There are many ways to understand how black women employed the politics of respectability. In Maya Angelou’s autobiographies, there are few cover-ups because she wanted readers to know her struggles. She wasn’t interested in a gospel choir singing “We Shall Overcome” and pretending that her work as a prostitute and running a brothel were shameful skeletons to be kept in the closet. In “The Erasure of Maya Angelou’s Sex Work History” for Tits and Sass, activist Peechington Marie uncovered an interview for teenagers in which the Medal of Freedom winner described her decision to reveal her past in Gather Together in My Name.
Ms. Angelou was hardly the first African American woman to have another career (and a life) after a stint in the sex industry, but she was radically honest about it. She understood that the politics of respectability in the black community was not the best strategy for “overcoming” racism, sexism, sexual violence or most of the problems people faced.
Among contemporary sex worker activists, “respectability politics” has lately become what “assimilationist politics” were to Black Nationalists in the 1970s. Queer activists in “Against Equality” also critique this model, specifically for its emphasis on marriage equality. They all share much of the same theoretical framework that is fundamental to liberal citizenship, as I’ve written elsewhere.
The emphasis and de-emphasis of respectability politics has a history. Rhonda Y. Williams, founder and director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western interviewed black women activists who lived in public housing in Baltimore in the 1960s-70s. Many people don’t even know there was a welfare rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one that was largely led by poor black women such as Johnnie Tillmon. These activists rejected the idea that they should conduct their lives in a certain middle-class way in order to qualify for housing, healthcare, welfare, or for any the rights they wanted.
In my own book on black trade union women in the 1920s through early 1950s, many recognized that respectability was a “front” (see for example Drake & Cayton, Black Metropolis). Appearing to be respectable was important strategically in dealing with white folks especially when advocating for civil rights and in labor organizing. But how one actually lived or what a person thought was only revealed to other black folks in the segregated black community.
Finally, there’s Evelyn Brooks-Higginbotham‘s view (which her student Cynthia Blair ascribes to as well) focuses on respectability at the turn of the twentieth century (between the 1890s-1920s). Notably respectability politics emerged at the height of both the anti-“white slavery” hysteria against prostitution and “The Nadir” when the racial progress of the Reconstruction era was systematically eradicated. In that historical period, achieving respectability became a political and social aspiration for most African American women. Those who did not attempt to achieve that standard were those who needed rescue or, as the NACW motto went “lifting as we climb.”
Maya Angelou worked and ran her brothel in that middle period when respectability was understood as a front, but she was also realistic — or forward thinking — to know that doing so was something that many many black women and men did in a time when hustling was one of the few ways for a black person without a college degree to make a good living.
Also, as my friend Emily remembered yesterday about meeting her in the 1970s, Angelou criticized the stand behind your man orders of black nationalism, specifically because it didn’t allow black women to speak up against violence and misogyny. She became a voluntary mute for years after being raped by her mother’s male friend, and that too has been silenced, ironically the same week when #yesallwomen and #yesallwhitewomen are trending.
Let us sing, let us gather, let us travel, let us get merry, let us <3, and let us fling our voices up, but do not let us believe we have overcome.