She’s Not Dressed in a Way Becoming of a First Lady
Draped from head to toe in a brilliant cerulean blue gown with a plunging neckline, Meagan Good was instantly hit with the swift judgment of religious traditionalists across the country. The wife of a Sony Exec and Seventh Day Adventist minister, Good had, unbeknownst to her, stepped into a world long steeped in rigid code of conduct. There is, by all observed accounts, a formula for becoming and behaving as a First Lady in the church. The First Lady is demure, pious, and visually subdued to the shadow of her husband’s power as the shepherd of the house. A simple Google image search of “Pastor and First Lady” can attest to these observations.
Most of us who are or have been churched have simply accepted this as unquestioned fact. Women of moral character, especially those who profess Christian faith, should behave in a “proper” way. Yet, our long-standing traditions are not biblically based but are a residual effect of the Black church’s history of Colorism at the Cross.
HISTORY OF COLORISM IN THE BLACK CHURCH
Let’s with defining this concept. Colorism is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
Even if you don’t know the concept by name, you’ve surely seen it in action. Its origins are rooted in slavery by the practice of putting lighter-complexioned slaves in the “privileged” position of house labor and deeper hued slaves in the field. Despite fairer hues being evidence of rape at the hands of white men, the seeming ease of working in the house compared to the fields began the decades long “light skin vs. dark skin” war in our community. The church, which has been shilled as a place of refuge and hope for our ancestors, was not impervious to this phenomenon.
In his work The Black Bourgeoisie, E. Franklin Frazier said that, “Even in their religious affirmations, the descendants of the free mulattoes held aloof from the Negro masses.” Much like fraternities and sororities at the turn of the century, so too was the church divided by skin tone. Those of lighter hues tended to place their religious affiliations within historically white denominations such as Episcopalian, Catholic, and Presbyterian. As history tells it, the Black church had its own paper bag tests. While some churches literally used paper bags, others used the “comb test”, an exercise where a fine tooth comb was used in the hair. If the comb couldn’t pass with ease, the congregant wouldn’t be extended the right hand of fellowship. Similar tests included the door test, where churches would paint their doors the darkest shade of brown allowable to become a member of their congregation.
But why would a people, much less a church, continue the problematic practice of colorism and color-codes once free from the systems that instituted it?
WASHED WHITE AS SNOW
The Black Church was not impervious to the cultural norms of the time. Whiteness was (and is) prized as the penultimate marker of civility. Basically, as long as society kept pushing whiteness as the standard of normal that every other ethnicity to strive towards, colorism was always going to be a problem. Mix up those attitudes with a little evangelical Christianity and you’ve got yourself a heap-a trouble.
Much like present day, the lighter skinned Black person faired better than their darker counterparts in several regards. That is not to say that light skinned people didn’t face the racism, classism, and other systems of oppression endemic to being Black in America. So you can save your light skinned tears in the comments about “but we all Black, doe.” Yes, the one drop rule makes us all definitively Black, but enduring racialized stereotypes in that time (and today) concluded that the presence of whiteness somehow lessened the negativity of Blackness. Light skinned Blacks were more often given work opportunities outside of domestic jobs. While light skinned Blacks, when their Blackness was known, were never accepted as white, their Blackness was more tolerated than a darker skinned person.
The seeds of colorism can also be traced to the white supremacist theological dogma of Evangelical Christianity. Black was (and is) traditionally associated with death, sin, and evil while white is associated with purity, innocence, and holiness. Even God had to be, by default, portrayed as white. You can probably see where this is going.
Many denominations of Christianity teach of the flesh (body) as inherently evil and wrought with iniquity, keeping us away from the perfect holiness of God. With that logic, black flesh was even more inherently evil than white flesh. Light complexioned Blacks, with their desire to maintain the favor afforded to them by White Gaze, turned this white supremacy inward and began to discriminate against their deeply hued brothers and sisters–even in the church.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
While colorism is decisively extinct in the modern Black church, its remnants remain. Part of the idea of whiteness as purity, holiness, and innocence also has implications of sexuality. Whiteness or, in the case of Black folks, lightness is piety, demure and subdued behavior. Blackness beyond that of a paper bag is associated with promiscuity, Sapphire-stereotype, and evil. Essentially, whiteness is sanctified while Blackness is demonized.
Success of the First Lady formula is dependent on its performance of whiteness by mimicking the associations of colorism. Proper First Ladies are not promiscuous or immodest in dress or behavior. They are neither loud nor boisterous in speech, always deferring to their husband in exaggerated submission. Meagan Good was criticized not because she was inherently wrong but because her actions didn’t pantomime the long held performance of whiteness. Her daring to display her sexuality, which was very likely done with the consent of her husband, could be too closely associated to blackness while unearthing the church’s yet unhealed white supremacist doctrine.