Kim Burrell and Feeling Ugly

Tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I tell my friends that the older I get, the more emotionally raw and vulnerable and available I seem to be. It’s as if feeling were no longer worn on the sleeve but is now the very skin of flesh. Not like cloth that can be removed, emotion - the range of affective possibilities experienced through a weird simultaneity - is sensed much more expansively. It is what allows a certain entry into and perception of worlds. But also, and curiously, it seems to go unnoticed. Emotion is always there, for good or ill, but not the stuff I think about until a prick or pull or push. I am no longer protected, it seems, from a range of emotion, often sensed together in conflation but also, at times, in contradiction. Anyway.When I begin to tear up, my face becomes hot, I have to squint a bit to fight back the waters. And so my face got hot and I began to feel a bit congested, the way the mother-in-law called her, in the story, ugly. On an episode of the television show The Real, a mother-in-law wanted to talk about how she loves her daughter-in-law.

Can I be real? They went to church together. I liked her in church because I was her Sunday School teacher and he was like nah, ‘mom she’s ugly.’ She got older and started filling out, and he says ‘mom, I want to marry Jasmine’ and I said ‘Jasmine? The one you called ugly?’ And he said, ‘she’s not an ugly duckling no more.’ But I’m happy because she is the best thing that ever happened to my son. I love her.

Kim Burrell

Kim Burrell

Posted to a friend’s page on Facebook, it caught me off guard, that word, ugly. Hearing it, the way with which the mother-in-law shared such a story with such casualness as if she were talking about the weather or the time of day, bothered me. Ugly. She said it with such a coolness and calm. The way she told such a story, intimated for me at least, that it’s not the first time she told it, that she thinks it’s funny, that she thinks it’s loving. But in the story, her son is the one with the power to evaluate, she does not interrogate his relation to concepts of the pleasing, the beautiful, the pretty. It is he who is allowed to make such a determination and the mother doesn’t once consider that perhaps his capacity for evaluation is, itself, violent. He gets to determine what does and does not belong in the domain of the ugly. This is, in other words, violence of patriarchy given through the way she talks about ugliness. It’s the construction of power through allowing him the space to evaluate.

Hers was a soft narrative, not full of vehemence and screams. Sometimes ugly shows up in the smiles and gentle kindness of muted disgust. Laminated contempt. This disgust, this contempt, is always there but the vibration is made a bit more difficult to detect, its surface area dispersed a bit. There are other times when the trumpet mute is put down, when the lamination technology is removed. In such instances, disgust and contempt are not new but are felt, experienced, enunciated with a particular clarity and force.I’ve been thinking about ugliness ever since I saw the clip of The Real’s episode. But the hurt that ugliness is supposed to conjure sharpened when I listened to Kim Burrell and then Shirley Caesar proselytize about queer folks, death and the supposed sin of our existence. I am of course talking about Kim Burrell and her sermonic rant about queer folks and Caesar’s subsequent defense of the same.

What to make of such disgust and contempt preached? With such preaching, blackqueer folks are supposed to be made to endure and carry an ugliness we did not make. I want to think about the ugliness we did not make but are told to carry – that we often refuse to carry – without pathologizing those that find such ugliness impossible to bear but with no place to take it. I saw Burrell’s rant the same day I saw the episode of The Real. On the one hand, a mother-in-law pronounced that her daughter-in-law was no longer an ugly duckling. Rather than challenging her son to think more expansively, she intimates that it was the daughter’s “filling out” as the reason she is acceptable for her son. In her narrative, he maintained the capacity to choose. The video struck me as a sort of quiet heinousness, an unkindness delivered with sweetness and familiarity. But on the other hand was Kim Burrell, pronouncing to the folks gathered in the congregation of her church that homosexuality (to say nothing of transgender, gender-non-conforming, asexual or a range of other peoples) is only ever behavior and that such behavior is only ever perversion.

I came to tell you about sin. That sin nature. That perverted homosexual spirit, and the spirit of delusion and confusion, it has deceived many men and women. You as a man, you open your mouth and take a man’s penis in your face, you are perverted. You are a woman and will shake your face in another woman’s breast, you are perverted.

She also “prophesied” that for those of us that do not “come out” of our queerness, that do not abate our queer behavior, that death would visit us in 2017. To call our way of life perversion, to declare death on us. In another register, in another key, this is to call us ugly. These callings out of ugliness and perversion, to wish us death upon queer possibility, is to make explicit a spiritual and ethical failure rooted in patriarchy, misogynoir, forces aligned against blackqueer flourishing.


My first impulse was to have a sorta cavalier response to Kim Burrell. Though what she said, and the subsequent “apology,” are thoroughly theologically wrong, mean spirited, morally reprehensible, displaying for her a lack of integrity and consistency, I did not want to think much about what she’d said. I’m not there anymore, I thought to myself, so my first response was more about agreeing to disagree.But a cavalier response today is made possible today because of a lot of struggling with doubt and fear and shame and sadness. I wanted to live a life that we called holiness and tried and tried and tried and prayed a lot and shed many tears and meditated and supplicated with hopes of being delivered. I felt, in so many and deeply important and existential ways, that I was - that my very existence could only be - ugly. There were moments in my life when the very fact of my existence felt like too much weight to bear, that such a weight was eclipsing my capacity to breathe. And so a cavalier response, an insouciance, is the freedom dream and imaginative impossibility of my life’s past. Some days, I still don’t know how I got here.

As part of a research project I produced in 2007, I conducted several interviews with black church folks that are queer identified. Some were living out the closet, others deeply entwined within. Some reconciled faith and sexuality, others not. One interview I remember particularly. I asked her about how she experiences her sexuality, from the time she first discovered her erotic desires through the time of the interview. She responded,

I figured if I’m not able to shake this thing, I’m going to hell, which would suck because I love the Lord and I want to see his face and I don’t want to go to hell. So…what the difference is now: I am pretty certain that I’m going to hell but I’m really hoping for a pass. I’m hoping that the Lord will look back over my life and see how much I love him and let me in for my love for him alone and so that he will not judge me for the fact that I’ve been sleeping with women. But he will more see that I love him.

I still remember the way this respondent said, “I am pretty certain that I’m going to hell.” It was, for her, an inescapable fact, something she must endure. It meant her existence was one created for the purpose of being destroyed. It was as if she were saying she were tired from a long day’s work or wanted some water to drink. Listening to Burrell’s rant and the well-worn theological and doctrinal defenses that folks have used to assert her rightness, forced me to think about ugliness. Because ugliness is about a forestalled relation, one based on the capacity to evaluate, the capacity to analyze, the capacity to deem valued or valueless. Listening to Burrell caused me again to think about this respondent, how existence was a kind of brutality. Sunshine and rain, both then, are cruel. Happiness with a partner or loved one, then, is always the capacity for terror. Because such happiness will still compel her to think eternal torment is what awaits her.

I want to think about her interview in light of Burrell’s sermon because the doctrine and theology preached is one that fundamentally does harm. Blackqueer folks ask, in varied registers because of these theologies and doctrines: Am I broken? Am I beyond repair? Who will love me? Who will touch me? What is experiential for queer people - through normative theology-philosophy - spills over into the existential, is the ontological. It’s not that some of us do not have relations - many of us do - but it’s that the relations themselves are repulsive for many, that they are that which cause family and friends to recoil in horror. At times, we recoil from our very selves. We are made to feel, because of the fact of our existence, that we are supposed to endure and carry shame others project onto us.

So though we should have conversations about what it means for Burrell - who some might presume to be a single, lonely, straight, black woman struggling with attempting to live a sacred life - to preach such things, we should have conversations about sexuality and wholeness, certainly, we must also contend with the way doctrines and theologies teach that queerness itself is brokenness, is perversion, is nasty, is ugly. So it is not that straight single cisgender black women don’t experience loneliness or despair because of theology but I do want to hold a space that, for blackqueer folks in important and fundamental ways, we are told we must inhabit the world as broken, beyond repair, as untouchable. There is no relation blackqueer folks can have that would be presumed sacred and holy according to these theologies and doctrines. And that because even for those that claim deliverance, they have to continually prove that they are living what is presumed to be holy and sanctified, they have to allow surveillance of their behaviors and they will, for many folks, always remain “suspect.” Queer possibility destabilizes the possibility for ever living into a normative straightness. But this is the prize.

Discussing Burrell’s loneliness seems to me to be a case of what Naomi Murakawa describes as displaced anxiety:

[T]he danger of the displaced anxiety thesis (that racism isn’t really racism but really just only ever a concern about economics) [is that] it purports to analyze post-1960s structural inequality, but it replicates the post-civil rights logic and language of racism as nonstructural – a misplaced emotion, an atavistic irrationality, a mere epiphenomenon of class. The vocabulary is rigged against politics: no whiteness as property, just folksy white subgroups; no interests, just ‘fear’; no black or Latino targets, just ‘scapegoats.’ […]Without attention to white interests, the anxiety induced by ‘race’ does not reach the core of structural power so explicitly valued by displaced anxiety scholarship. Displaced anxiety acknowledges race as cultural membership while eliding white interests, and this, I suspect, is its core appeal in mainstream politics: displaced anxiety attributes support for policies that target and injure people of color to anything but white racist interests.

Focusing on the supposed loneliness of figures like Kim Burrell as a possible reason for her violent rant against queer possibility is, we might call here for this short essay, the displaced loneliness thesis: that homophobia isn’t really homophobia but only a concern about not being fulfilled sexually, only a concern about not being fulfilled intimately. The displaced loneliness thesis would then attend to, by making central, the affective and emotional posture of presumably single, cisgender, black, straight women when discussing queer antagonism and violence. It places, as central to the concern about violent rhetoric and its proliferation, the feelings of those said to not belong to such an aggrieved group.But I’ve been lonely. Sometimes, very much, still today. I came out the closet thinking I’d have all this availability for relationship and dating but that’s not been the case. I’ve failed, utterly, with an erotic life. In all my thirty six years, I’ve been single. I’ve dated here and or there but nothing sustaining at all. No relationship life to speak of, really. So it’s not an erotic life, an intimate relational life, that has sustained my ability to remain, to have joy, to have peace of mind. There has been loneliness and sadness on both sides of the closet, on both sides of attempting to speak more precisely about who I am without fear or shame or loathing. Loneliness, then, cannot be a reason that we accept for folks to espouse rhetoric that is violent and dangerous.

But this is another problem with the displaced loneliness thesis: it reduces sexuality and intimacy to sex acts in ways that Kim Burrell’s sermon demonstrate, it thinks queerness as only action and not longing, not desire, not the possibility of making something new, something otherwise. It cannot contend with choosing queer possibility even if that means choosing loneliness.

The displaced loneliness thesis cannot contend with the loneliness of blackqueer folks, the way loneliness is what we are to endure not as a temporal feature of living but as queer temporality itself. What I mean is that loneliness, through doctrines and theologies like those of Burrell, is what creates a life for queer folks, it is a temporal measure that engulfs time itself. Loneliness would not then be a momentary experience but would be the grounds for queer existence according to these theologies and doctrines. And the disgust and worry, the nastiness and ugliness, of queer possibility is the refusal of such theologies and doctrines and, as Stevphen Shukaitis might say, the courage and wisdom to make worlds.

One of the things I love about Instagram videos of @notkarltonbanks is that he shows, with stunning precision, that the black church is cultural territory for black women, that they are the ones that carry the tradition. But these women are not only straight, are not only cisgender. And I love James Baldwin because he shows that the black church is cultural domain for queer possibility too. But what this then means is that we have to think more about the textures between black and presumably straight ciswomen and the violence of homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia that emerges from these spaces. It is the antagonism to queer possibility of the quotidian, of the mundane, of the ordinary to which we must attend.

The first sermon I recall that lampooned queer folks with a sorta desired precision was Frances Kelly at the Church of God in Christ annual Holy Convocation, talking about “I’m sick of sissies…fanning over somebody’s choir,” about “bulldaggers,” and the so-called separation between holy and unholy. Kim Burrell, in other words, is not novel. We learn that patriarchy is an aspiration and the bodies that materialize such aspiration can be, and are, varied. To pretend that this rhetoric is only about black women and loneliness flattens a far too textured and much more complex set of circumstances.

The displaced loneliness thesis, in other words, cannot contend with the agential possibility and desires for power for people that are marginalized within certain contexts. Such a hypothesis also participates in the settler logic of ongoing displacement from the heart of matters - placing into the conversation, onto the ground, into the central space - the ones that cause harm and violence perpetually. Such a thesis, in other words, is a general displacement, it does not operate against the structures of inequity that produce gendered, racialized and classed violence but, by displacement, only ever revise and refresh such a practice. It cannot contend with the pleasure gained, as Amaryah Armstrong argues, by participating in the sociality of antagonism.

Such a displacement, with the settler logic that is its hydraulics, confuses through conflation specific performances emerging out of specific occasions - the celebration of Moonlight or saying “yaaasss, hunty!,” for example - with a theological-philosophical ideology made evident through a general relation, which is often a general antagonism, to worlds. In the particular instance of this writing, I seek to interrogate the ongoing, quotidian, mundane antagonism against the force of queer possibility and relationality and imaginative worldmaking capacities. Such imaginative worldmaking is not simply about “accepting” queer people through doctrinal and theological argumentation but about destabilizing and disrupting the very possibility of a normative world.

There is a quiet, smiley-faced delivery system – a nice-nasty way of being – that provides lamination for a general antagonism to queer worldmaking. This is made evident by failing to rise to the occasion to think more broadly about the relation between the spectacular and the quotidian performances of queer antagonistic rhetoric and its attendant violence. Confused through conflation is the idea that the occasion, which is another way to say the event, of speaking against such antagonism is conspiring with, is allyship of, the force of queer possibility. But, as Saidiya Hartman so deftly taught and continues to teach, attending to the spectacular performances of the event misses the quotidian and mundane performances of a general antagonism, of which a displacement thesis of loneliness might serve as, for blackqueer people, tear-inducing evidence.There are, in other words, no natural allyships, there are no natural comrades, but each relation is possible through engaged, sustained labor, each is sustained by remaining committed to each other. It is not enough that folks don’t think queer possibility is any longer ugly, what is necessary is contending with the desire to evaluate and analyze and judge if something is or is not ugly – which is to say doctrinally sound, theologically correct – in the first place.