In Knee Length, poet and journalist Khalisa Rae navigates the nuances of an inherited conservative legacy. Pulling from memories of her religious upbringing and education, family history, and matrilineal teachings, Knee Length is a history reimagined and excavated—a rebellious relearning of desire and respectability, family and faith.
“Oh, God” is a Testimony
At twelve years old, I am sitting in church with my mother when suddenly, the wail of the pastor reaches a deep, gut-level, and a woman, overcome with emotion, throws her baby in the air like a wad of dollar bills at a strip club. Yes—she lobs her baby in the air as her arms fling open; we all stop and stare in awe. She is taken with the Spirit, and there’s nothing we can do but watch.
This particular Sunday the Spirit is higher, thicker than usual. The organ knows all the notes to sing to get us deep into our feelings. Each note is a punch in the stomach. All the pastor’s words about David and Goliath and overcoming insurmountable obstacles hit and tug on heartstrings that are barely held together with duct tape. The mothers and deaconesses sway and rock, fans in hand, arm raised to the heavens, crying a sorrowful hymnal. Moans, groans, and wails can be heard from every corner like surround sound, and all I can do is look around and soak all this worship and reverence in. The pastor says, “Now, now, you see. When he got ready to craft that slingshot and fight the giant, don’t you think he had doubt in his heart? Don’t you think his hands were shaking? His feet a little wobbly, saints?” Just then the organ hits a call and response note to play up the powerful part of the sermon—the part where the pastor knows he’s talking that shit and “going in.” He steps away from the pulpit to get closer to the crowd and grabs his mic to start screaming. Jerry curl juice dripping like the sweat flying from his forehead. The crowd shouts back, “Yeah!” “Amen!” “Go, ahead.” “Say that!”
The organ speeds up and just then, the woman—one-year-old baby on her hip—starts to jolt and jerk her body, like she’s convulsing. As the organ gets higher in pitch and faster in tempo, her back buckles and feet stomp. With baby in tow, her hands are moving so quickly now that the rest of her body can’t keep up. My eyes dart to her, mesmerized by her breasts that jostle and move carelessly as if they are dancing with her. They are adornments to the rhythm of her praise. I turn my head away from her for just a moment and turn back to see the baby flying mid-air, still swaddled in a blanket like a football baby Jesus. That’s right—her baby catapults through the air now like the pastor’s sweat or a wad of spit, and all our eyes follow his soar. The woman next to the baby’s mother watches dumbstruck but reacts just before the baby hits the ground, catching him in her arms like a wide receiver. But the dancing woman is unphased and utterly entranced by the Holy Ghost—by the feeling of deep overwhelm from a spiritual appearance.
I believe our ancestors danced like this. Shook their bottoms and hips and jolted like they were possessed by some otherworldly, magical sensation. But the root wasn’t anything of rituals and sacrifice; it was a dance of celebration. Being overcome with emotion like David. The Bible says David danced out of his clothes, and I know now that this is meant literally. When the Spirit moves through your body, and the chord of the keyboard hits a note that stirs your soul, your shoulders have no choice but to Harlem shake. Your knees can do nothing else but drop low, your butt has to twerk; it’s innate in you. It’s innate to praise the heavens in a full-body dance.
This Sunday, we are all transfixed watching her celebratory burst of energy and wailing cry. Her legs hopping like she is walking across a bed of hot coals. Her feet stepping on each note the organ played. And the pastor, her father, egging her on. Slow and methodical, he screeches each word. “Welllllll, when the Lord moves, so does the Spirit. So move, my sistah.” he urges. With each phrase, she lets out a moan that makes my skin flush pink. Goosebumps coat my forearms and shoulders and I fix my eyes on her hips. Her breast and full legs jiggle to the rhythm of Gloryyyyy. Glorrry to God. Yes, yes, yes, God. Praising God with guttural glory. A full body outburst where arms fling open and the head drops back, eyes close, and feet jump.
This is what I imagine sex to be.
Later, in the car, I ask my mother to explain what happened. I was still a bit mortified by the sight of a baby flying mid-air like a football.
“Why would she do that?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” my mother begins, “you become so overcome with the Spirit that your mind and body get disconnected, ya know?”
“Like you’re in a trance…” I nod slowly.
“Yeah. Think about a time when the pastor has said something that resonated with you on a spiritual level. You lose all thought or control. Your spirit just feels everything, and wants to cry or move.”
“But the baby…”
“She didn’t know what she was doing, sweetheart. The baby is fine.”
“But what if the woman hadn’t—”
“Trust, baby girl. The Spirit was high in that place. The baby was covered with holy protection.”
I nodded, knowing my mother was right, but I still couldn’t imagine feeling so out of control that your mind doesn’t know what your body is doing.
“There’s a special warmth and fullness that overtakes you sometimes,” my mother added.
So much of what my mother said reminded me of women in the movies. The woman’s moans mimicked the love scenes my mom always made me close my eyes for. Two bodies pressed together, with only the warmth of their breath filling the silent spaces. Every time, I would peek through my hands to see what it was my mother was hiding, and every time, a couple was lip-locked on the screen, overcome with emotion. Their cheeks grew flush. Their bodies convulsed and squirmed as if they were possessed. But it was always the woman who would cry out, “Oh God.” And I wondered, are these the same things? Was the woman in the movie taken by the Spirit just like the woman in church?
Was she yelling out in that passionate moment to thank God for all He had done? Was this pleasure or spirituality, or both? What’s the difference between her connection to a man and her connection to God? I just didn’t understand. What were these men doing on screen that made women sweat the way I watched the woman in church sweat and pass out after? I remember how limp her body became, how she could no longer move her limbs. People fanned her and brought water and towels.
Maybe this was how a good orgasm felt: a spiritual experience that made your mind and body disconnect. Honestly, it sounded pretty nice to lose control and blame it on the Spirit. To be wrapped in a funk-filled perfume with no fear of consequences. Those strange noises I heard in church sounded just like a woman having a good orgasm, so maybe that too was a way of talking to God, of thanking him for the out-of-body experience she had as she climaxed. Despite all the scenes my mother tried to shield me from, I was beginning to understand that there were countless ways women could feel the Spirit: being overcome with passion. Praising, dancing, grinding, worshipping. Lovemaking. It was all the same freedom, the same head-back connection to something greater. Maybe that’s what my mother was afraid of me seeing— what happens when you relinquish control and just get free.