U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Politics of Respectability" Take 2

I get to indulge my love of shoes when I go to black history conferences. Unlike the botanists and biologists I grew up around, who would wear REI clothes to a formal ball if they could, the people at black history conferences DRESS. There is a slight generational curve here–at the banquet, the older generation flows through the door, beautifully attired in Kente cloth, with lavish headpieces, or in elegant suits and dresses. There is a slight lessening of the sumptuousness of the outfits of my generation, but they are still well dressed.

One time I was hanging out with new friends near the computers. I was done with my computer and sat back to read a book. For some reason, I threw my feet up on the desk–rather informal for me, but nothing I thought twice about. I was immediately chided on all sides for my indecency–particularly because these black women thought they would be blamed for my poor manners.

In the second example, chiding me for my bad manners, these young black women were certainly inhabiting respectability. In the first, there is a lingering element of black people dressing better than whites because they needed to to prove their respectability. In the conversation around Trayvon Martin’s hoodie, black men on twitter have recently discussed all the different ways they are profiled depending on how they are dressed–hoodie or suit. But I think there is something else here, too. There is joy and there is structure. Men and women who don’t enjoy dressing up feel the inherent white male privilege of those who can dress down on campus and at conferences. Well, probably everyone feels that, but at the same time, people who enjoy dressing up feel a freedom and a joy in gathering with other black people and showing off their dress and their beautiful, elegant coiffures.

For me, it is that joy and freedom that is missing in discussions of the “politics of respectability.” (Maybe it is written in terms of race pride and self-respect–maybe that is what I missed).

I was challenged last week to update my historiography on the “politics of respectability,” so I’ve spent this week working on that, among other things. This 2008 review by Rosalind Rosenberg of Stephanie Evans’ Black Women in the Ivory Tower highlights one way to reconsider uplift and respectability.

“In many ways black educators’ careers paralleled those of white women at the time. They both joined countless clubs dedicated to social reform and shared what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has called “the politics of respectability” (p. 64). Both sought to remake the black working?class in their middle?class image in what Ula Taylor has dubbed “the iron cage of uplift” (p. 64). But unlike their white peers, whose efforts at uplift were directed for the most part toward people from different national, ethnic, and racial groups, black educators reached out to members of the same race, who faced the same kinds of political, legal, social, and economic obstacles they did. Evans argues that this difference made them less willing to accept the biologically based, hierarchical thinking of the day. In common with an increasing number of black feminist theorists, Evans analyzes her subjects less in the either/or terms of class division and more in the both/and terms of shared oppression.” 

Both/and–this is what Michelle Moravec suggested in the comments to my post.

It was also suggested that I read Victoria Wolcott’s Remaking Respectability. She also goes beyond a simple condemnation of the bourgeoisie for advocating uplift, explaining that many in the lower classes also adhered to those modes of being. 

“The shared norms of behavior in the black community reflect a greater degree of ‘circularity’ between dominant and subordinate classes than was present in white society. Segregation and racial discrimination heightened reciprocal cultural influence among African Americans. Thus, at times working-class and middle-class women’s notions of respectability converged. Both focused on domesticity as the central terrain of uplift, on the need to defend African American women against sexual harassment and rape, and on racial pride.” … “Indeed, black women throughout the twentieth century have used respectability to enhance their reputation, ensure social mobility, and create a positive image for their communities. To be ‘respectable’ was an identity that any African American could embrace, whatever his or her economic standing.” (pg 8)

In her exploration of middle-class marriage in the interwar era, Anastasia Curwood notes that “To both men and women, status and respect seemed fundamentally linked to the moral superiority that marriage granted, and marriage in a very real sense provided financial security and emotional support. Therefore, for middle-class African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century, marriage, in addition to its emotional functions, illustrated the fact that black people could be sexually moral and supported spouses engaged in accomplishing the work of uplift” (Stormy Weather, 18). Men were invested in building a masculinity that emphasized the patriarchal role of the father figure who could provide for his family alone. Women attempted to balance responsibility “to themselves, to their families, and to the race.”

Ok. I can see where I was too constrained in my description of the “politics of respectability” last week. Most of the scholars who write about it acknowledge the nuance and cross-class dialogue that went on.

I guess what I’m interested in, is the intra-class dialogue of the 1920s in which the idea of respectability was being called into question. The younger generation of writers no longer wanted to adhere to strict moral guidelines, much like the white authors who were advocating free love and The End of Innocence. Countee Cullen, one of the more straight-laced of the Harlem Renaissance poets, starts off the poetry section of the New Negro with two poems urging free love, with only a hint of caution. I will quote one:

That brown girl’s swagger gives a twitch
To beauty like a queen;
Lad, never dam your body’s itch
When loveliness is seen.

For there is ample room for bliss
In pride in clean, brown limbs,
And lips know better how to kiss
Than how to raise white hymns.

And when your body’s death gives birth
To soil for spring to crown ,
Men will not ask if that rare earth
Was white flesh once, or brown.

My challenge is to find out what the African American women who engaged in clubwork thought of their lives and their organizations. We know that many in the Harlem Renaissance “were jaded at the conformity and materialism they saw in respectable middle-class black families.” (Stormy Weather, 55; I gave more examples last week).  Recovery work which relies heavily on gossip columns with few references to reactions to parties waylays me a might bit. But I argue that the 1920s was a time of intra-class disagreement over what was the right way to act; more African American women still believed in (out of choice and out of necessity) respectability. For some, like Marita Bonner, this was intensely constraining. For others, their clubwork was freeing and joyful.

Thank goodness for Eslanda Robeson, even if she writes more about her husband than herself.

“Just as white Americans flock to New York for greater opportunity or adventure, so does the Negro come to Harlem, and for the same reasons. There is the Y.M.C.A and the Y.W.C.A., where he meets young Negroes from all parts of the world; there are inter-collegiate fraternities and sororities, and other college and social clubs; there are educational, social, political, and philanthropic organizations, all made up of, and entirely run by and for, Negroes. There are innumerable public and private dining-rooms and restaurants where a Negro is an expected and welcome guest. A Negro knows exactly where he is in Harlem: he is among friends, he is at home” (Paul Robeson, Negro, 50-51).

Even so, the Robesons made their home in London for many years because they did not have to worry about the vagaries of discrimination, which were checkerboarded across Manhattan–here they could eat and there they could not, here they could see a show and there they could not.