The Signifyin(g) Saint: Encoding Homoerotic Intimacy in Black Harlem

On the left, “Edward Atkinson as Blessed Brother Martin de Porres” Photo by Carl Van Vechten©Van Vechten Trust, Courtesy of Beinecke Library, Yale University. On the Right: “Edward Atkinson as Blessed Brother Martin de Porres” Photo by Carl Van Vechten©Van Vechten Trust, Courtesy of Beinecke Library, Yale University.

On June 25, 1942, Edward Atkinson arrived at 101 Central Park West to sit for a photo shoot in the home studio of Carl Van Vechten. Van Vechten, author of the infamous 1926 novel Nigger Heaven, was a white patron of the Harlem Renaissance and amateur photographer who took hundreds of photographs of Black Harlem’s who’s who such as Paul Robeson, Billie Holiday, and James Weldon Johnson. Atkinson, an off-Broadway actor no stranger to playing a role, transformed himself into Martin de Porres (1579-1639), a Peruvian friar who became the first Afro-American saint when the Vatican canonized him in 1962 as the patron of social justice. I trace Martin’s iconography and ritual performances across Black communities in Latin and Anglo America to reveal the historical relations of power that structure and materialize the networks harnessed by Black peoples to mobilize resources in their varied yet persistent efforts to create meaningful lives out of the fragments of the Middle Passage.

Atkinson’s series of eight photographs is one such Diasporic crossing, and his depiction relied upon costuming and propsplastic rats to signify the living ones that Martin, blessed with the gift of animal communication, convinced to stop eating his convent’s grain supply, and a broom, the sign of Martin’s servile position that earned him the nickname Fray Escoba (Brother Broom).  Atkinson’s staged performance had an intended audience of one: his lover Countee Cullen, literary giant of the Renaissance who was fourteen years his senior. Over the course of their clandestine nine year affair, Van Vechten shuttled photographs he took of Atkinson to Cullen. Unraveling how Atkinson, Cullen, and Van Vechten entangled a mulatto friar from colonial Peru in their encoded communiqués twenty years before the Vatican acclaimed him St. Martin, presents a generative opportunity to reassess the dynamics of appropriation, aesthetic blending, and spiritual yearning as queer practices of Diaspora.

In 1928, off the fame of his poetic collections Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), Cullen married Yolande Du Bois, W. E. B.’s only daughter, in one of the most lavish events in Black New York history. Three thousand people crammed the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church to witness the nuptials as “baskets of mixed flowers and cages of canary birds…hung on the balcony railing.” With close friends Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Hugh Jackman, Cullen was no stranger to Harlem’s queer subculture, but fundamentalism and respectability politics foreclosed the possibility of open queerness for Cullen and forced him into a closet for the duration of his life. His short marriage to Yolande proved disastrous as she quickly discovered his attractions. After a series of letters to her father, Yolande finally outed Cullen:

About Countee and myself—the reason I haven’t said much is because I hated to….Countee told me something about himself that just finished things. Other people told me too but I thought & hoped they were lying. If he had not told me himself that it was true I wouldn’t have believed it but since he did I knew then that eventually I’d have to leave him….When he confessed that he’d always known that he was abnormal sexually – as far as other men were concerned, then many things became clear.

Yolande’s “feeling of horror & disgust at the abnormality of” Cullen’s revelation points to how social shame could police queer expression. Despite their 1930 divorce and the initiation of his affair with Edward Atkinson in 1937, Cullen married Ida Mae Roberson in 1940, remaining her husband and Atkinson’s lover until his death in 1946.

Separated by three hundred odd years and 3,600 miles of timespace, a teenaged Martin de Porres entered the Dominican Convent in Lima, Peru as a donado (indentured servant). Though the freeborn son of a Spaniard father and freed Afro-Panamanian mother (negra liberta) named Ana Velázquez, Martin’s mulatto casta barred him from taking the vows of a priest. Nevertheless, he ministered to the enslaved African community, using the skills he acquired while an apprenticed surgeon-barber. Working out of the convent infirmary, Martin attained fame as a curandero-sanador (curer-healer) and yerbero (herbalist). His saintly charisms (spiritual gifts) include instantaneous healing, bilocation, ecstasies and levitations, subtlety (the ability to pass through solid objects), and the aforementioned animal communication.

Father Thomas McGlynn, O.P. with his statue of Blessed Martin de Porres, 1930. Photo courtesy of the Dominican Province of St. Martin de Porres (Via Pinterest)

The road to official sainthood is a multistage process beginning with the candidate’s death and involving the emergence of a popular cult and its careful management by Church officials. A case for sainthood proceeds through the stages of veneration, beatification, and lastly, upon verification of two miracles, canonization. Martin’s process opened in 1660; the Vatican declared him Venerable in 1763 and Blessed in 1837. Efforts to push Martin across the finish line coalesced with the U.S. Church’s focus on evangelizing the Black community, all while New York City percolated as a node of Black internationalism and aesthetic production. After priest and sculptor Father Thomas McGlynn, O.P. displayed his statue of Martin for a 1930 religious art exhibition in Midtown, Martin gained cult figure status among overlapping sets of Black Catholics, intellectuals and artists.

The Journal of Negro Education described Martin as “a great Negro churchman who won favor with Almighty God” while The Journal of Negro History briefed its readers that “the ecclesiastical process for the canonization of Blessed Martin was reopened in Rome in 1926” and that 1939 marked “the third centenary of his death.” Ellen Tarry helped an ailing Claude McKay get back on his feet by moving him into the Blessed Martin de Porres Center, a friendship house founded in 1937. Martin remained a significant figure within Harlem subcultures well past the Renaissance. Pianist Mary Lou Williams reported a vision of Martin appearing at the foot of her bed while she composed her jazz mass Black Christ of the Andes (Hymn in Honor of St. Martin de Porres), performed publicly at St. Francis Xavier Church on Martin’s first feast day in November 1962. The following year brought the publication of Tarry’s Martin de Porres, Saint of the New World. Ada “Bricktop” Smith, owner of the heppest jazz club in Paris during the 1920s and 30s, kept an image of St. Martin on the front door of her Manhattan apartment in the 1980s.

Edward Atkinson’s portrayal of Martin is unique among these for its mobilization of Catholic iconography for unorthodox expressions of homoerotic intimacy. Despite Cullen and Van Vechten’s elite provenance, I am interested here in the vernacular performativity of these photographs and how they articulate Martin de Porres through double-voiced signifyin(g) practices of dissimulation and ambivalence. The excessive nature of Black expression, “decorating a decoration” in Zora Neale Hurston’s colorful phrasing, slips past the limited register of word-based modes of communication into multisensory and multidirectional dimensions of performance. In letters with Atkinson, Cullen used various alphabetic and graphic encoding tactics. Ellipses (…) took the place of the word love. The abbreviation D. and B. signified dearest and best. But following the June 1942 photo shoot, letters between Van Vechten and Cullen included Holy Brother Martin as a euphemism for Edward Atkinson.

St. Martin de Porres chromolithograph prayer card, undated.

The substitution of nouns within this Black queer grammar reveals how queer signifyin(g) makes use of associations and connotations that can never be discovered within a text, no matter how closely one try to read it. Cullen, Van Vechten, and Atkinson’s play of meaning constellates across a field of multiple stagings and performances: the event of the shoot, its props and costuming (which relate to masking, tying, and covering practices across the Diaspora), Atkinson’s gestural poses, Van Vechten’s development and processing of the negatives into prints, their circulation as objects to be handled, perhaps even kissed and fondled. One sees in these haptics (touch-based knowledge) the refracted circulation of prayer cards and other Catholic sacramentals, but set within a Black queer frame.

And despite temptations to read the visual text of Atkinson’s photographsdid Martin’s intimacy with rats somehow mirror the social-outcast status of Black queerness?I find it more intriguing to entertain the notion that Black vernacular practices pillage any and all useful resources in figurative, selective, and extractive ways. The Haitian Vodouisants who use Martin to signify the Ghede spirits (lwa) of the cemetery do so for the simple reason that the chromolithographs depict a Black man holding a cross, this Christian emblem double voicing as Papa Legba’s crossroads and the Dahomean cosmogram conceiving the universe as a sphere transected by two mutually perpendicular and intersecting planes.1 Without any need for deep interpretation, the figure of Martin’s Black body contains sufficient resonance and mutual recognition for Black subjects to discover their interwoven patterns of connection within the diverse textures of Diasporic life.

The queer work of Diaspora emerges from a repertoire of signifyin(g) tactics worked out behind the back, and sometimes, right in the unwitting face of heteronormative patriarchal White supremacy. Drawing upon Martin’s six-century durée within the Americas as both a historical figure and a figure of repetition within Black culture, I hold up vernacular performance as a multisensorial field of mobilization for Diasporic projects, those radical imaginings and enactments of Black sociality and affiliation in response to chronic conditions of loss and displacement. By deploying Martin as an encoded expression of homoerotic intimacy, Atkinson and Cullen dared to instigate a flourishing of vibrant life in the barren valleys of African America, a land far too-often chilled by the shadows of death.

  1. My knowledge of this practice results from private correspondence (including pictures) with Dr. J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat, Distinguished Visiting Research Affiliate and Ethnologist-in-Residence with the Bureau of Ethnology at the State University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince.
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James Padilioni Jr

James Padilioni, Jr. is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College. His teaching and research foreground the ritual cultures and plantation lifeworlds of the African Diaspora, including magico-religious, ecstatic, and pharmacopic traditions, Afro-Latinx and Afro-American folk Catholicism, Black queer performance, and critical race theory. He is writing a book entitled 'Black Gnosis: San Martín de Porres, the African Diaspora, and the Problem of Knowledge,' Follow him on Twitter @ApontesGhost.