Black Church, Black Patriarchy, and the "Brilliant Queer": Competing Masculinities in Langston Hughes's "Blessed Assurance"

Article excerpt

For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetry. Politics can be the graveyard of the poet.... Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country. Therefore, how can a poet keep out of politics? Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise you are dead.--Langston Hughes (qtd. in Rampersad, I Dream 385)

Langston Hughes advises the writer who delves into politics that it may cost him his audience. He knew only too well. By 1964 he had suffered through the harsh critique of New Negro politics, treated as suspect because of his communist and socialist sympathies, and questioned by the U. S. House Un-American Activities Committee. His desire to be "with and for his people" often drew the ire of his critics and eventually limited his publishing opportunities. The epigraph is from an unpublished manifesto about the role of the artist in society that was discovered after his death. The manifesto was written a year after he published "Blessed Assurance," which is his only short story that deals directly with black male homosexuality. The appearance of this tale might seem significant simply because it could offer insight into the rumors that Hughes lived a closeted "gay lifestyle." His love life seems mysterious mainly because, although he never identified as homosexual, Hughes also never married or publicly partnered with a woman. Yet "Blessed Assurance" is not mysterious or closeted in dealing with black queer masculinity. Instead, Hughes creates a politicized spiritual space for addressing black queer masculinity by offering a tale narrated by John, an aging father struggling to accept his son Delmar's sexuality. Arnold Rampersad, one of Hughes's biographers, characterizes the narrator as a "sophisticated voyeur" (334) who "neither criticizes nor endorses the son or his organist-admirer" (334), but the gender politics conveyed through black fatherhood and black worship are anything but neutral. Throughout the story, it is these cultural milieus that allow Hughes to hang himself in his own words. While we may never know if Langston Hughes considered himself to be a "brilliant queer," the publication of "Blessed Assurance" serves as evidence that he considered black queer manhood an important representation in his dedication to depicting myriad black people and experiences. Equally important is the way this depiction anticipates shifts in post-civil rights discourses surrounding sexuality and religion beyond homophobia.

A review of Hughes's commentary on black culture is timely because in the last two decades or so, scholars have begun to catch up, if you will, with Hughes and expand the discourse of sexuality in religious studies by interrogating church doctrine, the sexual attitudes and practices of church folk, and the variability of human sexuality. In 1993, James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore brought together various perspectives in the anthology Black Theology: A Documentary History (Volume Two: 1980-1992), which includes ministers with nonnormative sexual identities. For example, Elisa Farajaje-Jones, who is bisexual, outlines an "in the life" theology which "grows out of the experiences, lives, and struggles against oppression and dehumanization" (140) of nonheterosexual religious folk. More recently, Michael Eric Dyson makes the case for a "theology of eroticism" that resists "extreme self-denial that has little to do with healthy sexuality" (91, 93). "Mere repression is not the proper perspective," Dyson argues. "We've got to find a mean between sexual annihilation and erotic excess. Otherwise ... [Christians] will continue to be stuck in silence and confusion" (101). He stresses the links between spirituality and sensuality, and makes particular inclusion of homosexuality in this divine connection. Similarly, Kelly Brown Douglas broadens the scope of spiritual liberation in Sexuality and the Black Church (1999) by asserting that an anti-homophobic "sexual discourse of resistance" is necessary to "disrupt the terrorizing manner in which black people have used biblical texts in regard to homosexuality" (107). …