“I Love to Praise His Name”: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure
Well, if you don’t believe in shouting,
That’s alright with me
Some folk don’t believe in shouting,
That’s alright with me…
Doubt and ignore it,
But I belong to the Lord’s crew.
David said rejoice in the Lord,
And that’s the way we Christians do.
If you don’t believe in shouting,
That’s alright with me.
–Dorothy Love Coates & the Gospel Harmonettes, “That’s Alright with Me”
A handy catch-all term, “shouting” is actually a euphemism encompassing a range of ecstatic worship behaviors. These can include clapping, dancing, pacing, running, rocking, fainting, as well as using the voice in speaking, singing, laughing, weeping, yelling, and moaning. Certainly, there were men who shouted in the days of my childhood in church; there are men who shout today. The only shouts I can recall and even imitate to this day, however, are those of the women.
There is, in fact, a longstanding association between women and shouting. Perhaps because of the pronounced emotionality involved in the practice, the shouting sphere tends to be prefigured as feminine and in this bears great relevance to women. I am interested in the significances of shouting among black Christian women of struggling populations. In my view, shouting is not only a religious practice for these women, but is also a binary-breaking performance which confounds—if only fleetingly—the divisions which have so often oppressed, menaced, and harmed them. I argue that shouting has worked to codify the disruption of male-dominated services by women who have so often faced sharp sanctions by black church patriarchy. I also contend that shouting places its female practitioners and their observers within a sphere of public ecstasy and visual and auditory pleasure, which makes mischief for notions of what is proper for Christian women and for the entire church community.
The Shout, the Sound, and the Shriek: Black Feminine Disruption
In a 2011 post for Sounding Out! entitled “Pentecostal Song, Sound, and Authentic Voices,” Ashon Crawley posits the existence of a black church “public zone,” which serves as the conceptual, holy ground upon which “sound, song, and subject [function] as conduits for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics.” I’d like to track Crawley’s public zone into the shouting sphere, the very heart of ecstasy within the black worship experience.
Although culturally codified—even expected and welcomed—within the church community, the shout functions primarily as a disruption. The faces, bodies, and voices of shouting black women disrupt the flow of the service. A shout takes time and has the power to alter the program. Regarding such moments, worshippers—most often women and gay men—often proclaim in retrospect, “Baby, there was no more order!” This disruption of order through the use of the body and the voice has a distinct place within the Christian black feminine tradition of resistance to oppression.
In the essay, “The Restorative Power of Sound,” womanist Roxanne Reed has examined the function of gendered sound within black Christianity. For Reed, the feminine “wordless cry, holler, moan, or wail” achieves “primacy over the written text,” “suggests a historical time with relying on a defined chronology,” and is legitimated by an African “ancestral heritage” which presages black musical forms (2). This distinctly feminine worship sound claims space from “patriarchal privilege,” which has often extended to black folk preaching, a tradition which excluded most black women for decades after slavery.
The sound of the black feminine in worship is thus a symbol for black women’s triumph over historically masculine arenas of writing, history, and form. The shout and the gendered worship sound can be placed in critical triangulation with Fred Moten’s “shriek,” as theorized in In the Break (2003) An expression of the distinct suffering of the black female, the shriek is a primal “phono-photo-porno-graphic disruption” of spirit and matter, and other binaries (14). The shout, the feminine worship sound, and the shriek all take center stage as black female performances which disrupt oppressive categories and assert the black woman’s voice as triumphant.
Shouting as Public Ecstasy, Scopophilia, and Sonophilia
Many observers have noted the shout’s resemblance to sexual ecstasy. The shout is often expressed through the sounds, movements, and facial expressions commonly associated with sex. Some shouters close their eyes and moan. Some hug themselves around the waist or bend over the pew in front of them, rubbing their own shoulders, bellies, or thighs. Some roll about the floor, hollering or speaking in tongues. Some whisper His Name, as in closest intimacy to a lover. Some dance with abandon before the altar or in the aisles before collapsing, spent and panting. Some quiver quietly in deepest distraction.
Shouters in the throes of their ecstasy are closely observed by all within the church community. Members of church communities often mark shared remembrances by who shouted, when, and how. Even young children can be called upon to reproduce the shouts of various church members. The conspicuousness of the shout provides reason to consider it as spectacle containing pleasure for both the shouter and those who gaze upon her.
Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” discusses “scopophilia” as a phenomenon occurring in “circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at” (587). In the moment in which a shout goes forth, those shouters who are aware of being watched—not all are—and their gazers may be said to enter into mutual pleasure from being watched and from watching. For the observer, the pleasure arising from the sight-based stimulation is often compounded by the narcissism of the ego which seeks to identify with its source. This may explain why in highly charged church moments, shouts become highly communicable—“thriving in concert,” as Zora Neale Hurston once phrased it. Looking upon another in worship ecstasy can be understood to reinforce one’s own relation to the Holy and to stir desire to engage that relation through shouting.
There is sufficient cause to assign what I call a “sonophilic”aspect to shouting as well, as shouting never fails to take place but within a context of sound. This sonophilic component should be understood as the means by which the sounds of ecstasy coming from a shouter provide stimulation and identification in the listener, who may in turn become a shouter. It must be noted, however, that the sonophilia can emanate from sources other than the shouter. Shouts are often roused by a complex network of sounds. Within a service, preaching and verbal exhortations, prayers, congregational chants and songs, and instrumental music designed to buoy sermonic delivery or to capitalize on swells of emotion often work in tandem to provide the sound-based pleasure essential to shouting.
A Final Shout-Out to Shouting
From West Africa to North America, from slavery to emancipation, from the eighteenth century into the present day, the black ecstatic in the form of shouting has served several important purposes for black women. Black women’s general and persistent preoccupation with the relationship between the spiritual and the sensual, the cornerstone of black female intellectualism in my view, was first and foremost expressed in the practice of shouting. The shout can be understood as the primary site upon which black women made the spiritual physical and rendered the sensual holy.
Furthermore, in eras in which black women were customarily denied the right to preach and were granted but limited authority within church communities, the shout communicated a woman’s ability to engage the Holy. This proven ability undoubtedly helped to open doors for the thousands of black women who now preach and pastor all over the country. Shouting has also provided much needed relief for the unique pressures of the black female in North America, absorbing and transforming her hurts and frustrations and replacing them, down through the centuries, with the hope and strength vital to her survival.
Featured Image Credit: Flickr User Steve Schwartz
Shakira Holt is a thirteen-year classroom veteran and currently teaches high school English in Los Angeles County. She earned a doctorate degree in English from the University of Southern California, and works primarily in the area of black women’s literature and culture. She is deeply concerned about the intersections of race, religion, gender, sexuality, class, and politics in the public sphere. She is a lazy poet, a latent novelist, an intermittent blogger, a retired songwriter, and a reluctant karaoke singer. A licensed Baptist minister, she is but slowly working her way back to the pulpit. “I Love to Praise His Name” is her first published piece.
Managing Editor’s note: This post is the first in a three-part Sounding Out! series on deafness, Sound Studies, and Deaf Studies during February 2012.–LMS
Growing up I attended many religious services. As an adult I attend church services less often, but it still stands out to me that sound is an essential part of the traditional Christian religious service. Participation depends upon listening, responding, and singing. If the service (or mass, as I knew it growing up in the Catholic faith) reminds us we are a community of people with common religious beliefs, our participation in the rituals is a manifestation—a ratification if you will—of our belonging to that community. (Last month David B. Greenberg talked in our podcast series about how sound—specifically listening to religious services while on the road—allows Christian truck drivers to feel like they are a part of a community of faith.) In addition to singing and responding, there are several sound metaphors that imbue the experience of being a churchgoer: the references to the Word of God, discussions of how God will listen to our prayers, the insistence that we need to listen to what God was trying to tell us, even a parent’s admonishment that one sit still and be quiet while the preacher talks…in sum, to be a practicing Christian requires a lot of listening.
However, in Deaf culture (defined by music researcher Alice Ann Darrow in her article “The Role of Music in Deaf Culture: Implications for Music Educators” as “composed primarily of congenitally deaf adults who communicate through sign language rather than speech” but is not limited to them) this takes another shape. When I visited the Deaf International Community Church, located in Olathe, Kansas, I realized that deafness complicates what it means to listen, especially in terms of religious services.
The Deaf International Community Church (DICC) has been holding services in Olathe since 2010, according to journalist Dawn Bormann from Olathe News. They emerged from a deaf ministry at a local Baptist church, but are nondenominational. At the moment the DICC holds services at the Center of Grace, a rented space. The services are open to the deaf, the hearing impaired, and those who hear; however, the services are geared toward the deaf community.
As I walked into the Center of Grace in late January, I was surprised to be welcomed by sound. I heard and saw people talking and signing—sometimes at once. Music played loudly from within the temple, and parishioners milled about. I was not sure if I should walk in and not talk to anyone or if I should just act casual. I suddenly felt very subconscious about my sense of hearing. I found an empty pew toward the back—after all, I would be taking notes and didn’t want to interrupt—and sat there, observing my surroundings. Shortly after, Pastor Debbie Buchholz, one of the spiritual leaders of the DICC, walked over to me and introduced herself, putting me at ease.
When the service started, the same woman who had just spoken to me stood in front of the congregation, signing her words. In front of the crowd a voice interpreter spoke for Pastor Debbie. The effect was unexpected: the hands gave life to words, to sounds, to language while the disembodied (from my angle) female voice translated into sound what Pastor Debbie signed to the crowd. It took me a while to get used to the new sound of the pastor. I had only spoken briefly to Pastor Debbie, yet it seemed surreal to hear another voice speaking for her.
I meditated upon the fact that language is conceived in terms of the arbitrary relationship between signs and sounds. A letter sounds a certain way. Put letters together and you put sounds together. Letters (and their sounds) make words (a compilation of sounds) that designate an object. In this sense, sound is closely connected to making sense of the world. Even though we can create sounds with objects, our bodies are constantly creating sounds as well. The sounds of words come from our lungs out through our mouths and to our ears as they designate people, places, things, and ideas.
At the DICC service, sound—something that we conceive of as naturally emanating from bodies—was disconnected from language. In the Deaf culture language is transformed into hand gestures. Swinging a finger, shaking a hand, pushing down a palm, these small gestures stand in for sound— or stand apart from sound. Even though for me, growing up Catholic, participation came in the guise of listening to the priest, singing along with the congregation, and repeating the prayers, here participation came through hands. They sang with their hands, they prayed through their hands. Being in the DICC service reminded me of how natural and normal we take sound to be. In that space, I was suddenly very conscious of the sound of my voice, and of sound’s relationship to language.
This brings me to PhD student and Sound Studies scholar Steph Ceraso’s HASTAC blog post on listening with your whole body. In her post she uses an interview with percussionist Evelyn Glennie as a way to reflect upon listening practices and the ability to listen with more than one’s ears. Evelyn Glennie, according to Ceraso, engages in a restrictive sound diet where she sometimes, voluntarily, eliminates sound from her environment in order to become more aware to sound. Ceraso’s words on multimodal listening resonate with me, and put my visit to the DICC in perspective. The DICC service showed how deafness can make sound studies scholars reflect upon the role of sound in our society—and more importantly, how we listen and communicate.
Also, Ceraso’s ideas about multimodal listening make me think about what other ways the deaf congregation at the church listens. If listening is a form of spiritual/religious participation, multimodal listening accounts for how the parishioners participate in the service. The body, including the eyes, become a gateway into absorbing the message (the Word of God) and in that way demonstrate alternate ways of listening.
For this spiritual community, the need to worship in their own language brings them together, but so does the Deaf culture. During the service they prayed together for an end to discrimination against deaf people and hoped that God would help those newly born in deafness. As I prayed with them, I realized that the congregation comes to DICC not just for religious guidance but also for affirmation of their humanity and their culture. The space of the church is a place to recharge spiritually but also become socially empowered.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.
This podcast examines the prominent role of audio in the daily spiritual practice of Christian truck drivers. Using the lived examples of these drivers as an entry point, this segment explores the ways in which listening practices help to establish community and ground spirituality for individuals who spend long hours on the road.
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David B. Greenberg is a graduate of Oberlin College, where he studied religion, with an emphasis on Modern American Religious History. This podcast draws from his ethnographic research study, “Highway Religion: Truckstop Chapels, Evangelism, and Lived Religion on the Road.” David also performs and records as a singer-songwriter, and currently lives in New Jersey.