Everything must have been funny back then. Because there was laughter. So much laughter. And the sound—that laughter—betrayed a logic of abandonment, refused care. And unkindness. What to do about unkindness is the question that I have been most recently pondering, that’s been keeping me up at night. It, unkindness, is not quantifiable—there is no metric by which it can be measured, though it certainly can be sensed and felt and known. But it, unkindness—more than abandonment, more than refused care—is the bigger part.
There is something so devastating about laughter when it emerges within the certainty of death, as a response to the uncertainty of that death’s cause’s call. Anything but frivolity, jubilance, delight, and joy, laughter had to have sounded like unkindness. Because it had to have been scary in the early 1980s when people were contracting HIV and AIDS, dying but not being offered ceremony.
Consider the laughter on display on October 15, 1982—after 1,000 people died from complications related to AIDS—at the Reagan White House press briefing. Jafari Allen recounts a conversation from this briefing (between journalist and radio host Lester Kinsolving and White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes) in his new book, There’s a Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life:
Lester Kinsolving: Does the president have any reaction to the announcement by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic in over 600 cases?
Larry Speakes: AIDS? I haven’t got anything on it.
Lester Kinsolving: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” [Press pool laughter.] No, it is. It’s a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the president was aware of this.
Larry Speakes: I don’t have it. [Press pool laughter.] Do you?
Lester Kinsolving: You don’t have it? Well, I’m relieved to hear that, Larry! [Press pool laughter.]
Larry Speakes: Do you?
Lester Kinsolving: No, I don’t.
Larry Speakes: You didn’t answer my question. How do you know? [Press pool laughter.]
Lester Kinsolving: Does the president—in other words, the White House—look on this as a great joke?
Larry Speakes: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
What to do about this laughter: its seeming frivolity and unseriousness, its seeming lightness and almost playfulness when discussing the deaths of others? Who were these people dying? And what does the time of their death actually mark? What did the sound of that unkindness mean, how did it feel, in the hospital bed if one heard it? Or for the family member or lover or friend or nurse or doctor who braved the ward with the patient, the one in need of care?
Jafari Allen’s There’s a Disco Ball Between Us has been so helpful and clarifying for me, and I want, here, to think with the text and figure out more about what the sound of laughter does.
But I also want to figure out what unkindness feels like for the one who is its recipient. It likely feels like the disorientation of one’s temporal measure. Not that linear time is the only temporal possibility. But there are other temporalities, interrupted and also fashioned, created out of the context of unkindness toward people.
These other temporalities of unkindness are what Allen calls epidemic time: “this eerie temporality demands that we read and live in multiple directions. Epidemic time accounts for vulnerabilities and mounting and compounded loss while valorizing and prioritizing moments of Blackfull vitality and intensity.” Epidemic time as a living difficulty: this is a “sort of grief … multiplied by the number of [those] now gone or infected,” in the “calculus of the specter awaiting you, and the knowledge that ‘no one cares.’”
We still, in 2022, live in the epistemological moment of the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Some of us still live and suffer within the context of theological and philosophical presumptions and worldviews that have not so much shifted or changed as become entrenched in a way of thinking or refusing relation.
What to do about this laughter: its seeming lightness and almost playfulness when discussing the deaths of others?
At least some of the some of us, as far as I can tell, are church folks I know and love: members of what has been called, sometimes too hastily, the Black Church. This institution is a collection of organizations and denominations, variously oriented around the concepts of theodicy, salvation, and justice. Some of the some of us who exist within the unceasing unchanging epidemic time do so because there has been no occasion to radically interrogate, publicly and with explicitness, the unkindness that has led to the deaths of so many black gay men.
These black gay men in black churches were then, and are today, stereotyped as—and were—musicians, singers, choir directors. And in the epidemic time that disorients temporality, these musicians, singers, and choir directors were stereotyped as—and were—black gay men.
We had to have taken Route 87 north. Because that is the route one would have taken to get from East Orange, New Jersey, to Quebec City. I was in junior high school, my second year in the eighth grade. I was in the school band, played the drums, though I mostly hated the exercises and didn’t like practicing. I wasn’t much good at it, but I was trying to learn, so as to be made an instrument for our church.
Mr. Potuto, our band teacher, wanted us to experience the world on a bus trip to Canada. I sold Katydids candy for the school fundraiser. I sold the most, so my trip was free. I don’t recall much of it: there were some very immature early teen jokes with my roommates; my ordering moo goo gai pan from a Chinese restaurant in Canada and folks laughing at it, even though it tasted good. And the cassettes.
I’d gotten a Sony Walkman for Christmas maybe the year previous, and I took it everywhere with me. My friend Edward went to another Blackpentecostal church in East Orange, though they were Oneness and not Trinitarian, so my then 13-year-old self very likely thought they weren’t saved for real, not in any real way. Youthful church dogmatism is precious and also problematic. You are certain of everything but don’t know much of anything.
He let me borrow two cassettes, and I listened to them incessantly those seven hours going, eight hours returning. Both were Ronald Winans: Family and Friends Choir, volumes III and II. The order, the III then the II, is important because I listened to the former first, with the cover that featured a photo of dark-skinned and beautiful Ronald in a deep purple suit jacket and lavender shirt, with head tilted and a shy smile. A simple cover, his photo framed with a kind of lilac lavender on one side, a kind of soft orange on the other. It was enough for me to listen.
“You Don’t Know” was particularly moving to me, a funky rhythmic song with Dorinda Clark Cole on the lead. “A Song of Consecration” too, with Ronald and his brother Marvin trading on lead, was beautifully inspiring.
Asking questions like I’ve never asked before
Expecting answers that will unlock every door
To a new and living way
To serve you better in the future is the only reason I’m here today
Seeking God in a very solemn way
Taking heed to the things I do and I say
Offering myself to him
I’m coming as a brother, I’m coming as a friend
With the chorus:
Oh, oh now I see it’s you I need
And with your help, deny myself
Put my hand in yours
You have to imagine a 13-year-old black boy with a strong sense of the spiritual, a deep desire to be holy and sanctified, a hope for a clean future, hearing these words. And listening to them over and over again. Because that 13-year-old black boy kept feeling things that he knew he’d have to deny of and in himself, in order to have a personal relationship with Jesus. It’s as if the song named a longing but also an action that boy would have to undergo, a full and complete denial of desire and joy that he’d feel as the butterflies in his stomach whenever he thought of that one boy, or that other boy. Such delightfulness would lead to so many tears.
And the song named the underside of what it would mean to not renounce such denial of desire and joy. And this because there was the epidemic time of black social life, told in snatches of conversation, whispers, and ephemeral gestures.
He, this 13-year-old black boy, kept rewinding and rewinding. And listening again and again. Maybe he could slip into the song itself, inhabit it.
Maybe the friend asked for the tape so that he could listen to it, but they exchanged volume III for II. I liked this one more because it felt more churchy, the sound of the Hammond organ much more pronounced and felt and warm.
This volume II was released two years before III, in 1989. And there’s a song titled “The Word of God” with Elbernita “Twinkie” Clark of the famous Clark Sisters and, again, Ronald’s brother Mavin on the lead. Twinkie famously sings,
Oh isn’t it funny how we’ve all changed
I remember if you were not holy in the choir you couldn’t sing
But now we go for almost anything
Oh y’all, we’ve changed
I can even remember
Women were women
Uh oh … [laughter, more laughter, from Twinkie, from congregation, laughter together]
And … [more laughter] men were men
And now you can’t hardly tell a her from a him
Oh y’all we’ve changed!
Again, you have to imagine a 13-year-old black boy with a strong sense of the spiritual, a deep desire to be holy and sanctified, a hope for a clean future, hearing these words. And listening to them over and over again. Because that 13-year-old black boy kept feeling things that he knew he’d have to deny of and in himself, in order to have a personal relationship with Jesus. He felt something of the holy that he wanted to be but was not, because of doctrine, because of his shameful and unspoken sin, his desire that he did not ask for but that certainly emerged as an ongoing uncertainty.
Black Space Beyond Nation
It’s as if the song named a longing that he would have to denounce, a conflation of gender and sexuality and not living up to the role God desired, God required. A song that, even with laughter, made a 13-year-old black boy consider what he would have to undergo, a full and complete denial of desire and joy that he’d feel as the butterflies in his stomach whenever he thought of that one boy, or that other boy. Such delightfulness would lead to so many tears.
I in 1993, they in 1989, were all together already in epidemic time … because the fear felt by the 13-year-old black boy, prompted by laughter and praise, was the epistemology that would have unkindness be the better part of the response to an epidemic, to a health crisis, the internalizing of the logic of an inequitable antiblack racist political economy and its health apparatus as personal moral and ethical failure.
Recorded in Detroit, this song documents the laughter screams. Because what was happening in Detroit in the 1980s, the early 1990s, for such a bold claim of failure to live in the purportedly correct gendered positions? Why did these lyrics produce laughter instead of an ethical crisis? Twinkie’s laughter veiled and hid from view the refusal to contend with the presence of difference. And what the presence of difference meant for the whole community.
There was a time when women were women and men were men, but now you can hardly tell a her from a him …
Anthony Heilbut’s The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, tells a different story: “most immediately striking about many of the larger Holiness churches is the inordinate number of male and female homosexuals. As one singer bluntly put it, ‘There’s more sissies and bull daggers in the Sanctified churches, and they all think they’re the only ones going to heaven.’” Curious, this quote, but also telling. Published initially in 1971, the speaker’s reflection on the inordinate number means that there were concerns about the presence of Black queer folks, and the lives lived therein, before 1971.
These folks were not invented in 1971, or 1983, or 1989 or 1991 or 1993. Even though Twinkie Clark felt and squalled and screamed differently.
But there was laughter. And the laughter is a renunciation of possibility, the renunciation of relation, the renunciation of uncertainty. In 1989, in Detroit, there were 502 HIV diagnoses, 175 deaths; and of these, 302 AIDS diagnoses and 167 deaths—approximately 27 percent of the new cases—were black folks. The laughter of the Queen of the Hammond B-3 and the congregation together enunciated the abandonment of the community interior to black social life.
It’s not a conflation of gender and sexual orientation, what Twinkie names through sermonic joy. What she made evident is the crisis that both gender and sexual orientation produce, or allow for us to sense and notice with a kind of clarity. It’s not that what she named and sang was a reductive understanding of the idea of gender that somehow collapsed with the idea of sex. Instead, it’s that what she named and announced, through giggling call to raucous laughter response, is the anxiety about the uncertainty of both concepts. It’s not that women are women and men are men and they are confused, it’s that women are women and men are men and those who presume these categories unalterable are confused, thrown into crisis.
And the crisis into which they were thrown but from which they hoped for relief was the epidemic time of black queer life, a form of life happening at the place of death. Epidemic time does not belong to queer folks as a kind of private property. But it disrupts various temporalities, and the laughter was an attempt to renounce relation to it.
“Our history,” James Baldwin says, “is each other. That is our only guide.” And I say our history is the things we offer to one another, not only or even primarily out of duress but mostly because of and for love. Like chord changes taught and learned and shared through ear training. Like gestures learned to have the choir build intensity, get quiet, modulate, invert, clap, or praise, learned by noticing and practicing with other choir directors. This is a sonic anthological tradition—the learning of songs as repertoire; chord changes as collective wisdom and resource; chord progressions and resolves as always available for improvisational play; and pleasure the sonic sociality of blackness.
I’ve been wondering what to make of the genius art practices in sound and song that musicians living with HIV, dying from AIDS complications between 1980 and 2005, made, that they fashioned with their imaginations. I have been wondering what to do about, how to reckon with, the fact of their deaths. I have been wondering how for many of these musicians, death all around them with friends, family, lovers, hookups did not precipitate their withdrawal from musical social practices until they physically could no longer be present in sanctuaries, because spirit was willing but flesh was weak. And I’ve been wondering about how they played and taught and rehearsed each other’s songs and sounds for others to hear, learn from, practice, and spread.
That 13-year-old black boy kept feeling things that he knew he’d have to deny of and in himself, in order to have a personal relationship with Jesus.
There is so much undealt-with grief. Because these were musicians living, working, and dying at the same time as other artists, poets, journalists, writers, teachers who did not necessarily leave religious or spiritual communities. I’ve been wondering how to talk about those who not only heard but perhaps believed homophobic, queer antagonistic doctrine and theology, and perhaps even shared and helped to spread it.
And I’ve been wondering how to talk about their inhabiting epidemic time, their being afraid of what a virus could do to their flesh, but they could not and would not be out. Not only because they feared losing family and friends but also because they did not believe their sexuality was anything other than a problem to overcome. And yet they made music that remains and endures and is performed by many today.
How did such an important institution in black sociality lose so many people who were certainly black gay geniuses—even if they renounced the gay part for Jesus—without a real call for a reckoning with and contending against violent theologies and doctrines? And what lessons are there for us to learn today, lessons that will allow the past to interrupt the ongoing epistemological violence? How can we transform the impulse toward laughter into the impulse toward kindness, patience, friendship? And how can that unkind laughter prompt in us who are alive, and remain, and endure, a genuine reckoning with theologies of violence, harm, and the idea of human wretchedness as inescapable?
This article was commissioned by Tao Leigh Goffe and sponsored by the UVA Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.