by Darnell Moore
..there is something powerful in being wrong, in losing, in failing, and that all failures combined might just be enough, if we practice them well, to bring down the winner. Let’s leave success and its achievements to the Republicans, to the corporate managers of the world, to the winners of reality TV shows, to married couples, to SUV drivers. –Judith (Jack) Halberstam, from The Queer Art of Failure.
I do realize that failure and the politics of failure may seem to be an unusual beginning for an essay on religion and politics in the US especially when such talk tends to pivot on the politics of pragmatism and success. But, maybe not; failure just might be the revolutionary political intervention of our times necessary to unbind the seeming contested alliances between the Black Church and the Conservative Right—two bodies whose theological and ideological frameworks often cohere in this historical moment to form a heteronormative agenda that is used to police certain forms of sexual expressions and familial formations. I rely on the remarkably brilliant work of Judith/Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure, in what follows. I briefly offer some insights, hopefully useful, on queer failure as a political and theoretical intervention for our time—an intervention that might allow for a rethinking of the theologies and ideologies maintained by some within the Black Church and the Right.
On the Black Church
Over the past few decades, an emergent level of interest has been ignited within the Black church regarding advocacy and public policy aimed at revitalizing what some, like journalist Kim Lawton writing in 2004 in Religion and Ethics Newsweek, have described as “troubled African-American families.” In 2005, William Raspberry, writing in The Washington Post, suggested that “what is happening to the black family in America is the sociological equivalent of global warming: easier to document than to reverse, inconsistent in its near-term effect – and disastrous in the long run.”
Because of this urgency, organizations like the Detroit-based Institute for Black Family Development, which was created in 1987, had been developed to “equip pastors, youth workers, and churches to meet the spiritual needs of African-American families.” In addition, church leaders and public servants have met to discuss public policy issues and their impact, or lack thereof, on the African-American family like the briefing on the Restoration of the Black Family held in 1991, which included nearly 150 African-American pastors as well as the then President Bush, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, and members of Congress. However, emphasis has also been placed on the church’s responsibility to serve as the teacher of “dignity and value of human life, marriage, family, and community” and as a “strong witness” on behalf of “God’s design for marriage, family, and community.” Those words, by Anthony Bradley, appeared in an article on the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Society’s website in 2003 under a piece titled, “Devaluing the Black Family.”
Moreover, African-American churches have seemingly connected the problem of, what some deem to be, the disintegration of the African-American family to the gnawing statistics that points to the increasing number of single-parent led households, minimal percentage of married households within the African-American community, and the social issues which plaque African-American males. The US Census (2000), which set the alarm for those Black religious advocates doing this work in the early 2000s, reported that 41.6 percent of Black or African-American men reported that they never married, similarly, 39.7 Black or African-American women reported that they never married. In contrast to their counterparts, both Black and African-American men and women maintained the highest percentage of those who reported to have never married. In addition to the dwindling popularity of marriage, many list the number one priority, as it relates to the plight of the African-American family, to be the reclamation of the African-American male.1 For many within the African-American religious community, and without, the threat of the extinction of the African-American male seems to pose serious anxiety, so much so that articles with daring titles like “African-American Males: Soon Gone” have surfaced in publications like the Journal of African American Men. Thus, many see same-sex partnerships, especially that of male partnerships, as a direct threat to the sustainability of the Black family.
On the Conservative Right
Ronald Reagan once said, “The family has always been the cornerstone of American society. Our families nurture, preserve, and pass on to each succeeding generation the values we share and cherish, values that are the foundation of our freedoms.” Government is deemphasized, or muted altogether, in Reagan’s pronouncement underlying the importance of non-government intervention and individual responsibility as markers of freedom. While some Black Church leaders may deviate from the conservative push for smaller government and, therefore, limited government intervention in the social and economic life of the citizenry, some conceptualized the family (that is, a man and woman, husband/patriarch and wife who procreates) as the cure for communal and societal uplift. Marriage, then, becomes a central feature of the project of familial formation, community-building, of nation-building. The centralizing figure within this formulaic motif of normalcy (whether framed within the Black Church and/or the Conservative political matrix) is the patriarch, the father, the husband, the head, God. Thus, those who advocate on behalf of “traditional family” (read, heteropatriarchy) and heterogeneous marriage, connect social problems like the legalization of same-sex marriage and single-parent (non-fathered) households to the decline of values, the marring of our nation’s moral character, the fracturing of our economic stability, and the diminution of our freedom. Interestingly, the conservative republican Newt Gingrich suffered opposition from pro-family groups and ministers after having “come out” about his own marital infidelity and other moral failures. That’s good failure, if I may say so myself.
On Queer Failure
So what are those of us who exist outside of the domain of normalcy: the non-heterosexual, the non-married heterosexual and homosexual, the persons who do not parent or have been parented in two parent-home spaces, those who refuse the mother-father dyad, the non-procreative (who might also be differently abled), the transgender, the single mother, the adopted youth who is a ward of the state and living in transitional housing…those folk who exist outside of the realm of so-called morality, tradition, natural arrangement, boxes…those folk who I name here as queer not because of sexual identity, but whose beings, senses of self, social locations, and choices consign us to stricture because we obviate structure…those of us who have perfected queer failure by obstructing the rules of heterormativity and heteropatriarchy as manufactured by the Church or the State, Black Church or Conservative Right…what are we to do in this moment? How might we assess these times? How might we undo the grips of modernity and illuminate new ways of being in our now?
I answer: Our non-obeisance to the “rules” offered us, the radical act of loving and/or being sexually intimate with someone of the same sex, the refusal of a woman to marry the man who she may love because of the belief—as brilliantly articulated by Cynthia Fuchs Epstein in 1988—that the imagined “traditional family” has to be destroyed “in order to restructure society and abolish all gender roles”…the refusal to bear children even if you can…our ability to fail at that which has been deemed successful by the Church (Black, White, Brown, Catholic and Protestant) and/or the State (whether by way of regulations or legislations) is the radical act. I am arguing that some segments of the Black Church (and many other iterations of the Christian community) and the Conservative Right desire a certain type of legibility, a legibility of the subject. But failure, as iterated by Halberstam, refuses legibility and, therefore, frustrates an agenda tending towards the hetero-norm. We fail successfully.
- The Black Family, “Changing Church Confronts the Changing
Black Family: Religious Leaders Call for New Spirit to Deal with New
Problems and Opportunities of Parents and Children,” Interview, Ebony
Magazine, August 1993.
- Kimberly Jane Wilson, “Black Men and Families: What’s Going On?” New Visions Commentary (2001);
- Herbert A. Sample,“For many blacks, gay fight isn’t theirs; Civil rights analogy is widely discounted,” Sacramento Bee, March 16, 2004.