Little Richard called himself, over and over again, the architect of rock and roll. Many take this assertion to mean that he thought of himself as an influence in the genre, but as Tavia Nyong'o argued this spring after the artist's death, influence is "perhaps too weak a word." Others think Little Richard meant he created the genre, but that is a misunderstanding of architecture. Architects don't create sui generis: They gather and create ideas based on what's already there, even if what's there is emptiness — because that emptiness, that nothingness, is full with the capacity to be imagined otherwise. They take what is in the world, its land and air and sea, and let the mind dance and play in order to think through space and place differently. Architects are not originators, or even builders, but they are innovators. They attempt to figure out "the human condition in all of its complexities," as philosopherRossen Ventzislavov says. They project, fundamentally, ideas of what could be.
Like an architect, Little Richard advanced new directions in American music and culture — toward what was for him, and remains for us, possible. But sometimes the possible is also the occasion for sadness. Sometimes the possible, and even the implemented, is the occasion for grief.
Born Dec. 5, 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman was reared in Macon, Ga., one of 12 children of Leva Mae and Charles. His people were religious: His father's family were members of Foundation Templar AME Church, his mother's, the Holiness Temple Baptist Church. As a child, he imagined preaching and pastoring as his future. "I wanted to be like Brother Joe May, the singing evangelist, who they called the Thunderbolt of the West,"2 he says in the 1984 authorized biography The Life and Times of Little Richard. He especially liked to see folks in the Blackpentecostal church get happy, shouting and speaking in tongues — the capacity to be moved, and to be moving. It's this energetic movement that was the basis of his musicianship to come.
Since Richard's death, I have been attempting to think about the relationship between religious spaces and their secular rivals, between churches and gay dance clubs for example, or sacred music and what was and is still sometimes called "the devil's music." And what is underscored is that the binary is an imprecision. In his movement from blackqueerness to the church and back again, Little Richard's life rehearsed an unreconciled striving, because of a social world that refused to carry and be tender with blackqueer life. Yet using an architectural imagination, we can discover in Little Richard an exuberance and joy that incessantly emerged and erupted and interrupted his claims for and movements toward the normative.
Little Richard died May 9, 2020. And of course, to think about death is to think about grief and the way it lingers. He was not a confidant of mine, not a member of my family or a friend that I knew, and nor is this the grief of a starstruck fan. The grief I describe, blackqueer grief, is for an unresolved and restless life. Grief because the theology of the church and the doctrine of the social world interrupted his practice of joy and pleasure. Grief because his flourish and ornamentation in sound and song marked him as a person in need of repair — lest he be sinner, less he be shameful. Grief because Little Richard was not allowed to sustain the joy he found in blackqueerness, because the doctrine of queerness as a condition to escape was an unresolved and restive journey he continually traversed.
He was an architect. Like a section drawing, he allowed us to glimpse the interior of an unresolved journey, offered himself as a gift to be opened, revealed what the internal composition for a refusal of queerness is like. It's not that he didn't love himself — I'd never argue that. It seems to me his desire to cohere with doctrine emerged because he believed in and wanted a soft space for a future, his eternity. I am saying that we have to think and listen with and really sense his world, his unresolved journey, to interrogate the systems — the homophobia, the religious chauvinism — that made his life, and so many lives like his, so difficult.
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