to consider the way the concept cannot account for the anaesthetic force of black sociality, not lived in but lived against social death as an abstract theory, not lived in but lived as flesh against theological-philosophical theory.

    Ashon embraces the nowhere. Statelessness, internal colony, a nation on no map: these ways of naming Black life on these shores too easily capitulate to the very order the question. Ashon treats nowhereness not as shame but as the inflection point of possibility.

    Such that to be nowhere, to be stateless, is to enact otherwise in the flesh in a literal sense. We emerge from a tradition that had not the protection of the state, of the concept of the human, of man, of citizen, of subject, but made worlds. Worlds dense, worlds manifold, worlds imaginative. Such world-making was found in the spiritual practices not bound to religious doctrine or theology, spiritual practices that celebrated the fundamental connection to all that is. Blackpentecostals taught me that folks all the time misrecognize the pulsing life of the practice because they have an aversion to the flesh. Blackpentecostals also taught me that it is ok, it is indeed lovely, to celebrate the thing that folks avert because it is not a cause for shame but a cause for imagining that we can exist as critical thinkers through flesh practice. So I treat nowhereness as the refusal of shame because each and every occasion for being marginalized is because dominant modes of existence—those that are produced through exclusion—cannot capture the potentiality of blackqueerfemme life. We can, in other words, reject the terms of order, Cedric Robinson might say, the terms that order normative life to live into and refuse the shame of otherwise possibility.

    Loss. What must be given to loss, then, is the desire to be part of that which excludes, that which produces exclusion through violent call and encounter. What if we lost our appetite for conspicuous consumption, what if we lost our desire for inclusion in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, what if we celebrated that life can happen—indeed, does happen—for the excluded and marginalized? What if we recalibrated desire such that we celebrated the excluded and marginalized while fighting against the violent forces that produce the occasion for excluding and marginalizing? This is the problem of our time, this is the concern that Blackpentecostal Breath attempts to consider, interrogate and perform.

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