At A Time Like This: Twinkie Clark's Gospel Of Everyday Blackness Black life is more than crisis. Black women are more than slogans. Listen close to Detroit gospel greats The Clark Sisters and their singular leader, and you'll hear the lessons this moment demands.
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At A Time Like This: Twinkie Clark's Gospel Of Everyday Blackness

The Clark Sisters in August, performing an online concert from a church stage in Detroit. Left to right: Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark, Jacky Clark Chisholm, Dorinda Clark-Cole and Karen Clark Sheard. Stephanie Kamera hide caption

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Stephanie Kamera

The Clark Sisters in August, performing an online concert from a church stage in Detroit. Left to right: Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark, Jacky Clark Chisholm, Dorinda Clark-Cole and Karen Clark Sheard.

Stephanie Kamera

We don't think of flowers and Black folks together enough. But it is the Black church, and Black art, that tell us about the sound of flowers.

In 1965, James Cleveland, the late "King of Gospel," released his definitive version of "Give Me My Flowers" with The Angelic Choir in Nutley, N.J. Originally by The Consolers, the song bespeaks the necessity of offering flowers to those you cherish while they are alive, such that they can sense the beauty such gifts produce. It is a plea towards the sensuousness of color and odor and touch, a plea toward recognizing that delight is something Black folks can, should and do cultivate, and that this cultivation is a spiritual practice. More recently, the poet Hanif Adburraqib was watching a Black peer offer words about the beauty of flowers at a reading shortly after the 2016 election, when he heard a white person behind him ask, "How can Black people write about flowers at a time like this?" The moment set him off on a path to talk, precisely, about flowers as a poetics, in a series of poems named for the overheard question. Recounting the story in an interview last year, he asked, "What is the Black poet to be writing about 'at a time like this' if not to dissect the attractiveness of a flower — that which can arrive beautiful and then slowly die right before our eyes?"

What Cleveland's choir hints at through singing, what Abdurraqib writes about, is the absurdity of thinking Black life is or can ever be devoid of sensuality, of beauty unfolding and flowering. Black folks are given attention in moments of spectacular crisis, but in our world there is always a crisis. Since at least the 15th century and the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Europe, this supposed new world is the crisis. It is easy to forget, then, that Black creative verve and drive are not only, not even primarily, a response to white supremacy. And we forget at our own peril. Concerned with cataclysm, with crisis, with the spectacular, we do not attend to the ordinary and the everyday.

In the past several years, phrases like "Say Her Name" and "Trust Black Women" have served as important calls to accountability against police violence, and against the ways the words and lives of Black women in particular are deemed inconsequential. But those phrases almost immediately lose focus, because in a misogynoiristic world, there is a refusal to think about and imagine Black women as more than raw material for sloganeering. We lose specificity: "Say Her Name" grows overshadowed by "Say His Name" and "Say Their Names," such that even in death Black women cannot be held with care. "Trust Black Women" becomes a last-ditch effort for electoral political maneuvering, not a mandate to think with and alongside the beauty of Black women as thinkers.

At this current moment of pandemic and protest, we are again called upon to refuse to forget: The sound of Black life is more than a rejoinder or rebuttal to white violence. It flowers. It unfolds. It provides safety and refuge. This moment, the ongoing time like this, is matched with the propulsion of Black livingness. Can you sense it, this propulsion, as sound and song?

That is the sound of Twinkie Clark on the Hammond organ.

Known since the early 1970s as the anchor for the famous gospel group The Clark Sisters, Twinkie is pedagogy: She is a way we can understand something about Black women and performing in an inhospitable place. She gives us the sound of flowering and blooming, not against white supremacy but as a practice of Black love. She is a way to understand what it means to write, and think, and consider, the sound of flowers at a time like this. Listening to her, I ask: Is there a way to say the names of Black women while they live, to trust in their capacity for thought and imagination? Could the soundtrack of Blackness be the sound of living in the along? And what can such a soundtrack teach us for these times, our times?

I want to give flowers. At a time like this.


Twinkie Clark onstage in Cleveland in 2011, performing at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame tribute concert honoring Aretha Franklin. Jason Miller/Getty Images for Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame hide caption

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Jason Miller/Getty Images for Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

Twinkie Clark onstage in Cleveland in 2011, performing at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame tribute concert honoring Aretha Franklin.

Jason Miller/Getty Images for Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

Propulsion is the word that always comes to mind. The doubled "p" sound, the rhythm of it, the way it increases in intensity as it is enunciated: pro-pul-sion. It is the word I use to describe Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark's musicianship, the way she writes lyrics, her chord changes on the Hammond, especially when she plays what is known in Blackpentecostal circles as "shout" music — music used in the practice of elaborate ecstatic praise. Her artistry drives, it propels, it pushes forward.

Raised in the historic Church of God in Christ, the five original Clark Sisters — Jacqueline Clark Chisolm, Denise Clark Bradford, Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark, Dorinda Clark-Cole and Karen Clark-Sheard — were fashioned into a group by their mother, Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, emerging from Detroit in 1966. They began singing in churches, as Black musical groups did and do, but by the early 1980s, songs like "You Brought the Sunshine" could be heard both on gospel radio programs and in secular dance clubs. Their signature sound is found when their voices are closest together — in tight harmonies and in unison — as their mother compelled them to blend so well you can hardly distinguish one voice from another. They practiced and practiced and practiced, rigor and constraint the occasion for the flowering you can hear in songs like "Is My Living in Vain" and "Expect Your Miracle." They are not the only group of their kind to cross over from gospel to the mainstream, but they are one of the most important. Their singing set an example for many who followed: Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, Kim Burrell, so many more.

But they are not just singers. In Twinkie Clark, we find a musician who transforms the mechanical object of the Hammond organ into a voice-like instrument, who can use the sounds of her sisters, their harmonic structure and pattern and dissent, as extensions of her own vocality. The way she plays is deeply personal and intimate but also curiously social and connective. What Hortense Spillers, in the essay Interstices: A Small Drama of Words, says of the Black female vocalist is instructive: "To find another and truer sexual self-image the Black woman must turn to the domain of music and America's Black female vocalists, who suggest a composite figure of ironical grace."

If we attend to Twinkie Clark as musician, we find the ironical grace of desiring to be made instrument in the service of something other than the self. Twinkie's voice is found in the flesh of the Hammond organ and the Leslie speaker, in the flesh of her sisters, in the sounds of Black praise. Her voice, her instrument, is propulsive. Her technique is instructive for how to live in, without always being responsive to, a time like this.

Listen, for example, to the end of the recording "Accept What God Allows": how she coaxes the congregation and edges them on, how she encourages and pushes them between chord changes. It's as if she uses the organ and her speaking to break with normal temporality, and in such breaking, moves against the notion that crisis is the only temporality that organizes Black life. The way Twinkie Clark plays the organ is deeply immanent and about this material world, while also somehow sublime and transcendent of all that is.

What we discover in her music, in other words, is a world in which responses to pandemics and policing are not the primary concerns for Black living. We discover a world organized by Black joy, Black pleasure and Black breath.


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The sound of the Clarks has been well known for decades in the church: Even before the first recordings of The Clark Sisters in the 1970s, Mattie Moss Clark used her daughters' songs to teach choral arrangements to congregations in the Church of God in Christ organization throughout the United States. But this spring, many more learned of their artistry by way of the Lifetime film The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, which first aired April 11, 2020. Beautiful and moving, the film gives me a way to think about the unalterable importance of representing this family's lives with grace, care and complexity, like a song.

Black church folks have had plenty of visibility in film and television, from The Blues Brothers and almost all of Tyler Perry's films to comedy shows like Martin, Living Single, Black-ish. Yet to me, these depictions always seem to show Black religiosity as fundamentally silly, inept, lacking in depth, thoughtfulness and care. We see comedic relief: lots of shouting and running and loud clapping and hallelujahs. And when serious, the religiosity manifests in a gendered "soulfulness" and "wisdom," embodied by matriarchal characters who, curiously enough, lack character. Their children's bread is suffering, not of a structural kind but wrought from personal moral failures, and that suffering leads to redemption as the denouement. Lots of quoting scripture, little careful love.

To treat Black religiosity seriously, these stories would need to honor the working-class Black church women at their centers. In most cases, they refuse. And because they deny such characters depth and development, they also deny us the sonic world these Black women create and sustain.

The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel is the rare exception, a film that takes as its line and root the interior lives of Black church women who are talented, flawed, troubled, who are humorous and lively, holy and loved. We see, for example, the ironical grace of Mattie Moss Clark (played by Aunjanue Ellis), a Black church woman who knew her daughters were talented enough to move congregations and, yes, the world, in the ongoing time like this. And so she honed their craft as children, waking them in the middle of the night to teach them lyrics and harmonies. There is not anything natural or given about their sound: It took work to produce it. Their mother believed in and strove for and demanded excellence from them, even to a fault.

Mattie Moss Clark, played by Aunjanue Ellis (foreground), leads her daughters and choir in the 2020 Lifetime film The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel. Amanda Matlovich/A&E Networks hide caption

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Amanda Matlovich/A&E Networks

Mattie Moss Clark, played by Aunjanue Ellis (foreground), leads her daughters and choir in the 2020 Lifetime film The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel.

Amanda Matlovich/A&E Networks

The late nights, the sleepy days at school. Mattie Moss as choir director, throwing shoes at members who haven't learned their parts quickly enough. We see all of this onscreen. But we also see a Black church woman who protected her children and herself from her husband's physical and emotional abuse, who was willing to leave that house for her children's sake, who laughed with her daughters when they sang with her, who showed deep empathy even as she held fast to a holiness doctrine that sometimes made her appear simply mean. We see a mother who performs with The Clark Sisters at the Grammy Awards, even though the Church of God in Christ would deem the performance secular and sinful. And when the organization ultimately threatens her removal as its international minister of music if she continues, we see her give up performing with her daughters.

What the film depicts with such lushness and care, with such vitality and concern, is that these are not perfect women. Denise (Raven Goodwin) is a sort of outcast, misunderstood by the family, but cared for deeply by her sister Twinkie (Christina Bell). Karen (Kierra Sheard, Karen's real-life daughter) is the youngest, the shy one, who has to be encouraged by her mother to break out into her own artistry by moving through fear. Jacky (Angela Birchett) holds a nursing job, anxious to provide for herself and her family and unsure if the group alone will support them. Twinkie, like her mother, endures domestic violence and struggles with self-esteem and depression. And Dorinda (Sheléa Frazier), too, struggles with depression and suicide ideation.

This is not the capitalist consumptive model of Black excellence that often seems to function as a response to white supremacy. This is not an exceptionalist narrative of excellence, but is about Black life, Black living in the normal thick of things, in the everyday tensions that make worlds beautiful and flower. It is the kind of excellence — of the popular and regular, of labor and faith — that white supremacy responds to, not the other way around.

I have not seen a piece of mass media attempt to show this texture, this arpeggio kinda life, for Black church women — ever. I cannot remember a film that takes such lives seriously enough to show complexity and contradiction, to depict care and concern, to make apparent difficulty and damage, to allow the rough edges of unresolved spiritual questions to emerge. If these women are strong, their strength is not the antithesis of weakness, not that ableist stereotype of the Strong Black Woman. If they are weak, it is not because they are unaware of their context, of the sexist, racist, capitalist world in which their music is created. The women we see onscreen are not heroic, they are human. And it is this that should be praised.


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Arpeggios, a kind of breaking apart of a chord in order to show its internal coherence and logic and structure, might be a good way to think about Black women and performance. Twinkie, the virtuoso organist, utilizes arpeggios in her playing often. Listen, for example, to how she breaks chords to their component parts in playing "High Place." Look at the way she plays, but does not concentrate on, the mechanical object. Questions and concerns that animate playing the instrument well — Are these the right chord changes? How should I riff on that note? What texture should I use in my voice for that crescendo, that diminuendo? — are sort of backgrounded. She is never too caught up in the asking, because being so would interrupt the flow.

I call it a "holy nonchalance": the way a skilled church musician has to know their instrument, how they have to have a deep intimacy with it, in order to be fully attentive to the complex interplay between the spirit moving and the saints. The musician must practice a kind of knowledge of their interior life that is in service of the external world. We can understand Twinkie's musicianship as a strategy, a way of living in the deep ambivalence religiosity produces for Black church women, who are marginalized by the very patriarchy, sexism, misogynoir that makes their work and struggle consequential.

When discussing the discography of the Clark Sisters, people will speak most often of "You Brought the Sunshine" or "Is My Living in Vain" because they were crossover successes. But there's a song that I think captures the essence of Twinkie as musician, of the sisters and mother together as Black church women who teach us what the sound of Blackness is. "A Praying Spirit," first recorded on their 1978 album Count It All Joy, illustrates the kind of contemplative practice of deep quietude and propulsion that animates Twinkie's musicianship. We often don't think about quietude and softness when talking about Black church women, especially from the Blackpentecostal tradition. But we should. It's all about the "yes":

Lord give me a praying spirit
A praying spirit
Lord help me to say yes (yes Lord)
Yes, yes Lord
Yes, yes Lord
Yes, yes Lord
Yes, yes Lord

Blackpentecostalism might be said to have cultivated a practice and posture of this same "yes." There is a passage of the Church of God in Christ hymnal, first published in 1982, that reads: "Yes, Lord! The sound of this phrase bespeaks a high exaltation found in God. Since the inception of the Church of God in Christ, the praise 'Yes, Lord!' has carried a wealth of spiritual meaning. ... When the saints sing 'Yes Lord!' we are saying 'Yes' to God's will; 'Yes' to God's way; and 'Yes' to God's direction in our lives."

What we find in this "yes" is an openness to life, a posture that accepts fragility and vulnerability. That is the practice of a holy nonchalance grounded in joy — not happiness necessarily, but a zest for life and breath, a kind of love for creaturely existence and a desire to share with others to alleviate suffering and harm, to carry burdens as a collective kind of care.

This saying-yes is what you sense when folks scream, with masks on, gathered in streets during a time like this, "BLACK. LIVES. MATTER." This is the propulsive force of protests during a pandemic, how one has to know their flesh in order to make their flesh instrument, implement, conduit, for otherwise possibility. It is a saying-yes to chance and opportunity. One has to notice, but figure out ways to negotiate, suffering. Gotta know it's there, but not get caught up in it. What is this but the attention to detail of form as a spiritual practice of delight? What is this but an attention to the complexity of flowers?

Holy nonchalance is not innocence or indifference nor ignorance: It is fully aware of the context of its emergence. Twinkie makes herself into an instrument in order to move congregations to praise. But this practice ain't easy, and is often dangerous. Oluwatoyin Salau and Riah Milton knew something of the necessity for a holy nonchalance, a glance at the context of their livingness — the sexism, the misogynoir, the transphobia — and attempted to live a life in and against that context. We have to sense their voices, listen, be attentive to their sound even in the face of their violent and untimely deaths. A holy nonchalance, like Audre Lorde says of poetry, is not a luxury. It is urgent.


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Twinkie Clark will turn 66 this fall, near the end of a year that in addition to the Lifetime film has already included a new Clark Sisters album titled The Return, a livestreamed "virtual experience" concert and a featured appearance on PJ Morton's Gospel According to PJ. Though they have not always been the group they began as — Denise exited in the mid-1980s, their mother Mattie Moss died in 1994 and Twinkie spent years as a solo artist — the sisters remain foundational to the sounds of the Church of God in Christ, not only in terms of singing, but choral arrangements and organ playing and the very sound of Blackpentecostal preaching.

Still, like so many Black church women, they are not considered to be models for a knowledge practice of which they are also foundation and cornerstone. We forget, because we do not consider the thinking and thought of Black church women. We reduce their work to style, failing to understand style as a kind of knowledge. We forget that this styling itself encapsulates the holy nonchalance of Black living, the saying-yes towards birth and breath. That it is a kind of protest that emerges from, even though it is not primarily about, a time like this. A holy nonchalance that glances at the momentary rupture while it sounds out alternatives to the norm.

It has always been a time like this. In the midst of political and moral upheaval, protests against policing and the state, and a pandemic underscoring the racialized, classed hierarchies of difference, we are here again. And it is a holy nonchalance that will carry us through these times, that will allow us to cultivate delight as a spiritual practice. Black people do not exist only to respond to the violence of white supremacy. We are more.

Ashon Crawley is an associate professor of Religious Studies and African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia, and the author of The Lonely Letters and Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. He is currently at work on a book about the Hammond B3 organ, the Black church and sexuality, tentatively titled Made Instrument.