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Q: What’s at stake in joy?
A: “Our lives, I mean, everything…everything…You want to preserve a thing, you want a thing to exist? Part of joy is attending to why I love, and what I love…If I don’t study it, [poof] gone…[poof] gone…[poof]…gone.”
—Ross Gay, Poet and Essayist
Joy and Love
Article by Kenyon Victor Adams
June 13, 2020–July 4, 2020
Over the years artists have intimated, in our discussions about their work, that love was a central animating purpose. I admit to having thought this unsatisfactory, at the time. Now, however, in the midst of compounding struggles for life and liberation, I find myself reaching to understand their meaning. Among the early lessons presented amid the extremity of the COVID-19 pandemic is the evidence of what we, as Americans, have loved and what we have not loved well enough. Joy, as Ross Gay’s attention to delights reveals, is about identifying who and what we love, and celebrating that love, especially when the beloved is under threat.
When we think about what it means in this time to recognize the condition of human mutuality, as well as to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the dual actions of recognition and advocacy compel us to point continually toward the people who, evident even in the roil and rigor of their striving, possess a splendor worthy of celebration. The Antiracist movement, enlivened and informed by the Black Radical Tradition, is not ultimately defined by the terror it seeks to abolish but by the beauty it seeks to exalt, that of all black people. This recognition implies another demand of this current moment, to identify and consider seriously what such a moment reveals about what America has loved and—with such dire intention—fought to protect.
As demonstrated in the Freedom Movements of the last century, addressing this question will require theological as much as socio-political appraisals. There is something that runs deep and long in the American psyche that seeks, and often demands, a kind of conditional, justifying innocence. Love of America might, itself, be said to be synonymous with efforts to protect and extol American innocence even, and perhaps especially, in the wake or presence of American violence. As Matthew Croasmun, Faith Initiative Director at Grace Farms, lamented in our recent conversation about the late theologian, James Cone’s final book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Christianity in the United States has too often been contorted into a grand exercise of self-justification. Instead of substantiating the worth of the religion’s subject and namesake, Christianity became for many in America an effective mechanism with which to prove oneself innocent despite the ever-unfolding litany of violences that ought to have convoluted, rather than simplified, the narratives of Europeans in the new world.
The idea of American innocence has provided to those—whose syncopated arrivals in the new world variously signal legacies of racialization, discrimination, chattel slavery, and genocide—a spiritual justification regarded as premium in a country so informed by its Christian imagination. Whiteness, the sociological and political signifier of this justification, fortifies its bearers against the fatal prospects designed for the identified superfluous population, whose lives and deaths are required to sustain an economy established upon free labor. Evolving over centuries and supported by scientific, aesthetic, and theological arguments, Whiteness has become inseparable from America’s identity as the land of the free. Given the Christian gospel’s exhortation to justification by faith in the divine, and its overwhelming denial of human innocence, the development of Whiteness has created a spiritual and social crisis so immense within, and yet so remote from historical Christianity.
Whiteness is the socio-political currency by which white supremacy operates. In order to comprehend and describe the web of social realities held together by America’s commitment to the concept of race and to the organization of racial hierarchy, artists and scholars have also referred to the Racial Imaginary. The Racial Imaginary is comprised of all that is required when once a society establishes that people can be white. From that starting point there is much work to be done. In order for Whiteness to matter in a society, you have to reshape your economics, theology, entertainment, the arts, sociology, psychology, physiology, genealogy, sexuality, ecology, public spaces, public policy, aesthetics, cosmetics, recreation, cuisine, media, design, agriculture, manufacturing, marketing, retail, healthcare, and your systems of justice. In order for Whiteness to be real, you have to rethink education, citizenship, the census, employment, immigration, voter representation, housing policy, taxes, disaster relief, social security, public assistance, foreign policy, the military, meteorology, satellite capability, space exploration…everything. Americans have done this work, and continue—in the face of significant resistance—to prioritize this labor of love, evidently at all costs.
The tendency in America’s historical engagement with Christianity to center the self, making a useful object of the very subject one aspires to exalt as ultimate, was doubtlessly exacerbated by the expansions of capitalism and individualism in the last century. But the opportunity provided within Whiteness for self-justification, may be one way to explain how it is that joy and love have been such easy subjects for Christian giants like the enslaver/theologian Jonathan Edwards; or the preacher Cotton Mather, whose contemplations on the value of black life included the prayer, Lord, wash that poor soul. Make him white by the washing of thy spirit. The question of who is white, or can be named as such, is one that encompasses a dizzying roster of histories, both real and imagined.
A critical point within these narratives, described by artist and historian, Nell Irvin Painter in The History of White People, was a series of shifts in the American colonies toward racial assignments that coincided with the 18th Century boom of the African slave trade. As Dorothy Roberts recounts in Fatal Invention, slavery in 17th Century America consisted as much of European as African peoples, who in many ways existed equally as unfree laborers. This reality is poignantly demonstrated in various revolts including the Bacon Rebellion, in which African and European indentured servants—unified by their call for more aggressive British incursion into Native American tribal territories—attacked and burned the colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Following this uprising, Roberts writes, “it was imperative for European landowners to prevent future interracial solidarity by driving an impenetrable wedge between African and European laborers.” That wedge was the legal establishment of racial identities, with Whiteness at its fulcrum.
The subsequent policies ultimately protected “white” and “Christian” people from being enslaved while “black” people were increasingly figured as suitable for enslavement. About which point, as Ibram X. Kendi’s history of racist ideas vividly depicts, the theologians, enslavers, and law makers of the day were in hot dispute, given slavery’s panoply of moral conundrums for its Christian entrepreneurs and the potential loss of capital represented by the enslaved person who, joyfully no doubt, converted to Christianity. A central question in these discourses spanning centuries, was that of African peoples’ capacity to comprehend and accept Christianity. A long enduring strand of these debates considered the perceived docility that Christianity produced in enslaved converts as a benefit to the blossoming industry. The theological solution, Kendi notes, was the idea that enslaved Africans could aspire to Whiteness through conversion, becoming white in their souls. Such creative theological production was unnecessary when John C. Calhoun’s declaration of slavery as a positive good became acceptable rhetoric in the U.S. Senate.
Another, equally prolific, account of Christianity in America features at its center black theologians, contemplatives, preachers, hymnologists, choirs, parishioners, and Sunday absentees alike, for whom the Christian gospel was always a matter of resistance to the concept of not mattering, a resistance so emboldened as to claim adoption and first-born rights within the highest kingdom articulated by their oppressors. It is important here to clarify that the kingdom of their oppressors was neither the first nor the eldest reference for empire or deity in their collective cultural memories. The West African empires of the preceding centuries, with their grandeur and religious diversity, would no doubt have been centered in the spiritual imaginations of enslaved Africans in America. It was from within those imaginations, that African peoples proposed incursions into the presentation of Christianity they encountered upon these shores.
Black liberation intersects with the theological origins of white supremacy in that the latter centers self-justification in an effort to establish innocence as the basis for freedom, while the former centers self-love in order to establish joy as the basis for freedom. Both make a distinct gesture towards grace, either to take hold of it, or reject it as insufficient. The comparison begs the question of whether self-love does not also seem to provide a kind justification for its pursuant, making the valuation of innocence questionable, or irrelevant?
Juneteenth 2020, will no doubt be remembered in the history of this nation, whose own relationship to history still straggles behind centuries of actions and actors that tilled the fields of its cultivated crises of racism. Accordingly, in this particular moment, the holiday will require a similarly cultivated, previously prepared concoction containing at once joy-full celebrations of black liberation and an unwaveringly radical resistance to systems of oppression. It is this profound capacity of black people to sustain self-love as the basis for a sense of selfhood, and to understand the terms upon which to preserve and proliferate this love as a political reality, a self-sustained emission, that has become the dream of a nation. The dream, however, cast in familiar homiletic code by a young preacher from Atlanta at the stilled feet of marchers and the stilled breath of America, is not the kind that comes in sleep, but the waking dream of black futures arising with new vitality from the palpable past.