In 1991, Howard University rested squarely in the hood.
Now, the university hasn’t MOVED, but think of the hood as a sort of tide that rises and encompasses areas, and other times recedes, leaving traces like flopping fish on the ground after a tidal wave. We we’re under water.
Along with hood, comes hood fixings. Familiar things that you’ve surely seen before: bad graffiti, low grade food, and trash that rolls like tumbleweeds. Another key element to the hood is an ever present lack of respect for it’s residents.
So what exactly are respectability politics? In short, they are an undefined yet understood set of ideas about how Black people should live positively and how we should define Black American culture. Ironically, they’re usually a huge hindrance to both.
A Brief History Lesson
This whole idea of respectability politics began to solidify at the end of the 19th century, when a bold group of Black women from the Baptist Convention – a well-intentioned, important, pro-Black, yet chauvinist, and patriarchal organization – broke off to form their own group: the Women’s Convention. On the positive side, an essential part of their focus was to uplift the Black community, while perpetuating a sense of solidarity and philanthropy. Unfortunately, in practice it involved a lot of patronizing behaviors towards “lower-class” Black people. For instance, one of their major campaigns was to go into impoverished Black communities and hand out pamphlets that “taught” these po’ folks how to “behave” in public places, the value of chastity, and even how to properly bathe themselves. Side note: if you’ve read that and don’t have a problem with those three things as important values, that’s understandable. Now, imagine someone comes to your front door regularly to remind you to do them…
These respectability politics gained popularity and organization nationwide, and solidified into a regular part of Black life. For example, the Chicago Defender, one of the country’s most important Black media outlets, published the following list weekly as a reminder to its newly arrived Southern readers who came to Chicago during the Great Migration:
DON’T HANG OUT THE WINDOWS.
DON’T SIT AROUND IN THE YARD AND ON THE PORCH BAREFOOT AND UNKEMPT.
DON’T WEAR HANDKERCHIEFS ON YOUR HEAD.
DON’T USE VILE LANGUAGE IN PUBLIC PLACES.
DON’T ALLOW CHILDREN TO BEG ON THE STREETS.
DON’T APPEAR ON THE STREET WITH OLD DUST CAPS, DIRTY APRONS, AND RAGGED CLOTHES.
DON’T THROW GARBAGE IN THE BACKYARD OR ALLEY OR KEEP DIRTY FRONT YARDS.
Behold the Underlying Truth
Don’t the above admonishments sound familiar? And note how every statement begins in the negative. That’s because the primary premise in which respectability politics are grounded is that Black American culture – and Black Americans themselves – are broken and need to be fixed. And “fixing” means improving the “Black underclass” that holds us back. It reminds me of the movie A Soldier’s Story, and in particular, the character Sgt. Waters. The scene below epitomizes what respectability politics cause the Black bourgeoisie to do to the Black “underclass”.
Waters has made it his personal mission to rid the army – and maybe the world (?) – of ignorant negritude, starting with CJ. Apparently he thinks the work he’s doing will leave us with Negrus superioris, purifying the race and eliminating all traces of inferior Black folks. Sergeant Waters, and those who think like him, are actually suffering though. This later clip reveals that anguish and the secondary premise of respectability politics:
Wanna hear it again? Go to 1:04 on the video. The secondary, sinister premise of respectability politics is the belief that teaching Black people to meet White cultural standards is the way to improve Black culture. From talking “proper”, to hair straightening, to skin bleaching, to more coded ideas like “acting White”, respectability politics teach us that the White man’s ice really is colder. In a country that operates on the premise that Black people are inferior, respectability politics cause the sort of sentiment the utterly defeated Waters whimpers at the 1:04 mark. He’s realized that after years of trying to get White people to see Black people as equals by teaching them “White culture”, he’s actually the broken one who needs to be fixed.
What’s an Alternative, Then?
In my critiques of the Civil Rights Movement, I’ve said that the focus on changing laws and changing peoples’ hearts overshadowed efforts to define and build Black American culture. While all three are important, the lack of emphasis on that third aspect has left us today with respectability politics as a giant cultural hurdle. Black American culture, like all cultures, is continuously being defined and redefined. The next step then, is to replace striving to emulate a White American cultural construct (the concept of “White culture” as everything positive, wonderful, and goal-worthy) with striving toward a Black one. Love it, hate it, or leave it, the Kwanzaa holiday is an excellent example of Black Americans deciding for themselves what Black American culture will be. While it incorporates ideas from other cultures (as all cultural traditions do), it isn’t based upon turning Black American culture into someone else’s “superior” one. And to be clear, whether or not we choose to identify with our African roots as we define Black American culture – though I’ve chosen an example that does – is nowhere near as important as the overall act of simply continuing to define Black American culture in general. As long as we move purposefully away from respectability politics, we’ll continue to eliminate the self-hatred that hinders us from continuing to positively do so.
Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry has taught grades 6 through 20, and has worked at both public and independent schools from Minnesota to Florida to Washington and other places in between. He is currently an adjunct college instructor while working on his PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington. Maurice believes that the “geechie” is actually more important to Black American culture then Sgt. Waters.
Olympian, 4 time National Judo champion, MMA fighter, now author Dr. Rhadi Ferguson took a few questions impromptu from our resident body transformation and athletic performance coach, Coach Be (www.AlumniWellness.com) for a new episode of his show “Coffee with Rhadi.”
On a sunny day in May I sat down with Will Smith to discuss his new film Men in Black Three, the third [and some would argue best] in the popular science fiction trilogy. We also talked about what he’s been doing in the three years since he stepped away from acting raising undeniably talented tweens Willow and Jaden and where the biggest box office star in the world finds his joy.
Teaching kids the value of money is important, but making them earn their money is even more important. Money gives kids decision making opportunities and teaches them not to be wasteful. Childhood chores provides kids with an appreciation for the things that they have, a sense of accomplishment for the things that they have achieved, and an empowering feeling of independence.
But its not enough to provide chores and allowance for your kids. It is also important to teach your children how to save money that they have earned from work vs money from received from gifts and how to spend the money that they have. Help your children learn the differences between needs, wants, and wishes. This will prepare them for making good spending decisions in the future.
Finally, inspire goal setting. Shopping with kids often inspires a long wish list with our children. Work with them to set goals for earning the money to purchase some of the things on their wish list.