I wonder how many women who marched for jobs and freedom 50 years ago and how many women who commemorated that march last weekend consciously marched for the right to be sexy.
While we may not connect the dots between civil rights and “sexy rights,” Melissa Harris-Perry connects them well in her book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America. To be sexy is to be sexually attractive or exciting. The right to be sexy is the entitlement to be simply so, without any biased and injurious judgments attached to this physical aspect of being. Perry frames the politics of being black and female in America with deeply moving creative works by some of our most prolific writers. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is perhaps the most apt piece for this conversation. “[H]urston reveals how the politics of race and gender intersect the challenges of self-exploration,” Perry writes.
Yes. Everything is political.
Even my coming of age is political. (Just ask Miley Cyrus.) Especially when I mature and express in a brown body, how and when I do so seems to affect a whole lot of people. It is far from a personal matter. “[B]lack womanhood makes her vulnerable to people and systems that seek to transform her into a beast of burden,” Perry interprets of Janie, Hurston’s protagonist. While most of us as African American women may have progressed from that early 20th Century pigeon-hole, our feminine bodies still cause us to be susceptible to people and institutions that strive to morph us into what they need us to be rather than ally with us to help us develop into what we were created to be. And let’s be clear that the people and systems are not just our white sisters and brothers, African Americans detrimentally police our bodies and their expressions as well. (Just ask Meagan Good.)
Perry argues that “Janie’s journey is political . . . because it is motivated by her refusal to accept this role.” I assert that her life-journey became political the minute that someone else was heavily invested in her personal journey, whether she accepted the role(s) they preferred/mandated for her or not. Janie, indeed, protested with a rather quiet determination to be the woman she knew inside rather than the caricatures that others drew of her, possibly so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the complexities of who she actually was.
Ladies, when we march for freedom, are we marching for the right to be sexy?
If not, we need to add this right to our agenda. Typically society brands African American women as one of three stereotypes – Jezebel (sexually loose), Mammy (asexual) or Sapphire (angry black woman). All of these labels derive from some expression of black womanhood. I don’t have much of a problem with stereotypes; I find a nugget of truthful reality in many of them. The problem is when we believe that stereotypical behavior encompasses the entire being of a person and we treat her according to this very limited understanding. Yet most of us cringe when a sistah exhibits one of these societal brands in public, knowing that her actions only serve to perpetuate a comprehensive myth. Perry nudges us toward compassion, however. “To understand why a black woman’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.”
Ahhh, the crooked room – one of the most fascinating correlation of “cognitive psychology research on field dependence” to a social construct that I’ve ever read. The study demonstrated “how individuals locate the upright in a space.” So, Perry explains that when black women “confront race and gender stereotypes, [we] are standing in a crooked room.” We are standing in a distorted environment that can cause us to view ourselves in an inaccurate fashion. Not all of us are capable of overcoming the distortion in order to distinguish straight from crooked. Therefore, we must judge each other with great hesitance, if we judge at all. “[W]e can better understand sisters as citizens when we appreciate the crooked room in which they struggle to stand upright.” (Cued at 12:46 in the video below, Perry explains the Crooked Room Theory.)
And as full citizens, we must march for the right to be sexy . . .
Our freedom includes the right to be physically appealing in sexually attractive ways – simply to be so without any biased – crooked – judgments attached to our brown bodies and their expressions.
© 2013 candi dugas, llc