I remember the feeling when I first watched George cry “Moma” as a White man with a badge destroyed him with the same human body part we learned to pray on. I prefer to forget those images.
I remember seeing Jo’Artis, who danced in front of police officers at a California protest, come across the same screen.
His knees twirl. His left foot hits the concrete.
That act of dancing has something important to teach those of us who worship in the Black church.
Some people believe that the Spirit only moves and encircles Black bodies in sanctuaries adorned with images of Jesus. But Black faith never was confined to a building. It was always wherever we found our bodies.
The future of the Black church will be determined by our willingness to embrace and trust ourselves beyond the logic of Whiteness and pay attention to our bodies and the ways we dance.
“It feels like a prayer,” I told my friend as I showed him the video of Jo’Artis. “There is something holy about it.”
Why do we dance? Why do we shout? Why do we move ourselves across church floors and across concrete as we live, as Saidiya Hartman writes, in a time a slavery, “by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.”
Both George and Jo’Artis’s bodies and their lives and their stories are sacred and worth telling.
Since George’s death, it has been easier for many people to talk about White progress, White anti-racism and White faith than it has been to embrace Black humanity, Black love and Black liberation. Our lives are more than resistance, pain and any type of argument or book or word that allows people to evade our beauty and creativity.
Since the days and hours that have passed when both bodies were on my screen, I have spent hours thinking about dance as a form of spiritual protest. But it is more than protest. It is life and love and freedom and joy and release and revolution finding expression across concrete.
Many are used to seeing Black bodies as weapons or prizes or chattel. Yet we know, our bodies and our dancing are prayers and witnesses and, as poet June Jordan writes, us “being black alive and looking back at you.”
“The church didn’t just save our souls,” my friend Jay said as he sat on his couch, and I sat on the love seat to the left of him. “The church saved our bodies.”
When he said that, my mind immediately went back to my Pentecostal church, white-stained brick building in rural South Carolina. I thought of the six houses and two streets that separated our Black church from our White Christian neighbors. Our Sunday school lessons warned us about rap music and pants sagging.
My mind went back to midnight prayers and long, hot, sweaty tarrying services. I thought back to how Black grandmas and granddaddies filled the American streets in the 1960s, with Bibles in their hands, their brown and dark faces determined to be free.
I recalled how my bishop prayed and how he tried to save us and how sometimes he failed and how sometimes he succeeded. He died during the pandemic, and what’s left is memories and messages and gospels and whoops.
Black faith has not been perfect but it has been powerful. It has shown me that weeping may endure for the night and joy may never come in the morning but in the whisper of the darkness and the cries of the ancestors, we can find meaning and mercy and the goodness of the Lord in the land of the Black and living.
That is the church. “I have come that they might have life,” Jesus says. Wherever we are Black and alive and dancing, there is faith, there is hope, there is love.
Our bodies and our beauty, as Toni Morrison once wrote of James Baldwin, go “into that forbidden territory and decolonized it … and un-gated it for black people so that in your wake we could enter.” The same spirit in the church is the same spirit out on the street.
I know dancing cannot save us. But it does remind me of something I need to hear again and again: You are human. You must survive. You must be free. You are not wayward. You are not a problem. You deserve the best we have to offer. You are loved.
That type of love makes you shout and dance and put your feet on concrete.