“Dayz of Our Lives”: Resisting Respectability Politics
by Rev. Ladale Benson
The Rev. Melissa N. McQueen, Many Voices’ North Carolina Faith Organizer, asked powerful ministers to share their wisdom on urgent issues of justice for a new era of challenge and opposition. Throughout American history, sermons by visionary ministers have long played a powerful role in the fight for justice. Intentionally bold and thought-provoking, these especially commissioned sermons embody the spirit of resistance found in truly revolutionary rhetoric. Each sermon represents the sole view of the minister who composed it. For the third entry in our Revolutionary Rhetoric series, we feature Rev. Ladale Benson’s insightful critique of respectability politics.
“Dayz of Our Lives” is a song written and performed by the musical artist group, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. This song was written for the soundtrack of a 1996 film called Set It Off. The film tracks the lives of four black women who live in poverty in Los Angeles. They struggle at the intersections of racism, capitalism, sexism, patriarchy, and queerphobia. The women are forced to make critical decisions to survive and resist a nation and society that is trying to kill them. In their daily lives they experience the weight of racism, sexism, queerphobia, poverty, and the plight of being born in a particular neighborhood. Dreaming of a life beyond poverty, the women eventually are led down a path of robbery.
The lives of these four black women trouble our typical understanding of justice, which tends to pre-approve a process towards freedom that postulates a male, hetero, middle class assimilation process. These women completely disrupt this process. This idea that freedom is synonymous with white male middle class heteronormativity demands a serious inquiry. “Heteronormativity” is the belief that heterosexuality is the only “normal” sexual orientation.
I lift up this narrative to raise important truths for reflection. We have some major issues here that we need to confront, within the church walls and in the expansive social society. We talk about justice, equity, and liberation a great deal within church spaces, but I am often left wondering if we mean it, or if we truly understand the complexities of such beliefs. Seriously, do we really mean it?
As a cisgender male with queer proclivities, I have entered these church spaces and held theological conversations expecting (probably naïvely) that there would be some problematizing of respectability politics. “Respectability politics” arises when a presumably respectable image is upheld as our foundational modality of practice. The image that quickly comes to mind is that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With all the love and respect I maintain for Dr. King, I still wonder about privileging these types of images—especially, the kind of deodorized, clean-cut, and passive image we often portray of Dr. King. The image completely disregards those who do not work within that privileged modality.
So, today I want to present to you the image of Cleo from the film of Set It Off. She is a theological disrupter, if I may, who challenges our preoccupation with respectability politics. Cleo is a poor queer black woman who lives in the ghetto of Los Angeles. She embodies a particularly gender non-conforming position. She struggles with the reality of her poverty. While the world around her seems to be obtaining riches, she struggles to survive. How does this change the way we understand, feel, hear, and engage God? Even more importantly, how does it change the way we relate to life? What would it mean to embody the disruptive position of Cleo? A black queer woman who is willing to risk her life for the sake of sisterhood and integrity: that, I am afraid, is rare.
As the title says, these are the dayz of our lives when queer black bodies are excluded in spaces that proclaim salvation. These are the dayz of our lives when a black mother must make life or death decisions to provide for her children. These are the dayz of our lives when guardians must participate in dangerous activities to survive. These are the dayz of our lives when a person’s origin defines their future. This, my family, is also rooted in respectability politics because even in the places described as holy, these bodies experience trauma.
Too many times we want to proclaim our commonalities, but like the ancestor Audre Lorde stated: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” If salvation, hope, and justice are real this is where it must begin. Now, these are the dayz of our lives.
About the Rev. Ladale Benson
The Rev. Ladale Benson is a radical ordained Baptist minister. He engages the perspectives of marginalized bodies and life for his theological development and praxis. He is a part-time hospital chaplain, adjunct professor, and Th.M. student at Duke Divinity School. He enjoys spending time with his family, reading, writing, and traveling internationally.
Questions, comments, or concerns? Feel free to contact Many Voices | A Black Church Movement for Gay & Transgender Justice at firstname.lastname@example.org.