THE CHILDREN AND THEIR SECRET CLOSET
Some years ago PBS ran a special on Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his investigations of homosexuality in American society. One historian was less than persuaded. He admitted that Kinsey had been impressively thorough in his considerations of business or the military or education. But he had ignored certain groups, the scholar argued. "What if he had interviewed the members of a Pentecostal church?"
Having been a close observer of African-American gospel music for almost fifty years, I decided to ask the same question of several singers and musicians, and got the following responses:
"They woulda lied."
"From the pulpit to the door."
"Baby, those figures would have gone up the roose-rooftop."
"Church? That's the children's home away from home."
But most often, the response was simple laughter. They heard the question as rhetorical; everyone knew better than the quizzical professor. They also knew that it is impossible to understand the story of black America without foregrounding the experiences of the gay men of gospel. From music to politics their role has been crucial; their witness, to quote their mother's Bible, prophetic.
That witness has not always been acknowledged. Occasionally it has been suppressed. One of Glenn Beck's arch black supporters happens to be Martin Luther King's niece Alveda. She denies any connection between civil rights and homosexuality. "The civil rights movement was born from the Bible," she insists, and everyone knows that "God hates homosexuality." She neglected to mention that two of the movement's greatest architects were gay men, Bayard Rustin, a former singer, who made his recording debut with a gospel quartet, and Alfred A. Duckett, who was, among many other roles, Mahalia Jackson's publicity agent.
From the storefront church to the courts of Europe, from the poor house to the White House, the gay men of gospel have, as the songs say, opened doors that were closed in their face, and made a way out of no way.
"WE BUILT THIS CHURCH"
Truman Capote once said that a faggot was a homosexual gentleman who had just left the room. In church circles, gay and bisexual men are regularly identified as "sissies" or "punks"-terms sometimes used, and often not more kindly, by the men themselves. Almost as common and much friendlier is the appellation "the children," a term rich with its allusion to the lifetime quest of a mother's favorite son. Thus, evangelist Willie Mae Ford Smith might slyly recognize the members of her congregation, "It's so good to see the children...and the children."
For well over a hundred years, these men have been, along with their mothers and sisters, the black church's rock and shield. They have been among the most faithful members and the most vivid celebrants:
"Nobody shouts like the children," said an old church mother, alluding to the folkloric term for holy dancing. With eyes shut, gay men have danced steps that would both anticipate and transcend the partiers in any club. They have brought such imaginative and critical resources to the church that for many years-and even now during the homophobic reaction that has swept fundamentalism-they have been the unacknowledged arbiters of the culture.
They have been the master orchestrators of the Spirit. Most preachers could not survive without the young, underpaid keyboard man underlining his words with rhetorical stabs and moan like runs. Evangelist Ernestine Cleveland grumbled, "You all can't have church unless you got some punk on the organ." Along with the women members of the congregation-all of them pledged to their pastor and many, according to legend, romantically attached as well-gay men have helped conduct the Spirit. "When the sissies jump out of their seats, folks know to stand up. "Their worship is gracefully athletic. I've seen gay men stand and move rhythmically through most of a pastor's message, anticipating the communal shout that may be a sermon's length away, that may never even occur. I've seen dancing leaps that can only be compared to broad jumps-while running, Reverend Isaac Douglas is said to have leapt over a small pond.
The children have also brought the cold eyes of a professional to the ritual and ceremony. "If you ain't moved them," says DeLois Barrett Campbell, "you ain't done nothing." Mahalia Jackson was the world's gospel queen, but her gay pals could always upset herby saying that her best singing days were over. The critics were nice, and the fortune she earned spoke for itself. But she knew that the children were the real judges.
They have also made the church their special arena. As Recently as 2007 I saw a middle-aged man dance around a Harlem church with a fire that no hip-hopper could approach. I asked Brother Charles if he had ever danced in a club. "Sir, they tried to make me a soul singer. They said I had the looks and the voice. But soon as that band started up I got as stiff as a white boy. I lost all my rhythm." Perhaps because it wasn't his blues. I long ago concluded that gospel music was the blues of gay men and lesbians. This may explain why so many great singers either didn't go into pop or failed in their trying. Bishop Carl Bean, a former Motown artist, says, "I just never felt right up there, singing about my girl." The late Gloria Griffin, who made a stab at club singing, in emulation of her great friend Aretha Franklin, gave it up. "I can sing about the love of God. The love of man, I don't know too much about that."
However, the first time I heard the word "soul" as it is currently used, it was in a gay context. In 1957 Sam Cooke confounded the church by moving from gospel to R&B. "He'll do fine," a clerk at Harlem's Record Shack assured me. "He's got soul." He then informed me that Sam liked men as well as women. "Sure he's gay, how else could he have that much soul?" (I next heard the term used by Malcolm X, who asserted that soul was black people's contribution to America.)
One of gospel's great appeals to this nonbeliever has been the vast emotional territory it claims for itself. I first learned this at the Apollo Theater in 1958. At that time local disc jockeys would rent the place for a week and present "gospel caravans" featuring the leading stars in "programs" that ran for ninety minutes, three times a day. The last night was always the most memorable, the occasion for the singers to let out all stops, and programs might last for two or three hours-three times as long as a typical blues show. The 1958 Easter caravan had many highlights, among them Marion Williams and Clara Ward's hair-raising duet of the seasonally appropriate "Old Rugged Cross." But earlier, Julius Cheeks, a male quartet singer, had "plumb demolished the place" with a tribute to mothers. Nowhere in the lyric was a baldly religious image. The song was all about a mother working herself to death for her children.
Sometimes I get to wonder,
Did I treat my mother right?
She used to moan early in the morning,
She used to groan very late at night.
The weeping and wailing had nothing to do with scripture, and yet would not have been countenanced in any other setting. Several years later, another last night coincided with the attacks on civil rights marchers. Prompted by the moment, Johnny Martin of the Mighty Clouds of Joy rushed to the microphone: "I wanna say this for the folk in Alabama...'There's a Bright Side Somewhere.'?" The theater erupted; he seemed to leap out of himself, and the other Clouds could barely hold him down. All over the theater, men and women were running up the aisles, hollering their rage and despair.
There might have been a biblical implication to the events down south; Dr. King had certainly insisted on that. But back in 1958, I saw something more surprising. As a novelty attraction, the caravan's sponsors had hired a professional actor named Gilbert Adkins to recite part of James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones, a faux-naif sermon called "The Creation." Adkins's performance would have been old school in the 1920s; the only appealing note came from the organist Herman Stevens, who accompanied the sermon with every noise a Hammond could make. But the Apollo audience was not used to Broadway, and they experienced Adkins's performance as a treat.
On the last night, Fred Barr, the disc jockey-promoter, summoned Adkins back to the stage and handed him a large bouquet of flowers, the contribution of a group of church ladies who had attended every program. The actor was overcome. He started to laugh and cry. "You know," he said-and you could only reckon the difficulties of being an actor in those days- "my mother told me something that has stayed with me down through theyears. She said, 'Boy, you can go a lot of places. But people don't have tolove you.'?"
He shook his head and left the stage. But the moment was not complete. Suddenly young people all over the Apollo rose to their feet and started to shout. Some singers on stage got happy as well. The shouting continued for twenty minutes, as ushers dashed around the floor, snatching the bodies of men and women overcome by the spirit. It was black church at its highest, and there had been nary a word spoken about Jesus. The point I derived was that gospel's emotional borders were almost limitless. Everything that Adkins had intimated-and surely this was a time when each person had a story to tell-could be comprehended in the form. In retrospect the particular appeal of gospel music to gays and lesbians was manifest. Why sing disingenuously about one kind of emotion-sexual love-when all the others were yours to intimate, convey, and command?
The church and its gospel music have offered a second home, and often a friendlier place than the homes where boys might face ridicule or worse. (Though, as many have reported, the physical abusers could also be sexual predators.) Gospel has allowed the worship of a loving male-as we'll see later, a theme that has inspired numerous white writers. But the children, battered by poverty, racism, and homophobia, may have the richest testimonies. I have seen five-man groups weep and stagger as they sang, "When sorrow has taken my heart by surprise, He never has left me alone," or "I do not know how long it will be, or what the future holds for me." They'll wave glad hands when some old mother exhorts them,"Children, take it to Jesus, you don't need to tell nobody else. Just step into your secret closet."
That secret closet is a constant in Protestant worship, most evident in the extremest form of Protestantism-Pentecostalism. (Matthew 6:6: "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.") The scripture also says that God resides where two or three are gathered. But the Pentecostal believer, more commonly known as a "saint" (whereby the Pentecostal-type churches have long been called "sanctified"), can reduce the number to one. The secret closet resembles the gospel highway in that old song, "On the Jericho road, there's room for just two, / No more and no less, / Just Jesus and you."
A closet is where you shut yourself off from the world. And just so the church has always loomed as "the arc of safety"-even more a safe harbor when it's the place most identified with mothers and grandmothers. Bishop Carl Bean says, "It's always been that way. The straight boys who play around with girls, and make babies, and break their mothers' hearts, they live in the streets. The well-behaved boys, the sensitive, quiet kids, the ones we now call nerds and sissies, they've always landed in church. Church or the street, take your pick."
He implies the great and constant battle within American fundamentalism between muscular Christianity and a womanly faith. Or, as figured in biblical imagery, between the gentle Shepherd and the Warrior on a battlefield. Obviously, for many hyperbolically butch preachers from Billy Sunday (pitching for Jesus) to Bishop Eddie L. Long (muscle building for the Lord), the religious vocation had to appear a guy's thing. For such men, even tears can seem virile.
Carl Bean's flock considers this a false dichotomy. Their faith borders on the androgynous, even as their gospel music has always welcomed male sopranos and female basses. I once heard a young Carl Bean, years before he had founded Unity Fellowship, the first black gay denomination, when he was still a seminarian. Facing a small storefront church, filled inevitably with a pastor, a pianist, a guitarist, older women, and younger men, he declared, "In heaven they tell me there won't be no day or night. And there won't be no man or woman. Don't you want to go? Don't you wanna go?"He too advised the saints to hold fast before that glorious, post sexual morning. "Look to the hills, children. And stay in your secret closet."
Those who find consolation in the secret closet find it large enough to include any burden and every trial-"Just take it to the Lord in prayer." That other closet, the space from which the children move in and out, is also a place of secrets. "If I want a secret kept, I can tell this friend," sings Marion Williams. "I know that I will never ever hear it again." Some things needn't be uttered aloud; save them for your secret closet.
This may partially explain why gospel lyrics are rarely as graphic or poetic as blues lyrics-though without calling names, they certainly expose unpleasant realities. "Your enemies cannot harm you," wails Inez Andrews. "Keep an eye on your close friend. "Dorothy Love Coates-Dot Love-sings of enemies "inflicting all the hurt they can, / Throwing their rocks and hiding their hands." It's up to every mother's child to fill in the details, imagine the particular betrayals. At choir rehearsals, I've seen men step away and cry to themselves. "I'm sorry, children. I was just thinking about some folk who did me so bad. "You could make a blues out of that, or simply abstract it into a gospel metaphor. If the deepest gospel songs tell of oppression, it's always overcome. Mahalia Jackson liked to say that a blues singer dwelled at the bottom of a pit, and she simply didn't live there.
But many gospel singers have, including Mahalia herself at times, and many of the church children who followed women like her or Marion Williams, Inez Andrews, and Dorothy Love Coates. For all of them, church was the one place to express your sorrows, and trust in a spiritual catharsis, its sign, "The Lord has brought me out." For generations, virtually up to the homophobic present, the secret closet has allowed the faithful children the safest place to leave and return.
Excerpted from The Fan Who Knew Too Much by Anthony Heilbut. Copyright 2012 by Anthony Heilbut. Excerpted by permission of Knopf.