This piece was written at least twelve years ago, but it still seems applicable to today’s cultural climate.
They tell me that Sam Cook’s proverbial and prophetic change has come to America via the election of Mr. Obama. I hear that the almost 400 years of deprivation, marginalization and disfranchisement is at long last coming to a close because America has finally elected a black man as President of the United States of America.
I am excited to hear the news, really I am. A black man is going to live in the White House! Wow! But even more Wow! than this mind boggling fact is the reality that a black woman is going to be the First Lady of the land! Does this now mean that the black woman will become the woman to validate the guest list of every simpering socialite? Will we become the women to watch and emulate (as if this were not already happening) simply because we favor (as in we look like her) our First Lady?
A thought that is a little worrisome, however, is the notion that we African American women will now have to be the standard bearer for our First Lady , and what if we drop the ball and do something dumb or ill-mannered and the effect is immediately translated to the First Lady of the land? What will I do then? After all, I have spent most of my life making sure I did nothing that would warrant the continuation of a stereotype; what am I to do now that my race and my gender is even more subject to the scrutiny of the masses?
Living Black in America comes replete with an unwritten compendium of regulations and by-laws and rules of conduct and good manners for those moments when we find ourselves in the presence of the majority culture, none of which are set in stone tablets anywhere. Nevertheless, most of my generation, as well as the generations that came before me and passed the image torch on to me, know the “shoulds” and the “oughts” of good behavior and living Black in America.
The older women who raised me (the village mentality was very much intact during my coming-of-age years) were always neatly kempt and tastefully stylish. They may have worn uniforms to clean Miz Anne’s house, but those uniforms were always crisply and starchily pressed. Every tightly wound, hard pressed curl and every stringently marcelled wave was neatly in place and the red lipstick (that always turned orange on us) stayed put even in the heat of the kitchen.
Perhaps it was the constraint of the weekly white uniform that dictated the dramatic dress of Sundays. I remember my grandmother’s faux hair, a length 0f curled hair (real or not, I do not know) that was attached to a band of elastic which she would slip onto her head and then comb her hair over it to blend the two. To handle the recalcitrant gray at her temples, she would use a black stick made of what I do not know to cover those unruly strands. It never seemed to occur to her that the goo she applied to her edges would eventually succumb to the sweltering summer heat of south central Texas to liquify into black rivulets of sweat that ran down the sides of her face.
Yes, Sunday meant dress-up and the cost of a black woman getting herself together to enter into the presence of the Lord was never too expensive or too demanding or too strenuous.
I can still “see” my mother on many a hot summer Sunday morning wrestling herself into long-line bras and latex saturated girdles. This main event of the morning was usually followed by the putting on of make-up which would then go into battle with the rapidly rising temperature usually resulting in another full application after the donning of the di regeur Sunday suit. A hat was always carefully and stylishly set upon her head, whereupon she would then hustle us into the car (if we hadn’t already walked ourselves to Sunday school) to get to church and congregate with all the stylish mavens of our Baptist Ekklesia. How these women managed not to swoon somewhere between the long-winded and rote prayers of the deacons and the whooping histrionics of the pastor is definitely a mystery.
No, denomination was not a divider when it came to Sunday morning style (unless you were of the Pentecostal persuasion and eschewed fancy dress, lipstick, powder and paint (those ancient trappings of the vile Jezebel, that wicked manipulator of King Ahaz and persecutor/prosecutor of the prophet Elijah); most of the good sisters of my southern community always dressed to the nines on Sunday.
But I digress, greatly. Change is here so I hear and we African Americans should be excited, nay, hysterical with ecstasy and unbridled joy. The long night is over! But I am a little bit concerned about this cultural leap into positive change, so I have a question. How long will it take my cultural eyes to adjust to the light of this new day? Can I really step into the sunshine of change and quickly shake the dust of the collective past of my people from my weary feet?
Have I, have we, truly overcome?