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  • Rethinking the Human:Anti-Respectability and Blackhood
  • Mali Collins-White (bio)

From the outset, we might consider respectability as a historical instrument of control. The social effort to control the pleasure derived from intimating with ourselves and others stands out in particular as polemics to white supremacy. Indeed, respectability hovers in and around Blackness, making and remaking the way we are envisioned in the collective racial imaginary. It continues to ask and re-ask us what we think of ourselves, what we digest as our own protocols of being, and how we reproduce these protocols for regulation of others. This essay interrogates respectability as an influence on categories of humanness and its contention with Blackhood. The meanings of "Black" are not only constructed by the meanings surrounding the figure of the non-Black but also measured by a seemingly correct definition of Black. The "respectable," "right" kind of Black is beyond the words of Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, and it has amassed so much more than just the vestiges of Jim Crow. To be sure, a praxis of liberation is always at stake when we talk about Blackness. In light of liberation, we must ask how can we imagine power not just as a pejorative contour of Black representation but as a force we meet, dance, love, and play with on our own terms? What does it mean to define what it means to be and to be, viably? These questions seem to be the question and the definition of Black power in the face of respectability politics. I pose this definition as a question to elucidate the strictures that Blackness seems to always be up against. It seems to insert its viscous self most vexingly through identity: through the intimate things that shape our experience, like sex, sexuality, love, desire, and pleasure. In self-definition lies our subjectivity, one we define and wrestle to understand. Relating Black thinker Toni Cade Bambara's subjectivity of "Blackhood" and its potential for what I call an anti-respectability praxis is heuristic and provokes an "ontological sovereignty."1 Blackhood is the status of which this might take place, and the actualization of it is a revolution itself. Offered as a program rather than a destination, Bambara explains Blackhood "submerge[s] all breezy definitions of manhood/womanhood (or reject[s] them out of hand if you're [End Page 141] not squeamish about being called 'neuter') until realistic definitions emerge through a commitment to Blackhood."2 Greg Thomas further explains that Bambara "understood the necessity of interrogating rather than assimilating or accommodating these basic sexual concepts, regarding social formations then as well as now."3 I envision Blackhood to be a radical subjectivity overflowing with the known and unknown of the Diaspora: an amalgamation of what one would have been without the Diaspora, who one is with it, and what one desires or does not desire to be, utterly and forcefully for their Black selves. In other words, an investment and acceptance of our own unfolding within the troubled categories of race, sex, and gender. Blackhood, as a praxis of anti-respectability, may help us theorize Blackness away from Western bourgeoisie categories of sex, race, and gender. We can then move toward a genre of human whose physiological and narrative matters are not dictated by the same conditions of the bourgeois white.4

A conversation of respectability politics may seem moot as Black folks are gratuitously and indiscriminately maimed, harassed, and brutalized through multiple systems of imprisonment. We could say that to be Black is to be categorically unrespectable, and those who adhere to respectability norms do not have it better off, per se, but perhaps differently. Intramurally, we move and weave through our own circles where the question of being respectable, or worthy of respect, is still very much in flux.5 In Spring 2016 I invited Ariane Cruz, Jillian Hernandez, Xavier Livermon, Kaila Story, and Jennifer Nash to disentangle the idea of respectability, to discuss how their work interacts with it and how it affects their own experiences in the academy.6 Following the criticism and archives of these scholars, the roundtable samples Black...


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pp. 141-149
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