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Respectability politics won't save us, 'angel' or not

Host Melissa Harris-Perry offered her reflections during last Saturday show on the NYT's "no angel" reference to slain Ferguson teen Michael Brown.
People stand in front of a convenience store after it was looted early Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. The violence stemmed from the shooting death...
People stand in front of a convenience store after it was looted early Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. The violence stemmed from the shooting death...

The New York Times had to go on the defensive after a recent profile on the life of Michael Brown drew criticism, because of this bit of editorializing:

"Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel."

The article went on to make the case for that claim with reporting on incidents where Brown disobeyed his mother, dabbled in drugs and drinking, expressed frustrations with his family on social media, fought with a neighbor, and tried his hand at producing rap songs. Or as some of the story's critics have described it--being a teenager. To many, the Times' characterization of Brown as a promising but troubled teen smacked of the kind of victim-blaming that all too often emerges in the wake of racialized killings of Black youth.

The writer of the profile, John Eligon, has since said he understands the concerns of his critics and has acknowledged that the "no angel" phrasing was not a good choice of words. He'll get no disagreement from me there.

And yet, in reading the article, my mind immediately went to someone else who used those same words alongside an honest and unvarnished portrayal of black men in a way that was not only a good choice, but a loving tribute.

In the video for "No Angel"--a track from Beyoncé's self-titled visual album--she pairs her declaration "you're no angel" with gritty images of African-American life in her old hood in Houston's Third Ward. While Beyoncé sings sweetly about her imperfect love, her co-stars in the video look unapologetically into the camera, unashamedly baring gold teeth, blinged-out jewelry, and tatted-up skin. The video pays homage to those who defy any standard of black respectability while also inviting recognition of its subjects' humanity.

And life imitated art when we witnessed *this* moment during the days of unrest in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown: young African-American men, shirtless and wearing bandanas that would mark them to some as no angels, acting as guardian angels in defense of businesses in their community. All of them reminding us that to be recognized as fully human does not require a dress code.

And as our history has already taught us, no matter how angelic their acts, no matter how appropriate their attire, respectability has never been armor against violence toward black bodies. The modest layers of dignified clothing worn by slaves during the 19th century made them no less vulnerable to being bought, sold, and worked as chattel.

The distinguished uniforms worn by the 380,000 African-Americans who served in the wartime army during World War I were no protection against the lynch mobs that awaited them when they returned home. In fact, many of the veterans were targeted precisely because of what they wore. In 1922, historian and intellectual Carter G. Woodson summarized the dangers that awaited the returning soldiers, writing:

"To the reactionary, the uniform on a Negro man was like a red flag thrown in the face of a bull."

In September of 1957, when 15-year old Elizabeth Eckford showed up perfectly pressed and polished for her first day of school at Little Rock Central High School, her clothes could not deflect the hateful taunts of the angry mob that awaited her.

A classic trench coat--that timeless staple of style--was no shield for now-Congressman John Lewis when, as the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was beaten by a state trooper as he and 600 others attempted to march across Alabama's Edmund Pettus bridge in March of 1965.

The lightweight fabric worn to keep cool during a Mississippi summer in 1963 did not deflect the blows to activist Fannie Lou Hamer's body when she was arrested and clubbed by police after refusing to vacate a whites-only lunch counter.

This 17-year-old boy's pants were pulled all the way up when police attacked him with dogs as he marched with hundreds of other young people in Birmingham during the Children's Crusade in May of 1963.

On the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the balcony of Memphis' Lorraine Motel, getting ready to go out to dinner in what the Times described as "a silkish-looking black suit and white shirt." But King's perfect and proper dinner wear provided him no defense against an assassin's bullet.

However the styles changed over the years, none were invulnerable to a reality that has always remained the same. Clothing black bodies and black lives in angelic respectability will not save them from those who see their very skin as a sin.