Last week when I wrote about women telling their boyfriends to “check their bitches” my ending bio included an exasperated “Maya Angelou didn’t die for this shit.” And I meant it. When it comes to black women, the “shit” I’m referring to goes beyond the defense mechanisms of scorned lovers on Love & Hip Hop. The “shit” is the continually devaluing of black women and the rejection of their sexuality and bodily autonomy. She didn’t die for us to uphold false dichotomies about the character and worth of black women.
When Rihanna shut the CFDA Awards down in her dazzling sheer gown by designer Adam Shelman, I was expecting some thot shaming. We all know how everyone “clutches their pearls” at the sight of a bare breast. And while I wasn’t surprised, I wasn’t expecting comparisons to the late Dr. Maya Angelou to be made in defense of calling Rihanna a thot.
Using Maya Angelou to slut shame. Maya. Angelou. Maya, that was a sex worker in San Diego. I’m fucking tired. pic.twitter.com/T2ehuboUsS
— C. (@FantaBender) June 3, 2014
Since her death last week, many feminists have been highlighting the complexity of Dr. Angelou, mainly the fact that she was a sex worker. The sentiment in sharing these details is to portray Maya Angelou as a comprehensive human being. Not just a prolific poet and prominent figure, Angelou lived the life of a woman of color in America. Similarly, Josephine Baker has been heralded for her erotic autonomy just as much as she has for her civil rights campaigns. But we seem to be regressing when it comes to black women who are still alive and well. Holistically accepting black women who aren’t distinguished thinkers and theorists seems to be a real issue for us.
Despite her trailblazing, her record-breaking career, and her views on equality, we still can’t rock with Beyoncé in a pair of panties. And why can’t we respect Rihanna? Because she embraces her sexuality in her songs? Because she is young? Because she dates? Because she uses the latest slang and terminology? Because she twerks on Instagram?
Welcome to 2014. Rihanna is a millennial, a child of social media platforms and contemporary discourse that both foster an environment known for gender policing via ‘side chick’ theory and prove-it-with-a-pic resolve. While these same platforms have created opportunities for activism and resistance, they represent a modern “landscape” in which young, black female sexuality exists today. Twitter, Instagram, twerking, tattoos, Barbados, weave, fashion, celebrity, and creativity are just a few facets of Rihanna’s life. And even though her clothes are the results of day to day choices regarding fashion statements, she is still breaking down barriers and pushing back on harmful, sexist ideas that say that only women who are covered and virginal are worthy of respect and adoration.
At no point in Josephine’s Baker career did she explicitly state: “I’m showing my titties to take back black women’s sexuality.” She showed her titties because she already felt a sense of ownership over them. Dr. Maya Angelou didn’t get involved in sex work to intentionally lay the foundation for a “started from the bottom now we here” narrative. She was doing what she needed to do to survive and the summation of her lived experiences made her the brilliant visionary that she was. Ultimately, the greatness of these women emanated from them playing the hands they were dealt and navigating their circumstances. Today’s women, including Rihanna, deserve the opportunity to do the same. Let her live.