When I moved to Harlem and started looking for a new church home, I expected there would be some variation from the black Southern Baptist worship experience I grew up knowing. But I was not prepared for the persistent presence of voyeuristic tourists in church during service. Harlem gospel tours are big business with tour companies shuttling busloads of white tourists, usually foreign, uptown to watch the spectacle of the black baptist church. After “feeding their soul”, tourists head to one of Harlem’s many soul food joints to feed their physical self with obligatory fried chicken, waffles, and peach cobbler to complete their engagement with blackness. Oh yea, and thank sweet white baby Jesus that Amy Ruth’s was wise enough to ensure they have a total black experience by offering the official black beverage; kool-aid. And don’t worry if you miss red, they alternate daily.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that tourist are spending their euros in Harlem and contributing to the economy, but their infiltration of my personal Sunday praise and worship is beyond bothersome and irks me so bad I almost had to leave this past Sunday. Why they visit during worship is beyond me, I guess they want to see the animals live in action. And excuse me for the offensive word choice, but that’s how I feel these excursionists view black people based on how they behave while “touring. Warning: what is about to follow could be too much for black readers, woosah and proceed with caution.
Church starts at 11am and if you arrive at or after this time you will be subjected to sitting in the “tourist section.” My church is pretty big, although it’s not a mega church like Potterhouse, it is a renovated theater so use your imagination. The top level is reserved for tourist, but some are privy to the game and arrive early, separate from “official” touring tropes and steal a seat on the bottom. Positioned to have an upfront and personal experience with the black church. So, Sunday I arrived slightly before 11:30am and of course there’s a line. Finally, after waiting twenty minutes outside I’m admitted in.
I expected to sit in the tourist section, but I didn’t expect I would be on the tipsy top of the upper balcony. While waiting to be seated, the usher escorted five people past me, this along with my twenty minute wait really made me feel like it was Friday night and I was waiting to enter New York’s premiere hotspot. When I rounded the corner I noticed, to no surprise, the section was full of tourists. As I took my seat the choir was finishing one of my favorite numbers, Pastor Mike was taking the stage, and the tourist were making their usual mass exodus . See they don’t come for the worship experience. No, they come to consume a piece of black culture; gospel music and black baptists’ performing a spiritual encounter. And I don’t mean to sound condescending, but this is how I imagine irreverent, ignorant, disconnected foreigners, who barely speak English perceive the event.
Imagine how disruptive it is for a large group to stand, as the pastor prepares to deliver the sermon, gather their belongings and head to the exit. But if only this were it. Some decide to stick around to enjoy the rest of the show, as did a few people in front of me. Many people familiar with the black church experience know what a passionate message does to members. So while pastor is delivering the sermon, someone on the bottom row becomes emotionally enthralled and begins to shout and moan. These deficient, indiscreet morons careen to see who’s causing the commotion on the lower level, all the while I’m sure, hoping to capture the black female species practicing her comical hallelujah rituals. To further disrespect the congregation and institution, they begin laughing and POINTING. I don’t have to say how frustrated, upset, and disrespected I felt.
In that moment, I knew what it meant to be Sarah Baartman or Bert Williams. The degradation of my spirituality, the one thing that supposedly unites all of humanity even if practiced in different ways, highlights the continued devaluation of black culture and black folk by ignorant people. I’ve traveled to other countries and observed their spiritual ceremonies. And although I was somewhat disconnected from the religion, commonsense and decency informed me that I should honor their moments with respect. This was the first time I actually saw tourists mocking the congregation. But, the way these people sit at the top of the theater observing black people participating in worship; with looks of confusion, distaste, and antipathy, has always bothered me. To completely belittle the sacredness of the institution and the privacy of its members, they also take pictures and videos (which is prohibited). They are proud to have captured a live black creature in action and excited to post on their various social media outlets.
What does this say about the current perception of black culture, race relations, and the supposedly post-racial society? Not much, because it’s the same shit that conservatives and liberals love to argue has been ameliorated. Blackness is still a highly contested identity that has yet to be accepted as equal, affirmed, and respected on the same degree as whiteness. Black people can’t have anything. Everything attritubable to and common among people of african ancestry is denoted as inferior or commodifiable. Even the sacred has become profane.