Mourning Multiple Loves: Affect, Anti-Blackness, & Queer Theological Ethics “Beyond the Sexual”
Religious Institute’s Seminary Spotlight with Rev. Leonard Curry
Tell us about your research and/or your current project.
I am currently thinking about the murders of the nine men and women at Emanuel AME Church (“the Emanuel 9”) in Charleston, South Carolina. In thinking about them, their murder, and our loss, I want to craft a work which narrates how contingency, vulnerability, structural racism, affect, black (academic and ecclesial) theology, and black theological ethics are all brought into conversation with one another. My ultimate goal is to add another tool to the fight against anti-blackness/white supremacism. Analyzing these things together may allow me to do so.
How did you come to focus on this topic?
Coming to this topic has something to do with my ordination as an elder in the AME Church; with my deep-seated suspicion that black theology (academic, church, lived) has and will always have an intimate, structural relationship with grief; with the promiscuous particularity of my desire (need?) to mourn several loves (the Emanuel 9, the Pulse shooting victims, Nevadan teen Giovanni Melton) and my embarrassment with the failure to mourn these loves publicly or in private; and finally with my suspicion that something more than interest brought these loves, these objects of mourning, into my life.
This topic also builds on earlier study. In seminary, I eventually came to focus on queer theory and queer theology. Right at the end, I began to craft a reclamation project, examining the life and sociopolitical contributions of Bayard Rustin. At the time, my focus on his life was identitarian — Rustin was and is a gay black pioneer. But, I felt as if I could not grasp him for the various ways in which he seemed to go absent — absented by others, absented by himself — from various historical scenes. Around then, I found the work of Eve Sedgwick on Henry James, Silvan Tomkins, and shame; and through coursework, I had been introduced to Evelynn Brooks Higginbotham’s work on race as a metalanguage. Studying Rustin’s life through those theoretical lenses forced me to push through the flattening power of my need for a pioneer towards the processes and practices that enable identities to land or stick. Thus, I wrote a thesis, “Bayard Rustin: From Shame.” It was…an effort! But the rest, as they say, is history. Since then, I’ve been preoccupied with the affective character of being/becoming — racialized, sexualized, classed, classified, processed, marked.
Has there been anything in your research that has surprised you or challenged your previous understandings?
I just picked up Sexual Disorientations: Queer Temporalities, Affects, Theologies and was surprised with the editors’ narration of the trajectories of queer theory “beyond the sexual.” I was surprised because I have likewise undergone a similar journey. For me, once you figure out that a person is or identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc., it becomes obvious that this fact is just a fac(e)t — if you will — of a multi-faceted being. So, the explicitly sexual remains interesting insofar as the sexual(ized) person calls it up, recalls it, or has others call it in, up, or out. Thus, tracking its movement into the foreground or background, or its relative importance or unimportance, is interesting (revealing, unveiling) only insofar as, well, it is, in fact, interesting. LOL! This is especially true if you are trained to do interlocking and interstructured analysis, as I have been trained to do by womanist ethicists such as Emilie M. Townes. The trick for me, today, is to discern if, when, and how the sexual is becoming less interesting (to whom and how), if that’s okay or not, or if it is being displaced or not. In short, trying to grasp what is happening and what to do about it.
On another note, I have been surprised by how my interest in spirit/the Spirit has returned. I keep looking for ways in which black practices and performances of Christianity, with black emphases on spirit or the Holy Spirit (the Holy Ghost), also speaks to how power lands on or moves the body, whether or not power is Power (i.e. God), and thus how spirit and matter find congress with one another.
As scholar and a theological ethicist, how do you make connections between the theoretical and practical?
This is always a difficult question. For some scholars, they gravitate towards the practical with ethnographic study, sociological data, anthropological research, and the like. My own inclination towards the ideal makes me look for some form of realism to temper such an inclination.
The best way I can do this is when seminary or religious studies students ask me to make it plain. Then, I try to locate a practical or pragmatic aspect to my thinking.
I also attend a local church and am a part of the weekly worship. To the extent that I have the mic, and that folks value my opinion or listen to me, I try to share what I believe I understand theoretically and what it might mean for our local congregation. That has meant being a part of mundane stuff like the committee for homecoming celebration planning, but also writing reflections for the call-in prayer line, making liturgical suggestions to the worship coordinator, and of course in writing sermons.
What does your work offer to graduate theological students going on to vocations outside of the academy?
Firstly, if I do my work well, I will explore a social situation that was nearly impossible for me to think about. The shootings at Mother Emanuel by Dylan Roof were a confrontation, for many of us, with the absurd — with a void that was cold, silent, and heartless. Thus, if I do my work well, I will do some work towards metabolizing grief and will move the needle closer to understanding, or at least, productive grappling. I readily acknowledge that my work, in this way, is meaning-making work. And I do not think such work is small, unlearned, or boring.
Secondly, I think that I am trying to understand processes, flows: the ways in which we are participating in stuff (power, affect) not always apparent to consciousness. In telling this story about Charleston, Mother Emanuel, black life, affect, and anti-blackness, I want to share with others the arrangements and flows that I see. And if we see it, I want to make claims about what we can do about it. As such, my work is also about a troubled and embattled term: agency.
Lastly, graduate theological students going on to other vocations outside of the academy will be able to use my work to take the temperature of our nation. In Foucauldian style, I want my work to be a theological ethics of the present, and so I hope that students — even those who will work at nonprofits, etc. — will find it useful. Though, they will readily see, just as I am seeing, that my work will not do their work; I just hope it does some work.
What do you think your work has to say to students and scholars of religion, gender, and sexuality?
Honestly, this is why I mentioned the Sexual Disorientations text earlier. The introduction by Brintnall, Marchal, and Moore helped me to see that my turn from the overtly or explicitly sexual towards affect is actually tracking with queer theory. It’s no wonder that my first go at it — my thesis on shame in the life of Bayard Rustin, and also in the historiography of the civil rights movement — used the research of Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
You won’t find me directly addressing sexism, misogyny, heteronormativity, heterosexism, or homophobia in my current work. At least, I do not foresee it doing so today. But, and this is deeply ironic, I do believe that my work remains queer.
Lastly, three quick-fire questions:
What book or article has had the greatest impact on your thinking about religion and sexuality?
I probably sound like a queer theory stereotype for saying this but, the book or article with the greatest impact on my thinking probably has to be either Leo Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?” or Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Of course, the Bible has also been deeply, albeit ambivalently, impactful.
What is your favorite self-care practice?
I am terrible at self-care. It is my task for this year to get better at it. Because I spend so much time critically engaging texts, I really like to watch movies. If it’s not racist, sexist, homo-antagonist, or too capitalistic in the performance of the values in the plot, I can zone out and be entertained. The more Marvel-esque (circa Spiderman: Homecoming and Avengers: Infinity Wars), the better. When I’m really doing my good self-care work, I find a river or lake or body of water and sing or make otherwise joyful noises.
What are you currently reading?
I am re-reading Linn Tonstad’s Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics. I am also reading and re-reading texts by Sara Ahmed to see how I might continue developing a critical apparatus for my own analysis of affect that is related to black life and religiosity. And, lastly, a friend just mailed me a copy of bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions that I’ve started to read.
Leonard Curry is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, and a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University, his research focuses on the relationship between affect, anti-blackness, and s/Spirit. Leonard loves the moon, music, and art, and finds sparks of the divine in creativity.
*The views expressed here belong to the interviewee, and the ideas within are their intellectual property. Cite accordingly. Subscribe to Sexuality our newsletter on gender, sexuality, and graduate theological education.