Black Women and the Politics of Respectability: An Introduction

by Ralina L. Joseph & Jane Rhodes
Two African American women, half-length portrait, facing each other (Daniel Murray Collection, Library of Congress).
Two African American women, half-length portrait, facing each other (Daniel Murray Collection, Library of Congress).

In the Spring of 2014 the two of us, former dissertation advisor and advisee, along with our colleagues Robin Means Coleman and Khadijah White, convened a panel at the annual meeting of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies in Seattle. We called our panel “The Right Representation: Race, Gender, and Black Respectability Politics in the Media,” and anticipated a lively conversation about the historical and contemporary dimensions of the politics of respectability in mass culture. What we found was that the overflowing crowd, while interested in the individual papers, was really focused on how to make sense of race and respectability in our highly politicized and fraught cultural moment. Audience member Herman Gray’s voice was particularly compelling as he connected the spectators’ and participants’ comments, and argued that the specter of African American respectability politics touched everyone regardless of their location or identity. Gray encouraged the audience to re-think their assumptions about the meaning of respectability in the African American context, and to ask why it matters.

We realized that our panel only skimmed the surface of the questions animating this topic. We wanted to further interrogate how representations of marginalized people bear the weight of depicting whole communities, cultures, and races. We wanted to examine how W.E.B. Du Bois’s oft-cited formulation of double-consciousness—“this sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”—has shaped the idea of respectability during different eras and across the boundaries of gender, sexuality, class, and color. We wanted to understand why community debates around respectability ebb and flow, often becoming inflamed and contentious. We wanted to see how the idea of the “politics of respectability,” a phrase coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s in her study of early twentieth century-black women, resonates in 2016. From hip-hop fashion and lyrics, to popular media, to the Internet, and to public sites of protest and civil unrest, African Americans remain acutely hypervisible and under surveillance a century after Higgenbotham’s subjects began advocating for strict codes of behavior.

When we issued the call for papers, we had no idea we would receive an unprecedented number of submissions. According to Souls’ former Managing Editor Prudence Browne, the most in recent memory. After our initial selection process, there remained so many examples of compelling and high-quality scholarship that the journal decided to produce a triple-issue. We are delighted with the results—a diverse array of theoretical, methodological, and conceptual approaches that take up the subject of race and respectability from both historical and contemporary standpoints. In particular, these essays provide opportunities to examine whether the politics of respectability is relevant to today’s crises; whether it “continues to find traction and a reason to exist,” in the words of Herman Gray. This rhetorical challenge opens up a dialogue among and between the articles of this issue, enabling us to see Black identity and community formation as fluid, dynamic, and powerful.

This Black Perspectives roundtable provides a sampling of the varied frameworks our contributors used to address this topic. We traced the politics of respectability in Black communities from their manifestations in the early twentieth century to contemporary debates over Black women’s sexual and political performance. Co-editor Jane Rhodes begins with a discussion of how the black press and race movies of the 1920s disseminated “pedagogies of respectability” to influence Black women’s sexuality and public personae. During the Great Migration, these indigenous media instructed new Black settlers on acceptable behaviors, offered Black women advice and strategies of protection, and modeled idealized notions of sexual propriety. The Black public sphere, facilitated by print media and film, enabled elites to enact their reform agenda while providing a space for Black women to respond to and even contest the tenets of respectability. Sara P. Díaz analyzes the life and work of Roger Arliner Young, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in zoology, as well as an educator and activist. Like the many brilliant and ambitious Black women of her generation, Young had to confront both the racist ideologies of the dominant culture and gendered notions of acceptable behavior within African American communities. Díaz unpacks the multiple strands of respectability politics that were the cause of Young’s constant struggle to realize her ambitions as a scientist. The legacy of civil rights activist Rosa Parks was shaped by what Katharina M. Fackler terms the “iconography of respectability.” Fackler conducts a close visual analysis of photographs of Parks, arguing that the ideologies carved out by early-twentieth-century black elites were adopted by mid-twentieth-century organizations and media to create an “ambivalent visual grammar of respectability.” The visually constructed memories of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott serve to undermine—or erase—her radicalism and fierce advocacy for social justice.

The remaining essays in this Black Perspectives roundtable consider current manifestations of respectability politics, especially in the domain of popular culture. Co-editor Ralina L. Joseph investigates showrunner Shonda Rhimes’s on-again, off-again performance of respectability in the press through what Joseph calls “strategic ambiguity.” Rhimes, a Hollywood powerbroker, has spent her career constructing Black female characters who simultaneously defy and embrace respectable ideals. In her public appearances, Joseph found, Rhimes morphs between a non-threatening, colorblindness-espousing Black producer and a fierce Black feminist critic. If Shonda Rhimes successfully navigates today’s complicated and contradictory gender politics, Black transgender women in the media are charting new ground for how respectability is represented. Julian Glover uses textual analysis to study how Black transgender celebrities Laverne Cox and Janet Mock project “transnormativity” through playful and negotiated performances of respectability. Glover suggests that their strategy of enacting and embracing respectability—the “good transsexual” subject—helps obscure other, more transgressive, transwomen of color. Ultimately Glover critiques both these public figures and the media for relying upon dualisms that “situate [transwomen of color] as either respectable or subhuman.”

The authors in this roundtable illustrate the many ways in which African American respectability politics have been the catalyst for discussions of Blackness for more than a century. The contributors force us to grapple with the fact that the contestations over class, gender, and sexuality exemplified in Higginbotham’s study remain salient in the Trump era. Today’s activists for social justice demand an interrogation and reworking of the social and political strategies deployed by Black Americans rather than an adherence to tradition. They question the progressive potential of a politics of respectability that seeks Black inclusion in the dominant culture. The contemporary movements for Black lives force us to confront how performances of respectability can cease to be a useful strategic practice and instead become normative and ultimately regressive. It is our hope that the research presented here and in the special issue of SOULS will inform, invigorate, and perhaps transform these debates.

Thanks to all of our contributors—historians, media scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural critics—for their serious and careful scholarship that reminds us of the urgency of our times.

Ralina L. Joseph is an Associate Professor in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication and the Founding Director of the Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity. Ralina’s first book is Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial (Duke University Press, 2012). Her current book project, Screening Strategic Ambiguity: Reading Black Female Resistance to the Post-racial Lie, is forthcoming from NYU Press. Follow her on Twitter @RalinaJoseph. Jane Rhodes is Professor and Head of the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Rhodes is author of Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century (Indiana University Press 1998), Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon (The New Press 2007; University of Illinois Press 2017), and numerous articles and chapters on black social movements, media, and the politics of representation.

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Comments on “Black Women and the Politics of Respectability: An Introduction

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    Enjoyed this article–but most of these conferences have become a series of mental masturbation–where one Flack scholar tries to out intellectualize the other–and miss the point(s). Break it down. Keep it simple–give sharp images to the writings.

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