Where is your dignity?!: Politics of respectability within the Black church, home and public sphere
Borders have been prominent in my life in three instances, the church, at home and in societal behavior and expectations.
One of the things that I questioned as a young woman was the restrictions they placed upon my sisters and I due to our gender. These restrictions meant monitored visits to friends houses, as well as the monitoring of what types of clothing we were allowed to wear before entering public spaces. In comparison, my brother had little to no restrictions. One glaring example of this was the way in which my parents determined who was able to have their own room. I grew up and lived in a modest 4-bedroom home. My four older sisters and I each had to share two rooms whereas my youngest sibling was given his own room. When my sisters and I questioned why the youngest child was given a room by himself, they responded that girls and boys are not allowed to sleep in the same room for the sake of propriety. This conversation was one of the more prominent ones in that my parents central argument was based on the assumption of gender versus awarding the child who was the oldest with the privacy of their own room. The factor that was used to reinforce their argument was raising my sisters and I as respectable god fearing women.
This aspect of my childhood intersects with the Black female body and its complex relationship to the politics of respectability. This movement was started during the progressive era in the late 1800’s until the roughly 1920. Evelyn Brooks defines the politics of respectability as the reform of individual behavior as a goal in itself and as a strategy to create and maintain decorum. This movement was created within the Black church in an attempt to rewrite the American narrative that enshrouds the Black female body as promiscuous and hypersexualized (Harris, 2003). As a woman who grew up in one of the most religious cities in the deep south of Mississippi, my mother was a firm believer of respectability politics and often projected it upon myself and my sisters in a method that she believed would ensure that we would be seen as a respectable in the public sphere. My personal issue with respectability politics is that it permeates both the public and private sphere of my life. The privilege of visiting friends houses alone like my younger brother and being denied a space exclusive to my use based on gender was something that resulted in me living within the boundaries and limits in which my mother and father set. This included but was not limited to the public places I was given permission to enter (Libraries, Stores, Parks, Recreational centers gyms etc). Within this space surrounding my home, I was able to form attachments and connections to people, places, and establishments.
The Public Sphere: nostalgic connections to public spaces, identity, and regional pride
I feel fortunate enough to be the child of parents who are homeowners in that my childhood memories were all within one geographical location. This enabled me to associate a specific location with my childhood and identify directly with the land I lived upon. I was able to associate roughly a five mile radius surrounding my home as my neighborhood. I played at the same park my entire childhood and early adolescence, went to the neighboring elementary, middle, and secondary schools, and was able to make friends and maintain them with other children my age group some of whom I am still friends with today. This specific portion of land is not only my neighborhood but played an integral part in shaping my characteristics and attributes as a young adult.
This privilege contrasts sharply with the experiences of my cousins who are close in age. Their parents are not together, they have never been able to experience a stable household and the feeling of groundedness and stability that comes from living in a home. They moved more than 10 times in the past 20 years and unlike myself, do not place value on being attached to a geographic space. In comparison, living in a home for 18 years has come to represent a multitude of things. One of those meaning a personal connection to various landmarks in the city. The public library down the street does not represent a public space but instead represents the many laughs I shared with my siblings in the book aisles, hunting for the latest book on the Sweet Valley High Sweet Valley High trilogy. The local park did not represent a recreation area; instead each piece of equipment marked a significant part of my childhood. The jungle gym triggered memories of hot summer days filled with smiles and laughter as my siblings and I raced to see who could reach the top first.
Another key influence within my life and association with my childhood home are my parents. Their childhoods were more similar to my cousins in that they both came from single parent households and moved to Los Angeles to create a family. My mother decided to leave her home in Winstonville, Mississippi at the age of 13 to live with a host family in Los Angeles with the hopes of getting a high quality education for herself and the children she expected to have. My father moved from Lagos, Nigeria at the age of twenty-two in pursuit of work in Los Angeles. Although they were born in two separate places and differing cultural and religious origins, they both associated home with where they felt most fulfilled in their lives. Their migration was gendered in that my mother moved to California with the intent to ensure that her children were in a position to be upwardly mobile. Her desire for inter-generational change parallels with a majority of the motivations of migrating women of color . My father’s motivation to migrate with the intention of finding work and attaining financial stability reinforce Sotelo’s argument that discusses in detail how migration is gendered. Women’s primary motivations for migrating involves a desire to better their lives for their children, have access to a quality education, and have access to quality healthcare. In comparison, men migrate to the United States for the potential economic advantages and property they could acquire (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 1994). Another gendered space that played a large role in my development was the Black church.
The church: Sex, Sexuality, and sexual body politics
My earliest recollection of being aware of my sexuality via the politics of respectability was at the age of 12. It was a hot muggy Sunday morning and my entire family had all gotten dressed in our Sunday best to go to the early afternoon church service. Similar to every Sunday morning, I was woken up by the smell of crispy turkey bacon and hot cereal. My 6 siblings and I scrambled over each other to get ready in the only small bathroom in our four bedroom house. After a simple yet fulfilling breakfast of toast, eggs, bacon and hot cereal we all packed into the minivan and drove to service.
On the way to the church, my parents opted to roll down the windows of the minivan instead of turning on the air-conditioner. The brightly shining sun through the back and side windows quickly heated the van and dampened the air. After driving wedged between 2 of my older sisters for fifteen minutes I could feel both sweat beginning to bead on my brow as well as on my lower back. My sister’s bodies also radiated heat that caused our touching forearms to stick together. By the time we parked outside the church I felt like I had been sprayed by a fine mist that dampened my entire body from head to toe. On an impulse, I quickly slid out of my stockings and stuffed them in a cup holder on the way out of the minivan. My parents were too busy hustling 5 children into the church to notice my slight change in wardrobe. The mid afternoon breeze swirling around my legs was a cooling and refreshing change to the stockings I was forced to don that morning. I walked into the church smiling. Once in the pew, I happily swung my feet back and forth, enjoying the texture of the cushioned fabric on the backs of my legs.
About halfway through the service, I politely excused myself to go to the restroom. While walking down the hallway towards the bathroom of the church I was met by a female usher who was walking in the opposite way with an armful of collection plates. I smiled and nodded as a greeting and she returned the favor until her eyes lowered to by legs. Her eyebrows shot up and almost disappeared into her bangs as she sternly asked, “Where is your dignity?!”. The elatedness and freedom I felt quickly dissipated under her scrutiny. After mumbling something to the effect of forgetting to put them on that morning she harrumphed and crisply responded that “ladies NEVER forget their hosiery, it is what makes us ladies”. She then proceeded to brush past me in the hallway idly humming a hymn.
This encounter left a feeling of bitterness in my stomach and confusion of the dynamics of the female and male body within the church. In the literal sense, the church represents a physical place of worship that people of all sexual orientations, cultures and identities meet to worship. The social standing, socioeconomic status, and appearance of each person should not be of any consequence and all should be welcomed regardless of their background. Yet the ushers decision to question my appearance was problematic in that she was contributing the patriarchal practice of monitoring and controlling women’s bodies through societal practices and customs. Her actions illustrates the many ways in which women police themselves and adhere to the politics of respectability.
This specific incident created a pivotal moment in my life where I now recognize that church is a space in which I am able to worship, but not as freely as men. The ushers sharp reprimands as well as multiple messages on the value of women keeping themselves pure and not to project any messages in their demeanor or appearance that can not be righteously fulfilled in the eyes of the lord was not only harsh but echoed the scripture. This realization at the young age of 12 and throughout my teenage years allowed me to develop a dual consciousness of my identity in public spaces as well as internally.
Du Bois defines double consciousness as the constant awareness and struggle of people who identify as Black and as American. The two contrasting identities place many citizens who identify as Black in America in a space where they must be constantly aware of themselves, their surroundings, and the ways in which they are either positively or negatively perceived by those of non-African descent (Bruce, 1992). As a woman of color, my experience with being permitted and refused into spaces is another element that I have had to constantly be aware of. The struggle for ownership of the female body is not a local issue, but a global one. Hence, I can identify specifically with non-native born US women as they move through places and spaces that are not gender inclusive, culturally diverse, or religiously competent.
Beal, F. M. (2008). Double jeopardy: to be black and female. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, 8(2), 166-176.
Bruce, D. D. (1992). WEB Du Bois and the idea of double consciousness. American Literature, 64(2), 299-309.
Harris, P. J. (2003). Gatekeeping and remaking: The politics of respectability in African American women’s history and Black feminism. Journal of Women’s History, 15(1), 212-220.
Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. (1994). Gendered transitions: Mexican experiences of immigration. Univ of California Press.