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  • Camp Revival, or the Sissification of the Black Church
  • E. Patrick Johnson (bio)

This meditation engages a discussion of black spirituality vis-à-vis the black church and riffs on church revivals so common among southern black evangelicals; it also literally “revives,” enlivens anew, a discussion of “camp” performance as a sign of something more than the “social visibility of the white queer.”1 Therefore, my aim is to make three moves here regarding camp performance: first, to engage the discourse on camp that posits it as a “white gay male” aesthetic; second, to argue that it is always already a part of what I call the “sissification” of the black church; and finally, to suggest that it facilitates the transgression of hegemonic and prescribed gender and sexual identity in a place where such expression is taboo and, at least on the surface, policed. Ultimately, however, I want to demonstrate how performance rituals within the black church are imbued with the theatrical excess associated with camp such that the church becomes a site of non-normative performances of black masculinity such that all the men are queer, all the women are butch queens, but some of us are just “in the spirit.”

In the introduction to his edited volume The Politics and Poetics of Camp, Moe Meyer posits that in her foundational 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag exorcized the political edge endemic to camp. But more importantly, he argues that Sontag’s essay dislodged camp from its “queer” origin, which Meyer traces back to the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895 with Wilde as the image of the male homosexual “species” and the origin of Camp, therefore ontologically suturing camp to a (white) gay male subjectivity.2

While I believe there is some merit to Meyer’s critique of the ways in which camp is sometimes theorized as a “sensibility devoid of content” and thus apolitical, his essentializing of camp as necessarily an enactment of queer [End Page 30] social visibility, as Fabio Cleto has noted, instantiates a queer subject that is “all too gendered, all too raced, all too specific, while claiming to include that otherness which nevertheless excludes.”3 Lesbians and queers of color, for instance, do not produce camp under Meyer’s formulations. I wish to throw some shade, however, and argue that black queers, in this particular case, black church sissies, are camping it up in the choir stand and in the pews.

Many scholars have noted the black church is built in “theatricality,” its improvisational components and its rituals of performance. Few have made the connection between these aesthetics of the black church—all of which I consider to be a part of its camp aesthetic—and the manifestation of the holy/unholy spirit as a vehicle for queer performativity. Just as the 4/4 time of house music on the gay dance floor generates a feeling of ecstasy, the syncopation of stomping feet and clapping hands, the drums, bass and lead guitars, and tambourine also transport one to the liminal space between the here and now and the beyond, where time is suspended and the body gives way to the hold of the spirit. When the spirit takes hold, the codes of decorum and strictures of bodily comportment become relaxed, exposing the slippage between spirituality and sexuality, heterosexuality and homosexuality, femininity and masculinity.

One example of this spiritual “play” comes from Chaz/Chastity, a pre-operative transgender person who lives in my hometown in North Carolina as Chastity, Monday through Saturday, and as Chaz on Sunday. In his narrative in my book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, Chaz explains that they and other little boys in the children’s choir used catching the spirit as a guise to be flamboyant and that later catching the spirit became a way to signify one’s homosexuality. Chaz recalls:

[Singing in the choir] was very nice, because I have a very creative nature, and singing in the choir allowed me to express my creativity. And I could be somewhat flamboyant with the guise of being spiritual. . . We made it fun. I mean you gotta remember that we were all Pentecostal children, so...


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pp. 30-33
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