live and learn

Patriarchy and rape culture are not okay. They can result in death, in trauma, in oppression. Problem is, it’s ingrained in American culture, due in no small part to the patriarchy ingrained in European culture, which is its backbone. No American, no group of Americans, no subculture of Americans is unaffected by it. This includes what I’ll call here, “the black church.” I’m no scholar, I haven’t studied black churches, I haven’t been to all types of black churches, so I can’t speak to all black churches and black church experiences. I will say that when I say, “the black church,” I mean churches that are 1) Protestant, 2) historically and predominantly composed of black Americans with southern family origins, like the kind that Ms. Aretha Franklin grew up in. Now although there is a culture in the black church that is unique to the black church, that culture didn’t spring out of nowhere. Most of these churches are conservative, but remember the black church didn’t invent the tradition of dressing conservatively for church. Africans received Christianity from the white people who ran this country, and those white people, many of them, dressed conservatively, as was done for centuries. Our society in general – whites, blacks, everyone – was more conservative than it is now only a few generations ago. Men always wore hats outdoors, and women covered their legs down to the ankles and didn’t expose their bare shoulders or cleavage in public, let alone in church. This is the society that our current elders – folks Ms. Franklin’s age – grew up in.

If you walk into the black church now, in many churches you will find a wealth of older people. As I understand it, that’s actually not different from many white churches. Churchgoers are getting older, because their children and grandchildren aren’t coming with them. The society is more secular and more skeptical of churches’ message, mission, and relevance. But the elders are holding the churches up, keeping the doors open, retaining the traditions that raised them and give them comfort. People say the church belongs to everyone, but let’s just say that the elders are our hosts, and they are the current backbone of most churches. Anyone who has visited church with an elder or who has been raised in the church knows – at a minimum, you do your hair respectfully and/or cover your head, you wear your best shoes, women wear dresses or skirts (traditionally) with an appropriate hem, men wear slacks, and you clean and press your clothes.

The tradition of black people dressing fancy for church is related to our history of oppression in this country. Church was one of the few places we could be fancy and ostentatious.  You wear your “Sunday Best” when you go to the Lord’s house. There are some more casual black churches, but typically, in most black churches, congregants wear their nicest things.

But because the Puritans affected those who taught Christianity to our former owners, and us, holiness and modesty are intertwined. So not only do you wear nice things, you also dress with modesty. Hems should be low, skin should be covered. This is especially so among our elders, who were raised in a more conservative/respectability politics/church-centric culture. Respectability politics is problematic, this is true. But from the perspective of the elders, who came of age before the civil rights movement, before the black-power movement, before people of color and liberal whites began to change the society to accept black people as we are as equal citizens, the idea that acting/dressing/speaking “respectably” would earn reprieve from oppression was one of the few tools we had to try to protect ourselves from white folks’ mess. Take a good look at the protesters in those videos you see of teenagers getting hosed and bitten by dogs in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama. Take a good look at what the kids at those lunch counters were wearing. Today’s young people may argue, “a lot of good respectability politics did them – wearing those clothes and still getting their asses whupped.” But today’s old folks understand that the images of well-dressed, well-mannered teenagers got those kids a lot more outside pressure and agitation on their behalf than pictures of “unkempt” children in sharecropper clothing would have received. They wore their Sunday Best clothes to protests with purpose. Respectability politics today causes unnecessary division and judgment, and now we argue that it’s more trouble than it’s currently worth, but for our elders, it was another thing altogether.

Wearing your best, conservative clothing to church is what our elders know. It’s what they were taught. It has value to them. And so, like the generations before them, they taught us what they know. Its roots are in patriarchal oppression, yes. It smacks of respectability politics, indeed. It may not be progressive, but as long as our elders remain the backbone of the church, it is what it is. Not all spaces are progressive. And not all people want their spaces to be progressive. Culture and tradition are powerful things, and black people are descended from folks with no easily traceable history because our African ancestors were forced to forget their culture and struggled to pass scraps on their children – we are wary of change, and who could blame us? In our social institutions, change happens, but perhaps not as quickly as outsiders would prefer. I don’t think traditional black congregants need to apologize for who they are, what they prefer, how they got here, or how long it may take them to change.

So for those black folks who say that Ariana Grande’s dress was too short at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, I’ll say this – I ain’t mad at you. You are applying the standards for church dress that you were given by the elders of your family and the elders of your church. I understand that you are not attributing “slut” attributes to shame Ms. Grande, but rather applying a dress code that you understand because it’s a part of your culture. I’m not going to conflate the patriarchal sensibilities of the Puritans who shaped the American church to today’s modern church folk who take comfort in following tradition – that’s too blanket an accusation to make. Some of y’all need to learn that showing skin ain’t about thirst or temptation, but some of y’all already know that and are just obedient to Granny’nem.

For all the people who revel in pointing out the flaws of Christians every time you get the chance – when we say, “come as you are,” we mean it. When you walk in the door, we’re happy to have you. Don’t NOT come ’cause of what you have on. But once you come and become a part of the church family, you’re going to wind up doing as the church folk do. There’s a place for everyone, and if the people who don’t like the dress code don’t want to dress that way, there are plenty of other places – non-conservative churches included – where they can go besides the traditional black church.

And for all the Christians who think that because you’re in the church, you’re immune to criticism – when you say, “come as you are,” you can mean it all you want, but if you can’t notice that someone’s not dressed the way you prefer them to be dressed, and let that roll off your back like so much water, are you really trying to love your neighbor as you love yourself? Yes, her dress was too short. OK, and? Yes, it would have been nice if someone had let her know about what black Baptists deem appropriate funeral attire. But your point is? Do you have any idea how many times your Savior taught by example rather than conspicuous condemnation? If you are renewing your mind and growing in the Spirit of the Lord as you are supposed to be doing, you should at some point reach a level of maturity where you know how to focus on what’s more important than a high hem. Just saying. She came to pay her respects to the Queen, God bless her for it.

And for every person who talked about her dress as reasoning for why men in the church reacted to her or treated her, Christian or not, examine yourself. You are part of the problem. No better than the people who blame the girls R. Kelly seduces. No better than the people who ask rape victims what they were wearing. That pastor was absolutely wrong for how he spoke to and touched that young lady and nothing can mitigate that. He needs to renew his mind and reform his acts. And if you tried to defend him, you aren’t helping him or anyone else.

Maturity ain’t free, but you as you continue to live, you can learn, if you try.