It was the squeeze scrolled ‘round the Twitter-verse. When Bishop Charles H. Ellis slid his arm around singer Ariana Grande, squeezing her in an area only her bra should be that familiar with, social media exploded. As well it should have. Ellis, in his role as officiant of Ms. Aretha Franklin’s funeral, also made time to crack ethnic jokes about her name.
This was but a portent of the misogynoir that was to come. Misogynoir is a term coined by Black feminist and professor Moya Bailey to describe a form of misogyny Black women face. Misogynoir combines both racism and sexism, all clearly present in ways both explicit and implicit as the final words were spoken over the life of—ironically enough—a Black woman who was a single mother, masterfully blended the secular and the nonsecular, and was active in matters of social justice for decades. Oh, and was also a musical powerhouse whose vocal, songwriting and piano-playing skills imprinted the soundtracks of our lives.
Here is a cursory sampling:
Aretha Franklin’s mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, was barely mentioned. All of the focus (if you ask me, far too much) was on her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin. Yes, he was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, was a friend to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and sadly, died a similarly violent death. However, it seemed as though we were at his funeral, not his daughter’s. Bottom line, I do not know the situation with Aretha’s mother, whether she died, abandoned the family, or what. But to render invisible her influence upon her daughter’s life was a clear example of the type of erasure of Black women face—and was a stain upon a moment that was supposed to be a reflection upon the life, impact and genius of Ms. Aretha Franklin. Of course Rev. C.L. Franklin was a tremendous influence. But he wasn’t the only variable in that equation.
Speaking of erasure of Black women, did you notice how few women were seated on the pulpit? There were people who didn’t get up to speak that were seated on the pulpit. Yet, if you were a woman and not singing, you were largely relegated to the side of the pulpit outside of camera range (read: Cicely Tyson should not have had to deal with those stairs).
The sermonic moment. So much to say about this but it wouldn’t be Black church without patriarchy. Blaming Black women while never addressing the societal issues that contribute to matters of poverty and family breakdown, Pastor Jasper Williams stood behind the casket of a woman who raised four Black boys and exclaimed, “Black mothers cannot teach Black boys how to be men.” How did Ms. Franklin’s sons hear that? Williams went on to identify the breakdown of the black family being the fault of the lack of male presence in the home. It was as though he had read the Moynihan Report and listened to Bill Cosby’s “Pound Cake” speech while he was on his way to the church. And did he even take a text? Did he even mention Jesus? Did anybody leave feeling encouraged?
Williams barely mentioned Ms. Franklin during what was supposed to be her eulogy. A eulogy. A sacred tradition in the Black church where one talks about the impact of a person’s life upon the world, and take a moment to reflect upon their lives as you offer comfort to the family. It is not a moment for dredging up one’s own political views unless it is pertinent to the description of the structures the deceased dealt with and overcame.
Let’s swing back to Miss Ariana for a moment. Pastor Ellis has since offered an apology to her. Sir. If you are a pastor, and 90% of your job depends upon how well you communicate, I have problems. Her facial expression and body language seem pretty clear that she would have preferred NOT THIS:
This is not the face of a woman who was asked, “do you mind if I give you a hug?” I don’t care if he hugged everyone in attendance; it is inappropriate for any man to put his arm around a woman like this. PERIOD. I don’t care what she is wearing. And let’s take it there for a minute. Yes, what Ariana had on might be considered inappropriate in a Black church funeral setting. But she is an entertainer, not a deaconess. I would extend grace to her for that. But even if she were naked, it doesn’t mean she is collecting “touch my body any way you please” applications.
Before you get all “not all church leaders” on me, consider that if even one church is doing this as common practice, it should be spoken on and dealt with. Women are not merely accoutrements to men, as patriarchy and misogynoir would have us believe. Women are fully realized human beings who are also part of the Divine Creative. Women are expressions of God. When a man in church, usually with some authority, uses Christian love as both motive and opportunity to touch and/or kiss a woman he is not married or genetically bound to whether she wants to or not, it’s a problem. I’ve been grabbed in church like this, pulled into close to some man that I would rather not be that close to, then left with his stank cologne as a reminder for the rest of service that I was touched in a way I would have preferred not to be. That miserable feeling of not wanting to cause a scene in the church, so you act like it’s okay even though you can’t stand it. And before you get all “it’s not that big a deal” on me, please visit https://www.rainn.org/ for the latest statistics on sexual assault. It is a big deal. Pastors should acknowledge, be sensitive to, and be trained to handle the needs of the remarkable number of sexual abuse survivors in their congregations. As many churches are sensitive to the needs of those with problems with alcoholism by making sure there is grape juice and wine available during the execution of the Lord’s Supper elements.
Churched Black girls in particular are trained to tolerate this type of intrusion into their personal spaces through years of being told to hug or kiss so and so. By being told that rape is their fault because of the way they dress. By repeatedly hearing sermons like Williams’ that blame women for everything, that it is women that tempt men to sin. That a woman’s virginity is a virtue to be shared only with her husband, and that any pursuit of sexual pleasure makes HER dirty. Why do I bring this up? Because you cannot tell me a lot of this informed our impressions about Pastor Ellis putting his arm around Ariana Grande…and all the “blame her” back and forth. Contempt for women (and entitlement over their bodies) is not a Christian value. The first step to healing is admitting there is a problem. And the two most prominently featured men at the funeral of an icon and legend, the one and only Aretha Franklin, did a fine job of reminding us all that there is one.