#eulogizingaretha: An Introduction (and contextualization) – The Feminist Wire

#eulogizingaretha: An Introduction (and contextualization)

A little over a week ago, after sitting through seven-plus hours of Black Church homegoing bliss fit for a queen, many of us sat in utter dismay as we listened to the highly anticipated eulogist Rev. Jasper Williams make a mockery of the Black Church, the black preacher, the significance of the eulogy in the Black Church tradition, and black folk in general. But most egregiously, he heckled the Queen of Soul on the world stage.

This is not the part where you bash the Black Church and chastise black women for remaining a part of an institution that has consistently let us down. Nor is it the moment for ahistorical snarky comments about white Jesus, slave mentalities, et al. Black women’s relationship with the Black Church is complicated. Historical context aids us in understanding why many black women don’t “just leave.” The short of it is, first, the Black Church is its own thing. White Jesus has nothing to do with it. Second, for those who stay, and many do, the good quite frankly outweighs the bad. Imagine that.

For many of us, it’s one of the only places that affirms black life, black spirit, black kinship, and black culture. Though it doesn’t always get it right and though Black Church patriarchy, heterosexism, homophobia, and hyper-moralism are fierce, in a world where extraordinary antiblackness runs rampant, holding onto spaces that support black life, even if limited, is essential. And while not all black folk are Christian, over 70% are. And of this number, over 50% are participants in the Black Church.

The Black Church is the oldest black institution in American life, distinguishable by its preaching style, its music, and what W. E. B. DuBois coined as “the frenzy.” All of which was on full display recently at Aretha Franklin’s funeral. As I write elsewhere, while “not all black Americans are Christian or even religious…if one happens to identify as black in America, the Black Church’s cultural force is difficult to escape.” One can live life having never stepped foot in a Black Church and still know every song and/or ritual witnessed at Franklin’s homegoing. To be sure, this was a special black cultural moment. And yes, we were there for it all (well, mostly).

Because the Black Church, when on its best behavior, is not only a reservoir of black religiosity, black culture, and black community, but also black liberation, black love, black kinship, black hope, black expression, black artistry, black voice, and so much more. And to know black struggle on earth is to know why the extraterrestrial is imperative. Sometimes it’s all we have. Full stop.

Whether one attends weekly or never, its presentation of culture and collective black bodies is evocative of a richness and familiarity all our own – whether through personal experience or lineage. It’s true, most of us at minimum had a praying grandmomma or great auntie who on occasion dragged us to the church house. The bottom line is this: the Black Church offers hope where there is none.

And this is why the role of the preacher and the black sermon are so important. I write the following in Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture,

Historically, the black preacher was understood as a community leader and an authority figure bestowed with the divine power and knowledge to address the human condition, including but not limited to healing the sick, teaching the unlearned, judging the wayward, parenting the parentless, loving the unlovable, and counseling the troubled. This positionality granted a significant amount of power and influence. The Black Church sermon serves as an important source of affirmation and insight where different needs may be answered and selfhood, hope, and transcendent possibilities may be reimagined and realigned. The black preacher created an ethos through the sermonic moment where subjects could actualize critical consciousness and agency and entwine their various values and beliefs to create strategies for living that articulated their own humanity, truths, identities, meanings, and needs. (53).

This. Is. Important. For understanding the mess that ensued at Franklin’s funeral — and the resistance (for and against the eulogist) that followed.

There are a lot of expectations of the black preacher and the black preaching moment. But not everyone lives up to these ideals. Some fail and in the process, fail us. So here’s the downside: The Black Church at its worst is a site of black, terror, violence, and suffering. Unfortunately, the “black sermonic moment may…be tinged with liberatory aims that make use of oppressive strategies” (53). More specifically, while the Black Church undoubtedly offers unparalleled hope to the marginalized, it may likewise evidence unrivaled trafficking in the same antiblack sexism, patriarchy, violence (sexual, epistemic, psychological, emotional), classism, homophobia, ableism, transantagonism, etc. expressed by the rest of the world.

Many of us sitting in anticipation of Rev. Williams’ eulogy participated in the televised experience with much anxiety. While on a celebratory high from the fusion of black spirit, black culture, black pageantry, black movement, black cadence, black dress, and black music, we were disquieted by the familiar patriarchal aesthetics, where women sing and men speak. It was a sign we’d seen many times before. And yes, we were also troubled by the antibrownness, ogling, and groping. We’d seen all of that before, too. Sadly, the Black Church is a significant peddler of black hegemonic gender ideals and questionable sexual politics, too.

Yet. We. Waited. We had to see our sister Queen off. But real talk, we stuck around for us, too. All the reasons why we stayed and stay are too many and too nuanced to fully treat here. But ultimately, we too wanted a word of comfort. And more, we were hopeful. Not because we “drank the kool-aid.” But because black life ain’t hardly been no crystal stair. We have to hold on to the bits and pieces of hope wherever we find it. And sometimes, it comes with violent strings attached. No. This. Is. Not. Okay.

We wanted to believe that Williams would send Franklin home right, as he so excellently did for her father CL Franklin, in 1984. And for those who asked, “why this man?” Williams is known as the preachers’ preacher. His whoop is iconic. And listen, you know black folk love a good frenzy. However, what we should have surveyed is his theological content. Reality is, many of us weren’t thinking about that. We were thinking about the celebration that Williams is known for, how moving Black Church ecstatic praise can be, and how when done well it enables us to momentarily let go of all our cares. That said, that Williams was selected to do the eulogy wasn’t surprising.

If you’ve never seen his historic eulogy of Franklin’s extremely troubled yet lionized father, then toggle over to YouTube now. More, the eulogy is the pinnacle of the Black Church funeral. It’s the moment where even the worst among our ranks gets made whole – where memories sometimes turn away from truth towards romantic nostalgia. Williams’ eulogy for CL Franklin offers an excellent example of this. But rather than sending the Queen of Soul off with the high praise she actually deserved, Williams, as if he were preaching from a homemade course packet titled, “The Best of Moynihan’s Report, The Negro Family, and Boyz n the Hood,” abused the sacred moment, desk, us, and Franklin.

Instead of offering a good word and comfort to the family, he decentered her life and rich contributions, choosing instead to emphasize black crisis, which he located in black womanhood and black women’s purported illicit sex. The latter of which notes an underlying ideology, which maintains the myth that the problem with ‘the’ black community is not only black women, but black-women led homes, which are sexually immoral because they lack patriarchs (the black community’s saving grace), they raise “wild” children, and they keep boys from becoming men. These are not new ideas. They are retrograde, divisive, and unfounded, however.

These were the words spoken over the life of a queen who raised four black sons – alone – during the most important moment of the service by the person with the most important role there. And Williams spoke said words in front of an audience of predominantly black women within a religious institution that can’t survive without the tithes and labors of black women, many of whom are not only mothers but unmarried. As I wrote in a recent Facebook post, “misogynoir is when you spend your entire life fighting for RESPECT only to be completely disrespected during your eulogy.”

Additionally, antiblackness is when you do a whole sermon on black crisis and exclude a critique of antiblack white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, racism, sexism, and classism, and how they collectively shape black life. And yes, the Black Church can both affirm black life and at times serve up antiblackness on a platter. That being said, hands down, Williams’ eulogy was antiblackwomanish trash. The response in support of Williams was trash, too. It was also anticipated.

But one of the greatest gifts of the Black Church is the affirmation of the black oppositional voice. Williams doesn’t get a pass for being legendary, “a man of God,” “called by God,” or because “he had a job to do.” And no, he doesn’t “only answer to God.” To be sure, such license only applies to men. Imagine a black woman preacher eulogizing Williams or a beloved black male celebrity in this way, speaking over his/their body about what’s wrong with black men and how they are ‘the’ problem with ‘the’ black community. Contrary to what some folk think, the preacher and the preaching moment are subject to critique by the hearers. And last I checked, there are no books of Moynihan, [E. Franklin] Frazier, or Singleton in the bible.

The good news is (and yes, there must be good news – because the Black Church) that Williams doesn’t get the last word. Of course, the Queen of Soul will be speaking to us for a lifetime and beyond. But in the Black Church, often (not always) when a guest preacher speaks against the hermeneutics and/or theology of the congregation, the pastor of the church or somebody with authority follows up with a censure meant to fix what was said by the preacher in question (that is, if the mic isn’t smoothly snatched or mysteriously turned off). Stevie Wonder attempted to do this with his emphasis on love and Black Lives Matter. Still, as wonderous as his words were, they weren’t enough. I should note, the pastor of the church said nothing to comfort those of us still watching, now traumatized by Williams’ vitriol. And in the current #MeToo moment, this is particularly a travesty. A missed opportunity at best. Theological malpractice at worst.

But as womanists and black feminists have long done, we are here to offer the oppositional voice, set the record straight, love on our sister, and affirm her life. Over the course of the next several days, we will re-eulogize the Queen of Soul – the right way. We will offer comfort and kind words where there were none. And in the process we will model for the Black Church and the black male preacher how to be better for us, what it means to speak well of black women, and how it’s possible to not only sing black women’s praises but to critically engage our lives without centering black men or turning black women into social problems.

And yes, most of us still love the Black Church, even with all of its problems. It’s still a force of good. Mother Franklin knew this all too well. She took the Black Church with her wherever she went, also embodying rebuke as necessary. This is as much a token of love as it is a rebuke.

Queen of Soul, we stand on your shoulders and we speak your name.

Tamura Lomax is an educator, writer, and believer in social justice. Her call to the movement is through radical teaching, publishing, and critical space-making. She received her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Religion where she specialized in Black Religion and Black Diaspora Studies. She also developed expertise in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Black British and U.S. Black Cultural Studies. She is specifically interested in the ways that linguistic and representational technologies of power construct and institutionalize ideas of race and gender and how these ideas not only establish notions of innate difference, but ultimately affect Black diasporic people in general and Black women and girls specifically in their everyday lives, sometimes igniting epistemic and/or material violence. Her scholarship interrogates these intersections by placing special emphasis on North American slavery, social movements of the 1960s and contemporary social movement, religion, and popular culture.

In 2011, she co-founded The Feminist Wire (TFW), an online publication committed to feminist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist socio-political critique. Today, Dr. Lomax is the CEO and visionary for TFW. Her vision is to create space for justice work through critical conversation, exchange, mass-mediation, and dynamic accessible education. Her hope is to bring academic expertise to the streets and vice versa. Since its founding, TFW has published over two thousand intersectional and justice centered scholarly essays, including the original Black Lives Matter herstory by Alicia Garza in 2014, organized the very first university conference on Black Lives Matter, and coordinated various forums on topics such as Black (Academic) Women’s Health; Assata Shakur; Trayvon Martin; Disabilities; Race, Racism and Anti-Racism within Feminism; and Mumia Abu-Jamal, Race, Gender and the Carceral State. In addition to online publishing, TFW has a book series with the University of Arizona Press: The Feminist Wire Books: Connecting Feminisms, Race, and Social Justice.

Dr. Lomax believes that cultural representation, sexual subjectivity and safety are inclusive in the social justice project and that Black religion has consistently been both a great signifier and source of meaning in this undertaking. That is, to engage in a discourse on Black human rights is to first imagine Black people as whole persons with inherent worth and dignity, and second, to take seriously the functionality of Black religiosity in the journey from freedom to captivity to neo-coloniality. With this in mind, her work moves between religion, popular culture, politics, and the body. She recently published Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture (Duke University Press). In 2014 she published Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Cultural Productions (Palgrave Macmillan), a co-authored edited volume with Rhon S. Manigault-Bryant and Carol B. Duncan. And she is currently at work on a new book, Raising Non-Toxic Sons in White Supremacist America (managed by Don Congdon Associates, Inc.). In addition, she recently curated “Black Bodies in Ecstasy: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Politics of Pleasure.” In 2017 she curated #BlackSkinWhiteSin and co-organized “Our History, Our Future: a Multigenerational Human Rights Conference” at Boston University. To reach Dr. Lomax, please email Rae Antoinette.