I was raised by 'good women' to be a 'good girl,' was constantly scolded to behave 'properly,' and I obliged. As my body grew scandalous to the eye, and I reveled in my newfound curves, I was again cautioned against being 'whorish'— this at the tender age of twelve, while I still created fairytales with my Barbies.
Black girls' bodies are wrapped in shame and sex before we understand either. Before we manage to find ourselves, someone has—many someones have—already settled on our names and titles. 'Good girls,' ones like my mother raised me to be, graduate on to become 'proper young ladies.' And from there they are 'ladies,' then perhaps 'queens,' with the goal of being good mothers' and,finally, family matriarchs who seem to sit next to the Virgin Mary on her throne. Respectability is the common thread across it all.
I wonder though, do we ever live truly up to those titles? And if we do somehow, or at least pretend to, how much living do we miss in the process?
There is constant debate about 'b*tches' and 'ladies,' about the many things that Black girls and women are called, and in turn call themselves. It takes me back to my childhood confusion and my young adult desire to be prim and proper, to be upheld and lauded. It also reminds me that, thankfully, I threw all those labels aside when I realized the debt that accompanied them.
I mean, how different are they really? How much space exists between a 'queen' and a 'h*e?' Not much, considering that all of those titles are conceded according to the male gaze, as are most measures of a woman's worth in this society, particularly for us. After all, our behavior was a great indicator as to how we were treated—where we lay our heads and what we ate— during slavery, and even much after. When I speak with other women about why labels are so important to us, but shouldn’t be, I always think of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Specifically, the scene where Janie locks lips with shiftless Johnny Taylor and Nanny grieves, knowing that Janie’s good name had been tarnished and thus her protections were gone.
We are taught to cling to the good girl/lady/queen titles, and we teach our daughters to cling to them, because we hope that with those titles may come some runty moment of kindness from some man, or some woman doing some man’s bidding. I say this as someone who has been a 'good girl,' a 'queen' and even a 'h*e' as a result of decisions to not comply, to say 'no' to being defined by someone else's lens.
After my 'good' titles had been stripped, I came to realize (through the tears and the fight to earn them back), that nothing I ever did, could ever allow me to REALLY live up to those words. For all their good intentions and positive connotations, they had made me less free. Robert Tew once wrote, "Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer serves you, grows you, or makes you happy”, and so I had to say goodbye. I’d caution each of you to do the same, for doing so may be the difference between living a full life, and well, just living.
If we sisters are honest, many of us have passed up passion and joy, choosing instead to be 'ladies.' We have hoped that clinging to those labels would make us more likeable, loveable and safe. Like Janie, some have realized, in “the years that answer” as Zora once wrote, that life is much fuller and richer when the town gossipers wag their tongues about us. We realize that something that can be given and taken away so easily was never ours to begin with, and we begin the process of self-defintion…no titles needed.
Instead of clinging to titles, women should aspired to be treated like full human beings. We must reserve and demand the right to not be harassed because a skirt is short, a sweater is clingy. Furthermore, I petition that there be no need to have our rapes “legitimized" based on who we are, where we were at the time and how we live. Why? Because we are not things that can fit in tidy little boxes like 'good girl ' or 'harlot.'
So please don’t call me 'queen,' I’ve outgrown the need.