Dr. E.L. Kornegay Jr. grew up in a military family, living on U.S. Army bases in several U.S. states and in France. The family’s home base was in Kinston, NC. “I was bouncing back and forth between these different worlds,” Kornegay said, “and going back and forth between two types of segregation, one racial and one based on rank.”
Kornegay dropped out of college but returned in his mid-30s, earning a B.A. in English from North Carolina A&T. He later earned graduate degrees from McCormick Theological Seminary and Chicago Theological Seminary, becoming the first African-American male to earn a Ph.D. from the latter institution.
He was drawn to study the work of the writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) through a comment made by the founder of Black liberation theology, James H. Cone, who once said that Baldwin taught him how to write. Kornegay was intrigued: “That took me on this theological journey to discern exactly what that meant.”
Baldwin was the son of a Christian minister who felt alienated from his family and church, in part because he was gay, and left the faith in his late teenage years. Kornegay views him nonetheless as a religious writer. “Everything he writes is a religious conversation,” he said. In his recently published book, A Queering of Black Theology: James Baldwin’s Blues Project and Gospel Prose (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Kornegay uses Baldwin’s work to probe the question of “how we reconcile sexualities with faith.”
Kornegay is an adjunct professor at Chicago Theological Seminary and the founder, last year, of the Chicago-based Baldwin Delaney Institute for Academic Enrichment and Faith Flourishing, whose mission is “to teach successful critical-thinking strategies” and “critical social dialogue to youth, families, and non-traditional adult learners.”
The following interview focuses on A Queering of Black Theology and was conducted by Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, pastor for formation and justice at First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain in Boston, MA. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, an organizer, documentary filmmaker, and the author of God, Gays, and Guns: Essays on Religion and the Future of Democracy (Campbell & Cannon, 2012).
The subtitle of the book is James Baldwin’s Blues Project and Gospel Prose. The blues is an enduring narrative in the twentieth century. It seems that Baldwin’s life is a blues narrative, given the [tragedy of] his relationship to his father, the relationship between him and the Black community, and as a writer being ignored. The blues is the soundtrack of exile and [creates] a multiplicity of narratives in your work.
Blues, as it is expressed as music, begins and ends with the issue of one’s sexuality. It’s a siren call of the spirit, related to love and the search for love, and the pain of love, that gets lost on us as we become spiritual or Christian creatures. I think that Baldwin captures that—the idea of being sanctified as being inclusive of who you are sexually.
The blues, for me, is a way of engaging the sacredness of Black bodies and the Black experience, in relation to Black religion and the church. It brings in the holy narrative of a disparaged and abandoned people and gives a way for that expression to remain sacred, whether it’s in the church or in the street. So the blues is a way to talk about everything at once without the separation of sacredness and profaneness seeping in.
You [write about Baldwin’s lived experience of] exile in the Promised Land …
Baldwin was in Harlem at a time when the North was seen as a land of promise. Many folk migrated from the South into the North to end up in this space, where you could see the promise but not necessarily engage in it. So this is really an exilic sojourn, and the folk that end up in the ghetto spaces of Harlem, like Baldwin, are exiled socially, economically, and racially. Add to that the fact that, for Baldwin, his exilic experience also includes his sexuality.
There is a general consensus that Baldwin leaves the church. Inherent in that is the idea that the church left Baldwin. But it reemerges in these interesting ways: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Nobody Knows My Name, No Name in the Street, The Devil Finds Work. Those are religious phrases—notions that emerge out of songs and scripture. You are resituating Baldwin within the framework of the Black church and Christianity writ large.
It’s important to understand when you read him—all the way up to Just Above My Head (1979) and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985)—that Baldwin really takes on an apostolic calling. His texts are apostolic: he is doing what the gospel calls us to do, which is to go out and preach the gospel in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the outermost parts of the earth. And that is exactly what Baldwin does. Which is very different from what we see in the Black church, where we’re proud to be sitting on the same pew, on the same end, for 37 years, and that is how we see ourselves as holy.
Though the text is dense in terms of its theological reading and its deployment of queer theory, I keep [remembering that] you’re a country boy from Kinston, North Carolina. I imagine your mama, and Baldwin, and you, and a queer theorist—Judith Butler or somebody like that—sitting around, and your mama pouring a cup of coffee and giving them some pie. Situate your experience of Baldwin and your experience of being from North Carolina.
We’ve had many conversations about our upbringing and the centrality of the kitchen-table narratives that have shaped our thinking and our humanity. My mother was an avid reader. In fact, I think she even planted texts that were charged sexually [in our home]. As a genteel, Southern, Christian, Negro woman, things that she couldn’t tell her son about being a man, or the choices that he was to face as a Black man in the world, or even the challenges that he was to face in that world—she couldn’t tell me, but she could give me a text, or plant a text, for me to read. Along with reading, say, Falconhurst Fancy, and Manchild in the Promised Land, and Invisible Man, Another Country was planted. And so, around the time I was 12 or 13, that was one of the first novels that I read through, and it was charged with sexuality.
And also, my mother’s kitchen table was queer, in context. Old folk, differently abled folk, intellectuals, and homosexual men and lesbian women made up the inner circle of my mother’s friends. Add to that the fact that, even though I’m a native of North Carolina and grew up in Kinston, with a dirt road beside the house, I was living in France when I was five and six years old, in Poitiers, and doing things that were different from other little Black boys and girls at that particular time, flying intercontinentally and sailing from New York to Germany and flying from Paris to New York. And then bounding from that kind of world down to a little town that was segregated.
So my experiences as a youth, up until I was 12, meant that I had to be able to navigate both of those spaces. That allowed for an expansive understanding of humanity and the choices that humans make, whether that’s where they live, how they interact, and who they are sexually. And that is inclusive of this thing my sister said one time—that she felt like our mother herself was a lesbian.
When anybody gay came home, they would come by the house, and they would be full of laughter. I had this community that loved me, unconditionally, because they loved my mother. And so I grew up at this table, and it was a table full of radicals, conservatives, straight folk, gay folk, church folk, gamblers, and that was what I experienced. And so that text, [Baldwin’s book] Another Country, was really my entry point into the world of Baldwin, and into another world, very literally and figuratively. That was what I had experienced. I was a baby, five or six years old, in France, when Baldwin was probably having his first expat experience in Paris.
Given the moment we are in, at one level we see progress—over a dozen states allowing gay marriage—while the majority don’t allow gay marriage. And so your text hits at an interesting time, because the Black church is slowly being torn asunder around sex and sexuality. And then the AIDS epidemic is once again rearing its ugly head. So, what’s at stake for you in the text? What do you want a queering of black theology to say to the world?
I wanted to say to the world that Black manhood and Black masculinity are not monolithic. You can be masculine and homosexual, and you can be masculine and heterosexual. It’s not about sexuality but about masculinity. And the kind of masculinity that we perpetuated, post-Civil Rights, is losing the battle against violence. And if we want to end violence, we have to be willing to go beyond the model of masculinity that we have right now, to be able to look at it and critique it, and to unburden our women from carrying it, and pick up that mantle ourselves, in a new way, that requires all of the brothers, heterosexual and homosexual, to be able to come together and to make Black masculinity over again.