The Rev. James Cleveland: Sexual (In)discretion and Black Church Rumor
Ahmad Greene-Hayes, Department of Religion, Princeton University
This paper is a historical examination of the life and ministry of Grammy award winning gospel artist, the late Rev. James Cleveland, including but not limited to his “sexual (in)discretions,” or more specifically, allegations of child sexual abuse and HIV transmission lodged against him and his estate by his foster son Christopher B. Harris. I use legal documents, rumor theory, queer theory, and rhetorical analysis to deconstruct the function of Black church rumor with regards to Cleveland’s gender performance, sexual orientation, Black masculinity, perceived queer identity and his prominence as a gospel-recording artist. This paper offers a counterpoint to the ways scholars have traditionally discussed, or underdiscussed Cleveland, by focusing expressly on the nature of “rumor” within Black religio-cultural spaces where sexually repressive theological hermeneutics prompt what Jeffrey McCune has called “sexual discretions.” Yet, I argue that in the case of Cleveland, and many others like Cleveland, rumor—or holy gossip—begets incidences of sexual indiscretion, specifically child sexual abuse. It is my contention that rumor, which necessitates the control and policing of Black sexualities, also provide the conditions by which the sexual violation of children, women, and LGBTQ people is made possible. It is important to note, then, that this paper does not “queer” Cleveland. Instead, it calls for scholars of Black religion, gospel music, ethnomusicology, gender, and sexuality to take seriously that all readings of Cleveland must start here: he was both potential victim of Black church homophobia and also sexually violent.