As a homiletics professor at Duke Divinity School, a teacher of preaching, one of my favorite preachers is a woman. She’s actually an “unchurched preacher.” No letters behind her name for seminary degrees—no degrees at all, actually. Not even a GED. Though she doesn’t have any school degrees, she seems to possess a Ph.D. in wisdom and love. There’s one particular sermon of hers that is in the words of Nat King Cole, “unforgettable.” Her name is Baby Suggs holy, a woman preacher in Toni Morrison’s 1988, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved. This novel is a fictional narrative account of a former slave’s memories of post-Civil War Ohio. Baby Suggs holy, despite having “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue” through the furnace of slavery, preaches about the corporeal body to a corporate body in what was known as the Clearing in the woods. Morrison writes that she preaches from her “heart.” Is there any other way to preach?
This is some of what Baby Suggs holy, proclaims:
“‘In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it ...Yonder they do not love your flesh…. Love your hands! Raise them up and kiss them… You got to love it…! … Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you … love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts … you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it … and the beat and beating heart, love that too.’”
Baby Suggs holy, not only talks about the body, she uses her body. When she finishes preaching with her words, she continues preaching with her body:
“Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh.”
What a sermon for such a time as this. Love your Black flesh because “yonder” they don’t love it. Love your body even if and when others do not. Love your flesh. Love your body.
Did Baby Suggs holy, see how we treat bodies today in the streets of America? Did she know that the vicious violence of her time would continue into our time? The anti-Black violence against bodies and the virulence of COVID-19 against any bodies are rearing their heads during these dual pandemics. These are wounds in the heart of humanity that lack the recognition that everybody matters.
But bodies, and especially certain marginalized bodies, are sometimes deemed to be unimportant for flourishing in life. In fact, the influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy has caused many to set the goal of escaping from the body and material reality as the ideal. And when this happens, anything can be done to bodies, especially othered bodies. This is what led to the brutal context of slavery in Beloved and its associated corporeal terrorism. When bodies don’t matter, we can torture them, shoot them, behead them, objectify them, brand them, hang them, make fun of them, ignore them and abuse them. The love we should have for bodies is turned to hate against fellow human beings’ bodies, revealing that to be anti-body is to be anti-human and to me, anti-God, because within the Christian tradition, God became a human body in Jesus to embrace all bodies and claim them as vital for the spiritual life.
Bodies matter. Your body matters and it needs to be loved. So, every time we hurt a body, we destroy the beautiful image of God found in the collective body of humanity. I am minding bodies these days because I’m seeing a disturbing trend to disregard them, discard them and ultimately destroy them, as if they don’t matter. But they do. And Baby Suggs holy, preached, “You got to love it.” Love your flesh. Love your body even in the face of the threats of pandemics. Your body is a temple of the Spirit as the Apostle Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6:19). That means your life is sacred, including your body, and you are a cathedral of clay. We sometimes overlook this even at our universities when we think education is only about our neck up when it is really about our whole selves, including the bodies we don’t always love.
What are you doing these days to care for your own body? Is it resting when your body tells you it’s time to stop the all-nighters? Is it exercising when you feel like sending one more email from your laptop? Is it stretching after long days sitting and staring at the computer screen after another class on Zoom? Is it dancing to your favorite salsa music bare feet on grass? Is it eating healthier? Is it combing your hair, brushing your teeth, doing your nails or getting out of your pajamas after a few days and finally dressing up even if no one will see you in person? You can care for your body in so many ways. Don’t rely on those out “yonder” to do it. Love yourself. You are somebody and deserve so much love. Engage in self-love because if you don’t love yourself, your own body, you won’t be able to truly love any body else.
“You got to love it.” Love your flesh. Love your body.
Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is the Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.
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