Black Women and The Freedom To Church Shout
As I’ve written about before, I am an agnostic atheist. Agnostic means “don’t know deities exist with certainty” versus “know deities exist with certainty” which is gnostic. Atheist means “don’t believe in deities’ existence” versus “believe in deities’ existence” which is theist. I’m not interested in proving that deities do not exist though I have no such evidence that they do and I don’t believe in nor want to worship them, especially concerning Abrahamic monotheisms.
But I love Black culture though. I love us. And it took me a while (as it seems phases of evolution [no pun intended] come along the pathway of being Black and atheist) to be able to critique how religion as a tool of the State (just as secular powers amidst the State; for example White supremacy doesn’t only thrive via theism as I mentioned in Agnostic Atheist, But Not Interested In White Supremacist Atheism) can oppress, how The Black Church oppresses Black women and gay Black men, for example, intraracially, but also understand how the Church can (even if not always) be a source of freedom for some Black people, especially Black women.
I am not even speaking of the Church as an agent of oppression (via patriarchy, sexism, misogynoir, homophobia and at times classism via prosperity gospel’s plead to White supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s insistence on American exceptionalism, bootstrap theory and meritocracy, which fosters victim blaming) or anti-oppression (historically filling in some holes in social services and social justice for Black people, especially in terms of race, even if not always on all intersecting oppressions) in the traditionally political sense. I’m speaking of it as a place where though there are many restrictions placed on Black women’ bodies via the policing of appearance and sexuality, there is a sliver of space that seems to embrace freedom: church shouting; catching the holyghost. Though not every denomination of Christianity embraces such an aspect nor can it be seen in every Black church, it is a factor in some. It was in the one I grew up in, the Apostolic Faith, and is for many Pentacostals and some Baptists.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with one of my sisters who only identifies as agnostic—not knowing whether there is a god or not—but doesn’t always ID as atheist because of uncertainty about belief or not. We both mentioned how much we love those short video clips of Black women shouting and catching the holyghost in church; clips that are frequently shared on Tumblr. Often these get used in Tumblr posts to convey excitement and true joy as a response to something. Why is that? I’ve seen other Black skeptics, agnostics, agnostic atheists, secularists etc. enjoy these clips too. Many of us grew up theist (though we are all born without a belief system until taught) and remember seeing shouting in church and it’s immediately humorous and connects us regardless of beliefs in adulthood. It’s like “coming home” in a way, to a shared memory or experience. And this is something I cannot share with White atheists nor would want to anyway. My sister mentioned how free those Black women look and it got me thinking. Shouting in church—catching the hoylghost—might be one of the few times that a Black woman can move her body without judgment. Without hideous stares. Without worry about what other people think in that same church since they’re used to seeing it. At most, Black people laugh about it after the fact but the laughter isn’t meant to shame. It’s about joy.
Black women who twerk have to deal with racism, misogyny, misogynoir, racist sexist classism, ageist sexism, the politics of respectability, patriarchal notions of theism, and White supremacist notions of “feminism” where a White woman should profit from White privilege and cultural appropriation and be deemed “feminist” yet a Black woman portraying and enjoying our own culture is deemed “unfeminist" and "degrading herself." I discussed this in detail in Black Women and Twerking: Why Its Creators Face Bigotry That Miley Cyrus Never Will. This disgusting bigotry over a dance with a beautiful history, diasporic relevance and meaning is such that without a strong womanist politic, Black women may reject the dance out of fear of judgment. While the world engages in misogynoir against Black women, the fear of judgment in the cishet Black male gaze may be the driving force for some Black women who reject twerking, beyond the theistic belief that it is “wrong” to dance to secular music, in general.
Black women are stereotyped as fearing swimming over messing up our hairdos when it’s the fear of drowning (which kinda has a history; ahem…Transatlantic Slave Trade; being chased to water by armed White men with dogs to escape from enslavement through Jim Crow; lack of access to community pools etc.) is the number one fear for all Black people as to why fewer Black people swim than some other races. Black women are stereotyped as unwilling to exercise when no one wants to interrogate access/affordability to gyms, how street harassment may impact Black women’s access to outdoor exercise or how the cishet Black male gaze impacts some Black women’s perceptions about being “thick.” Not every Black woman wants to be thin, is thin or needs to be thin to exercise or to be healthy. Fatphobia and misinformation impacts this as well. And then when a Black woman attends a yoga class, she has to deal with an incredibly ignorant and self-centered non-Black woman who assumes this Black woman is jealous of her thin body? I still remember that hideous story in xoJane. Many Black women spoke up about dealing with the White Gaze when they dance or exercise after the aforementioned article came out. Simply moving our bodies as Black women is under an intense gaze.
So…maybe some of these Black women shout and move their bodies in church because of the relative freedom to do so without Black men’s and Whites’ gazes on their bodies and not just because the “spirit” moves them to. Every time I’ve seen a Black woman shout in church—in person when I was younger and had to attend church with my mother or in adulthood in recent videos—they look so carefree. It’s a coordination and skill to their footwork. It’s a liberation in their arms and heads thrown back. The could not look more alive. I especially love when it’s older Black women who could’ve faced even more restrictions on their bodies and expressions than I have in 34 years of life. I recognize that for some Black women, they perceive that there really is no other time that they can move their bodies that way and shallow secular suggestions of “just dance somewhere else” and “go exercise” clearly aren’t intersectional ones.
While some atheists unfamiliar with Black culture would argue that catching the hoylghost means giving up control over your body to a force that doesn’t exist, I see those Black women embracing their beliefs and the joy that it brings them. I see freedom, even if those beliefs also come with oppression. I’m a Black woman who isn’t theist and erasure of theism would not change my status of dealing with intersecting oppressions. Why? Because White supremacy, patriarchy, racism, sexism, misogynoir, ableism, stigma against being asexual, generational poverty and other oppressions that I deal with will be right the hell here as if nothing happened. While it might shift some intraracial oppressions in some ways, it would also harm some Black women who have no other recourse besides religion to cope with these other oppressions. Imperialist White supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy is what needs to be dismantled; a White version of religious eradication is not needed and solves nothing. Knowing how some White atheists think, this would only mean eradicating Islam with a focus on non-White muslims; they’re terrified to critique Judaism and less often critique Christianity.
There was a time I couldn’t really see this as I do now because I was so acutely acquainted with the abuse that I experienced in the Church that I could not understand why any Black women wanted to be there beyond community support for social issues and volunteerism. And my own late mother left altogether (left the Church, not theism) despite also having those freeing moments of church shouting and catching the hoyghost herself. I was tired of patriarchy. I was tired of sexism. I was tired of misogynoir. I was tired of the politics of respectability. I’m an introvert so I didn’t particularly crave that weekly excitement or connection and I have other ways that I connect with Black people so my sense of “community” is not lost at all. To be clear, leaving the church and leaving theism were two different situations that occurred at different times in my life; it wasn’t a knee jerk reaction to abuse in the Church that made me an agnostic atheist. And I haven’t stopped being Black because I stopped being theist. “I’m Black y’all, and I’m Black y’all. And I’m blackety Black and I’m Black y’all.”
I realized that for some Black women, amidst the Church being an oppressive space, it is a freeing space as well. I mean…isn’t that just a microcosm of life in a kyriarchal society? Black women finding ways to feel and be free amidst oppression? And to be able to do so surrounded by other Black women, away from harsh gazes from Black men (as Black women clearly outnumber Black men in the Church and catching the hoylghost is one action where Black men are not harshly judging Black women’s bodies and movements) and from Whites. Some Black women want the freedom to shout. The freedom to move. The freedom to just…be. If even for one song during praise and worship service or after one offering collection or before one sermon. To be human and not just a body to fetish, insult or dehumanize. And though my beliefs differ in terms of theism and Christianity, what I share with these Black women is the same desire to move, to express joy and to just…be.