There is Nothing More Beautiful
than a Negro Prayer
by Sydney Rose Maubert
May 22nd, 2023
Image by Sydne Rose Maubert
My life has been sustained through faith. The space of prayer has offered an architecture of refuge, from the daily anxieties of racism or misogyny growing up in the south. Prayer provided the sweet communion of love, and the comfort similar to which I had known coming from a loving home. From the time I was young, I knew it was unfashionable to publicly love God or claim any proximity to Christianity. I knew of the many oppressions enacted under the guise of love. I’ve withheld public religious discourse because I feared prolonging this pain, or colluding with any of the institutional violences that religion bears. However now, as an emerging academic, I found myself shocked by the inventiveness of devilish metaphors in literature that cast blackness outside the rational bounds of God’s protection. It opens up a larger conversation about the spiritual signification of flesh, and questions about the potential material and aesthetic power of spiritual signifying.
Home was the first institution to teach me love as a noun. The Black Church taught love as a noun-verb; it taught me that God wasn’t just someone to behold, He was someone we could mimic. It seems like everyone who was possessed by God’s spirit, had a special way of moving and talking. As an architect, the Black Church would become exceedingly curious to me beyond its function as a spiritual and communal refuge. It would become the object and subject of an aesthetic practice, performing the aesthetics of radical love, the Black Church would then render a space of refuge material, inhabitable.
Join me as I meditate; I hope my writing reflects an earnest desire and passion I have to honor, and to love, a trait of mine I have always cherished and has carried me through the most difficult seasons. I pray today you receive my text in all its rawness, that if you’ve felt the need to turn from Love, that you forgive my passion in advance as an effort to find at least a grain of truth together.
There is Power in Prayer: Three Important Texts
Prayer forges an alternative space. One that reframes religious discourse as healthy, and respectful, but also intellectual and radical, particularly in the Black Church. The Black Church here refers to Christianity proper, the long history of Black Churches created in civil rights, stretching as far back as slavery.1 Black aesthetics are a political language in this movement towards love, and have a significant place in larger society. That our voices can join the chorus and that our words and names that were once illegible are rendered visible, is in itself a rare discourse, a call to love.
Other theologians and writers have perhaps written these themes more eloquently than I, but this essay feels urgent as it poses the challenge on how to be in community with self and soul, and bring those lessons in community, on how to better connect life with others, specifically within architecture.2
Three influences made this call urgent: first, reading the words of Frederick Douglass, second, reading the works of Zora Neale Hurston and, third, writing a diary.
John 13: 34 NKJV “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
It should be noted that American slavery wasn’t legally abolished until 1865, in the 13th amendment.
The breathy collective joins into a chorus and the individual expels into a passionate informality, shouting, fainting, convulsing, jumping, and clapping.......
Reading David Blight’s “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom”
I encountered the writings of Frederick Douglass for the first time reading David Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. I was always interested to see what happened when black theory and religion encountered. Douglass’ writings were especially profound to me because it was the first time I saw Christianity’s capacity for liberation, particularly because religion is often solely examined as a colonial device. Douglass is a more recent historical reference that shows the radical nature of the God of the Methodist Church, His just ways, but also the ways that Christianity was routinely corrupted and rebranded as a slave holding, prostituting Phariseeism. He distinguishes this by referring to one Christianity as the “Christianity of the land”, as opposed to the “Christianity of Christ”.
Douglass was a teacher and local preacher in the Church, where he would develop his skills as an orator. He used the Bible to not only make him literate during his enslavement, but the Bible became a tool of subversion. Douglass points out the hypocrisies of the slave masters’ preaching about serving a loving, just God, yet they created the daily violence of slavery. Douglass frequently points out the hypocrisy of slavery as an institution, when Christianity is founded on a God invested in the oppressed and inequity. I can testify that God is complicated, He is decidedly formed, and Black folks have wonderfully embraced his appropriation, reappropriated Him and embraced the disorder of the world and rendered it artful.
Reading the works of Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston would write about the Black Church as a practice, an invention of black originality. It was a space that exemplified the reinvention of the religion of the land as African expression, where gendered expression was made mechanical and alive. She was the daughter of a Baptist minister, and in her anthrographic works and writing, she was always flirting with all kinds of black faiths, hoodoo, voodoo. It was the theater of Black performance, it called for justice, it called to be more loving. It made black drama the highest form of performance and language a demonstration of invention. Spirituals not only conveyed the deepest expression of emotion, but also skilled religious expression or ornamentation. The will to adorn certain words, to liquidize certain words, “aren’t” carved into “ain’t”, where riffs, hums and runs, shouts and expulsions of force speak to the force of faith.3
Performance presents an architectural act, through its expression and poetics. The sound and expression are rooted in a particular kind of place. The slippages between sounds presents creativity, politics, intimacy and community. The breathy collective joins into a chorus and the individual expels into passionate informality, shouting, fainting, convulsing, jumping, and clapping––a call and response where the listener can get immersed in the ebb and flow of of breath. It isphysical immersion in the dissonance of key changes where within the variance one can hear testimony and feel the truth of God viscerally. That one can find from ungodly temples a godly art and render it technical, formal, fluid, rational, all at once.
Reading my Diary: My Testimony
The word passion comes from the Latin word passivus, meaning ‘to suffer’. My own testimony came from a place of great suffering and broken heartedness. Such pain would express itself throughout all of my work. I was going through what probably was my first significant heartbreak. I don’t want to go on a dictum about a search for romance, but if it wasn’t for the power of this emotion, I’m not sure that I would have gone searching for myself. This pain contrasted so much the sanctity that I had known at home in Miami– the pureness of a family’s love, the aesthetics of their being and the pain of leaving it behind would also find expression in my creative works. I viewed my life then as an intimate audience of one, and in the pain of leaving them, I found joy in knowing that I could echo God through my work; I found joy in the deep knowing of self and community, and vulnerability in allowing my suffering to speak.
Though God provided refuge for me, I cannot universalize my experiences, it would be reproducing the birth pangs of colonial maneuvers, nor is that the aim of this short dissertation. However, I can carve out space and testify that I’ve experienced the value of knowing God, that I forever wish to be a student in the institution of God, that I’ve found solace and love and much of my teaching is animated from principles of justice, beauty, harmony, dissonance.
I found that within the material walls of the Black Church, and I know that others in the margins who have found solace in knowing that even when the world oppresses them, regardless of where they’ve found Him, God honors this sentiment to seek truth, justice and elaborate on His creativity.
Ephesians 5:19 “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord."
Sydney Rose Maubert is a Miami architect, artist and professor. She holds professional degrees in architecture from Yale (2022) and the University of Miami (2020), with double minors in writing and art. She has received several awards. She is the founder of Sydney R. Maubert LLC., her art and mural practice. Currently, she is Cornell's Strauch Fellow, where she teaches and conducts research. Her research explores racial- sexual perception in the built environment.