An excerpt from Marginal Eyes, Chapter Three:
Their voices boomed, rolled, and penetrated the air with a strength only Gospel can have. Many in the pews were clapping, others were nodding their heads, and some stood and shifted their weight side to side, putting their hands in the air. As time went on, one or two people began to dance their way into the aisles. At my grandmother’s church, which was Pentecostal, she and other nurses would have been there dressed in white, standing by to aid anyone who might swoon and fall to the floor. Things weren’t quite as intense here, but “the Spirit” was moving. The singing was joined by shouts from the congregation: “Yes, Lord!” and “Okay!” and “That’s right, thank you, Jesus!”
My feet didn’t reach the floor yet, and so from the first beat, they were swinging in the air. Soon, one of my knees was bouncing on the edge of the pew. I glanced up at Bussey to check her reaction, and when she giggled at me, I took it as encouragement, stepped to the floor, cut my whole body loose, and enjoyed the music.
A smiling man across the aisle clapped his hands in time with my rhythm and said, “Okay! Get it, son!”
A woman in a flowery hat behind him saw me dancing and smiled as well.
“Oooh, Lord. Bless your heart!” she cried, clapping as she looked at Bussey and gushed over me.
My mother grew up in a church not unlike this, though its culture was stricter. In fact, she felt confined by the very traditional gender roles and social prudence that it taught, and she left it to seek her own religious path. The Black churches I grew up knowing weren’t places I romanticized or where I thought to find myself. They were places I visited, like any other. And though I have a certain love for them, it wasn’t the bright dress gloves carefully matched to colorful outfits, the fire of a Baptist preacher calling in the Spirit, or the uplifting words of Gospel songs that had gotten me dancing. I was touched by a woman who knew me enough to put me in front of this music. Moments like this, where I was allowed to be myself, stayed in an ever-fresh place in my memory.
If I had remembered that place and never let go of that gift, my life might have been very different. But the essence of these moments, which became all too rare later, took until the present day to come back to me. I spent most of the next thirty years of my life struggling to recreate something like that freedom I’d forgotten. Still, because freedom was in my memory, I never stopped trying to find it. I knew it was out there—a thing of goodness that I’d known before—and I wanted to have it. That was the power of the times and places where I didn’t have to be more than myself. Somewhere inside of me was always a child just dancing to the beat.
An article on the “One-Drop Rule”: