Ask any Black person of a certain age what it means to “carry The Race on their back,” and you will receive a definitive answer with little to no hesitation. Being Black and of a certain age is to understand and to experience this unfortunate and stress filled phenomenon. Race responsibility, i.e., the notion that you and I, as Black folk, feel the burden of negating racial stereotyping by “proofing them wrong,” is a real thing. But, it is so much more than just “doing the most” to prove to white folk that we are not the stereotype they created. There is also the personal and corporate emotional attachments of feeling embarrassment by “ratchet or ghetto” displays of Black behavior, as demonstrated by the recent intra-community conflict of what will be called the “Bonnets, Bottoms, and Bedroom Slippers” fiasco, or the W.A.P performance from Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B on the 2021 Grammy Award show, or the “bustin’ a sag pants “fashions” from young black men in urban America, and the list just goes on and on and on.
It seems that regardless of whether it is right or wrong, fair or unfair, we as the Black community cannot untie ourselves from what is deemed by some as “race responsibility.” The dynamics are complex. There is the “Candice Owens” paradigm – Black people who decide to twist race responsibility politics to their own advantage to benefit from the attention and approval of the main culture. There also is the old school stereotypes such as “Mammy, Aunt Jemima, Steppin’ Fetchit, Uncle Tom, Hot Tail Sally, and other images that are still a part of our intra-community conflict and dialogues. It seems that each generation since slavery must automatically deal with the tethering of these racial stereotypes to our lives, and herein lies the primary challenge. Ironically, white America created the stereotypes, as far back as in slavery, and still benefit from maintaining them. White America created the false story that we, as the Black community are forced to reckon with and also manage the trauma of the outcomes, as well.
Yet, as we examine the elements of these intra-community and inter-cultural dynamics and dialogue, we are again reminded that ” there is nothing is new under the sun.” As with most of the seemingly novel presentations of the world in which we must live in, Scripture continues to demonstrate that there is nothing new about these issues. We only have to open the pages of the Bible to find all of these and more awaiting us.
And now, THE WORD from Our Sponsor………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Isaiah, Chapter 3: 16-25 (NRSV)
The Lord said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing as they go, tinkling with their feet; the Lord will afflict with scabs the heads of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarfs; the head dresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the garments of gauze, the linen garments, the turbans and the veils. Instead of perfume there will be a stench; and instead of a sash, a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a rich robe, a binding of sackcloth; instead of beauty, shame.
In the reading of this passage from Isaiah, it seems to be an ancient Vogue type fashion show gone completely awry. The Daughters of Zion are indicted by the prophet and properly put on blast for their “haughty” behaviors and the obsession with self-preening. Isaiah, the oracle of God, and arguably one, if not the most important prophetic voice of the Old Testament, has decidedly raged against the women of Israel. These women, rich and privileged, have been accused of “crushing” God’s people and “grinding the face of the poor.” Isaiah, standing in for God, speaking prophesy to Israel and pronouncing harsh and brutal warnings to the daughters of Zion, is giving them a glimpse of their dismal and horrific future. They will pay for their behavior and they will pay dearly.
“They’re not only self-centered, but silly. They don’t realize that Yahweh is coming. While they strut around weighed down with clanging jewelry and latest clothes, Yahweh is gathering an army that will strike all the mighty men of Jerusalem (3:25). When invaders pour into Judah, the women won’t be able to seduce their attackers by painting themselves like whores. It didn’t work for Jezebel; it won’t work for the daughters of Jerusalem [Zion]. At Yahweh’s Advent, all the kitschy glory of the daughters of Zion will be stripped away.” (Peter Leithart – “Daughters of Zion” – theopolisinstitute.com).
Is Isaiah, the prophet, on point, or are we looking at a case of gender responsibility politics? Are the Daughters of Zion silly, shallow, and clueless, or are they truly carrying the burden of “gender on their backs?” Is the Isaiah polemic a fair assessment of their behaviors and intentions, or have we encountered a case of misogynistic transference and stereotyping? As with most biblical presentations, it depends on who is doing the exegesis.
If one is not careful, verse 17 “the Lord will lay their secret parts bare” will simply be a passing phrase, and ignored as only to transition to the next part of Isaiah’s indictment of the Daughters of Zion. We as women, examining the text from a female’s point of view (hopefully) cannot ignore the importance and the horror in this prophetic warning. What does it mean “and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts?”
Another view – Reverend Dr. Renita Weems (from the book, “Battered Love – Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets”)
“Violence against women in the Bible is virtually always cast in sexual terms. Women are punished with rape, beatings, exposure of their private parts, and mutilation of their bodies……” (pg. 2).
While we understand from the Isaiah pericope that the prophet is moving from actual female behaviors and circumstances to metaphor (“her gates shall lament and mourn; ravaged she shall sit on the ground – verse 26), where Israel is also imaged as a woman ravaged, the dangers of stereotyping and utilizing gender politics as a prophetic polemic were as damaging to women in Israel, as stereotyping by the main culture is to African-Americans in contemporary American society. In each case, the false imaging and distorted metaphors are not only damaging and traumatic, but also sets up a power structure that is used to justify oppression from those controlling the images.
“The metaphor takes for granted men’s rights and power over women’s sexuality; it reflects a fascination with female nakedness; and it assumes that the actions of men are somehow analogous to God’s actions. In short, it is a metaphor most likely created by the male imagination for the male imagination.” (pg. 41-42).
The deliberate shift between metaphor and reality created in the Isaiah text formed an intentional imbalance in the prophetic voice, as Isaiah critiqued one of the most vulnerable segments of Israeli society, women. This imbalance created stereotypes in which male power and privilege benefitted and assisted in the maintenance of the social order and its resulting patriarchy. While the prophetic voice was important and often God-directed, there was also a blurring of God’s reality towards Hebrew women. Was it God’s voice indicting violence and misogyny towards the Daughters of Zion and how did this prevailing attitude affect the safety, the rights, and lives of women in this society?
“When women – even for the sake of argument – are mutilated by and in religious texts, how has the kingdom of God with its promise of peace, justice, righteousness, and love been made more authentic within the world?” (pg.104).
This is an important question and it has some of the same attachments to the intra-community conflict created by the “mutilation” of the character and lives of African-Americans, by the continuous harm inflicted through racial stereotyping of white America. Peace, justice, and love are lost when one segment of American society decides to continuously dehumanize another.
Interestingly enough, just as with the gender politics of ancient Israel, the trauma inflicted by the prevailing attitudes of those who created the harm, is not experienced by the perpetuators. Instead, there is a type of voyeurism that emerges, where those who created the negative images benefit from them, yet are excluding from the damaging outcomes. In Israel’s case, women were continuously oppressed and denied the basic rights in their society. In the case of Black Americans, the outcomes of racial stereotyping maintains racism and discrimination, creates intra-communal trauma and conflict, harmful self-imaging, and a myriad of socio-psychic outcomes that often manifest as mental illness (i.e, post traumatic stress syndrome AND post traumatic slave syndrome).
So, what are the solutions to this crisis of “carrying The Race on our backs?” How do we heal ourselves from these unwanted and traumatic experiences?
Perhaps the answer is in the casting of new visions we can imagine and form FOR OURSELVES! As Dr. Weems observes: “Thus, in the face of the ever-changing complexion of American society, every new generation is faced with the task of examining and criticizing the epistemological*, cultural, and theological paradigms that have been handed down to it by the previous generation. (epistemological means – the theory of knowledge – the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.)
The elimination of race responsibility behaviors is contingent upon our true and authentic knowledge of ourselves: our history, our value, our worth, and our pride in our community. In consideration of this profound observation: “If you don’t let the past die, it won’t let you live,” we must be committed to burying all of the negative projections that are deliberately aimed towards our community and create healthy and sustainable visions for ourselves and future generations. Knowing that we are created in the image of God and living out this divine truth, is the beginning of the healing which will transform our community and our behaviors towards each other, and ultimately the manifestation of how we view ourselves and live out this sacred prescription into the future.
Questions for our consideration and discussion:
Why is race responsibility behavior damaging to the Black community and to our nation, as a whole (or is it?).
How do we balance individual “problematic” behaviors (i.e., “W.A.P. for example) with that of communal responsibility, accountability, and response?
Suggest some solutions for our community’s dilemma. For example, Jesus collapsed the notions of the inferiority of women by providing a means for them to join His mission – so what can we do in order to assist in the reduction of racial stereotyping and its negative effects?
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