No, this post is not about those sassy BLM women interrupting Bernie Sanders at a few different events. Nor is it about those ‘disrespectful’ activists in the peace, climate change, gentrification, and other movements who interrupt the PTB’s business as usual in order to make citizens’ arrests, create human blockades, hoping to create more awareness of issues by making enough noise that the mainstream media might cover their activities. Code Pink trying to ‘arrest’ Dick Cheney for war crimes at a recent Senate Armed Services hearing, for instance.
Instead, it concerns a wider theme at play in the Black Lives Matter movement, as even certain notable blacks have been chiding the current protestors, unable to relate to Tef Poe’s credo that ‘this ain’t your daddy’s and mama’s civil rights movement’.
Toward the end of August, Shannon M. Houston, writing at Salon.com, was spurred to write in response to a ‘devastating WaPo essay by veteran civil rights activist Barbara Reynolds — the very piece of literature many whites and blacks who lean on deadly respectability politics were hoping for’. Her rebuttal is titled: ‘Respectability will not save us: Black Lives Matter is right to reject the “dignity and decorum” mandate handed down to us from slavery’; it’s a fine piece of work, and covers a lot of historical bases to make her case. Now I didn’t read all of the comments under her essay, but most commenters were utterly appalled by it, and one might be correct in guessing that most of them were white liberals. Houston featured this bit of Reynold’s piece (my bolds throughout):
“The baby boomers who drove the success of the civil rights movement want to get behind Black Lives Matter, but the group’s confrontational and divisive tactics make it difficult. In the 1960s, activists confronted white mobs and police with dignity and decorum, sometimes dressing in church clothes and kneeling in prayer during protests to make a clear distinction between who was evil and who was good.
But at protests today, it is difficult to distinguish legitimate activists from the mob actors who burn and loot. The demonstrations are peppered with hate speech, profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear. Even if the BLM activists aren’t the ones participating in the boorish language and dress, neither are they condemning it.
The 1960s movement also had an innate respectability because our leaders often were heads of the black church, as well. Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter, and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered black leaders such as King and Nelson Mandela in their successful quests to win over their oppressors are missing from this movement.”
Houston reminds Ms. Reynolds of the body of evidence that shows that the binary of respectable v. boorish thug Negro, etc. was created not by their black ancestors, but by the very people who enslaved blacks.
“Those enslaved were told an encouraging, deadly lie that there were ways to evade the hatred and the violence of whites. One of the ways to do so was to become a house slave. One of the paths to becoming a house slave was to be of mixed race and therefore the likely product of rape. This was the true beginning of respectability politics, when blacks were shown that a certain type of black person can receive better treatment by whites than another. House slaves were considered by whites to be less dangerous and less animalistic than field slaves. They were clothed better, fed better and sometimes even educated. They had better lives than the average field slave. But they were all, always and still, enslaved.”
She brings a bit different angle to the Twitter Kerfuffles over whether t’is better to ‘heal the community’ (where protests are happening with blessed regularity) or staying riled up, act, and perhaps even #ShutItDown, as in highways, malls, and keeping the pressure on via direct actions and protests as well as educating the public and one another, Saying their Names, and so on, even by black ministers.
She quotes Reynolds quoting the black man political elitist Andrew Young, who’d been an aid to Dr. King™, for gawdssake:
“White supremacy is a sickness … You don’t get angry with sick people; you work to heal the system.”
Apparently Reynolds believes that only kindness, pacifism, and dressing well will cause white oppressors to empathize with them, and heal their “white supremacist sickness”.
Houston handily dismisses Reynolds’ notion given, for instance, Martin Luther King’s eminent respectability, and how he was (ahem) treated nonetheless.
She includes this link to an opinion piece by Hari Ziyad entitled: ‘Empathy won’t save us’, and it’s easy to take his greater meaning, although I think he misses the degree to which empathy actually has played a part in creating allies of other complexions in the movement.
But the next issue is one that’s seriously bothered me since the assassinations of the nine respectable church-going Christians in Charleston; this is Houston answering Reynolds’ blithe contention:
“Reynolds goes on to cite as examples of the respectability and Christ-like behavior to which we young proponents of Black Lives Matter should aspire the families of the Charleston nine, who told the world they’d forgiven Dylann Roof before the bodies of their beloved were even in the ground. But Reynolds neglects to consider the fact that those dead victims were living, breathing images of respectability—praying in a Church and welcoming in a strange white man—when they were slaughtered. Their respectability did not save them.”
The result of that forgiveness was the reason that no churches were burned to the ground, no riots or looting followed, according to Reynolds, which of course was bullshit, as five area churches were set o fire. But Houston writes about what she’d actually meant:
“It’s clear that Reynolds meant no buildings were burned by black protestors, which might suggest that the families were able to speak to those rightfully angry blacks, but not those responsible for the churches that went down in flames.
Those churches were burned for many reasons. One reason is that respectability politics cannot save us.”
There is much more, but allow me to get back to the public acts of forgiveness by the families of the slaughtered victims. Now as Ms Houston noted, these statements of ‘forgiveness’ came before the nine had even been buried, meaning to me, that the families had never had time to grieve properly yet, to wrestle with the ongoing virtual lynchings and oppression of blacks, to process it over time, and then maybe one day to privately forgive white supremacists in order to save one’s own soul from perpetual bitterness. Similar thoughts are contained in this online ‘conversation’ between Mallory and Carvell about white people so often needing to hear that message of forgiveness, as if those words act to absolve the nation’s systemic racism, and act as mental erasers for them. They also note that forgiveness doesn’t mean a free pass. And echoing Houston trying to educate Ms Reynolds, both of whom are black:
“Carvell: Again, I don’t know what white people actually think. But it seems like there is not nearly enough urgency about getting this racist shit under control and it doesn’t seem like the “endlessly forgiving Negro” story is helping that at all. This is why I cringe when I hear white people sharing stories of black folks who were royally fucked over six ways till Sunday saying “I forgive you,” like “isn’t this beautiful.”
America has a long history of raping, robbing, enslaving and killing people and then urging those same people to find and express forgiveness and peace. So when I hear “pray for peace” from a white person in the hours after Charleston, it lands very, very wrong.”
Traci Patton penned ‘Black America should stop forgiving white racists; Quick absolution does not lead to justice’ .
After chanting out the forgiveness statements of comfort and redemption by family members at Roof’s bond hearing (why did the Judge allow that, anyway?), she writes that the parade of forgiveness is disconcerting, especially in contrast to so many governmental officials’ white-washing statements. Now Patton understands that black churches have always taught the principle of forgiveness, and agrees that in part it can lessen the power of the receiver over one, reduce anger and bitterness, reminding them that they themselves haven’t been destroyed in their victimization. But she speaks also of another principle at play:
“Historically, black churches have nurtured the politics of forgiveness so that black people can anticipate divine justice and liberation in the next life. This sentiment shaped non-violent protest during the civil rights movement. A belief that displays of morality rooted in forgiveness would force white America to leave behind its racist assumptions. But Christian or non-Christian, black people are not allowed to express unbridled grief or rage, even under the most horrific circumstances.”
Well, yes, so many Negro spirituals were exactly that, weren’t they? Justice in heaven, and in the Lord’s arms, the Land of Milk and Honey, and so on. How does one survive slavery at all, knowing that one’s only value to the system is the amount of work one can do to profit their Masters (or the amount one can fetch at sale), and not imagine a better afterlife? And remember: most were rather forced into becoming Christians in the New World. But I digress. Patton adds:
“Many people mistake black forgiveness for absolution of America’s racial sins,” says Chad Williams, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. “I think the expectation that blacks are always willing to forgive makes it harder to engage in radical transformative social justice work.”
Our constant forgiveness perpetuates the cycle of attacks and abuse, a form of “survivorship” that is numbing our cognitive and emotional clarity. It’s really a distorted response to living under the constant terror and trauma of being black in America. Repeatedly forgiving the people who keep murdering us is a desperate preemptive move to try to prevent more white harm to black persons, and it doesn’t necessarily translate to acceptance. [snip]
“If we really believe that black lives matter, we won’t devalue our reality and cheapen our forgiveness by giving it away so quickly and easily. Black people should learn to embrace our full range of human emotions, vocalize our rage, demand to be heard, and expect accountability. White America needs to earn our forgiveness, as we practice legitimate self-preservation.
Black lives will never be safe — or truly matter — and we won’t break the centuries long cycle of racial violence if we keep making white racial salvation our responsibility.”
If you’re interested in delving further into the history of respectability politics, and how it does or doesn’t differ from ‘speaking about issues of character and ethics in the present’, philosopher & essayist Misha Cherry offered some salient thinking in 2014. She highlights Harvard Professor Evelyn Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent, who traces the belief back to early 20th century black female church social activists, and notes some of the unintended consequences, oh my goodness. She brings Aristotle and Plato into thee mix, plus W.E.B. Dubois, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Don Lemon, Bill Cosby, and others.
Toward the end of her longish essay:
“Respectability politics may talk about character and morality, but it does it an injustice. A talk about character doesn’t necessarily translate into a politics of respectability. We can aspire to moral excellence and challenge others to do so as well without singling out certain groups, by holding everyone accountable, by valuing goodness for goodness sake, and by knowing the limits of only morality to change the world.”
Tef Poe has a few…er…not terribly respectable things to say about politicians and police in St. Louis and Missouri. (Clicking through the video to its youtube page allows you to read more of his rage and grief.) “Ferguson is Barack Obama’s Katrina.”