We live in a hurting and hurtful world. News reports abound, of course, that makes nihilism a quotidian way of life. But more than that, it is a viable option for moving through times that give us so little reason to smile, to love, to have joy. But the beat drops and you see folks nodding their head in a hooptie in the hood. You see a kid running, laughing, with the biggest smile on his, her or hir face. And you begin to wonder. And feel, maybe just slightly, wonderful. There is beauty in the world, in this world. Not because of what we do, what we create or our life situation; there is beauty because we are here, because we exist, because we are.
I remember the sermon I preached at Metro State Women’s Prison in Atlanta, GA in 2005. Women locked up, behind bars, behind walls…away from family, with khaki colored prison uniforms, white socks and sneakers on. To consider life within the compressed space of the prison is to think about the possibility for joy in the most constrained environments. To think about the life, love and laughter there is to elucidate for me how there is the possibility for something new in situations that are rather horrific. To linger in the condition of imprisonment would make us miss the humanity of the women altogether. What can we learn from the incessant desire to remake the world, even in the confines of constraint? The sermon I preached – “You Are Beautiful” – resonates with me even, if not especially, today because I do not think we hear it often enough. So here, right now, to you, I say: you are beautiful.
In the biblical book of Genesis – that space where things began, where things were spoken, where things were called forth – is a simple mythic declaration from the deity figure: “let us make humankind after our image and in our likeness.” Surely, this seems simple at first blush until we consider the context in which this initially oral tale was told. Israel was a captive group, always in danger of being stolen from their land into diverse places and put to work. The Egypt narrative – where they were enslaved and forced to labor – is one such space to consider. Other religious traditions in existence during the time this Hebrew biblical story was being told posited that only the king or chief or leader was created in the image of the Divine. As such, the status of the individual was the condition of possibility for beauty.
Beauty – in the way of image and likeness – is conferred upon us all. Thus, the narrative of “let us make humankind after our image and in our likeness” democratizes the notion of beauty. This beauty is not a function of what one does or what one’s labors produce. Beauty is not limited to those who have a particular class, gendered or ethnic status but is opened up to all created being. Beauty resides in the very fact that you are an idea, an idea that exists…here. Now.
To begin again.
In Beloved, Baby Suggs preaches in the clearing – the compressed space of the wilderness, the far far away, distant land – always in danger of being violated because the bodies populating the worship service were constantly surveilled. It was there in that place that she told the people to laugh, cry and dance, to love their hands and hearts. If there was a confession of faith it was in this: say that you love yourself. Indeed, that is the prize. Loving yourself indulges your beauty.
Loving yourself in the face of impossibility is the prize, it is the knowledge of beauty in the world of refusal. There is a gap between love and the things deemed possible. In that gap is desire for relationality, for love, for remaking the world. In the gap between the fact of enslavement and the idea of freedom are those dancing, moaning bodies to whom Baby Suggs preaches. In the space between the fact of imprisonment and the idea of liberation are the women of Metro State Women’s prison, having social, sexual, erotic lives when the prison would preclude this potential. Evident is that we can inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously. The world we perceive quickly is not the only one available. There is beauty in the world…this world.
I have been obsessing over the bass lines in songs lately because they do what I wish to do: extend the beat with playfulness, by the pluck of the string. The virtuosity with which bass players perform is a primary example of the sorta play that intrigues me (listen to Musiq’s “Until” for an example: http://www.theregen.net/music/until.mp3). Running and jumping and descending the scales, sometimes in succession, others in atonal intervals. In between the bass notes plucked is, I think, the desire to stretch the meaning of that very infinitesimal pluck of the string, the hope that the vibration of the string which we hear can be ongoing, that it will allow us to linger just a little while longer. I want to be in between these notes, to look around a bit, to explore possibilities unbounded, possibilities abounding.
Love, in my opinion, allows us to relate to one another. It is what caused Harriet Tubman to think of freedom as a fundamentally social thing: she missed the people with whom she lived and laughed, felt pleasure as well as pain. Freedom was a spiritual thing, and a community experience. To be in New York alone was not freedom. To escape with others…that was freedom. Freedom was not in the place of New York. Rather, it was in the space, in the between, in the movement back and forth. Freedom was in her love, in her loving movements, in her loving escapes. Freedom was in her capacity to have emotion and to find ways to enact them.
Relationships are the occasion for organizing and targeting toward specific objects, thoughts about love, happiness, joy, affection and care. Emotion resides in us and is quickened when we meet someone towards whom we would like to explore the possibilities of expressing these feelings. These emotions exist previous to their being enacted. Love precedes the occasion or event, simply searching for a chance to be performed. Our emotions exist as preface and many times there is the undesirable postlude (the break-up). But we want the song. The song is the in-between-ness that gives the chance for social interaction.
To love is to linger, to extend the feeling as long as possible. Maybe this is why repetition in music is so powerful, why bent notes are so persuasive, why melisma is so enrapturing, why screams are so piercing. These sounds go down, way down, deep down below the surface to infinite depths, exploring possibilities for life, love and liberty.
And Baby Suggs preached about love and beauty. And in Genesis, we have a narrative about love and beauty. We continually are reminded that even in the most horrible of conditions, love and beauty must be possible. They are what allow us to relate to one another, what prompts our imagination toward the making of a new world. So in this world of hurt and hurtfulness, love and beauty are not destroyed. Rather, since they precede action and are organized according to situation, when they are compressed they are enacted creatively.