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  • Feeling the Spirit in the Dark: Expanding Notions of the Sacred in the African-American Gay Community
  • E. Patrick Johnson (bio)

Darkness falls as the gay male subculture gets to work, late. The thick blanket of darkness is a cover, a protector of anonymity and an erotic focus: a mantle of oppression and opposition. It heightens the danger as it provides the pleasure. This tension between pleasure and danger, dream and nightmare, is a major source of its eroticism.

—Tim Edwards, Erotics & Politics

“Spirit in the Dark” is one of many songs recorded by the “Queen of Soul” diva, Aretha Franklin, that blurs the boundaries between the sacred and the secular—both through its lyrics and its musical composition. Fueled with the vocal melismas 1 and rhythmic syncopation found in gospel and blues, Franklin’s song uses the sacred notion of “spirit” as a metaphor for sexual ecstasy as she sings, “It’s like Sally Walker, sitting in her saucer. That’s how you do it. It ain’t nothing to it. Ride, Sally ride. Put your hands on your hips and cover your eyes and move with the spirit in the dark.” While some listeners might argue that the reference to spirit in this song is symbolic of the “holy” spirit, those of us who hear the double entendre know that Franklin’s use of this word is much more fluid. Indeed, she endows Sally Walker, the innocent and chaste little girl of the famous children’s nursery rhyme, with sexual agency as Franklin encourages Sally to “ride” the spirit in the dark.

“Spirit in the Dark” also highlights the dichotomy of body and soul within the black church, the belief that to be “saved” means to yield not to temptations of the flesh. Within the context of the black church, feeling the spirit in the secular/sexual sense is an act of transgression, a symptom of the “sinsick” soul. And in the most fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, the sin of the flesh will pave a slippery road down into the fiery gates of Hell into everlasting darkness. Although this split of the spirit and flesh is continually preached in the pulpit, it is rarely practiced by the deliverer of the message and the congregants who listen. But this denial of the flesh encourages an unhealthy and unrealistic view of sexuality and the body in general. Indeed, feeling the spirit under these conditions may only happen under a shroud of darkness because the spirit and flesh never unite, never become one incarnation through the body of Christ. [End Page 399]

In this essay I shall focus on how African-American gays have attempted to reconcile the spirit and the flesh by moving from “place to space.” Drawing heavily upon Michel de Certeau’s formulation of place and space, Vivian M. Patraka argues that “place refers to a prescripted performance of interpretation, while space produces sites for multiple performances of interpretation, which situate/produce the spectator as historical subject” (100). In their attempt to be closer to God and to express their sexuality, black gay men transgressively unite body and soul by moving from the pre-scripted “place” of the black church into the ambiguous “space” of the gay night club. Thus, the notion of feeling the spirit in the dark engenders a celebration of the black gay body as well as a communion with the Holy Spirit. Precisely because the black gay and Christian body are highlighted in performance, the veil of darkness dividing body from soul in the “place” of the black church is lifted in the darkened “space” of the gay night club.

Body and Soul

In her song Aretha Franklin, daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin, embodies the blurring of sacred and secular boundaries found in many African-American expressive traditions from spirituals and gospel, to blues and folk preaching. The reasons for such blurring, however, are multiple. One reason is that African Americans’ notion of the sacred is connected to the reality of their daily lives. For instance, it is not uncommon to find African Americans who party all night on Saturday, but who never fail to miss Sunday School on Sunday morning (in...

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pp. 399-416
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