Friday, February 10, 2006

Politics, Aethetics, and the King Family

A While ago, I blogged on meeting and reading Mark Anthony Neal. More recently, John K also mentioned his book New Black Man. I've just learned that Neal has a blog by the same name. There's now a link to the right.

Even more exciting, there's a new post on Neal's blog by Erica Edwards, my colleague and friend from Spelman and Duke, "Homophobia and The Civil Rights Movement? MLK Jr's Legacy is Up for Grabs". Edwards discusses the “Reigniting the Legacy” march for a ban against same-sex marriage, which utilized the King legacy and was supported by Bernice King. Her work questions the idea of charisma as a political tool and her discussion of this case argues that the "charismatic political aesthetic" is used to align black religious subjects and black masculine subjects with the political agendas of the right. The whole essay is worth the read, but I find the last paragraph gets to the point particularly well:

"A strange mixture of funeral procession, soldier march, Olympic opening ceremony, worship service and political rally, the “Reigniting the Legacy” march placed charismatic authority on center stage. It showed how charismatic leadership, often masking itself as a ‘natural’ expression of black religiosity and political consciousness, actually produces itself through self-conscious performances of authority that are tied to a narrow, patriarchal and homophobic conception of manhood. The question, perhaps, for those of us interested in engaging the church in a radical critique of heteronormative masculinity is: is charismatic authority an acceptable means or the only basis for the creation of an egalitarian religious body? If Kelly Brown Douglas is correct that “the change in attitude toward sexuality within the Black church and wider community must begin not at the top with Black church leadership…but at the bottom with the people who sit in the pews,” it also seems right to call into question of the church’s social architecture and what appears to be a patriarchal investment in the metaphysical distinction between leaders and followers."

What intrigues me about this essay and makes me excited to see the dissertation turned into a book is this idea of the charismatic aesthetic. Does she coin the term? I don't know, but I'll ask her. What I like about it as that it makes me think about the crafting of political persona, the values we have for style, and how style naturalizes arguments. I'll have more to say about this later, but I'd love to hear what others think.


Anonymous audiologo said...

Mendi, Thanks for sharing this article. I got to meet Mark Anthony Neal after he landed at Duke, and he has a great sense of humor. Your colleague's article nailed so many aspects of how that charisma is deployed and it definitely has an aesthetic. AME is my experience. Interestingly, just the other day I was remembering my favorite guest minister this petit well-tailored sister who was a shark. A skilled theologian, she could present complex ideas and wordplay with such fluidity and concision that people were hollering after about five minutes and she would be done in 15, leaving folks wanting for more. I realized this was just enough time to make an impression with her message and right before her gendered physicality could make a discomforting impression. And she had mad charisma. Had she been a man she would have had a church appointment, that was for certain. But being a woman she had to get in and out of that pulpit fast, through timing and itineracy, before she could be perceived as a threat. That lead me to wonder about Rev. Bernice King herself, and what complex issues might lay behind her embrace of a man she positioned as heir to her father. As the only King offspring to go into the ministry, why isn't she herself the bearer of the legacy (after all, Andrew Young said at her mother's funeral that as an orator she has all of her father's physical mannerisms)? Here, obviously I'm not questioning the misguidedness of the cause directly. But I do think her eschewing of a certain leadership position has to do with the same tension that the woman minister of my youth faced. If the black church leadership is necessarily masculinist what does it mean for the women ministers, unmarried some, who lead their congregations--not as maternal figures, but as leaders in the black ministerial tradition? Is it even possible to lead in that framework without having one's femininity and, by proximity, sexuality questioned? How can Bernice King or any other PK daughter who becomes a preacher, truly be their father's daughter, truly lead? Is Bernice King's alignment with Long a deflective move, public assurance of adherence to the status quo ? Perhaps I've gotten off the mark here, but Edward's article got me thinking in this direction as well.

8:22 PM, February 10, 2006  
Anonymous Erica said...

Thanks for blogging my essay, Mendi! It was a conference paper that I'm afraid won't make the diss....but I'm glad that people get to see it anyhow.

I would love to chat more about politics and aesthetics and all that (and as far as I know, no one else is using "charismatic aesthetic," but I may be wrong).

Can't wait to use that fancy paper you sent me....almost done!

8:55 PM, February 10, 2006  
Blogger Mendi O. said...

audiologo, yes, you are hitting the nail. I'm going to think more about women and speed in the pulpit. I think I also hear you saying that *some* women ministers or other women in masculinist traditions might take public positions about / against homosexuality because their own positions in those traditions calls their sexuality into question. Are you saying that?

Erica, yes, I know I'm jumping the gun on the this essay is the dissertation is the book assumptions, but what makes me want the book of your work is what I've read of your general project. I think a lot about charisma, mostly in the art world, but I've been interested in what it does and doesn't accomplish. When I'm reading (about) your work, I'm always challenged to think not just what charisma does, but also what we think it does and whether there is something else that is or ought to hold its place in our imaginations.

7:54 AM, February 11, 2006  
Anonymous audiologo said...

Mendi, yes, I did mean that for *some* Black female ministers the invocation of "homosexual panic" and alignment with heterosexual/patriarchal order may be intended (consciously or unconsciously) to deflect the suspicion of one's 1) potential queer identity and 2) potential challenge to a particular status quo/legacy.

I too, would be *very* interested in seeing a larger research project on "charismatic aesthetic". The question of, as Mendi posits, "style naturalizing arguments" is quite intriguing. I hope Erica Edwards will pursue this further in the near future.

3:49 PM, February 11, 2006  
Blogger John K said...

Mendi, thanks for posting on this, and you're right, your friend Erica raises some fascinating questions. Audiologo, thanks also for your account of the female minister. Charismatic aesthetics...such an interesting, interesting idea (which, if one were to trace out a thread it really goes back, it's strange to say, to what none other than Plato was warning about in several of the dialogues in terms of the influence of certain types of rhetoric, narratives and performance on the young especially, but people in general). Great post!

3:53 PM, February 11, 2006  
Anonymous Erica said...

I never thought about the issue audiologo raised about the 'homosexual panic' that women are, perhaps, pushed to respond to in repressive ways. Interesting, indeed. Definitely seems like a woman becomes queer, like it or not, the moment she steps into the space that's already masculinized, like the pulpit. So, it seems, it's either a) get in and get back out as quickly as possible, b) find ways to disavow that queerness either vocally or nonverbally (I notice the strategy of becoming hyperfeminine and sporting 6 inch stilettos), or c) be OK with the queerness. I also like d) throw the whole space and its crazy genderings into question.

Mendi, whenever I'm pushed to think of alternatives to charisma, or a counter-aesthetic, I always end up at Morrison's powerful imagery, especially Baby Suggs (holy) preaching in the clearing and the women in the Paradise's Convent basement loud dreaming.

1:55 AM, February 12, 2006  
Blogger Mendi O. said...

Erica, I like the option "throw the whole space and its crazy genderings into question" option, too, but how does one do that? I also find Morrison's imagery powerful, of course, but I also have always thought of Baby Suggs (holy) as charismatic. On the one hand, I do understand the magic of the clearing to be a product of how the people, themselves, came together. On the other hand, Baby Suggs (holy) was special and I imagine her as having a quality that made people trust her difference -- that difference being her way and her ideas about what they ought to do together. Finally, I just have to say that I love the way people of our generation refer to Morrison novels as if others will of course understand what we're talking about, knowing, trusting, not only that we've all read the novels, but also internalized them.

2:07 AM, February 15, 2006  

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