Ten days after a white supremacist carried a gun into a black Charleston church, I was in Los Angeles, listening to a black minister preach about the end of the world. A coincidence of timing, maybe, although the message seemed apt. What could be more apocalyptically evil than a racist massacre within the hallowed walls of a church, an angry young man sitting through a Bible study before slaughtering the nine strangers who had invited him in to pray? Yet on that Sunday, when the pastor talked about the end, he did not mention Charleston or the seven black churches that had been burned throughout the South in the immediate aftermath. Instead, he spoke about fornication. “M-hm,” a woman behind me chimed in, “and gay marriage.” The ladies beside her murmured their assent. Just the day before, the Supreme Court had legalized same-sex marriage, a decision that seemed to disturb the congregation more than anything that had happened in Charleston. I didn’t understand it. How could marriage equality be a sign of the impending apocalypse, but not a church shooting? How could the evils of fornication be a more pressing topic than the wave of racial violence affecting the very congregation sitting in the pews?
The Christian church has a problem with bodies, which is ironic, as sociologist Michael Eric Dyson notes in his 1982 essay, “When You Divide Body and Soul, Problems Multiply.” “After all, the Christian faith is grounded in the Incarnation, the belief that God took on flesh to redeem human beings,” he writes. “That belief is constantly being trumped by Christianity’s quarrels with the body. Its needs. Its desires. Its sheer materiality.” Within the black church, this quarrel with the body becomes even more complicated. What does it mean to be at war with your own flesh within a culture that already hates the black body? And what does this mean for black women, whose bodies are doubly despised?
I spent my childhood split between two churches. Though my parents were, and still are, married, my sisters and I went to catechism and mass at my mother’s mostly white Catholic church. We spent Christmas and Easter services at my father’s mostly black Protestant church. At my mother’s church, I learned about transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. The figurative body becomes literal; as a particularly imaginative child, I felt there was something wonderful about this, the idea of words transforming into flesh. My father’s church was less mystical, more pragmatic. It was almost disappointing. I’d grown up watching emotional black church services in movies—bombastic ministers spontaneously breaking out into song, flamboyant organists leading praise breaks, church mothers fanning sinners at the altar. But my father’s pastor disdained this emotionalism—it made your flesh feel good in the moment, but what about when you left the sanctuary? What good was an emotional sermon once you had to face the troubles of life?
“God’s people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” he liked to say, quoting Hosea 4:6. And feeling God was not the same as knowing him. It seemed strange to me that church itself could cater to the flesh, but this, apparently, was the strong hold our bodies have over us. The body distracts from higher things—holier things—which is why we cannot let our bodies govern us. As a girl, I heard this mantra over and over: You are a spirit; you have a soul; you live in a body. In a way, this language is liberating. You are not your body. You are not your torn skin, failing organs, broken bones. You are not decaying flesh that will be dropped in a hole someday to rot. As a black woman, there’s something additionally comforting about the idea of transcending your body. Our history in America is written in bodies that have been stolen, mutilated, tortured, raped, beaten, exploited, and killed. Not only this, but we have suffered violence because we have the wrong bodies, the wrong skin, wrong lips, wrong hair. Our bodies are erased and mythologized and fetishized, declared inferior by scientists and artists and politicians. Why wouldn’t you want to believe that you are more than that body?
Still, I’ve always been troubled by the idea of separating myself from my body. In a 1968 speech to the World Council of Churches, James Baldwin argued that this self-repression had split Christianity into two. His debut novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, also plays with this idea: The coming-of-age story follows teenager John Grimes as he struggles to reconcile his family’s expectation that he follow his father to the pulpit with his own lack of faith. In the opening pages, John watches as Elisha, a seventeen-year-old pastor, is filled with the Holy Spirit.
At one moment, head thrown back, eyes closed, sweat standing on his brow, he sat at the piano, singing and playing; and then, like a great, black cat in trouble in the jungle, he stiffened and trembled, and cried out. Jesus, Jesus, oh Lord Jesus! … Sometimes he did not stop until he fell—until he dropped like some animal felled by a hammer—moaning, on his face. And then a great moaning filled the church.
With erotic, feverish language, Baldwin focuses on all the physical details: the sweat gliding down Elisha’s face, his thighs quivering underneath his suit, his fists clenching. Witnessing Elisha’s spiritual rapture also serves as a moment of sexual awakening for John, who nurtures a secret attraction to men. But shortly after this moment, Elisha is censured by the church elders for growing too close with a young lady in the church. Although they had not yet sinned, “sin was in the flesh,” and in order to avoid temptation, Elisha could no longer spend time alone with her. By playing with both carnal and spiritual language, Baldwin depicts a black church divided against itself, trying in vain to separate the flesh from the spirit.
“From my point of view, it seems to me the flesh and spirit are one,” Baldwin said in his 1968 speech. “It seems to me that when you mortify one, you have mortified the other.”
As a girl, I learned to fear my body. Not only its wants or needs, but its power. A girl’s body is uniquely vulnerable and uniquely dangerous. I remember taking a road trip with my family, my mother making me change my shirt because she said the neckline dipped too low and some trucker, sitting up high in his big rig, might be able to look down it. I may have been twelve; I argued with her before finally changing, irritated, convinced she was overreacting, but still disturbed to know that while I sat in the backseat of the family mini-van, filling out crossword puzzles, some trucker could be staring at me.
My mother has always been wary of strange men. Even now, nearly seventy, she won’t wait alone in a movie theater with a strange man, always sitting outside until more people filter in. I, on the other hand, was still learning all the ways to fear men. In a way, my naïveté was a gift. According to a study by the Black Women’s Health Imperative, 40 percent of black girls are sexually abused by the age of eighteen. I was still learning what many girls like me already knew.
In church, nobody talked much about how to protect young girls from sexual violence. I did, however, hear sermons about how oral sex was wrong. I heard about a young female employee who’d been fired by the church after she’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock; in an act of compassion, or so it was framed, the church paid to help the young lady travel back to her family on the East Coast. I’ll also never forget hearing a pastor say that women impregnated by rape should not have abortions because “you have to make the best out of a bad situation.” In other words, when life hands you rape, make lemonade. Even my Catholic mother was appalled by that one.
From that car ride on, I continued encountering new ways my body would be policed. A friend’s mother who said to me, after I’d gained weight, “Something must’ve tasted good this summer.” A music teacher who commented, in front of the whole class, on the length of my miniskirt. A family friend who called a flirty girl in my class “fast.” There was no parallel term for boys. No one clocked the speed at which their bodies flew.
Although we often talk about intersectionality as a combination of identities, Kimberlé Crenshaw originally coined the phrase to describe the interaction of multiple forms of oppression. In her groundbreaking 1989 essay, Crenshaw argues that the tendency to treat gender and race as mutually exclusive categories erases the experience of black women, who are “multiply burdened.” Black women experience not only both racism and sexism but also racism that is gendered and sexism that is racialized. To live in a black female body is to be caught within both racialized and gendered violence, to occupy a body that is both scared and scary. So I learned to police myself. I never walk into stores with my hands in my pockets. I always follow traffic laws because I’ve mourned Sandra Bland and Philando Castile, and I know a routine traffic stop does not always end so routinely for us. I’ve watched my sister straighten her hair before a job interview, my mother move aside on the sidewalk for a white neighbor to pass. As girls, my sister and I whispered about how embarrassing that was, to be so deferential; now, thinking about my mother’s childhood in segregated Louisiana, I realize maybe she’s not even thinking about it—maybe stepping aside for a white person is muscle memory, embedded deep in her body. The same way that, in Michigan, white students would command the dry patches of sidewalk, expecting me to walk in the slush.
Perhaps this is one of the biggest problems with separating the body and the spirit: Flesh is not neutral. Different bodies carry different cultural and political meanings. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, John Grimes oscillates between self-loathing and sexual repression. He feels shame for feeling same-sex desire and he feels shame for being black. Within a religion that symbolically frames darkness as evil, John sees “the hand of Satan” on his own dark face. He hears a voice asking whether he believes that all black people are cursed. By the novel’s end, John experiences conversion, allowing him to finally join his community fully. But his conversion only seems like a vehicle for his sexual shame and self-loathing. In the world of the church, hating his black body becomes holiness.
Throughout his writing, Baldwin criticizes Christianity’s avoidance of sexual desire, from the virgin birth to the condemnation of homosexuality. To him, anxiety about same-sex desire stands in for a general anxiety about physical intimacy. “It’s not a fear of men going to bed with men,” he tells Fern Marja Eckman, the author of his 1966 biography The Furious Passage of James Baldwin. “It’s a fear of anybody touching each other.” Although he finds this anxiety especially pronounced in America, he locates it more specifically within the crosshairs of race. “If you’re a Negro,” he says, “you’re in the center of that peculiar affliction because anybody can touch you—when the sun goes down. You know, you’re the target for everybody’s fantasies. If you’re a Negro female whore, he comes to you and asks you to do what he wouldn’t ask his wife to do—nor any other white woman. But you’re a Black woman! So you can do it—because you know how to do dirty things!”
To Baldwin, black women are uniquely vulnerable in a repressed culture because whiteness projects its sexual desires onto our bodies. Historically, black sexuality has always been viewed through the warped lenses of white fantasy. In the African American Review, literature scholar Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman describes how Europeans believed that Africans were sexual savages: Scientific investigations in the nineteenth century argued that black people had abnormally large genitals, which gave them “predetermined illicit sexual propensities,” including promiscuity, rape, interracial lust, bestiality, and homosexuality. During slavery, fantasies about deviant black sexuality served as justification for white owners to exploit their unfettered legal and personal access to black bodies. While strict, monogamous heterosexuality predominated the rest of American culture, on a plantation, “non-conformist sexual attitudes and behaviors found flagrant expression unlike anywhere else in society.” You can be as dirty as you want toward a body that is already dirty.
After slavery, the white imagination continued to frame black sexuality as deviant. Historian Winthrop Jordan argues that the myth of the black male rapist—“You blacks are raping white women every day,” the Charleston shooter said, before killing mostly older women—served as a smoke screen; white men, who for centuries had turned the routine rape of enslaved black women into financial gain, projected onto black male bodies an image of violent, uncontrollable, interracial lust. They also framed black female bodies as inherently lustful. In this calculation, the innocence of white women needed to be protected at all costs; black women, already gone in their own lust, were incapable of being raped. This is the history of black women in America, not a small feature but the single definition: Your body does not belong to you. Anybody can touch you. Your body is both the location of violence and the result. How could we not fear a body like this?
In the black church, I learned self-control.
How to wake up early on the weekend. How to wear uncomfortable clothes that I hated. How to pinch myself to stay awake during a long sermon. How to report to service, week after week, even when I didn’t feel like it—especially when I didn’t feel like it—because if nothing else, learning how to show up regularly, in spite of tiredness and doubt, prepared me for the writing life. You are a spirit; you have a soul; you live in a body. You bring your body under subjugation. You do not allow your flesh to control you. Black thinkers have often criticized Christianity’s hold on the community, arguing that it makes us passive; instead of fighting to improve this life, Christianity lulls us while we wait for the next. But my experience in the church is the opposite: I grew up in a church that imports agency. If you want to be healed, you have to ask for it. If you want good things, you have to speak positively, because death and life are in the power of your tongue. I see the strength of this, especially for a black congregation to hear that they are in control of their lives, when our experience in America has meant anything but.
In a 2008 American Quarterly article, scholar Thaddeus Russell traces this strand of the black church—a theology that prioritizes disciple and control—back to the civil rights movement. In the 1950s, he argues, black activists “launched the greatest and perhaps most effective campaign” to replace the freedom of black culture with “obligation, discipline, and rejection of the self.” Civil rights leaders realized that to gain full citizenship, they needed to present a black culture that affirmed the traits valued by white America: responsibility, productivity, and heterosexuality. This campaign gained traction in the church; in 1951, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a prominent minister and NAACP leader, penned an essay in Ebony railing against the “increasing trend of homosexuals parading” through the streets of New York and criticizing the “fantastically high percentage of worshippers who blatantly and openly flaunt their sex perversion.” He declared homosexuality one of the forces that debased the black race. As the civil rights movement gained steam, other black leaders sought to distance blackness and queerness. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. publicly instructed black people to shun immoral forms of sexuality, including homosexuality. “We must walk the streets every day,” he told one audience, “and let people know that as we walk the streets, we aren’t thinking about sex every time we turn around.”
King also identified laziness, gambling, materialism, and drinking as issues that were destroying the black community. He criticized churches that only “whoop and holler … merely to get people to shout and kick over benches” and advocated for “a gospel that will make people think and live right and face the challenges of the Christian religion.” To prove ourselves worthy of citizenship, to prove that we were more than flesh that acts on its most primal urges, we needed to control our bodies, even within the confines of the church. A controlled body is a safer one. The black church has inherited and propagated this idea, which is as understandable as it is tragic. The white imagination defined our sexuality as deviant, so we worked harder to distance ourselves from any sexuality that deviates. To prove our humanity, we deny our flesh, when flesh is what makes us human.
One of my favorite scenes in the 1985 film The Color Purple is when Shug Avery, blues singer and fallen woman, leads the sinners from the juke joint to her disapproving father’s church, where she sings along rapturously with the choir. I always love watching Shug and her army of wayward souls burst through those church doors, a moment that manages to be both reconciliatory and rebellious. So much of my favorite music exists on that long march between the church and the juke joint. Ray Charles and the Raelettes, moaning back and forth like a preacher and his lascivious choir. Kendrick Lamar meditating on salvation after violence on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Preacher’s daughter Aretha Franklin crooning about her do-right, all-night man. In Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, when asked whether the spiritual or the blues came first, legendary gospel singer Reverend James Cleveland calls that question a riddle that can’t be solved. “How do we know whether someone out there picking cotton didn’t first start moaning about how tired he was, or about how much he wanted a woman?” he asks. “Then maybe a God-fearing woman heard that song and switched it up where she was praying for God to save her. The fleshly needs and the godly needs are very close.” The holy, the profane, the flesh, the spirit. Which did we first learn to worship?
In the preface to her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Alice Walker writes that she is surprised The Color Purple is so rarely identified as a book about God. After all, the first words of the book are “Dear God”—for most of the text, Celie addresses her diary to God, a type of written prayer. Not only that, but Celie experiences profound spiritual transformation throughout the novel. In the beginning, she sees God in a traditional, masculine image, “all white, looking like some stout white man work at the bank.” By the end, she recognizes the divine as transcending the body altogether and residing in nature itself. Shug gives Celie the gift of a God who creates beauty and delights in our ability to recognize it. “I think it pisses God off,” she tells Celie, “if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
Celie also finds God in her love for Shug. The 1985 film is coy about this relationship; Celie and Shug share only a single, quick kiss. In 2011, Steven Spielberg admitted to “softening” the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug in order to ensure the film received a PG-13 rating. “I basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I got a lot of criticism for that.” Because I’d seen the film first, I was surprised by the eroticism of the novel, and how significant Celie’s sexual awakening is. Celie has suffered a lifetime of physical and sexual violence. As a girl, she’s raped and impregnated by her father and forced to give the baby away. She’s married off to Mr., a cruel man who views her more like a beast of burden than a wife. She labors away in fear of him, and at night, she endures sex, waiting for it to be over. She has never experienced any sexual pleasure until her relationship with Shug, who teachers her how to love a body that has only caused her pain. In the novel, their sexual relationship is the catalyst for Celie’s eventual spiritual liberation. Salvation is physical.
“I wash her body,” Celie writes in her diary. “It feel like I’m praying.”
Like Celie, I search for the divine outside stained glass and wooden pews. I try to unlearn a theology that splits me into two irreconcilable halves: the spiritual and the physical. I look, always, to black women artists. Beyoncé at a plantation, surrounded by fire, belting “Freedom” while the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and Eric Garner look on. Zora Neale Hurston’s ability to capture the beauty of black joy in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which an old woman with a twisted hip dances in a clearing. In the woods, surrounded by former slaves, Baby Suggs exhorts her community to love their flesh, down to their “beat and beating hearts.” Loving the body becomes a final act of liberation; to accept its desires and vulnerabilities is to embrace the full scope of a denied humanity.
I turn, always, to books because reading is the ultimate act of leaving your body, writing the ultimate prayer. You send words into the world and hope that someone is there listening, someone willing to leave their body to meet you halfway in the space between language and air. I have always found hope in this space, even as a little black girl in a church dress and white tights, daydreaming during a long sermon, amazed that I could be anywhere.
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. Her work is featured in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.
Adapted from “Body and Blood” in Can We All Be Feminists? edited by June Eric-Udorie, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Britt Bennett.