Examining the Politics of Respectability in African American Studies

by Kali N. Gross

The upcoming conference, The "Black Image" in the "Black Mind," has been organized by the Fontaine Society to critique the bias toward "respectability" within African American Studies. The conference has two additional goals: to build academic community across disciplines, and to address the limitations of past analytical paradigms with examples of innovative scholarship.

The Fontaine Society is a fellowship program at the University of Pennsylvania designed to increase the numbers of doctoral students from minority groups that are least represented nationally--encompassing the humanities and the social, natural, and physical sciences. The Fontaine Fellowships were established and named in honor of Dr. William Fontaine, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania for twenty-one years, and the first African American to become a fully-affiliated professor of the University. Along with increasing the numbers of academics of color, the Fontaine Society is committed to expanding diversity within academic discourses. With this tradition of transcending boundaries, graduate students in the Fontaine Society, in conjunction with Afro-American Studies, have organized this ambitious conference to further academic endeavors and to showcase the talent that exists at Penn, as well as to contextualize the phenomenon of respectability.

Historically, as form of resistance to the negative stigmas and caricatures about their morality, African Americans adopted a "politics of respectability." Claiming respectability through manners and morality furnished an avenue for African Americans to assert the will and agency to redefine themselves outside the prevailing racist discourses. Although many deployed the politics of respectability as a form of resistance, its ideological nature constituted a deliberate concession to mainstream societal values. The self-imposed adherence to respectability that permeated African American women's lives, as well as African American culture, also later impacted African American activism and the course of scholarship in African American Studies. This strict adherence to what is socially deemed "respectable" has resulted in African American scholars' confining their scholarship on African Americans to often the most "heroic," and the most successful attributes in African American culture; it has also resulted in the proliferation of analyses which can be characterized as culturally defensive, patriarchal, and heterosexist.

Given the circumstances of racial oppression in the United States, it is no surprise that African American scholars used academe as a medium to showcase positive African American achievements. Since the late nineteenth century Harvard-educated William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson pioneered the professionalization and popularization of African American history and sociology. At his death in 1950, not only was Woodson referred to as the father of African American history, but it was believed that the importance of his work was that it revised American history and provided resources for African Americans to combat negative caricatures. American historians frequently ignored the African American past, and at points denied African American contributions to the development of their nation.

The Civil Rights and Black Power movements brought the strug-gles of African Americans to the forefront of American culture and politics, and revived a need to understand the African American past. These social movements and the increased numbers of African Americans in universities have created a wealth of research. The expansion of African American Studies that proceeded up through the 1970s remained largely male-centered. This scholarship often translated into glorified tales of strong African American men, and their non-"emasculating" female appendages. Even with the explosion of women's studies, the voices of African American women lay dormant underneath innuendo and implication. As one group of scholars cleverly acknowledged, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us are Brave.

However, since the 1980s and 1990s African American women's studies has begun carving out its own genre and expanded African American Studies. As Dr. Mary Francis Berry explained, "Without the pioneering work of Gerda Lerner and younger scholars such as Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, little would be available in print to begin the quest for knowledge concerning Black women's experiences." With the ground-breaking texts of Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow (1985), Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter (1984), and Deborah Gray White, Ar'n't I A Woman? (1985), the stories of African American women's enslavement, emancipation, reconstruction, club movements, social work, suffrage activism, Civil Rights and Black Power leadership gained representation in the academy. And while these works have called attention to the plight of African American women, for the most part African American scholarship has attempted to argue that despite undergoing brutal enslavement, racial segregation, and continued discrimination, the humanity of African Americans was somehow unscathed, and that the survival of strong African American families and communities are testimonies to this triumph.

This need to affirm our humanity and the "heroic" aspects of our culture has been in part been accomplished to our own detriment. African American scholars have furnished a discourse that is "respectable," and in effect reified elitism, sexism, and heterosexism. This scholarship has also resulted in the proliferation of culturally defensive patriarchal forms of analysis.

These culturally defensive patriarchal analyses operate through the canon of omission. They afford a history and culture that is complacent with revealing only half the story--one that often only explores the masculine, the heterosexual, and the victorious. This promotion of sanitized narratives and scholarship disrespects the memory of those who suffered and could not be Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass; it implies that the experiences and practices of the masses of African Americans are not worthy of our attention.

The pioneering work of such scholars as Farah Jasmine Griffin, Regina Austin, Herman Beavers, Mary Frances Berry, and Elijah Anderson have begun to challenge the narrow constructs of respectability. By doing work on men and women who are socially deemed "unrespectable," these scholars have begun to broaden African American Studies. We Fontaine Fellows hope to continue Penn's tradition of academic excellence by facilitating a conference that will not only critique the limited paradigms, but also create avenues for expansion. On April 5-6, 1997, The "Black Image" in the "Black Mind" will be held at Steinberg Hall-Dietrich Hall.

Above: Photograph: Caged © 1996 by Barbara Kigozi

Ms. Gross is a doctoral student in history at the University.


Volume 43 Number 28
April 1, 1997

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