Respectable

I will use the “n-word” without censoring it. Just a note.

I love Zora Neale Hurston. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s about a mixed-race Black woman named Janie living in the South during the early 20th century, and how she discovers love and what it means to be a Black woman in this world. I held on to that book so fiercely; to me, it didn’t matter that Janie was a woman, something about her journey of self-discovery and finding love in herself gave me hope for my future when I didn’t have any.

When the book came out, many of Hurston’s peers in the Harlem Renaissance hated it. These critics were mostly Black men, like Richard Wright (known for his book, Native Son) and Ralph Ellison (known for his book, Invisible Man). Essentially, the critique went like this: yeah, Hurston can write, but what the fuck was she thinking when she wrote this? She should be writing “serious” work, stuff with real gravity and drama, not based off of caricatures of Black people just for the “white gaze.”

That damn “white gaze.” That concept always confuses me, and I think I understand it on a scholarly level, but I never understand what that is supposed to mean for Black work. Like, OK, so Zora Neale Hurston is an anthropologist by training. Now, Wikipedia defines anthropology as being the “study of various aspects of humans within societies of the past and present.” OK Wikipedia, let’s roll with that. So then, Hurston was making this book (and many of her other books, I might add) by studying various aspects of humans. The Black people in her books are based off of the people she researched and worked with in her all-Black town in Eatonville, Florida. Her Black male peers were upset that in her book, she was writing in “Black dialect,” but she was simply recording how the people in her life spoke to each other. So then, her Black male peers were upset that Hurston was recording and exposing a segment of the Black population to the rest of white America. And white critics loved that book.

None of the ground I’m treading in this is new. People around me love to talk about “respectability politics” this and “pound cake speech from Bill Cosby” that and Zora Neale Hurston is part of the legacy of those conversations. But when activists speak about a “white gaze” or any sort of “oppressor” being the true audience for works like Their Eyes Were Watching God, it makes me wonder who exactly is the judge of how people are supposed to behave and act in this world. It can very well be argued that Hurston “sold out” her people by writing in this way. But there were people in real life who acted in the ways that the characters in book acted. Should that be denied for the purposes of creating social change? Is there room for all types of people of all different shapes and sizes and behaviors in a revolutionized world? Or do we all have to act one way?

I went to a badly-attended talk at Oberlin by Kai Green, a visiting assistant professor of Gender, Sexuality and African-American Studies at Northwestern University as part of our Black History Month lecture series (which Oberlin renamed Africana Unity and Celebration month). It seemed to be well-promoted, but the way Oberlin works, there are just too many things going on every day for a person to be able to attend everything. But this talk was really cool, it was about “the politics of name changing” and how people might find power in renaming themselves and claiming specific labels, but sometimes those names and labels are the same that are used by oppressors to denigrate them (things like nigger or queer/fag). And basically, for the purposes of creating a more just and equitable world, we as scholars and activists or whatever need to think about how we use these names and labels, and how they can allow us to create community and do collective work, things like that.

I’ve said it before. I don’t like “community.” One day I’ll do a whole post about it, but after hearing that talk and explanation, I was skeptical about labels and community work and I had some questions for the Q&A. I was really excited because it became a dialogue between me and Mr. Green, and I really wanted to push further about what types of people are involved in communities. Because Mr. Green started talking about people needing to do self-care, and learning how to cook and how to care for others in their community or whatever, and I was like “Well, my grandma does that. She takes in people. She’s a Sunday School teacher. She does shit. But, she at one point claimed to have a “righteous hatred” for gay people. Like, she’s “conservative” if you put a label on it. Is there room for her in the community? In this new world of people getting along and communities and revolution, would my grandma exist?” And at first he threw the question back at me, which annoyed me, but I played along and said “I don’t think she would be allowed to exist as she is in this world because she wouldn’t fit.” And Mr. Green asked me if I was thinking that this “revolution” or whatever would lead to a utopia. And after all these years at Oberlin, I couldn’t help but instinctively think “Yes.” People around me use words and phrases and sentences like “end discrimination, end white supremacy, deconstruct the social constructs that bind us,” and am I not supposed to think utopia, or heaven on earth? I remember feeling slightly dissatisfied with the conversation, but grateful that I could at least have it, because it made me think about ideas of respectability and even my own identity in another way.

See, I get to be in such an elite and privileged position. I have access to all of this education and training and resources. I will more likely than not be a part of the upper middle class in the next couple of decades, if not sooner. I will probably gain some type of influence because I’ll “know the right people.” And because I know all of these leftist social activists, I will probably be a part of their attempts to “make the world less shitty.” But sometimes I get a funny feeling when I listen to my peers talk about making radical change. When they talk about how ignorant people can be, and how everyone needs to “wake up,” and how they hate all of these social injustices. And I don’t think I get that funny feeling because I disagree, I definitely agree with them. But I realize that I am the product of all of that shit. And a world in which none of these “social evils” exist is a world in which I wouldn’t exist. So I’m basically working to make sure that someone like me never comes along again.

That’s trippy to me. To this day, I always say that my goal is to make sure that Black gay/queer men like me don’t go through the same shit I went through. I want to make their lives “easier.” But I guess I never thought about what that truly means. It reminds me of Hurston. Her Black male peers resented the fact that she tried to record and keep these legacies of tragedy-struck Black people. Her peers wanted to highlight all of the injustices in this world, and create some type of change, whether it meant Black separatism, or a fully realized integrated world, or even the end of the world. And she had her own ideas about that as well, but she focused on preservation of identities that were real and a product of the way social and institutional systems affected people, her people. In the world her peers wanted, I don’t think her people would exist. Why would they exist in a world without poverty and racism and capitalism and social contracts rooted in ideas of profit?

The cynic in me feels like activism is about working to become a perfect being. Because even if you don’t think that human beings are inherently fucked up and they just make mistakes, you still think you could live in a world where the people around you will make less mistakes than they do now. And I think that if I lived in that world, I wouldn’t be me. And I guess for some people, that’s fine. They don’t want to be themselves anyway, and they certainly don’t want anyone else to be their old, flawed self. In the faith I was raised in, I was supposed to believe that if I was “saved,” and accepted Christ into my life, I would eventually receive a new, perfect body in heaven and live with God in paradise. I would live in unspeakable happiness, and I would sing and dance for God for all eternity. I try explaining that to people, and they start going into the philosophical debates about “what it means to be happy” and “should you always be happy” and I can’t get through to them that even the word “happiness” can’t even express the sheer unbridled joy that you are going to feel once you leave this world of pain. No words could explain it, you just feel it, it’s not something our current bodies can process. That’s all to say that even in that Christian Right world, which is always posed as the opposite to my Radical Activist Left world, there is a future where perfection is real, and I wouldn’t exist as myself. I couldn’t, I’m too flawed and fucked up because I exist in this flawed and fucked up world. So either way, Left or Right, there’s no room for me. So maybe my hope in my future I got from Hurston was really my hope in being preserved when this world, no matter which way it goes, leaves me behind.

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2 thoughts on “Respectable

  1. Again, very beautifully written and thought-provoking. I am curious to hear more of your thoughts on “community.” When I was at Oberlin I sometimes felt that ideas which were meant to empower me (as a woman or queer person) actually made me feel more isolated, and I couldn’t explain why. It felt like I was forgetting how to connect with people who weren’t in those groups or didn’t have the same educational understanding. I also have a complicated relationship with the Christian Right/Activist Left divide, because although I am not Christian, I love singing polyphony, Renaissance and medieval music, and a lot of modern sacred choral music. I have also worked for churches, for pay, and they have provided wonderful acoustic spaces that I have performed in again and again. So I have to ask myself, what does it mean for me to engage with the Church as a non-believer, and to what extent am I propping up this institution which I disagree with on many levels – and which continues to be conservative and exclusionary, while claiming to foster “Community”?

    Of course, there are liberal denominations out there, and congregations with gay pastors (My parents are in one), and I DO think there is room for inclusivity in any religion, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is some very oppressive history. The music I sing is very ‘high-church’ and the ‘higher’ you go, the more conservative it seems to get. The Minster here in northern England, one of the wealthiest and well-patronized churches I have ever seen, did not hire any grown women in their choir until THIS year – 2016. Women were not even allowed to audition for positions until this past year. It makes me think, how were churches able to evade Equal Opportunity labor laws? Does the general public know that this is happening, and that their tax-payer dollars are funding it? Am I personally relying on a corrupt institution? At the same time, I met many loving and caring people at the churches I have attended and worked for. So I feel very conflicted about all of these issues – not even to mention singing music written for the glory of God, when I don’t really believe in a Christian God.

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    1. Hey Emi, thank you so much for your comments! It’s funny, my research is about the concept of “community” and what that even means. I have always felt uncomfortable with the word community because I find it to be a type of trapping in which one has to act in specific ways to maintain social relationships, and if they don’t, they can lose those relationships. And I’m reading theory about community, and what I was thinking was confirmed to be true, at least by community theorists. It’s an overused word that is used in all sorts of situations that may not actually be useful. Maybe what is more useful is a word like “collective,” which was defined for me as being a group of people who are like-minded and share a similar state of consciousness. To me, a true “community” is simply the groups and individuals that make up a particular entity. So, as you were talking about, the higher up you go, the more conservative it does seem, and therefore because of your beliefs, you don’t fit their collective. And maybe you don’t want to fit their collective.

      I relate to what you’re saying very deeply, as I have had issues joining music groups and social groups that are part of churches and I do not believe in what they believe in. But I loved the people. I find that part of the true test of belonging to any group is figuring out if you can air your questions and concerns to the rest of the group and what happens when you do it. I loved the Madrigal choir I was in, and they were fine with the fact that I was gay, but I was the only Black person in the choir, so would they receive me well if I brought up issues of race that were on my mind. I never tried, I was too scared. I was afraid of losing my place and my social relations. But that fear only continues to add to conflicting feelings of whether or not you belong with the people you care about. Those are just my two cents. 🙂

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