Tamura Lomax is an independent scholar, the CEO and founder of The Feminist Wire, and author of Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture. We asked her a few questions about the new book, which Foreword has called “phenomenal,” “provocative,” and “an amazing pick for book clubs.”
What drew you to this topic? How did your own experience in the Black Church, including your background as a “preacher’s kid,” affect your research or approach?
The conundrum I experienced after moving from my childhood church and community in Syracuse, NY, a Black Church in a working-class black community, to Mill Valley, CA, a predominantly white and wealthy environment, at age fourteen, turned my world upside down. Privileged white teenagers have a way of making you hyperaware of your difference. And not only their belief in your purported racial difference but your supposed sexual and gender difference. I will never forget the stares, the comments, the whispers, the laughter, the jokes. I was a dark-skinned black girl from the east coast, and clearly, I was alien to them. Their obsession with me, particularly my blackness, gender, femininity, and sexuality, launched my critical consciousness into overdrive.
Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the day my new friends referred to me as a monkey who “crave[d] and provide[d] sex to anyone and anything.” While I had not yet read Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1967), this was indeed my first “Look, a Negro!” moment—the point of sudden objecthood, nonbeing, fixation, bursting apart, and being put back together—by another self. To be sure, I had known what it meant to be placed under the gaze of another. I knew the feeling of being misread, sexualized, and even lusted after as an adolescent. Unfortunately, I learned these lessons, first, through older and grown men—within my previous black community, the Black Church, and the music and culture that I loved: Hip Hop. As I write in the Prolegomenon, the hypersexualization of young black girls is fierce early on.
My earliest memory is at age eleven when a church elder told my parents he could not focus during altar call because he was enraptured by my pubescent derriere (x-xi). Rather than calling out his rapey pedophilic wantonness, I was made to feel shame, as if my body had done something wrong without my consent. I struggled with the cultural psyche around black femininity and all of the sexual messaging, not to mention my own conflicting responses. On one hand, I loved raunchy Hip Hop music that admittedly sexually objectified black women and girls, while on the other, I detested the pedophilic stares of older men and boys in my church and community, and more, the racist and sexist gazing of my new high school friends in California. And as much as these gazes were the same, to me, they felt slightly different. That dreadful day in California changed the course of my life and how I saw the world and interpreted my place in it.
I did everything to change my high school friends’ reading of me—to the point of de-sexualization. I wanted to be a “proper” black girl—a lady in training, as I was taught to be at home and in the Black Church, not a libidinous monkey. This kind of sexualized marking, I had not known. I remember going home and journaling about the incident right after it happened. My eyes welled up with tears as I made my entry. This was not an innocent case of teasing and hurt feelings. As a young girl I was taught that sex before marriage was bad and that sexualization is the fault of so-called “fast” and promiscuous girls or women. Meaning that black girls or women are sexualized because they have acted in an allegedly sexually “loose” manner. I learned the latter was sin. And not only that, this was a transgression seemingly particular to black women and girls.
Full disclosure: I was in no way perfect. But I was a “good girl.” Or at least I tried to be. If I caught myself being “loose”—“fast tailed,” sexual, sexualized, or appreciating base music and lyrics more than a “good girl” should, I could at least fix that. I could take responsibility for where I went or what I did wrong and repent, therefore releasing myself from temptress status and gaining “good girl” prestige again. But not this day. I cried quiet painful tears because the sexualized savagery assigned to me—and black girls everywhere—by my high school friends could not be as quickly remedied. I was not merely hypersexualized but animalized—in harmony. Further, I was inherently problemed. I could neither disrobe of nor cover my blackness nor reencode my black femaleness. And I could neither pray it away nor bathe it in Black Church respectability as I had been taught. Rather, I was indelibly marked. Or, so I thought.
The rhetorical marking of these collective gazes—from the church to my new white friends to my favorite music and so on—made me feel psychically, emotionally, and communally estranged. And I was not alone. I learned later that each of these projections spring forth from essentialist discourses on black womanhood. And while they sometimes feel different, they have more in common than not. They are all overdetermining. And they all sting, just differently perhaps. I will never get over being called a monkey and thusly being situated outside of the human race. But neither will I ever come to terms with the hypersexualization that happens to young girls and women in black communities and the posturing of black female bodies and sexual decision-making in sin—as something needing constant fixing and redemption.
I am convinced it is because of such relentless stereotyping and signifying that black Americans in general are so religious, especially black women. Sin and shame have long taken up residence in our bodies and consequentially our minds. Jezebel Unhinged not only works within these tensions, it attempts to do the work of “undoing,” of naming anxieties, antagonisms, and social-cultural-structural-epistemic evils, and the significant psychic, emotional, and communal breaks they cause. It does this work through an iconoclastic critique of racism, sexism, heterosexism, the Black Church, and black popular culture. And I do so intentionally not as a theologian tasked with proving certain truths about God, but rather as a black feminist scholar of religion, or more precisely, a black feminist-religio-cultural theorist, interested in exploring how discourse, power, knowledge, meanings, language, and grammars get invested with truth claims about God, people, and cultures.
Still, I approached this study as one well aware of my personal and professional location—as one reared in the Black Church and as one who has experienced the collective function of antiblack and sexist re/presentational mythmaking, which affects not only persons but relations, social arrangements, ways of seeing, politics, institutions, and treatment, first hand—within and well beyond the Black Church. That said, I endeavored to do this critical work without “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” The latter is a mistake too many critics make, thus making their analyses irrelevant.
How do black women already resist or appropriate the tropes of “lady” and “ho” that you describe in your book?
Jezebel Unhinged begins with a quote by Rev. Dr. Jasmin Sculark: “He picked a ho by the name of Rahab…so he’ll pick you too!” (“Woman, Thou Art Loosed” conference, 2014), to which black women in the audience responded with wild applause. Sculark’s underlying message is that any woman who acts “right” can be chosen and blessed by God, regardless of her history, including alleged sexual transgressions. Acting “right,” of course, means becoming ladies—women of virtue. This is a pervasive theology in the Black Church. And Sculark’s sermonette was steeped in black feminine-ism. As she preached, “picked” meant not only being chosen and/or blessed by God but a “good man.” She proclaimed, “With all these men, ain’t no need for a woman to touch another woman!” (203).
Another example of jezebelian appropriation is found in Rev. Dr. Juanita Bynum’s Facebook videogram “No More Sheets, Part 2,” where she preaches about hoing versus holiness. She proclaims, “When you are aroused by faith you refuse to become the next ho on the street!”
Both Sculark and Bynum display the erotophobic hypermoralism pivotal to Black Church sexual politics and gender ideology. Concomitantly, their theologies desexualize black women, erase sexual autonomy, and problematize sexual decision making, including sex work. The Prolegomenon, “‘Hoeism or Whatever’: Black Girls and the Sable Letter ‘B’,” reveals a different kind of appropriation. The title refers to a story tweeted by online personality Zola (@_zolarmoon, aka Muva Hoe) about sex work and sex trafficking.
Zola references herself as a ho, yet, she does so not as a critique but as a powerful descriptor of her own sexual autonomy. And she is neither ashamed nor contrite. She is instead bold and proud. This differs from Sculark’s and Bynum’s deployment, which hypersexualizes and humiliates black female collectives. The latter is the work of patriarchy and misogynoir. Zola, however, is attempting to humanize herself using the language that she has been given—by the antiblack capitalist patriarchy. This notes both gray areas and distinctions between interiority and cultural projection. It also pronounces a powerful use of language versus an oppressive deployment. Finally, it reveals the tensions, overlappings, and nuances between appropriation as personal resistance and appropriation as cultural accommodation.
You argue that the Black Church is a site of antiblack stereotype cultivation. Have you faced any pushback to this argument? What would your response be to people who challenge that view?
First, I want to be sure not to totalize the Black Church in pathology—sexual and otherwise. I am very careful to say not all black churches and not all black preachers. Yet, pornotropic gazing is structural, institutional, and real. Black women experience it. And what they experience has real implications. Second, the Black Church is the oldest and one of the most beloved black institutions in America. It does a lot of good. Critiquing it is not easy. Nor is it necessarily always welcome.
I expect Jezebel Unhinged to not only be read in university classrooms, thusly informing coursework, new scholarship, and dissertations for decades to come, but in local churches and religious organizations, hopefully inviting a cultural shift. But more than anything, I expect pushback on my black feminist re/reading of Jezebel the biblical figure, my critique of black patriarchy and the black nuclear project, and my reading of black women’s sexual autonomy. Ideas about black sex, black female deviance, and gender hierarchy are deeply embedded in the Black Church’s collective psyche. It will take a lot of work to uncoil black women and girls, biblical Jezebel, black femininity, and black female sexuality from sin, and black “nuclear” families, black ladies, and black patriarchy from black progress. Changing this mindset, which the book hopes to do, will be an uphill battle.
The most difficult task for me in this context (black churches and other contexts where I may experience pushback) is to position myself not as an uppity outsider looking to dismiss or take the Black Church down but as a well-researched insider hoping to imagine a better world and black experiences. However, while one can surely disagree with my reading of patriarchy, black sexual politics, Jezebel, and black gender ideology, what is difficult to deny is the research I do to back up these claims, particularly my work on Jamal Bryant’s sermon, Bishop T. D. Jakes’ sermons and films, and Tyler Perry’s films. In many instances, they are quoted verbatim. This in mind, in response to potential pushback towards my structural, ideological, cultural, and linguistic critiques, I have to refer back to the black religio-cultural producers and their own words, scripts, and so on. The latter is also a good starting point for engaging the epistemic, ideological, and discursive and non-discursive violence I name throughout the book.
The short of it is this: America needs a new grammar book on race and gender. Grammars create, maintain, and reproduce worlds. The Black Church provides an excellent starting point. Its reach surpasses any other black institution. And just as it has been found guilty of mass-mediating racial and gender stereotypes that hypersexualize and problematize black girls and women, so may it also be a source of subversive counter meaning, story-telling, and sexual resistance. However, the Black Church has to decide if it wants to live up to or contradict the liberative work it claims to do. Changing the culture requires critical self-reflection, honest bodies committed to having honest talk, accountability, deconstructing black gender ideology and its sexual politics where men become men through sexual conquest while women becomes whores/hos, and most importantly, untethering black women and girls, their bodies, their sexuality, and their femininity, from sin. There is nothing wrong with black women and girls. The problem is that the cultural gaze is corrupt. That is what needs fixing and redemption.
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