Historicity and Black Studies: The Aesthetics of Pentecost
My dissertation analyzes the religious and cultural underpinnings of Black social life found in performance forms from the mid-18th thru the mid-20th centuries such as Negro Spirituals, “Shout” songs and the attendant Ring Shout dance practices, and Gospel music. My research of the history of these performance forms revealed that often these cultural productions were dismissed as primitivist, anti-Christian, unenlightened. There were incessant injunctions against such practices, clergy and scholars calling for the abandonment of these spiritual and ecstatic modes of life, though they were integral for resisting racist evils. The use of these cultural productions has often been deemed valid only when they were heuristic devices for producing a proper, secular and enlightened, citizen. The ecstatic content that formerly animated both religious and secular black life was viewed through a distorting nostalgia and largely sentimentalized. For many upwardly-mobile Black people, this content became an “embarrassment” because it recalled the enactment of these forms during the period of US slavery.
My dissertation asks how embarrassment for and subsequent abandonment of particular ecstatic aesthetics occurred in various discourses, and investigates the ways new discourses tended toward secularism, dismissing the ongoing importance of religion. To ground this investigation, my dissertation focuses on the performance practices – in particular of song, dance, and breath – of what eventually would be called at the turn of the 20th century, Black Pentecostalism. Though Christian in faith, Pentecostalism, I argue, is not reducible to a Christian theology. Rather, my project analyzes historical performance practices to theorize the possible interrelations of Christianity, Islam and indigenous religiosity of West Africa. Mine is a literary and cultural studies project, arguing that religious expression helps us understand 20th century black literature and culture as necessarily syncretic. This 20th century group, calling themselves Pentecostal, desired to continue performance practices that were important to the spiritual and ecstatic lives of the enslaved, practices that allowed the enslaved to persist in the face of various oppressions. But this 20th century group was often dismissed variously as “holy rollers,” as “cultish,” and as primitive. My dissertation argues that an aversion to and embarrassment for these performance practices developed after the Civil War. I seek to investigate the philosophical underpinnings of this aversion and embarrassment. I engage philosophical movements of Enlightenment, Romanticism, Phenomenology and Pragmatism that preceded this 20th century Pentecostal movement in order to theorize aversion and embarrassment and the ongoing consequences of discourses – academic and national – operating from these philosophies.
This dissertation is an interdisciplinarity engagement with literary theory and theological studies as well as continental philosophy, queer theory and musicology. Historicity is organized as two parts: Movement 1 theorizes three philosophical movements that, I argue, have an aversion for Black social life and will analyze performance practices – the history and ontology – of the aesthetics of Black dance, song and breath as constitutive of a resistant Black social life. Movement 2 analyzes three important figures that produced studies of the resistant strains of Black social life, examining how they engaged spiritual and ecstatic practices, and critiqued normative epistemologies.
Chapter 1 lays the groundwork for thinking of the aesthetics of Pentecostalism. Using Enlightenment philosophy’s theories of race, the chapter will attempt to analyze those theories as ”choreographic,” as a series of placements and arrangements that creates the concept of racial difference. Philosophy as a choreographic arrangement of thoughts may allow us to think about the relationship of space, place and movement necessary for the creation of race/ism as organizing logic and teleological principle. Enlightenment philosophy, I argue, cannot think the concept of race generally or the figure of the Negro particularly without becoming anti-logical. I will argue that there is a choreography of thought, found in performance of dance that avoids such racist philosophy. As such, the chapter will end by exploring the historicity of another choreography – the spirited, theological, expressive, social interrelations between Afro-Arabic saut, 19th century Ring Shout and 20th century Pentecostal “shouting”.
Chapter 2 will treat American Romanticism’s notion of freedom of the individual and Phenomenology’s transcendental subject – chronological and philosophical descendants of Enlightenment thought – as also important theoretical and philosophical grounds for Pentecostalism’s ecstatic and aesthetic critique. The twentieth-century Pentecostal “Testimony Service” of song+dance – the section of the church service when anyone can sing, pray, testify – often leads to ecstatic dance. Testimony Service occurs before the preached moment and often reconfigures the service order, at times making the preached moment a non-necessity. I will argue that Testimony Service is both the preparation for divine encounter and also, in its very preparation, that same moment of encounter. This chapter explains the politics of preparation as an always-aesthetic intervention into the world that is both the anticipation for and refusal of Romanticism’s free individual and Phenomenology’s transcendental subject, rather providing moments of waiting and practice, allowing the emergence of new sociality such as a singing, shouting congregation, behaving together in in the world differently.
With Chapter 3, I will consider the historicity and transference of breath as the necessary physiological and spiritual force that makes possible the song and dance of Pentecostalism. The chapter again returns to the Afro-Arabic/Afro-Christian relation, theorizing “recitation” of Qur’anic text with Christian “Whooping,” the speaking of a phrase eclipsed by pause and breathing. I argue that breath use is intentional, yielding an interrelation between modes of speaking and prayer. Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Schmidt) discusses a person’s capacity to hear one’s own breath as prayerful posture toward the divine and how that breath is a reminder of the connection with and allows the hearing the voice of the divine internally. This chapter will ponder Pragmatism as a philosophical tradition that is also about eclipse and pause, though not of breath, but of possibility and vitality by way of an incrementalism as teleology.
Chapter 4 begins Movement 2 with an analysis of W.E.B. Du Bois’s theories of Negro life and problematics in the Americas. The chapter explores Du Bois’s “Of the Faith of the Fathers” as a moment of tension between the epigraph – a section of a William Sharp poem – and the actual imaginative, theological and ethical force that informs the subsequent text of the essay. The tension, I argue, is lays bare the interplay of aversion and the politics of avoidance, embarrassment and the politics of preparation. In the essay, Du Bois explores Negro religious “frenzy” and this chapter theorizes frenzy as an aesthetic quality of Pentecostalism with and against the journal he published, Phylon, the radical writings of which were, at least in part, responsible for making Du Bois appear to be “unfit” for Atlanta University. This is to ask: what is the relationship of knowledge to frenzy, of epistemology to ecstatics.
Chapter 5 addresses Zora Neale Hurston’s unusual and provocative theories of Black expressive culture. In her anthropological studies, took seriously the Black Pentecostal tradition and she used the same rigor with the linguistic capital and sociality of Black people in her fictional writing. In Chapter 5, I discuss Hurston’s engaging critique of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, with her claim that the songs they sang were not performed in ways consistent with what one would have heard on a plantation. Her writing about Negro expressive culture took aim at the performance of “civilized” jubilee songs learned in the university, as the university was a regulatory apparatus for Negro expressive culture, was the refinement of that which embarrassed. I argue that her writing was experimental, blurring disciplinary boundaries of the university and this experimentality is consistent with Pentecostal aesthetics. She utilized a sociality that allowed her to take seriously the thought and intentionality of the moments and movements of Pentecost.
Finally, in Chapter 6, I write about Mamie Till, the mother of 1955 lynching victim Emmett Till, as I wish to consider the religious ethics that prompted her desire for the world to experience the death of her son by way of an open casket and the proliferation of photographs of his bloated, mottled body. An active member of a Chicago, IL Pentecostal church at the time of Emmett’s death, Mamie Till lets us consider what her openness to Black Pentecostalism extended for Till-Bradley in terms of a very specific enactment of black feminist care. This chapter asserts that there is a refusal of closure – of caskets, of sacred space – through which one can be moved and so move others and is the culmination of breath+song+dance in the open display of Emmett.