Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Womanist Etho-Poetics

From my vantage point (Black, lesbian, womanist, academic, middle-aged, administrator, orphan, older sister, partner/spouse, Baptist, US citizen…), queer theory gives me possibilities rather than a checklist of dos and don’ts in my work as a social ethicist. While I am sympathetic to methodological precision in most cases, in this particular case, I find that trying to be precise about what makes queer theory queer a political and theoretical distraction. Because for me, queerness is not as much a body of knowledge or even a body of bodies—it is a space. A space to ruminate on identity and identity-making—one of the most political and necessary moral acts we must do as thinking, feeling, seeing, doing beings.

Hence, I very consciously add the modifier “Black” to queer studies because I want to disrupt hegemonic discourses by methodically destabilizing antagonistic binaries such as heterosexual/homosexual, gay/lesbian, feminine/masculine, colored/white, poor/wealthy, profane/sacred with a quaring eye. By employing a quaring eye, I want queerness to stay imprecise, to engage in theoretical rope-a-dope; to challenge me to continue to think through again why I use it or not and more importantly when I use it or not. It unsettles categories of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and so on in my work and does not allow me to become so settled in my isness that I fail to maintain or (re)member critical stances to keep womanist methodology on its toes in the discipline of ethics or what I now call etho-poetics in my work as I sort through womanist methodologies in the discipline of social ethics.

I find queer/quaring to be a vibrant disruptive category that I try to deploy in my work increasing because of this. What quaring does in my work is to help me point to the inequalities, the glitches, the imprecisions, the debates, and more. It is an important part of the womanist methodology I employ by using a self-conscious matrix of class, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity to unseat and disrupt if not help transform injustices into justice-making scholarship and living. I am using quaring to critique queer studies when it fails to understand that identity politics should be pluralized at every step to help us recognize the deep interstructuring of our realities that never rests simply “Black” or “lesbian” or “queer.” I am making a political theo-ethical choice when I do this, which, I think, is a queer/quare move in itself.

An illustration may be helpful at this point. Consider the headline, “Black Lesbian Minister Becomes Dean at Vanderbilt’s Divinity School.” This headline was used by online publications and blogs including Colorlines (Black progressive), Feministing (feminist/pro-feminist), Elixher (queer), the Gill Report (conservative evangelical), Free North Carolina (even more conservative evangelical), and A Disgruntled Republican in Nashville (right-leaning disgruntled Republican), and the list goes on. What strikes me about this is not the headline but the fact that all of these Internet sites draw from the article from the University (except the University made scant mention of my lesbianism). The commentary is more in the site itself: same words in liberal to progressive site—celebratory; same words in a conservative-to-fundamentalist site—Armageddon is upon us. Have I changed in this? No or not much. But the angle of vision of the gazer has, and it is in this angle of vision that queerness can, and I argue must, step in as a radical interlocutor. What is seen and known about me (or any “object” of our gaze)—whether we are sympathetic or hostile? To move beyond my location, what is seen and known and assumed when we use alleged universal categories when, in fact, we are judging others against the yard stick of mini-me’s that pose as intellectual rigor but are nothing short of ideological blasphemies that are tone-deaf to differences, declare diversities as suspect, and croon off key lullabies about post-racial America—a completely imaginary and fictional notion that belongs
with unicorns, pixie-dust, and separate but equal.

The main foci of these pieces are lesbianism, theology, theological school, leader, blackness. The order of focus changes from site to site but these key pieces remain the pivot points for the various sites and their authors. Identity politics is the shorthand I use for these sorts of things and identity politics is always a restless changing same. It is fraught with power dynamics that veer from absolute control to professions of mutuality. Both poles and that which rests in between are prods on our certainty and comfort and even more so when we add the dynamic of religion.

Truth be told, most contemporary moves in liberationist religious thought could be considered queer as we seek to disrupt traditions and/or question notions of radical thought as a true departure from the norm. For me, radical means a departure from being comforted by moral discourses that no longer challenge us to think deeply about assumptions and worldviews. It is important to keep in mind that traditions are not ossified artifacts. Rather, they are living, breathing reminders that we are part of a dynamic creation that is as restless as it is serene.

Queer is an umbrella, it is fluid, it is persistent in challenging strict codification, if not refusing to be hemmed in and penned up. In the worlds of most Black religious scholarship, quaring is threatening because it unseats myopic monolithic blackness in religious garb. Like any form of religion I can think of, the way people practice it, understand it, interpret it, and disseminate it varies. To employ our disciplines to understand the reality of the religions in our midst in a monotone dead space trivializes the complex richness of religion and makes it an easy target of derision and disdain— even in our own work. So I am pushed to remember the messiness of Black religion as much as I critique it and to remember that it has limits, gaps, shortcomings, and advantages. And it is that messiness, I cannot romanticize what I remember from Sunday mornings as if those mornings were not also fraught with gender and sexuality oppressions and privileges.

And frankly, I am tired of being the Other—exotic or humdrum. To my queer/quare eye, I am convinced that few of us wish to be the Other. Even fewer still wish to be the absolute and totalized Other. This wish, which many of us build our lives around avoiding means that we carry within us the ability to stereotype and demean those who we can separate from our daily lives and then pathologize if not demonize. This “neat trick” of discrimination that we all carry within us allows us the imagined healthy space to shape our identities. What we neglect to take into account is that building a sense of self on the refuse of our ability to caricature and stereotype our prejudices and inability to confront the diversities in our midst—physical, emotional, racial, sexual, class, age, etc.—is building a negative self or selves. Ultimately, it begins to cave into the pressures of the richness of creation and we seat ourselves outside of God’s grace in an awkward bench of nails and thorns that do not save but only demean and ultimately damn.

It is important to explore the intersection of queer studies and religion in womanist methodologies because the worlds of lived experiences that have history and tradition, values, and morals are resources for scholarship. It is important to resist segregating people’s meaning-making to the realm of ethnography which is a clever way to carefully hermetically seal alternative discourses, philosophies, moral thought and more from having any impact on theory. My queer/quare self has the nerve to believe that the folk world I live in is just as much a source of different logics and theories as other folk worlds. The quare move I make is that my folk world takes great delight in disrupting the fantastic hegemonic stranglehold on the meaning of theory, who gets to speculate about it and even questions the efficacy of splitting theory and practice as the sign of being a scholar.

It is far too easy to fuel this fire with the inept moral thought and theologies we engage in about the body of the color spectrum, and age, and social location, and about sex and sexuality and more. It is important to debunk the fantastic hegemonic imagination that has queer folk performing physically and intellectually impossible sex acts that not even Cirque du Soleil could do and it is ramped up more when color-codings are writ large into the mix. This is an imagination that circumscribes love and loving into a narrow and constricting casing that is then placed within an evil matrix of racism, sexism, classism, militarism, ageism, and more and then has the nerve to say this is orthodox when it really is performance anxiety gone wild.

Quareness opens a way for me craft queer moral religious thought that is not terrified of

the curve of our hips
the arch of our backs
the slow swing in our walks
the glide of our fingers
the fire in our eyes
the coil of our hair
the deep moans and shouts of our ecstasies
the bottomless welling cries of our sorrows
the slow bend of our smiles
the precision of our minds
the sass of our talk

Not terrified of my body, our bodies that carry our past, our present, our future—perfectly and imperfectly.