“God created Black People, and Black people created style.”
-Miss Roj, “The Colored Museum”
This presentation is really a truncated version of a larger body of work I’ve begun on the role the Christian church has played in the imaginations of Black persons in America, and more specifically, it being a portal through which they could reimagine themselves.
With a Baptist minister and therapist for a father and a seamstress for a mother, the intersection of religion, fashion, and psychology was ever-present growing up, With words like “trigger” and “dissonance” entering my vocabulary at the same time as words like “salvation” and “redemption”, all the while learning how this hunter green tie will pick of up the fleck of green in my speckled wool Easter suit. However, the catalyst for this particular research was really A portrait series I began with Harlem socialite, Lana Turner.
Lana Turner and I were introduced to a few years ago at Abyssinian Baptist Church when I was looking for few hats to shoot for a fashion story while I was still in grad school. Upon meeting and chatting with her, I realized quite quickly that it was actually she who needed to be photographed, in her wardrobe, and in her hats… of which there are upwards of 500.
But a strange thing began to occur. Over the years, I observed that Ms. Turner, who describes dressing as her artistic medium, or “painting the body canvas” as she likes to call it, began to actually abstract herself. What began as the process of Sunday presentation, over time began to exaggerate itself. Traditional Veiled felt hats became umbrella-shaped fascinators, and then 3-D printed helmets. Simple gloves morphed into 3-tiered satin gauntlet creations.
It was this observation that prompted the desire to dig deeper into this idea of the church being an activator for not only imagination but a crucible for the construction of self.
THE ORIGINAL SIN.
The moment enslaved Africans were brought to the new world they were introduced to the Christian religion. According to Richard McKinney inhis research titled “The Black Church: its Development and Present Impact, Amongst slave owners, there wasactually no real consensus or agreement in regards to their instruction of their slaves, as some believed it would create discontent and restlessness amongst them; the thought being that to be enslaved AND Christian was untenable and unsustainable(Kinney, 1971).
However, the missionaries of the time pressed on, beginning as early as 1695, and by 1705 it was reported that as many as 1,000 slaves had received Christian instruction in the Colony of South Carolina alone. (Kinney, 1971). Evangelization to slave communities accelerated greatly after the Revolutionary War, when it was legally established that slaves could be converted to Christianity and still remain slaves, (Kinney, 1971).
In the churches, however, it became clear that the blacks were not welcome, and if they were even allowed entry during worship hours, they were relegated to places outside of the main seating area, usually the balcony if there was one. In 1787, the Rev. Richard Allen and Rev. Absolom Jones were pulled off their knees while praying during a Methodist service in Philadelphia. The men left and later founded the Free African Society out of which came the African Methodist Episcopal Church, formally recognized as its own ruling body in 1816. However, in the 1830s, Black services in the south became outlawedafter the unsuccessful yet influential slave uprisings led by Gabriel Prosser on 1800, Denmark Vesey of Charleston in 1821 andRev. Nat Turner in Southhampton County in 1831, This forced the slaves to congregate in what was known as “Bush Arbors” or “simple, one-room structures, often constructed in the forest out of “Brush” or bush that was tied together with rope or vines.
Pushing through past the Civil war and into reconstruction, from 1867 to 1897, as former slaves migrated north, Church attendance skyrocketed. Attendance in those same Philadelphia Black Churches increased approximately 224%, and there was a 160% growth in church membership, and the African American population increased 151%.
Churches popped up everywhere, As Mario Gooden states in his book “Dark Space” which explores black identity and architecture, this embrace of an evangelist theology resulted in their own liberative space-making as they constructed spaces for religious worship and refuge. What they built, where theaters.
THE CHURCH AS THEATER
The church served and serves as a stage upon which Black people are able to reimagine and construct a sense of self, countering the doldrums of their daily life; a theater. In “makers and redeemers, the theatricality of the Black Church” author Micael weaver states that through the church “blacks actually created a new worldview that, despite their statuses as slaves, established order, values, and the possibility of personal development, including effectiveness, potency, achievement, and even fulfillment. E. Franklin Frazier, in his notable work, The Negro Church in America discussed how it was here that they found a basis of unity, here that they found a sense of meaning to their existence, here they found the emotional support which the conditions of slavery required.
The root word of Theater is “theatron” in greek, which translates into “the seeing place.” And Church beyond worship was the place to be seen. In Du Bois’s essay The Philadelphia Negro, he describes a church service in 1899:
There is much music, much preaching, some short addresses; many strangers are there to be looked at; many beaus bring out their belles, and those who do not gather in crowds at the church door and escort the young women home. The crowds are usually well behaved and respectable, though rather more jolly than comports with a puritan idea of church services (Du Bois, , 1996): 205)
But if the members were mere actors, the figure with the ecclesiastical gravitational pull to hold the show altogether; was the preacher. Dressed in flowing robes of various cut and cloth, the charismatic preacher, according to DuBois, was one of the three dominant characteristics of slave religion (the other two being music and "frenzy" or shouting). The Preacher is a unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil. A leader, a politician, an orator, a "boss," an intriguer, an idealist. (DuBois, 1899).
With a whoop, a holler, and a well-timed “Can I get an Amen?”, the preacher becomes both puppetmaster and director, eliciting emotional responses from his audience as he uses the bible as the script, mapping a road to salvation for his parishioners.
Not only the main performer in the churches sacrosanct but theatrical functioning, the preacher emerged as the key figure in the church's cultural functioning as well (Weaver, 1991).
Reverend Charles H. Pearce, a Maryland native who had done missionary work in Canada states "A man cannot do his whole duty as a minister except he looks out for the political interests of his people. They are like a ship out at sea, and they must have somebody to guide them; and it is natural that they should get their best-informed men to lead them (Hall, 1979).
NOW, FAITH IS THE SUBSTANCE OF THINGS HOPED FOR, AND THE EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN. Hebrews 11:1.
In J. M. Shorter’s 1952 text “imagination” he posits “Where do the things and happenings exist which people imagine existing? " For the black American that space was and is the Black church. The four whitewashed walls of the black church was the meeting place between St. Augustine’s philosophical City of Heaven and City of Man. It was here that the believer could enter into and have access to The Holy of Holies. Christian songwriter Karen Wheaton writes:
Now I can go into the Holy of Holies. I can kneel and make my petition known. I can go into the Holy of Holies and although I'm just a common man, because of God's redemption plan. I can boldly approach the throne.
Here we see a lyrical testament to an access to power, hitherto-for denied by one’s worldly commonness, or in the case of the black American Christian, one’s race. This access undergirds the power of prayer amongst believers… the ability to transform metaphysical and ethereal thought into manifestation. Although philosopher Jerome McGann lambasts imagination as false touchstones of stability and order” Richard Sha proffers, in “Towards a Physiology of the Romantic Imagination” that rather than viewing the pathology of the imagination as antithetical to its transformative powers, we consider how pathology made unassailable the imagination’s ability to change matter. In other words, prayer changes things.
Through the church, Black people were given the power to transform themselves. Wardrobe served as proxy for the biblical “whole armor of God”, a self-defense mechanism to not only combat the white ideology that Blacks, without the discipline of slavery, were devolving into barbarism (Driskoll, 2014), but sartorial choices also served as a coping mechanism, a device to project one’s best self. “The aestheticmatters to black folks,” says Monica Miller in “Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Identity”, not as an escapist dream, but as a weapon, As an element of performance, style is essential in manifesting cultural difference; it is the singular, Black way of being that clearly distinguishes African-American religiosity from White religiosity (Weaver 1991).
RESISTANCE TO RESPECTABILITY & THE PERFORMANCE OF FAILURE.
Bolstered by W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of the talented tenth basically convincing the untalented nine-tenths to not appear lazy, shiftless, stupid and immoral (Griffin, 2000), appearance takes on considerable meaning. The emphasis on wardrobe meant to serve as proof that we deserved respect as full citizens of the United States. White-facing respectability politics that we as a people still wrestle with today. However, sparking up in the 1920s flapper movement and reemerging post-civil rights, certain factions of the Black community began to resist to this notion of respectability, creating an adversarial relationship to a code of dress birthed in the sanctuaries of the righteous. A Performance of Failure. In Hip Hop and the Black Ratchet Imagination, author L. H. Stallings posits that it is this Performance of Failure: Failure “to be respectable, uplifting, and a credit to the race” that actually may offer more cooperative, and more surprising ways of being in the world.
In this space of resistance to social norms, the black church moves from the role of advocate to adversary: not an enemy to be eliminated, but a necessary opponent to push against.
This construction of self plays out on the contemporary runways of american fashion as well. Womenswear designer Charles Harbison , whose namesake line was created in 2013 speaks of the Black church as part of his inspiration during his design process:
I was always in sporty clothes as a kid. My dad was a College football coach and my mother was a blue collar worker, so she was always in utilitarian workwear, as was my grandmother. And then all of a sudden on Sunday, we transformed. My mom would be in makeup and have an air of sophistication that she wouldn’t have in everyday life. My father was so dressed up. For the entire community, it was a decision to opt out of the difficulties and even barriers that presented themselves during the week. It was about you presenting your best self. And I love that. I love the fact that it was full of color, there was never an absence of color.
In an alternative mode, there is Jerome LaMaarof 531:Jerome who describes his style as “street glam”, a refined version of the performance of failure. Starting at Kimora Lee Simmon’s Baby Phat, at the age of 15, Jerome quickly ascended the ranks to become head designer, and went on to study under Chado Ralph Rucci, one of the only couturiers to operate in America (the other is Mainbocher). “I’m a mixture of the two,” says LaMaar. "I’m not interested in dressing women in gowns. It needs to be big. It needs to be shiny. Maybe she needs to hop in an Uber to see her baby daddy. she know’s she’s from the street, but no matter how intellectual she is, she knows where she came from."
No other contemporary example aligns itself more to the historical black church’s confluence of imagination, theatre, style like that of the rapper, our modern griot. With gold and grills serving as proxies for ecclesiastical attire, the rapper/preacher invokes visions, not of an afterlife, but a “here and now life,” and spend like there’s no tomorrow life. The pulpit has melted away to form a concert stage, and the congregants still gather to hear about a better life than the one they are living. The similarities are so close, that several rappers have gone on to become actual ministers like Mase and Joseph Simmons, better known as Reverend Run.
However, the quintessence of this collision of religion, imagination and the constructed self in Kanye West. From his choral-laced “Jesus Walks” single that garnered him a Best Gospel Artist nomination at the 2005 BET awards to his 2016 song “UltraLight Beam” that opens with a child praying “We don’t want no devils in the house god, we want the Lord, and that’s it. The song itself references Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts chapter 9… from persecutor to preacher, and invokes the symbolism of Becoming in the Holiness Church or becoming Saved, Sanctified, and Filled with the Holy Ghost.
Whether directly or antithetically, the black church has served as a touch point for the creation of self. Reverberating over centuries, its codes, traditions, language, style, and liberation theology has become an embedded technology through which–consciously or unconsciously–we continue to replicate and evolve from… a mechanism for bringing the imagined into form, a tool for negotiating and manipulating the dissonance between who we are and who we want to be.