Black Canon, Queer Divine
Ballroom Freedom School (12/12)

Black Canon, Queer Divine

Writers Ricky Tucker and Karmen Michael Smith discuss the intersections of the Black church and Ball Culture, bell hooks, Beyoncé (of course), and books that need to be written. 

I submit to you the following: proclamations of sainthood or “Canonization” occur definitively too late (posthumously) and too demographically constrained. There are very few Black saints. Take for example, St. Martin de Porres, patron saint of mixed-race people, barbers, innkeepers, public health workers, all those seeking racial harmony, and animals (insert side-eye). St. Martin’s life work spanned the 1600s, yet, he wasn’t canonized until the 1960s during the American civil rights era, which means he was canonically overlooked longer than America’s history of slavery. 

Or Saint Sebastian, a recently adopted queer icon, who was only symbolically gay due to his flamboyant if “artsy” execution—death by arrows. And outside of folks processing incorrectly the moniker, Saint Francis of Assisi, it’s safe to say that there are three things saints usually are not—Black, gay, and alive. 

Still, as lowly as this fact is, there is one notable literary loophole…

Canonization has two definitions: 

can·on·i·za·tion /kanənəˈzāSH(ə)n/

  • noun
  • 1.
    (in the Roman Catholic Church) the official admission of a dead person into sainthood.
    “many parishioners wanted to attend church specifically to honor the canonization of Mother Teresa”
  • 2.
    admission into a canon of literary or artistic works.
    “Joyce saw all that was wrong with literary canonization long before it happened to him”

To many, myself included, the distinctions between these two definitions are few if any. There is an argument to be made suggesting that St. Martin de Porres and James Baldwin, in their living, selfless servitude and public disruption, and posthumous exoneration and exaltation are one and the same. In fact, in a shockingly candid 1979 ABC exposé on Baldwin’s legacy, a young Black Harlemite asks the literary titan, “Do you think there’s still a chance for today’s Black writer?” to which Baldwin responds, “There never was a chance for a Black writer. Come, what’s your name? ” The boy’s name is Jeffrey. Baldwin then leans forward, saying, “Jeffrey, listen… a writer, Black or white, doesn’t have much of a chance, right? Nobody wants a writer until he’s dead.” Baldwin holds Jeffrey’s chin to ensure eye contact. “But, to answer your real question,” he says, “there’s a greater chance for the Black writer today than there ever has been.” 

James’ response to Jeffrey begs the question, what if we honoured saints and writers while they were alive? Especially Black ones…? No matter the answer, by Baldwin’s measure, as a Black and gay writer, if not a saint—I am a goddamn miracle. 


The following conversation is between two very alive, very Black, and very gay writers who recently joined the canon: me, Ricky Tucker, and Rev. Karmen Michael Smith. For roughly two hours Karmen and I discussed the ways in which our respective books—And the Category Is… Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community, and Holy Queer: the Coming Out of Christ—differ and align, like Venn-diagrammed halos converging into a circle if you will. Now, I’m not suggesting we’re saints, as evidenced by our discourses on TikTok, Beyoncé, and the dance floor. However, we do feel we’ve filled two substantial historical voids by writing our books. In this, I truly believe writing books is an act of service. Even greater, answering a divine call.

Ricky: SO. We’re past Pride—gay book times. How has your experience promoting your book been so far? For me, up until recently, I was doing event after event after event, and then in July, it settled down a bit. Of course, Beyonce’s album (Renaissance) caused a huge upswing last summer. 

Karmen: Because?

R: Because some folks from Ballroom who are on that album are also in the book. And the timeliness of it all. Ballroom is also experiencing a type of “Renaissance” so those variables caused a huge spike in sales and interest. But honestly, this week I felt like nobody gave a shit, which is great in terms of my bandwidth haha. 

K: Yes, for me there are lulls. Mostly in the last two weeks of July. And of course, June was like, “I can’t breathe.” It’s hard. I’m doing all the things, going all the places, and I’m doing this myself. I’m going to the post office [to mail out books], and as soon as I get back from the post office, there are seven more requests. It’s a one-man show at the moment. 

R: That’s good though. That means a high demand—although that’s a lot for one person.

K: Yeah, and then these last two weeks have been a welcome

Relax, relate, release! Doing it alone, I wonder, “Is this normal? Is this, is it ‘it’?”

What has helped me is that right after the launch, I hired this young man–he’s a student at Colombia was looking for work. I was like, “Hey, can you come capture social media content, photos, and stuff, and I’ll pay you for a couple of hours?”

R: Is he gay? 

K: No. 

R: Is he Black? 

K: Yes.

R: Okay.

K: And he’s from Arkansas. So he said, “I would listen to you. I think that you’re poised to have a bigger audience. You should use TikTok.” And I was like, “I have it, but…” But he was right. I told him I’d post stuff. In one week I gained 2000 followers.

R: 2000?!

K: 2000. I’m up to 3,500 at this point. 

R: That’s crazy.

K: It’s [TikTok] part of our community. People want to talk and learn something. It’s folks who used to hang out outside the club at night saying, “Where can I talk to somebody about being me?”

R: I could see that. Alright, I’ll get on TikTok.. So, one thing that fascinated me about your book was the close readings of canonical texts, looking at the Bible as a source text, and finding moments of queerness in it. Like the King James thing. 

Can you talk about that?

K: King James was gay.

R: Ha. Just out the gate.

K: Yes. In society, we would say that King James was queer or bisexual. King James had a wife. King James had a mistress, and King James was very fond of his male companions. And there were three main ones. When the family saw [what was happening]they sent him away and while King James was away, at a school or something. 

He’s upset, and then he falls in love, I believe with his second cousin or third cousin or something—as they did (white people). And by his third lover, everyone knew he was closeted, and he was ashamed. He’s now in court, grabbing him by the back of the neck and kissing him. And I’m like, “Well, I think at some point he had enough of being in the closet.

R: Wow. 

K: Eventually, his advisors were like, “You have to stop spending so much money on your lover’s clothes because you’re going to bankrupt us!” Some people have issues with it. They think I have a gay agenda, but it’s a fact. In the Black church, he would’ve been gay. You slept with a man; you’re gay. 

R: That’s right. 

K: And he [King James] can do it, as many people are because he has money and power, which is how we got the King James Bible. It’s him saying, ‘I have the money to put it into an English translation.’ He hires scholars and theologians to translate the Bible but fancies himself to be in the room when they come up with some of the translations from Hebrew and Arame and Greek to English. And there are reports that if you pushed back on things that he didn’t want—you were beheaded.

R: So, how do we explain the fact that the King James Bible is misogynistic but also homophobic in certain spots? How do we get there?

K: Multiple translations. I’m actually working on a project now. The title is called “The Homophobia Conspiracy.”

R: I love that, because it takes the “gay agenda” and turns it on its head. It’s the homophobic agenda in a way.

K: Yeah. It’s this entire conspiracy that the Bible can be used as a tool for people. You know, Christianity wasn’t the religion of the masses. It was an underground religion. I tell people to remember how hip-hop was underground back in the day. But is what we’re listening to today hip hop, or is it too commercial? 

R: Right. 

K: Lauryn Hill said it best: “It’s funny how money changes situations.”

R: Oh, it was so important that she started the whole album with that line.

K: Well, that’s what happened with Christianity. It was this underground thing. People were disconnecting from power, an empire, saying, ‘We are the people. We can do this ourselves. And there’s a new way of being in God, which is not going to church, but everything about your life as a spiritual thing. That’s always a threat to controlling people. So they said, ‘That’s a built-in audience.. People come to church vulnerable…’ They created danger for people and used the bible as a tool. ‘If you don’t do this, you’re going to hell.’ 

R: Right. There are consequences for not being “righteous”, which is a moving target. 

K: ‘Everyone’s going to hell unless they follow this book,’ and then ‘You are not smart enough to understand it, so we’re going to tell you.’ 

And then more people are reading it, and then we start changing the translations in the text, and it’s very much Hitler’s white supremacy. All of this takes place right after World War II where the dictionaries then change the definition of gay to homosexual: men sleeping with men. 

R: It used to be defined as happiness. Gay was the definition of happiness. 

K: Right. Happiness, because gay was lighthearted. If you were a young boy who provided sexual favors to an older man, you were considered gay. At the same time, if you were a female prostitute or a woman who provided services, you were also considered gay. It was lighthearted, it was the free people. Today we’d probably call them hippies or free spirits. 

R: Happy and safe.

K: And if you’re trying to keep a “perfect” human race going, then you must be reproducing. So we started changing labels and definitions, and saying, ‘Well see, the Bible said so…” I call it the “homophobia conspiracy” because that’s not what the Bible was talking about. 

Like with white supremacy in this country: you do one thing, and they find another way to keep it alive, and they use education and scholarship.

R: Well, Michael [Roberson] and some of his other children and I were helping him move the other day, and we were talking about the moving target that is “queer”. In the greater white world, it used to mean kind of strange. Then Judith Butler and them got a hold of it, and now it’s a homogenized gayness. It’s almost all-inclusive in a way, becoming the umbrella term, packing us all underneath, including people who simply thought twice about their heterosexuality. There’s a new agenda every year it seems when it comes to that word.

K: And that’s why I talk about it in my book, as a personal thing. I like bell hook’s definition of queer.

R: And what does she say?

K: bell hooks says queer is not who you sleep with, although that’s a part of it. But queerness is that which is at odds with everything around it and has to cultivate a space to be.

R: Yeah, there’s a hurdle there. There’s a challenge. It’s not the hat you wear. You have to get over something to get there. 

Book cover of Holy Queer by Rev Karmen Michael Smith
Holy Queer is available at Barnes & Noble or at holyqueerbook.com.

K: Well, this is Jesus at odds with everything around him, the pure definition of minority because he was not part of any system. He was Jew, but not Jew enough. He was with the Gentiles but not Gentile enough. He doesn’t follow any of the tropes. This free spirit travels from here to there telling you about peace. At odds with everything, and cultivate a space in which to be.

That encompasses so much of us, which is why I named the book Holy Queer: the Coming Out of Christ.

R: Outside of the theoretical, what evidence might you have that Jesus could have been queer by our modern standards?

K: I would say I am cautious of going through the text and doing the “ah-has.” People come to me at book talks and ask me about particular texts, saying ‘Is this the one?’ I ask them instead to challenge the Bible being their personal authority. 

The Bible is an authority, but it is not the only authority. Those stories, letters, and accounts are written by 40 plus authors, 66 books culminating over 1500 years.

R: And parables that we have to deduce are parables. 

K: Right. Scripture is for the inspiring or the perfecting of our faith. So I’m going to need us to not live our whole lives making it our duty to worship a book when God is still speaking and creating and talking to us—and scriptures are still being written.

R: That’s fascinating.

K: Kierkegaard says, ‘The best things in life are not to be read or to be seen or to be heard, but to be experienced.’ Go out and live, because if you are sitting at a bar and talking to a trans person, or a gay person, or a lesbian, or a straight, or a swinger, you don’t think about any of that. When you’re sitting there having to drink, and y’all are laughing, you’re living,

R: You’re experiencing one another.

K: And that is more important than reading some scripture saying, “I’m perfect, and If you don’t follow this book, you’re going to hell. Your family’s going to hell. The apocalypse is coming.”

I can sum it up in three sentences: They lied. They lying. They’re going to keep lying. So who you going to believe? That’s my sermon.

R: I understand. It’s like when I’m doing these book talks over the past year and a half, so many people want me to talk about Madonna, that kind of thing.

K: I purposefully didn’t ask a single Madonna question.

R: Haha. I appreciate that. Truly, it’s not only Madonna as a topic that bothers me, but how folks are messy. But ya know, Madonna in regards to Ballroom is inherently messy. 

I did an interview for the LA Review of Books, which I love, and it was one of the best interviews I ever did. An ex was asking the questions, and we did the interview the day bell hooks died. I’d say she’s in the book as much as Madonna is. And we didn’t really talk about Madonna. Yet, the headline…

K: What did it say?

R: “We Have to Do Better Than Madonna.” That was the headline. And so it was the same thing, reenacting that whole discord narrative where Madonna trumps ball culture, and so, Madonna trumps a more nuanced conversation about the culture and its commodification. 

Book cover of And the Category Is...
A finalist in nonfiction for the 2023 Lambda Literary Award, And The Category Is…is available at Beacon Press, Penguin Random House and Amazon.

K: Well, I’m glad you say that because on page 19 of your book, you say, “Part of the power of cultural criticism and cultural studies has been its political intervention as a force in American society,” which is what you do, cultural criticism. But then you talk about how she [hooks] calls for a new kind of awareness, for an enlightened witness to these misrepresentations. When I tell you I almost went up like church, that is the perfect term, enlightened witnesses. And first, tell us what are the questions that lead you to that.

R: It started with an interview I conducted before the book was even a thing. It was with Pony Zion and Benji Hart. Robert Sember was there too. 

So they’re coming from different ends of it, and we landed on: capitalism is the worst, but until we get up out of it, what does a good exchange with non-Ballroom communities look like? And what am I actually selling when I shake hands with the likes of a Madonna? So it came to me. bell hooks has some awesome writings on Madonna. She has an essay that I have my nonfiction classes read right now called, “Madonna: Soul Sister or Plantation Mistress?” It’s a whole breakdown of Madonna’s aesthetic: holding her crotch, pimp attire, stealing that from rappers and Black culture. And so hooks has a whole philosophy; may she rest in Peace. bell hooks was an artist in residence at The New School, both when I was a student and when I was working there. So she’s always in the back of my head. 

Benji is very radical in that they say, “Voguing belongs to us, and everything ain’t for everybody.” While Pony’s point of entry as a popular voguing instructor is more, “I don’t own Voguing. I don’t own it, although it is an art form that gets me up out of disparity.”

I knew hooks had a charged idea about that archetype that is Madonna. And so I went to see what she thought, and I ended up there with enlightened witnesses and thinking how is everybody involved? That is all three constituents, but the audience mainly. What are we receiving? How are we digesting “Vogue,” the song? Because a lot of people, Black and white, but mostly the boys in Chelsea, digested it as Madonna either created Vogue or she did us a favor.

K: Yeah. I didn’t know much about Ballroom culture growing up in Texas. [the television show] Pose came out, and at one point, there was a line in an episode where it says that Madonna ain’t going to see us. Madonna ain’t going to pay no attention to us, something like that. By the end of that episode, it was like you got a whiff of how people feel. But in the beginning, it was like she put us on, it kind of held up that myth.

This is off-topic of the voguing, but that seems to be a recurring theme. I saw it in Paris Is Burning clearly in the juxtaposition to the black church, which is what I know. And it is this, I don’t even want to say yearning. It feels deeper than that. My therapist says that the brain is not able to differentiate between your first relationship and the relationship you’re in now.

R: Oh no.

K: It sees it all as you are in relationships. This is what we do in relationships. So, when you’re arguing in this present relationship and the previous relationship, it all goes back to that first relationship. You’ve been trying to get what you didn’t get in the first relationship out of all these others. And that first relationship was with your mother and father. 

R: Jesus.

K: And then it blew my mind. I was like, oh yeah, I can see where I didn’t get that thing. And in every relationship I’ve held everyone to task almost in a test. ‘Are you going to abandon me like they did?

So you start doing that thing, and I see this in the Black church a lot. I saw it in Paris is Burning, and I get it from reading your book and also the limited experience I have with Ballroom, yearning to be seen. They say, if I can’t have the life like they had on Dynasty, why do they get it and I don’t? And in the Black church, we are dressed up in our Sunday best, the life of Dynasty, all of that. 

It leads me to page 18, where you talk about voguing in terms of other people’s definitions. You say, “Vogue’ology taught us that Vogue is not about an external imitation. It’s about performing your internal liberation. How does someone vogue when the dance is rooted in a particular struggle?” That’s the question you ask. And then Benji said, “You can’t vogue properly if you can’t hold black, poor, trans and queer folks in regard. Everybody loves us when we’re creating these beautiful, powerful, visceral pieces of art. But what about when we’re harassed on the street, we’re fighting for our freedom?” 

I want to link that fighting to be seen as a form of fighting for our freedom. That is our liberation. We are clothed, all this other stuff, trauma and first relationships, and the world we live in where we’re minimized and diminished. And I see this running thread of voguing as a liberation theology. 

R: Absolutely. The horrible thing that comes to mind is two days ago, O’Shae Sibley voguing at a gas station and being killed for it. And you want to talk about being at theological odds with the world, allegedly, the men who did it were Muslim. People can’t accept your liberation because it is an offense to their persecution, their self-persecution a lot of the time. And I think where Benji has veered off from that stringent point of view is in considering how everybody does have some struggle and their voguing has to come from there. Pony says, “What’s in your ‘voguecabulary’?” What movements do you make every day that incorporate into your voguing? Because you can’t do what I do. And you can see that in Madonna’s Vogue in the music video. I love that music video, directed by David Fincher, but it’s so problematic and gorgeous at the same time but you can see it because of the choreography. José X and the girls are killing it but Madonna looks as if she’s doing something akin to the Macarena. It looks a little bit like hokey pokey. It’s stiff as hell and nearly pantomiming.

K: Yeah, absolutely. I knew the whole thing. And evidently from all the memes we see, every child, every gay child was doing it. Still, enough is enough. And to this day, she doesn’t acknowledge that Ballroom has anything to do with her, or that she’s lucky that she was loaned that or to tell that story. She hasn’t even considered herself a vessel. She considers herself an owner in a way, it seems.

R: But that’s where enlightened witnesses come in. In that context, if my book were made into a docuseries, then Michael Roberson, Genovia, Twiggy, and all these folks who worked on Pose and are my family, are going to come in out the gate as producers. I will be an executive producer because it’s art criticism, but it’s also a memoir. And so they [appropriators] are not getting my story for free—and in perpetuity? Hell no. 

K: Well, that is the challenge. I believe a society is truly rooted in ownership and not of things. I think things are only symptoms. But from the beginning, we’ve been trying to own God who is free to all, but if everyone has access, then how am I special? How am I better than you? And I see that as part of the conversation you’re saying about voguing and dancing; everyone wants to be Leiome [Maldanado].

R: Everyone.

K: Everyone wants to float, spin, and twist. But it’s also the same narrative in the Black church. Go to any of these memes, or videos, and everyone’s shout or church dance looks alike. That was not the purpose of that dance. I remember reading somewhere every time you dance, a part of your spirit is set free. Because it is the part that is often most repressed. So when you bring us to today and Beyonce’s talking about “Church Girl,” I actually think it is very spiritual.

R: Oh, absolutely. 

K: Women are oppressed in that way, especially Black women. “Your butts are too big.” “Put this shirt over it.” “Don’t do that.” When I go to dance, the part of me that is repressed is what I express because that has to be released.

R: I tell you, when I heard that particular song, at first, I laughed. I was like, “Thank you.” First of all, it’s coded. What does Missy say, “Smack it down, flip it, and reverse it? She was like, the bad girls are acting stank basically, and the good girls are acting loose. 

K: She flipped it. And that is a thing that we all know subconsciously, is that nobody is one or the other. Each of those is repressed in different kinds of ways so they can get to each other’s point. 

R: Yeah, that song tickled me. I was so happy.

K: The late James Cone says the same thing you’re saying; it’s code. He says that all “God talk” is inherently metaphorical. Jesus is a rock in the weary land. 

R: Jesus is not a rock, and lands can’t be weary.

K: Right. But somewhere along the way, we have been indoctrinated to read ourselves in the same way we read the Bible. What did this parable teach me? Now we are looking for pieces of the Ark. What if we can’t find pieces or find where it was actually located, how it broke up? And well, how did Noah get two of everything? Because this animal would’ve eaten this animal? That is called a literal reading of the Bible. And if we’re going to literally read every metaphor…

R: It lends to people being like, “This Beyonce song is crazy!” haha. 

K: Listen seriously to see what you can get from it. It is not about Paul, or Moses, or the names of the people. They don’t matter. Get the story.

R: That’s right.

K: And I feel like that’s what we’ve lost in Society. 

R: Agreed. 

K: Another thing I love about your book is that it takes me into another underground space like the church originally was because the Black church was a subversive space. I call it a heterotopia, a world within a world amidst the chaos outside. And this was the place where black people could be black-ish in our distinct ways, and we could dress up and we could be somebody, especially in a small town in Texas in the seventies. A space in which not only Black women but Black men were pent up all week. And when they called you gal and all of that stuff, and you had to sit there and hold your mouth and say yes, when the pastor got up in the pulpit and said, “God hears your cry.” And people throw their hands up and yell, “Lord Jesus”—that is a release.

And when on page 144, you speak in depth with Lee Soulja, and the spiritual awakening that comes from the Holy Trinity, Ballroom,and the dance floor in New York City, I feel like it is right there with the sacredness of the dance floor as a transformative space of worship, declaring how being there indelibly changed his life. It’s being in the church on Sundays. Cornel West saying, we take that Easter story. He went down on Friday and got up on Sunday, but didn’t sleep on Saturday night. We are Saturday night people. We got to get our Saturday night in before we got to Sunday morning.

R: Haha. Right. Otherwise, what’s there to repent? 

K: But when you imagine the Ballroom space as this liberating space, this Holy Trinity, tell me a little bit more about that.

R: A lot of it is what you said a second ago about dancing being the liberation you can’t get elsewhere. Actually, that was my point of entry into Ballroom. Pony [Zion] was such a good teacher, such a good teacher in Vogue’ology. I love dance and I love art, but writing has always been my gift, passion, and greatest impact. I often feel voiceless without it. But writing about art—I found a niche there. 

For the book, a huge part of my job was to convey to you as best as possible what it feels like to be in that Ballroom in case you never get to actually go to a ball. If you are a young, Black gay man in particular, and you’re reading this book, if you never get to go to a ball because you live in Arkansas or whatever buttfuck wherever, I want you to know what you could be missing. That you own a space somewhere and it misses you. 

And that’s another thing I wanted to talk to you about—introductions. I think a throughline between our books is we both wanted to write the book that we needed to be written, because it didn’t exist. When the calling comes, you need to answer it. And I got that from your book—you were going through a breakup, and professionally you weren’t sure where to turn… Why was it important for you to write this book? 

K: I tuned into the voice of God that lives within me, and heard God say, write a book. My rent is due, and I’m going to be evicted. We had this song in the Black church that says, “He looked beyond my faults and sees my needs. God says you are praying for money. I want to give you liberation, which could also come later in the form of money. But for the time being, more than that, I want you to see why this situation is happening. You’re not even asking me the right questions. You’re asking for me to save you. As we learn in the Black church, Jesus would come in and say, well, Jesus has already done that part.

I started from scratch. But there are pieces, once something’s inscribed, we retain so much of. And so I started…I kept thinking, I want people on the block who don’t read books to read it.

R: That’s true. It is short, but dense.

K: For sure. I was also writing my own liberation. After the third draft of this, I went back and started inserting myself into this book, and then the book became what it was supposed to be, which was a call to Unity, a critique of the black church, and then a history of this journey experience of being queer and black and growing up in the church. Now a myriad motley crew of people come to me from different generations and say, “That’s my story.”

R: Absolutely. Before writing And the Category Is… I was like, this is the book that I needed growing up. And after writing it, that’s all I hear from other people. I get it from PhD students, all types of Black, brown queer people who are like, I have been waiting for this. 

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