today i presented for #SPS2012 - the Society for Pentecostal Studies - on a panel responding to the documentary film “Let the Church Say Amen,” a cool documentary following the lives of several individuals who attend a storefront pentecostal church in Washington, DC. following are my comments regarding the film [which you can watch on hulu for free, linked above].
Helga Crane was on the search for something. She spent the majority of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand trying to understand something about life, about love, which is to say, something about a material-spiritual way to be in the world. Her otherness, her non-whiteness, her mulatto-ness that was also, only and always her blackness sent her on paths across the United States. She also went to Denmark where she felt she had become, to use Frantz Fanon, an object in the eyes of the Danes. Crane returned to the States, to Harlem specifically, because she missed the faces of, and comfort from, black folks who did not make her feel like an objection, like a question, like a problem.
One might say that she was on a journey, that Crane was committed to a general, non-secular agnosticism that was at the same time the refusal of the secular western philosophical construction of atheistic stance that purports, in the most robust sense, the impossibility of further discovery for an object – a journey not dissimilar to Seymour’s and Mason’s travels across the United States in the service of a “seeking” encounter. What moves me about Crane is her continual dissatisfaction with the world as she knew it; her peregrinations were seeking for a fullness that she did not, and most certainly could not know existed previous to its discovery. But this lack of knowledge was not the occasion for a refusal to journey, nor a declaration of the non-existence of such fulfillment. And that Journey, from the US South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark back to Harlem paused, if only momentarily, as she fell into the warmth and acoustic embrace of a storefront church:
[Helga Crane] had opened the door and entered before she was aware that, inside, people were singing a song which she was conscious of having heard years ago — hundreds of years it seemed. Repeated over and over, she made out the words:
…Showers of blessings,
Showers of blessings…
She was conscious too of a hundred pairs of eyes upon her as she stood there, drenched, disheveled, at the door of this improvised meeting-house…The appropriateness of the song, with its constant reference to showers, the ridiculousness of herself in such surroundings, was too much for Helga Crane’s frayed nerves. She sat down on the floor, a dripping heap, and laughed and laughed and laughed. It was into a shocked silence that she laughed.
There were, it appeared, endless moaning verses. Behind Helga a woman had begun to cry audibly, and soon, somewhere else, another….
Helga too began to weep, at first silently, softly; then with great racking sobs. Her nerves were so torn, so aching, her body so wet, so cold! It was a relief to cry unrestrainedly, and she gave herself freely to soothing tears, not noticing that the groaning and sobbing of those about her had increased, unaware that the grotesque ebony figure at her side had begun gently to pat her arm to the rhythm of the singing and to croon softly: ‘Yes, chile, yes, chile.’ Nor did she notice the furtive glances that the man on her other side cast at her between his fervent shouts of ‘Amen!’ and ‘Praise God for a sinner!’
She did notice, though, that the tempo, that atmosphere of the place, had changed, and gradually she ceased to weep and gave her attention to what was happening about her…. And as Helga watched and listened, gradually a curious influence penetrated her; she felt an echo of the weird orgy resound in her own heart; she felt herself possessed by the same madness; she too felt a brutal desire to shout and to sling herself about.
She stumbled into a storefront church and the into radical possibility that was opened to her by way of sound, intensity, fervor. We might call this an example of Nimi Wariboko’s “pentecostal principle” as she continually found herself in spaces, constantly moving but never settling, always willing to begin again. She is the embodiment of the material condition that “no finite or conditioned reality can claim to have reached its destiny” and her movements were always in the direction of a sociality. Helga Crane’s movements prompt the question: what is art? And, attendant, how is the storefront the production of art, the production of aesthetic practice?
Crane entered the church because, literally, it was serving as a refuge from the rain storm occurring outdoors. It was there, in the community, open, serving its own purpose previous to her arrival: folks were there, praising there, singing there, joyous there, tarrying there, enacting radical sociality against the grain of sociological projects that would so have a constrained understanding of Negro storefront Pentecostal churches as “Cults,” as E. Franklin Frazier would have it. Crane entered the church because she didn’t want to be wet any longer, wanted to dry off and calm her nerves. The materiality of the building was likewise a dwelling, open, pentecostal.
There was no belief necessary for such material inhabitation. Belief is not what prompted her desire to be in the storefront but a recognition of the conditions of the life she lived. Still. Something happened. Stumbling into the space, the soniferous environment made a claim on her. The voices sang to her, the bodies came to her. Falling on the ground, wet, she laughed. But somewhere between laughs, her engagement became serious. Her initial posture allowed her to listen, and listening opened to experience. The sounds of people singing, praying, praising – the sounds, generally, of the inspiring and expiring of breath, inhaling and exhaling, the aestheticizing of breathing in that tight, constrained space of the storefront – produced a bass, a bottom, a foundation upon which she could be carried. There was a resonance of the sounds, of the voices. She heard them. She inhabited them. She was, literally, covered – by sounds, by bodies – and we might say that this covering also was the refuge, at least at that temporal moment; she sought without having known it. She did not merely open up the church door but she allowed herself to be open to that which she heard, to what she felt. It was, for her, a terrifyingly joyful experience.
“Let the church say ‘Amen!’”
Susan Buck-Morss, in an essay about Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”[i] discusses the etymology of the word “aesthetics” and its relation to the forms of cognition: taste, touch, smell, sight, sound. Aesthetics, she says, are related to this mode of cognition that is unacculturated, that is previous to culture because the senses “maintain an uncivilized and uncivilizable trace, a core resistance to cultural domestication” and that “their immediate purpose is to serve instinctual needs – for warmth, nourishment, safety, sociability” and that this is a biological concern (6). What Buck-Morss makes apparent is that aesthetics are not antagonistic to biology but that they share an originary concern regarding the utilization of the senses. Buck-Morss allows a question: can we think of the storefront church as the space through which aesthetic-biological practice is enacted?
This is what I saw in the film “Let the Church Say Amen.’” The film opens with a man on the journey, not in the church building, but on the street, declaring to the people encounters that there will be needs met – for clothing, for medical care, for food – and that all the people he encountered needed to do was show up at the right place and the right time. And, sure, he may have offered to pray with people if they requested but would not force such a thing if it would be deemed an imposition. The film begins this way: with an understanding that human need for warmth, nourishment, safety and sociability are primary concerns and not adjunct to spiritual practice. That to say: materiality matters. It’s what got Helga Crane into the door of the church; material conditions are that which World Missions for Christ Church attempted to respond. Pastor Bobby Perkins declared that he’d rather be in a chicken coop than in a cathedral if the former had the presence of God and the latter was lacking. Materiality matters, but only insofar as it is infused with an intentionality of divine presence. It is not that the cathedral does not have the presence as a general rule but that the persons there often refuse the presence of certain aesthetic – which are also and likewise theological-philosophical – practices.
We see that World Missions for Christ Church is one of radical affirmation, or maybe radical hospitality. Some examples include the brother-sister bond between Pastor Bobby Perkins and Dr. JoAnn Perkins, and the reiteration of the phrase that the church is somewhere where, as Darlene Duncan said, “everybody is somebody.” Darlene Duncan is most important to me here because she enacts the pentecostal principle, what James KA Smith called the “radical openness to God,” not only – or even primarily – as she sang “I love to praise his holy name” while playing the tambourine inside the walls of World Missions, but as she sat with the woman discussing her aptitude for becoming a nursing assistant. When asked how she would be able to pass the entrance exam, Duncan stated “I’ll study with my children so that we can all do it together.” Without embarrassment or hesitance, she would do it with others, she would do it together. Pentecostalism is a mode of study, it is a hermeneutics that is both previous to and against the grain of secularist enlightenment thought of which Immanuel Kant’s considerations are exemplary.
Enlightenment, Kant answers the question in 1784, is “the emergence from (one’s) self-incurred minority” and minority, accordingly, is the “inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another.”[ii] Enlightenment, we might say after Kant, is the aversion to social choreography, the aversion to social thought; it is movement of the mind, of the faculties, of one’s own accord without considering the space placement of another. Enlightenment is the emergence – the becoming, the bursting forth and free – into an anti-social way of knowing, thinking, doing, moving. Of course, to become, burst forth and free are not, of themselves, the problematic. This is not a critique of movement, nor emergence or escape. Harriet Tubman burst into New York, having escaped by herself only to find her freedom anything but sweet because she was lonely. She returned to Maryland in order to have others abscond with her; freedom is a social thing.[iii] Enlightenment thought’s desire is to dance by oneself on the dance floor and not be bothered by the sweat of another, nor their rhythms, nor smells. It is a retreat from the social in order to produce knowledge. As retreat, it is a move and move away from that which makes possible movement.
For Kant, freedom and sociality are opposed to each other; one does not achieve Enlightenment – as a type of freedom – unless one emerges from the self-incurred minority, unless one leaves behind a sociality and begins not only to think for himself, but to think at all. Thinking is the enterprise of the individual; he does not allow for the masses to be thinking together, for there to be social thought. Thus one wonders, can there be a freedom that is not Enlightenment, that is not about the emergence from a social into a particular transcendental subjectivity? What type of freedom can exist as a function of sociality? The beginning of Enlightenment is found in the averted posture toward, and thus against, the social. In order to think Enlightenment philosophy, we must consider its general field of choreographies of bodies, of objects, of things as well as the enactment of aversions in particular.
Darlene Duncan’s simple declaration that she would study with her children, and that they would “do it together” is a counterclaim for the production of knowledge. She refuses such philosophy of thinking oneself into existence, of thinking away and alone, she produces a scholarly discourse of the social and a social discourse of the scholar. She learns with others, with the ways they move and behave and agree and dissent. This is, we might say, made evident in the tight constraints of storefront churches. We saw in the film shouting, speaking in tongues, preaching, praying, all taking place in the tiny building, bodies packed closely together. The building reminds me of New Born Mission Church of God in Christ in Newark, NJ, a church where my father preached very often, a storefront church where, immediately when you walk in, your senses are assaulted by the smell of fried chicken and fish, the sounds of people singing and tambourines, the feeling of heat that sorta sits atop you, the sight of hands raised, the touch of dingy carpeting on the ground. This assault was not a violence nor violation but a making real the fact of ones humanity, ones open-ended biological structure.
Duncan’s critique of Enlightenment as the studying and being together with others as a productive mode of thought, also is a biological concern regarding what “the body” is. Buck-Morss states, regarding the body, “Not only is it open to the world through the sensory organs, but the nerve cells within the body form a network that is in itself discontinuous. They reach out toward other nerve cells at points called synapses, where electrical charges pass through the space between them” (13). That which we call “the body” [the thing that Judith Butler problematizes by considering the discursivity of “sex”; by illustrating how any “the body” is a rhetorical, linguistic, philosophical flourish and assumption; and that behaviors in some bodies dematerialize them] is likewise given to radical critique on the grounds of the “natural,” or the “biological” or what is thought generally under the rubric of the “scientific.” Even in that realm, those things called bodies are not closed off but radically open to experience. The nerves reach out, the skin is the in-between of the interior and external world. It is quite curious how the desire to be a subject, a thinker, a scholar in philosophy parallels the desire to be a body, an individual, a closed system in other discourses.
Black Pentecostal churches generally, and storefront churches particularly, are modes of marronage, of marooning, of stealthily moving toward a different rhythm and the creation of radically new epistemological center. The performative practices of pentecostalism – as aesthetic practices that are foundationally theological-philosophical – share a relation, not necessarily of exile, but of marronage. We can look to the maroon communities of the Suriname River in South America, or those who took up dwelling in the South Carolina / Georgia interior border, of those who lived as the Ciprieréin Louisiana. These were communities that “secreted” themselves from local plantations, creating radically different modes of life than enacted on plantations. Maroons, once secreted into communes in which they would dwell, needed to till the land, grow food, clean pots, etch spoons, build dwellings, birth and care for children, form socio-sexual lives. But importantly, the threat violence from the outside world was always possible, so the preparation of the ground, of traps, of food, was always infused with a preparation for possible encounter. Preparation, readiness, practice for encounter, was of necessity an aesthetic, theological-philosophical practice. It was a way to study the swamp, to survey the interior, to know when to let and to recede into the background. It was to be prepared for the surprise of encounter.
This, like Darlene Duncan’s learning, was a gathering of social thought. It had to be done with others, together, the refusal of Enlightenment thought. Storefront churches are the place where thought happens, where thought prompts engagement in the world. This is not to valorize the conditions, such as poverty, which create the need for storefront churches. Rather, this is to assert that storefront churches are likewise places of study, places of life: “Being alive is not equivalent to knowing or experiencing. Rather, it is a tendency to be attuned to living: to look, contemplate, and search. It is thinking” (Jean-Christophe Bailly, 7).
Shouting is one such place where this thinking occurs. And so finally, I turn to Mason. Charles Harrison Mason, founder of COGIC, had much to say about “dancing.” In his piece “Is It Right for the Saints of God to Dance?” he answered with an emphatic “yes.” Mason says:
“The children of God dance of God, for God, and to the praise and glory of his name. They have the joy of the spirit of the Lord in them, they are joyful to their King – the Christ. At times they may be dancing Christ is all, or none but Christ. How sweet it is to dance in Him and about Him, for he is all. So to dance in the Spirit of the Lord expresses joy and victory.”[iv]
What intrigues me about Mason’s description of shouting is the way that a circumambulatory architecture structures his rendering of the dance. This circumambulatory structure occurs at the level of rhetoric, particularly the prepositionsof, for and to God. This prepositional trinity sets up, and maybe steals a-way, the theological-philosophical “space” in which Pentecostal dance could not only take place, but thrive and flourish. Mason’s rhetoric regarding shouting is consistent with ring shout practices insofar as a way needed to be made out of no way, ground upon which sounds could emanate needed to be cleared.[v] But also with his rhetoric is the reinstantiation of directionality. Prepositions are “pointing” terms; they bespeak spatial orientation and positionality. But at the moment of the enunciation of the dance of, toand for God, Mason also rehearsed a particular hesitance with positionality that would have him stilled. Storefront churches, we might say, are material dwellings of such tripartite prepostionality. They are a created space – in an urban jungle – for praise, refusing a conception that the Lord could only inhabit disconnected buildings, tall steeples decorated with crosses atop. No. Storefronts are open and refuse such disconnection.
[i] Susan Buck-Morss, ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered’, October, 62 (1992), 3–41.
[ii] Immanuel Kant and Allen W Wood, Basic Writings of Kant, 2001 Modern Library pbk. ed. (New York: Modern Library„ 2001), p. 133.
[iii] Sarah H. (Sarah Hopkins) Bradford, Harriet Tubman, the Moses of Her People, American Experience Series. (Gloucester, Mass. : P. Smith, 1981.).
[iv] Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Leigh Eric Schmidt and Mark R Valeri, Practicing Protestants : Histories of Christian Life in America, 1630-1965 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press„ 2006), p. 171.
[v] Mason, of course, was involved in post-emancipatory, reconstruction battles about the meaning of the divine, of the spirit, of the prayers of his ancestors. The black holiness movement of which Mason was a part spanning roughly 1896-1906 contended with the black Baptist movement, making claims that the theology of the very rhetoric of being a “Baptist Church” was not a biblical precept and, thus, should be done away with. For a robust treatment of this history, see David Douglas Daniels, The Cultural Renewal of Slave Religion: Charles Price Jones and the Emergence of the Holiness Movement in Mississippi, 1992 For example, Daniels describes the various schisms that took place at the now historic Mt. Helm (Baptist) Church, its various renamings such as the Church of God and the Christ’s Tabernacle that they desired in order to be more consistent with what they believed to be biblical mandates. The church specifically wanted to separate from “Baptist” churches and “from all creeds, denominations, associations and conventions…because of the evils in them” (32). This was the theological ground in which Mason found himself making a space.