A Moment for Black, Queer Jesus

Jason Micheli from http://tamedcynic.org/

Call me old fashioned, but I believe Jesus and literature always apply. That’s one of the reasons I pursued an advanced degree in the subject.

I’m posting an excerpt from my Master’s Thesis in light of the recent racial reckoning in America which happens to coincide with Pride Month. Jesus of Nazareth was a human being like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the thousands of LGBTQ individuals now protected from employment discrimination after the Supreme Court’s decision (and the thousands of Dreamers now temporarily protected after another decision). But the remarkable nature of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and – if you believe in that sort of thing (*narrator voice* I do) – resurrection, means that the Middle Eastern carpenter executed by the Romans has a transcendent nature for all peoples in all times. In my thesis, I sought to use literature to show how the concept of “Black Jesus” properly emphasizes Jesus’ place in the experience of oppressed peoples. My work was especially concerned with the experience of Black Americans, but a portion of my first chapter explored the ways in which Black Jesus is of special relevance to LGBTQ individuals because Jesus is, I argue, a queer figure.

The excerpt below comes from my chapter on Wallace Thurman’s 1932 novel Infants of the Spring, a story about young Black artists during the Harlem Renaissance told from the perspective of Raymond, a young writer who is Thurman’s stand-in. For the full thesis and citations, go here.


The story of the Harlem Renaissance, and indeed of Black American history, is often told as a story of remarkable individuals, some of whom Raymond specifically discusses. The novel does not affirm this narrative, and instead casts light on the shortcomings of flawed individuals. In this, W.E.B. Du Bois is again relevant and prescient, claiming, “Throughout history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness,” (34) a tragedy which he attributes not to weakness or inferiority, but to the nature of double-consciousness, or the “double-aimed struggle of the black artisan” (34). As the novel’s concerns take shape, it becomes clear that remarkable individuals represent an answer to existential problems, but the characters can hardly conceive of an individual powerful enough to address the nature of their plight.

The novel’s misgivings about the saving power of individuals works in conjunction with anxieties about the stock placed in the future as the location of progress and salvation. After Raymond’s longtime friend Lucille comes to him for help in getting an abortion after she becomes pregnant with the boorish artist Bull’s child she says to Raymond, “I never want to bring a child into this world. I agree with you, although I doubt your sincerity, that race suicide would be the quickest way to cure human beings of their ills. Why should we go on bringing others into this world?” (158). It is a morbid and sociopathic thought, but one which Raymond affirms:

“It would be a grand day when the entire human race would be rendered sterile…a grand joke on the cantankerous old creator of our universe. I would chuckle with glee if one by one the inhabitants of this foolish old world would drop dead with no newly born replicas to don their shoes. That, in my opinion, is true anarchism.” (158)

Raymond’s remark is a compelling inversion of contemporary eugenicist thought, which Thurman decried not only in Infants of the Spring but in the screenplay he would write for an antieugenic film, Tomorrow’s Children, in 1934. His remarks here enter into the project of defining and controlling the succession of the Black family. The legacy of chattel slavery has, according to Hortense Spillers, dehumanized and commodified the Black body (67) while destroying the capacity for African peoples in the Diaspora to conform to Western notions of patronymic succession and nuclear family structure (74). “Failure” to conform to these structures affirms anti-black narratives, and so the creation of future generations ends up working against the Black population.  Raymond’s inversion of eugenics rejects the notion of eliminating a population deemed inferior or undesirable.

This critique of family structure and succession also attacks the stronghold of eugenic practice: the future. Paired with Spillers’ work, Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive raises the stakes as he suggests that prizing the future limits the potential of the present as the interests of the future erase any deviance that would threaten a social order based in heteronormative reproduction:

For politics, however radical the means by which specific constituencies attempt to produce a more desirable social order, remains, at its core, conservative insofar as it works to affirm a structure, to authenticate social order, which it then intends to transmit to the future in the form of its inner Child. (2-3)

Edelman rejects the future as it, even in attempts to be new, better, or progressive, acts to reproduce the past. He suggests a mode of existence which (quoting from Guy Hocquenghem), “is unaware of the passing of generations as stages on the road to better living. It knows nothing about ‘sacrifice now for the sake of future generations’ . . . [it] knows that civilisation alone is mortal” (30-1). Edelman’s rejection of the future is based in the threat the Child poses to affirming the place of queer sexuality in society, a conflict which plays out in Paul’s fate. Fiona Ngô describes Paul’s suicide as “a grand performance of queer identity, where death is presented as another form of transcendence” (104). Paul is open about his queer sexuality, but in his death he rejects societal demands in extraordinary fashion as he denies whatever possibilities were held in the future of a system built to write people like him out of it.

Rejection of the future based in queer identity is part of Raymond’s proposal of universal sterilization, but it also stems from marginalization based in other deviances from normativity. The artists of Niggerati Manor are judged and oppressed on account of the color of their skin, and some of them affirm the constructed superiority of whiteness by trying to pass for white or by affirming the value of sexual partners with lighter skin, which, looking to the future, would create light-skinned children more in accordance with white society’s standards of breeding, worth, and beauty. The artists are also pressured to produce the right kind of art. In his artistic pursuits, Eustace refuses to sing Negro spirituals, a belief which Raymond thinks has Eustace unwittingly affirming “the theory of Nordic superiority” (65). The artists also face scrutiny for their bohemian lifestyle and decadence, which runs counter to the expectations respectable society has for producers of visual art, music, and literature. The standards, expectations, and normativity which the artists do not acquiesce to are future-oriented; it is in the interests of the future, of the Child, that society seeks to regulate their behavior and castigate them for their deviance. But Raymond and Paul do not want to have to look to the future for solutions. They do not want to affirm the structures which put people of non-normative identities on the fringe. The future is nothing to them if the future demands a sacrifice in the present – especially as that future will be tailored to the needs of normativity.  Raymond’s vision of the destruction of humanity is based in an unmet demand: to be able – not tomorrow, but today – to live and express oneself as straight or queer, as any color, creating whatever art they see fit in their individual experience as a human being of worth.

….

The Middle Passage also moves Raymond’s dream as a site of freedom outside of linear time, which frees him from the demands of the future while also inviting the presence of Black Jesus, as Black Jesus is also unbounded by time. The Transatlantic slave trade was an event that can be measured in linear units of time, but as a location and as a historical event its temporality is unstable and fluid. It is, as Sharpe says, “the past that is not past” (9). A reclaimed Middle Passage is not constrained by the demands of the future which oppress Raymond. While remarkable individuals who might be race saviors face the limits of time, Black Jesus does not, and so this space is ideal for the figure to enter. Black Jesus exists outside of space and time and brings hope without insisting on looking towards the future, all requisite traits for an individual answer to the frustration and pessimism exuded by Infants of the Spring. Raymond’s dream of the Middle Passage locates refuge and freedom in an unparticular time and place, and his musings on human extinction indicate his distaste for future-oriented solutions. While the historical Black Jesus – a Galilean Jew executed in 33 A.D. – is confined within linear time, the theological figure of Black Jesus and his ongoing ministry are not limited by chronology. Black Jesus suffers in solidarity with the oppressed throughout history. James Cone sees the body of Christ “recrucified” in every “black body hanging from a lynching tree” (xv) in American history. Cone also calls for envisioning the cross of the crucified Christ with “any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings – those whom Ignacio Ellacuría, the Salvadoran martyr, called ‘the crucified peoples of history’” (xiv). In this spirit, Raymond’s body coming to rest on the comforting shore might be accompanied by Christ, cooling Raymond’s “fervid head” (Thurman 128) and restoring his frustrated soul, existing in solidarity at that time and place instead of – like Euphoria’s vision of a Black Joan of Arc – leading Raymond towards some future time and place where they would progress into victors.  Although the historical Jesus had a birth date and grew into maturity before beginning his ministry, Black Jesus is not an archetypal promised child as he is already a fully realized savior. So, unlike any extraordinary individual towards which Raymond might have looked, Black Jesus is not bound by the paradigm of the Child.[2]

Black Jesus’ suitability for the novel’s concerns as a non-white, present-oriented figure unbound by space and time is augmented by Jesus’ queer identity. Black Jesus, and, I would argue, any framing of Jesus, is queer. The historical figure, according to Christian tradition, was unmarried and celibate. He carried out his ministry with a small group of (primarily) single men. I do not argue that Jesus was homosexual, but, if Jesus really was asexual in thought and action, then it is problematic to claim he was simply an abstinent or repressed heterosexual[3]. At the very least, his life did not conform to or perpetuate heteronormative standards, one of the many sets of social standards which his ministry rejected or critiqued. The ministry as continued in the figure of Black Jesus carries on these queer traits. We might clarify our understanding of Jesus’ clash with time as well as the temporal struggles of the novel’s characters by using Judith Halberstam’s theory of “queer time,” a term for what happens “once one leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance” (6). The historical and theological Jesus, as well as the marginalized artists in Infants of the Spring, resist the temporal “logic[s] of capital accumulation” (7). Black Jesus is capable of successfully resisting, but the conflict threatens to destroy people like Raymond. However, the queer time of Raymond’s dream invites a reading of Black Jesus as a companion in a space outside of the temporal frames which threaten queer identity.  Queer sexuality’s marginalization in a heteronormative world is one of the novel’s primary concerns, and Jesus’ status as a queer figure makes Black Jesus that much more appropriate as the solution to those concerns.

Raymond’s dreamscape of the reclaimed Middle Passage also appeals to an aesthetic sensibility which brings a life-giving solution to the novel’s death march. As Raymond’s naked, spray-enveloped body floats from the sea onto the shore, the scene evokes Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (c. 1486). Venus in the Middle Passage is an illustration which Wood also utilizes as he prompts a thought exercise of “how the creation of a visual narrative focused on a black African Venus in Europe, and the African evolved Candomblé goddess Iamanjá, are used to mythologize the female slave body in ways not available to white abolition rhetorics” (123-4). Botticelli’s painting is a twofold birth of beauty: as an artistic representation of the birth of the goddess of beauty, and as a milestone in the history of aesthetics. For a novel frustrated by dominant paradigms of human and artistic beauty, invoking this particular painting from within the space of the Middle Passage makes a claim for the aesthetic value of art produced by those people existing within the wake. Raymond’s black body, drifting in on the same waves which once carried millions of enslaved African bodies, stands in for the European Venus emerging from the sea. However, sensuous as these parallel scenes are, they are not sensual. Rather, they evoke a spiritual aesthetic. W.S. Heckscher claims that “Botticelli’s Venus, the naked goddess of Love, far from being secular, alone erotic, is above all ethical and religious” (6). Botticelli’s new-born Venus, the Anodyomene, evokes a spiritual figure which provides an individual which answers the novel’s demand for liberation from society’s white-privileged, heteronormative, bourgeois, future-oriented standards of existence and excellence.

The connection to Botticelli’s Anodyomene further develops the appearance of Black Jesus, as Black Jesus and Venus both address the longing presented in Raymond’s dream sequence. Heckscher explains that Botticelli picked up the tradition of combining pagan and Christian ideas and was the first artist to assimilate them in a masterpiece in the post-classical age (31). The scenes of the Birth of Venus and the Baptism of Christ hold plenty of similarities, such as “a divinity born, distinguished by nuditas sacra, flanked by attendant figures, emerging from a watery expanse” (Heckscher 6), and leaders of the 4th Century Christian church had apparently drawn the two figures together (29). Botticelli’s Birth of Venus integrates Jesus into a secular artistic tradition, and, given the above discussion, Raymond’s dreamscape evokes the Anadyomene from within a reimagined Middle Passage. Black Jesus and Venus are not future-oriented, or bound by the rules of time and place which limit human beings. In comparing the Birth of Venus and Baptism of Christ, Heckscher notes that “both divinities were redeemer-figures who appeared, though just engendered and born, in full panoply” (6). Jesus had dates of birth and death, but the theological configuration – like Venus – is already fully-realized and ready to stand in solidarity with oppressed people at anytime and anywhere.

Reading the novel as an abstract work sets it on a slant and grants a view into a more complex, more distressed, and, I would argue, a more emotionally engaging reading than might be accessible by treating the novel as a rollicking satire and witty roman à clef. The novel may be these things too, but one of the useful traits of abstractionist aesthetics is opening this space for multiplicity and ambiguity. Envisioning Black Jesus as a response to the novel’s anxieties and concerns – as a configuration which fills the spaces opened within a fractured reading – accomplishes two main objectives for the novel. The first is that it illuminates what is missing by setting Black Jesus in relief against the inadequate efforts proffered by the novel’s characters. Black Jesus is an array of attributes unmatched by an individual like Euphoria’s Black Joan of Arc, a societal solution like human extinction, or even an indomitable spirit of artistic individuality. Against Black Jesus, all other proffered solutions appear inadequate. This does not undermine the novel’s aims; rather, this further underscores the novel’s insistence that something critically wrong at the intersections of race, art, culture, and sexuality has set the lofty goals of the Harlem Renaissance on the brink, despite or because of the plethora of ideas of racial and societal betterment circulating at the time. The second is that applying an abstract reading of the inherently abstract figure of Black Jesus allows for a more diverse and more robust understanding of the relationship between Harlem Renaissance Christian theology and Harlem Renaissance art. Reggie Williams and David Cone discuss appearances of Black Jesus within the works of a few prominent artists, including Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, but all of these representations of the Black Christ are explicit – explicit as Aaron Douglas’ brilliant painting of a Black Christ in The Crucifixion (1927). Limiting configurations of Black Jesus to realistic, explicit works boxes the concept into the realm of the sacred while also recreating what Hartman describes as scenes of subjection. If the borders between sacred and secular are as mutable as some scholars suggest, then supposedly irreligious works like Infants of the Spring will be inadequately understood without attempting to read into how the Christian zeitgeist of Harlem shaped it.

Infants of the Spring is an abstract work, and, when read with this aesthetic, the resulting fractures open up a space of unattended anxieties and concerns which Black Jesus is well-suited to address. Black Jesus is an appropriate solution because this particular theological concept is inherently abstract. Anytime Jesus is invoked – even in the Bible – the appearance is representational and a sign of something else; realism can hardly be achieved in representing Jesus. Even in the four canonical Gospel accounts (let alone those deemed apocryphal), different (though not incompatible) pictures of Jesus are presented. This suggests any rendering of Jesus is some degree of abstract, which means appearances and invocations of the figure do not need to be limited to realistic representations. From the beginning, the legacy of Jesus has belonged to those who tell stories and those who interpret them. Therefore, Jesus, perhaps especially Black Jesus, exists precisely where we decide to put him. Where we decide to put him can be unexpected and surprising, but also so natural as to suggest the space called for his presence all along.


Forth now, and fear now darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

[2] Some theological clarification: My claim is that Black Jesus is especially suited to the concerns of Infants of the Spring because the figure invests the present with hope without having to make promises about the future or demands about acceptable behavior. This claim might seem to run totally counter to accepted Christologies, because part of the hope of the Gospel message is a promise of a better world after death. I do not mean to ignore this essential part of the doctrine of Christ even as I emphasize Christ’s impact on the present. Similarly, as part of the processes of salvation, justification, and sanctification, Christian doctrine encourages and discourages certain behaviors. I do not mean to say Black Jesus has no notion of right and wrong behavior, but Jesus’ presence is not blocked off on account of supposedly immoral, licentious, or sinful actions. Ignoring either of these aspects of Christology would call into question whether or not I am even using Jesus at all. Rather, I am reconsidering prioritization of Jesus’ attributes; Black Jesus re-emphasizes the present and seeks to correct the disproportionate attention given by other Christologies to the future and to morality, as both of these emphases tend to reify dominant structures and marginalize certain individuals.

[3] Benjamin A. Kahan interrogates definitions of celibacy which cast it merely as abstinence from or repression of sexual desire, and suggests that while it may be a choice for some, celibacy can also exist as “a sexuality in its own right” (2).

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