Heterosexual Women Asking for Pleasure: Behind the Noise Surrounding “WAP” and “Black Man Magic…” Continued

Before I begin, I do not own the rights to the music posted below and I do not post it as click bait. I have actually taught these videos in class (and risked being fired) as part of a demonstration on the limiting effects of the politics of respectability and how African American artists sometimes rebel against them.

Last week, I wrote that there is much more behind the controversy surrounding “WAP” and “Black Man Magic.” Part of the controversy are the politics of respectability that have constricted African American creative and spiritual expression since Reconstruction.

One of the funniest things on earth is Millie Jackson’s “Phuck You Symphony.” No, you did not misread that. No, you don’t need extra coffee. Your glasses/contact lenses are strong enough. It said what it said. Decades before Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, and Stormi Maya, Ms. Millie Jackson stepped out on a stage and did this:

This song was originally performed in 1982, so I am willing to bet that neither Megan, Cardi, or Stormi were even born! But, Ms. Millie was no stranger to controversy. She’d said many, many things that upset many people, and none of those people were white.

With this symphony, her target audience was not the white “status quo.” Many times, in academia and popular culture, when we talk about the status quo, we automatically think “white.” That is not always the case and when we say “status quo,” we have to further segment that. For example, I wrote last week that feminists often write in a way that make heterosexual women seem brainwashed by the patriarchy and lacking in agency. That type of writing has become “status quo” in many feminist circles and programs. It is almost as if heterosexual women are no longer welcome in feminist circles. I am a heterosexual woman who is married with children. I once said at a conference that I do not feel oppressed by my marriage, I love being a mother, and my husband supports me in all that I do. If it were not for my husband’s support (and not just financial), I probably would not have finished my doctorate. I may as well have said, “Yo’ momma” for the offense that it caused. For that reason, I don’t even identify myself as a feminist any more. I happen to be married to a man who does not mind co-parenting and does not possess a brand of toxic masculinity. I am so tired of that phrase being tossed about like Mardi Gras beads, but that’s another posting.

Ms. Millie Jackson’s audience was not a white status quo, but a Black one. It was those African Americans who adhered fervently to the politics of respectability at the time, and they were always giving her static about the things she said. The politics of respectability was a concept originally defined by historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her landmark text, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880–1920. As defined by Higginbotham, the politics of respectability is the belief many Black leaders held that “…equated public behavior with individual self-respect and with the advancement of African Americans as a group. They felt certain that ‘respectable’ behavior in public would ear their people a measure of esteem from white America, and hence they strove to win the black lower class’s psychological allegiance to temperance, industriousness, thrift, refined manners, and Victorian sexual mores.”

This is a very academic way of saying that African Americans are not monolithic. We have very sharp lines of demarcation by class, if not economically then certainly by custom. African Americans have “rules” about what is “respectable” and what is not. Unknown to most politicians, African Americans can be some of the most culturally conservative people on the planet. There is a “right” way to worship God. All of that shouting and exuberance is just too “country” (that is our derogatory word for everything that is not respectable) for some. Loud colors of dress such as bright orange, neon green, and purple hair weave is straight “ghetto” (that is our other derogatory word for everything that is not respectable). Talking loud, wearing long fingernails, a bunch of tattoos for young ladies, men wearing gold chains and gold teeth, long dred locks for men, women wearing hoop earrings that are maybe a quarter inch too big, using lipstick that is too red, and sometimes being too nice and using too many metaphors that are close to nature are frowned upon. That’s “country” or “ghetto,” and nobody wants to be stuck in those places culturally. You want to be suburbs (I guess, though nobody ever says). It can be quite arbitrary and confusing. So, as a professor, honestly, I like to mess with my older colleagues. I will wear big hoop earrings, red lipstick, a blazer, dark jeans, and wedge sandals. Most days, they are confused. They do not know if I’m professional or country or ghetto. Reader, you best believe that I go in my office and crack up!

Oh, by the way, none of these rules apply to white people. You know what hurts me personally, reader? It hurts when I walk in a room, do not code switch (turn off my “country” Mississippi accent), and watch my Black colleagues cringe in shame of me because there may be white folk in the room. It does not matter that I have four degrees and almost 20 years of teaching experience. It does not even seem to matter that the white people do not notice. It does not matter that I can speak on literature from America to Africa. All my Black colleagues hear is a “country” Black woman from “illiterate” Mississippi making them shame. All they see is somebody who does not know how to dress appropriately. And many times, I am standing there talking with some white person who sounds like they come from Hazzard County who is wearing a Bermuda shirt. It hurts me, reader. It really, really does. I am trying to show my mind, and not what’s covering my behind. And the Black folk are ashamed. Ain’t that some mess?

For many artists, particularly for Blues artists and now RAPpes, the politics of respectability, no matter how well-meaning and how much they have helped to advance the cause of African Americans in previous generations, simply constrict and discriminate. Not only does it have gender implications, inhibiting Black women’s ability to speak about sex of any kind — heterosexual or lesbian, as Victorian sexual mores forbid women to speak of sex in public or polite conversation — but there are class implications here. Anything that is from the “lower classes,” such as the Blues or RAP music, is not welcome. This explains some Black people’s resistance to RAP music in its early form and their disdain for the Blues. This artforms were considered “low down” trash not worthy of “respectable” people’s ears or academic interrogation. And for young, Black women to step out on an international stage and demand sexual pleasure -of any kind- is seen as an embarrassment to the whole race, according to those who still adhere to the politics of respectability.

Millie Jackson once called herself “the poor people’s queen” in an interview. She was no stranger to controversy. She made one of the first hit RAP songs by a woman.

When this song debuted in 1980, it caused a firestorm of controversy in Black America. But you know what? She didn’t care. And I’m laughing as I’m typing this, because this is a woman who absolutely does not care about the politics of respectability. She is committed to telling the truth to Black people “in a language you understand.’’’

And that leads me to another posting: it’s one thing for artists to feel artistic constraints due to these cultural limits within the African American community. But what about the truth? Right now, I am teaching a class on Hip Hop and Creative Expression. We are reading material that takes us back to the heroin epidemic in the Black community. For as much trap music as my students hear all day long, for as many times as they have seen that hateful, idiotic sign, “Show Your Mind, Not Your Behind,” not one of them have been taught about how devastating the heroin epidemic was to our community. Not one of them knew that heroin used to constipate people and the cool guys who were on “skag” or “smack” had to sag their pants in order to maintain a semblance of normality, and that’s one source of the sagging pants look. As a matter of fact, I inform them, that one of the withdrawal symptoms of severe heroin addiction is explosive diarrhea. For men, severe heroin addiction can lead to impotence. Each time I tell that I inform them of these things, I watch our young people. They may begin the semester sagging, but they pull those pants up a little higher each time they come into my class. It’s really sad that our elders, in an effort to appear respectable, in an effort to erase our shame, can’t be honest with our young people and ground them in what’s real. Then they turn around and put so much pressure on entertainers to provide our young people with positive images. We do not need images. We need reality.

And here is something that is unfair to Jewish people. African American activists who hate RAP music accuse Jewish record company executives of peddling trash in our communities. Now, I’m old, but I’m not that old. I was alive but not cognizant when RAP was first being solidified and recognized as an artform that can make money. But as I have grown stronger and more diverse in my academic pursuits, I have studied and studied both RAP and Blues. I look at how the politics of respectability played into the business side of RAP. First of all, when RAPpers were out trying to get record deals, there were many Black executives working the R&B side at major record labels. They would not give RAPpers the time of day. They dismissed RAP as so much gutter trash and some people were ashamed that this gutter art form would embarrass them in front of white colleagues. If it were not for Black promoters at the grassroots level hosting gym parties and Jewish and white record label owners risking their money investing in RAPpers, the artform may not have made it out of New York. Black record executives had their chance to get a grip on RAP, to shape and influence it, and they did not because of their conservative politics. It is very telling that MTV, the white music station, had Yo MTV Raps before BET ran its first RAP video at all.

Okay, this post has gone on long enough. This comes from a class called Hip Hop and Creative Expression. If you like it, press the hands. Or maybe I’ll see you in my class one semester.

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora and cultural criticism.

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