So what’s the draw? The Sisterhood creates a conflict between public politics, private realities, and personal taste. However, this war between the emperor’s coat of high culture and the everydayness of his nakedness is nothing new. This ongoing juxtaposition highlights the ever-increasing tensions between the “cultured” and the “ratchet”: the former drawing attention to so-called taste, tact, refinement, civilization, and genius, and the latter calling attention to the so-called vulgar. While the former is purported to arise out of the Geist–the intellectual inclinations–of our times, the latter is purported to spring forth from the worst of black culture. However, what better communicates the spirit of the time than the ratchet? And no, I don’t mean the ways that ratchet gets deployed to project a collage of derogatory meanings onto black women’s bodies. I’m referring to the ways that ratchetness often undergirds the ricocheting of raw emotions and missiles of unfiltered truths.
To uncritically bash The Sisterhood is to toe the expected party line. To demonize the show is not only an attempt to maintain a position of moral superiority, but an assay to construct and limit meaning for the audience—an audience that may, in fact, connect with the human qualities of the ratchetness therein. And trust me, I get the critiques regarding black female representations in media. This needs to be called out every day, all day—but not while asphyxiating black women’s complex identities with mythological notions of black women’s heroic genius. In short, binary oppositions don’t work. They set up “us”-versus-“them” politics, which are both totalizing and reductive. I think a better suggestion might be to think about the heroic qualities of black women’s genius–that is, if you buy this argument–as at times being a bit ratchet. Identities and tastes shift in shades of grey, not monochrome. That said, we don’t need another schemata. And we damn sure don’t need another exceptionalist social fiction to cancel out our complex subjectivities, which can neither be packaged nor wholesaled, by the way.
The Sisterhood is evidence of our obsession with brown women’s lives and our pornotropic desire to lift their curtains and see everything. In addition, it’s evidence of the fluidity between religion and culture and the myriad ways that each cross-pollinates the other, thus broadening, limiting, and confusing all kinds of meanings. An example of this is the construction of the “first lady” concept for the show, a Black Church conception structured in both politics of respectability and patriarchal dominance, aimed at constructing alternative identities–distinct from the hypersexual/sexual-savage trope–for black women, particularly during the early twentieth century. As with the FLOTUS, it’s a title of respect for wives in religious contexts that are often theo-socially hostile to women in general. With regard to black women, there’s a long history here apropos race, gender, sex, sexuality, respectability, and wifehood. However, I’ll save the politics of race, ladyhood, and wifedom for another day.
Historically African American women did not have the luxury to be freethinkers because they were constructed as the racialized sexual other. Their bodies were the backdrop to European American notions of individual liberty, humanity, and natural rights. Their labor was the raw material for European American intellectualism. European American freethought traditions were predicated on the enslavement of the racialized sexual other. Within the context of slavery and, later, Jim Crow, women like Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and other first- and second-wave white feminist freethinkers would not have had the license to be secular were it not for the dialectic between the civilized white Western subject and the degraded amoral racialized sexual other. Alice Walker powerfully evokes this theme in her essay, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, which contemplates the contradictions of black female creativity and “genius” within the holocaust-like conditions of slavery.
Black working women were not supposed to be geniuses. In the West, genius and godliness are intimately bound to each other. Black women’s lives were too “cluttered” with the debris of the everyday—the cooking, cleaning, minding, managing, and tending that comes with the earthly terrain of caregiving—to soar to the heavens with geniuses. Small wonder then that the spaces they did find themselves in, that were available to them, became wellsprings for expressions of godliness, both subversive and conforming. That the vast majority of black women were only afforded access to the worlds of work, the family, and church meant that their “genius” would by necessity be a reflection of those worlds. In the turbulence of antebellum America “God” became ordinary black women’s medium for expressing genius, creativity, artistry, mastery, and invention.
Hence, secularism was a dangerous and untenable position because of the way black dehumanization was institutionalized. Where would black women go to be affirmed as persons? The courts, where their rights were not recognized? The Constitution, where their bodies were vessels? The education system, where their culture was demeaned as savage, primitive, and un-Christian? Government, where their bodies were deep profit for some of the nation’s most esteemed legislators and moral philosophers? White churches, where they were debased as Jezebels and amoral children of Ham?
For Latinas coming from Catholic traditions, the ubiquitous image of the pure-as-the-driven-snow, self-sacrificing Virgin Mary is the traditional model for femininity. But the Virgin’s white purity is only validated by the fallen dark whore; the black, Asian, Native American woman or Latina whose body, in the words of bell hooks, is “the sign of sexual experience.” As writer Yasmin Davidds Garrido notes, “It often seemed to me that unless I behaved just like the Virgin Mary I wouldn’t be good enough to win God’s approval. In order to be considered a good girl, I had to be quiet, submissive, and obedient…This is one way Catholicism coerces young girls to mute their voices.”
This is the backdrop against which women of color struggle with religious and secular belief systems. Even as the moral weight of their communities—reinforced by the dominant culture—is placed on them, many continue to seek refuge in faith and faith traditions because they provide a sense of purpose, direction, and meaning. Responding to a survey I conducted on high school aged young women and faith, twelfth grader Vanessa Linares* agreed that African American women and Latinas are packing the pews because many of them “believe that women of color need faith/religion to be moral.” Thus, popular reality shows like the Bad Girls Club and platinum-selling pop artists like wannabe Barbie-doll rapper Nicki Minaj show young women of color that hypersexuality is a quick and dirty form of “validation” for a select few. These women may appear to be flouting conventional sexual mores with “fuck you” alpha-female sexuality, but they are still rigidly bound by them. And, by the same token, the goddess cult that so many women of color flock to is also a cul-de-sac. Goddesses, queens, princesses, and other icons of so-called spiritual authority are by definition floating above the “sorry” muck of mere mortals.
Nonetheless, over the past few years more women of color have stepped up to assume leadership roles in secular, atheist, and humanist organizations. They have done so in a movement that is blithely ignorant of, if not explicitly hostile to, the lived experiences, cultural capital, community context, and social history of people of color in the U.S. In 2011, Kim Veal, president of the Black Non-Believers of Chicago, founded her group after being exasperated with participating in predominantly white groups where she was treated like an “enigma.” Echoing the sentiments of other non-believers of color who have been turned off by the vibe of all-white groups, she says, “this was disenchanting; you don’t know if they are truly interested in getting to know you or are trying to pick the brain of their new token.” Mandisa Thomas started the Black Non-Believers of Atlanta as a safe space for non-believers in the heavily evangelical South. BNOA of Chicago, Atlanta, and my group Black Skeptics Los Angeles have prioritized social justice issues like homophobia in the Black Church, HIV/AIDS prevention, reproductive justice, and homelessness. Veal and Thomas, along with Ayanna Watson of Black Atheists of America, Debbie Goddard and Jamila Bey of African Americans for Humanism, and Bridgette Gaudette of Secular Woman, are part of a new wave of women of color who head atheist organizations.
Lee takes Perry to task by following his formula of healing and redemption through religious faith. Throughout the film Enoch insists that his grandson “needs Jesus.” In one of many lengthy church scenes, Enoch tries to get Flik to give his life to Jesus by stating, “There’s somebody in this holy sanctuary who needs Jesus.” After repeating the phrase in various forms, we see one of Enoch’s eye’s open and look directly at Flik. By this point it is clear just who that someone is. This religious tug of war between Enoch and his grandson continues throughout.
Then about a third of the way through, when its formulaic structure and less than stellar acting have bred boredom, Lee not only disrupts but mocks this message. When Enoch’s proverbial demons come out the closet the viewer is forced to rethink the preceding sixty or so minutes of flatness. If we think of Red Hook as a parody of any one of Tyler Perry’s or T.D. Jake’s films then, suddenly, the sensationalism, heavy-handed messages, simplistic character portrayals, low-budget look of the film, and mediocre acting begin to work in an interesting way.
Layered upon Lee’s seemingly satirical rendering of Perry’s filmic themes and aesthetic is a strong engagement with the post-soul culture which we see throughout the body of his work. By post-soul, I mean Lee’s creation of a distinct tradition within the tradition that addresses the intersections of class, religious, generational, and racial identification in post-Civil Rights black America, an aesthetic he tackles explicitly in films like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever.
In Red Hook, Lee maintains his post-soul agenda while taking a dig at some of the most popular aesthetic values of the moment. While Perry and Lee are concerned with similar topics (religion, class, generational rifts), Lee’s main point of contention seems to be with Perry’s reaching back into the shaming and muddied waters of minstrelsy, reviving the black mammy, jezebel, and preacher types in various ways.
The film’s insistence on complicating the tradition and how it is used in the black community could be interpreted as direct commentary on what Lee and others have found offensive about Perry’s films. As a symbol of post-soul culture, Flik is openly atheist and disconnected from the tradition of the black church. He sees the world not through religion but through the lens of technology; his iPad serves as his means to record and interact with his environment. Enoch, however, uses the tradition of the black church as a veil to hide behind.
What Flik and Enoch do have in common is a desired sense of freedom. In order to achieve this, both characters must learn to navigate the circumstances of their past and present. By the end of the film, Lee makes it abundantly clear that, for those seeking redemption, the church is not the answer.
The second perspective that restricts race-talk is the common notion that spirituality, much like life in America, is a personal matter. From prayer, to worship, and even to acts of compassion, American evangelicals find their worldviews thoroughly enculturated in individualism.
One of the hallmarks of individualism is what many racial scholars call “the bootstraps model.” This states that the key factor for an individual’s or groups’ success is their value system. Ethnic minorities achieve via hard work and sacrifice; Christians through effort and growing in the “Fruit of the Spirit.” The former perspective is usually espoused by those who believe America is a land of equal opportunity, where all people, regardless of their racial, gender, or economic backgrounds can attain the American Dream by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
Asian Americans are held up as the bootstraps’ poster children. Since I will address this more in the next section, I’ll only say this here. Wonder why Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, rose to Time Magazine’s 2011 Top 100 People List? My speculation: to maintain the belief that hard work, sacrifice, and helicopter parenting are the “keys” to success. And Asian Americans, like Chua, have a monopoly on it.1
Please don’t misinterpret me: value systems that include the aforementioned qualities are extremely important to progress. But this argument, when applied to America’s racial dynamics, works by ruling out all other external factors from why certain groups succeed and others don’t. It does not analyze how racial groups are treated differently on account of their race, both historically and presently.2
Michael Emerson, in Divided by Faith, wonderfully demonstrates how this bootstraps argument is one of the main culprits for American evangelicals’ lack of racial concerns. As his research studies white Americans, he shows how they often perceive moral choices (i.e., value systems) as the root cause for why whites and Asian Americans do well while Latinos and African Americans do poorly. They are, thus, never taught to look at other institutional culprits that affect certain racial groups’ opportunities, access, and lives. For example, how Bank of America intentionally charged Blacks and Latinos higher interest rates than whites on home loans; or how research shows “blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate, yet African Americans are 10 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses.”
Despite American evangelicalism’s individualistic history, it brings me great joy to know that much of the American Church is returning to its roots of biblical justice. In particular, addressing the vast disparity between rich and poor is becoming a priority. Christians’ understandings of the causes of poverty and all its residual effects are becoming more complex than the oversimplification of poor life choices.
If Christians can make the connections between how structures of power shape and (can) determine the outcomes of people’s lives, perhaps they can expand this understanding to American racial politics. Forty Catholic leaders recently released a rebuking open letter to some of the Republican presidential candidates, challenging them to “reject the politics of racial division, refrain from offensive rhetoric, and unite behind an agenda that promotes racial and economic justice.” These Catholics understand how racialized and disparaging comments can perpetuate and reinforce the way race shapes our views, categorizations, and treatment of certain groups.
I deeply apologize for not posting this sooner. ::side-eyes tablet::
However, I am so loving Paul Matsushima’s post on how the tenets of US exceptionalism and The Model Minority Myth isn’t helping conversations about race—and strategizing ways to deal/combat racism—in some Asian American evangelical churches at the R today.
“The burdens of poverty affect most, if not all aspects, of social relations. Most prominently (and unsurprisingly), women carry the greatest burden of the social predicaments that arise from a dire lack of economic security. Women in groups hit hardest by financial strain easily become seen as sources of further strain on their families. Education is often either inaccessible or seen as an unnecessary part of a young girl’s growth and life. This is not always necessarily the case, as there is much evidence that shows support of girl-child education by, specifically, mothers who realize the role education can play in providing a better life for their children. Yet, despite this, in many instances across the world (primarily in developing countries, but not limited to them), young girls are forced to accept the strain upon their families that they are perceived to pose. This position can lead many young girls, either by coercion by family or by “choice,” onto the road towards prostitution, sex slavery, or even suicide. Yet perhaps the most common result is marriage.While there is certainly the aspect of the attraction an older male may have towards a young, virginal woman, the economic security that he provides for both her and her family in this context cannot be understated. Given the nature of employment, maturity, gender relations, and poverty in many underdeveloped countries, men are considered mature at an age that comes far later than for women. At the heart of this maturity is financial stability. Unfortunately, this stability often comes at the expense of a young girl’s rights, sexual agency, body, reproductive and sexual health, and choice. These young girls also often do not only face domestic violence in their unequally leveraged relationships but also can once again return to a point of economic and social uncertainty if their spouse dies, bringing an added burden of being a widow.The EurasiaNet piece (and the report it cites) on early marriage in Tajikistan, as well as other similar pieces on underage marriage elsewhere in the world, points to an important issue. Equally important is the ability to see the practice of early marriage as motivated by more than just religion or culture. But early marriage is not the only consequence of strained economic times. What is missing from this discussion is that marriage has often been traditionally as much an economic contract between two individuals and two families as a religious contract or a bond of love within legal parameters for reproduction and social harmony.”
Sana Saeed, “The Poverty Of Marriage,” Racialicious, 3/28/12
It is oft repeated that 11 am on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week in America. It is repeated, because it is as true today as when Martin Luther King, Jr., first said it. For many black Americans, grieving is inextricably tied to worship. So, if our ways or worship remain foreign to most Americans, so, too, will our ways of grieving. Watching black folks get spiritual, as many did during Whitney Houston’s funeral service, becomes an opportunity for cultural tourism.
I suppose we should be grateful that Houston’s service was a Christian one. Because popular culture generally turns African-influenced religions like Vodun or Santeria into evil and perversion or fodder for silly ghost stories. And a black Islamic service or an atheist remembrance may have been too much for America to bear.
If knowing and understanding a people is the first step to accepting them, then I fear we may never see a post-racial America. Because if reactions to Whitney Houston’s memorial and African-inspired ways of worship are any indication, hundreds of years after black folk first landed on these shores, our cultures remain foreign to our fellow Americans.