“Stand Up Straight” by Kelly Brown Douglas

When I was little my mother use to always tell me to “stand up straight.” It is probably because of my mother’s plea that one particular bible story became one of my favorites. It is a story that comes from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 13.  In this story Jesus heals a woman who had been crippled and bent over for 18 years. As he does so he tells her “to stand up straight.” For me, these are some of the most powerful words that Jesus could have spoken to this woman. For not only did they signal that he had freed her from whatever the burden was that kept her hunched over, but they also restored her to a sense of dignity. These are simple, yet powerful words, for the many women in our midst who have for so long have not been able to stand up straight.

I think of the Sarah Baartmans of our world, like a Rachel Jeantel, who are made into a circus act because of their appearance. What happened to Sarah Baartman in 1810 as she was paraded across Europe so that people could examine her buttocks and genitalia—deeming her exotic and erotic, happened to Rachel in 2013 as she gave testimony in an American courtroom while people decried her appearance and mocked her speech—deeming her ignorant and illiterate.

I think of the Linda Brents of our world, like Marissa Alexander, who have endured untold emotional abuse and physical violence because their bodies were not worthy of protection. What happened to Brent because of the laws of a slaveocracy, happened to Marissa because of the laws of a southern state which jailed her for 20 years after she fired warning shots into a wall to fend off a threatening and violent husband.

How is it that we can proclaim to these women, stand up straight? Interesting to note in the gospel story about Jesus is that it was only after he had touched the woman and thus freed her from whatever it was that crippled her for 18 years, that he then could tell her to stand up straight.  And so it must be for us. If we are to proclaim to the Sarah Baartmans and Linda Brents of the world to stand up straight, then we first must do what we can to free them from whatever it is that has crippled them for far too long. How do we do this?

We must first take seriously the crippling pain of these women. I am often struck of how often it is people are denied the right to claim the pain and hurt of racism, sexism, heterosexism and other systemic societal diseases. Accused of playing some kind of “privileged minority card,” their hurts are ignored and business goes on as usual.  In the meantime, they are left unable to stand up straight. It is not for us to deny or even name their pain. It is for us to hear it and to witness to it.

Taking their pain seriously means also rooting out what is causing it. We must call out and dismantle the social, cultural and religious narratives that continue to pathologize various body types. Certain body aesthetics are seen as symptoms for deviance, decadence and danger. If one does not have the right skin-tone, hair texture, facial features, or body size then one is virtually rendered diseased. Moreover, those who are victims of debilitating narratives are blamed for their own pain. It is our task to turn right side up that which is up side down, and pathologize not the crippled bodies but the narratives that cripple. We must believe people when they say that they are hurt. Who likes it when you tell a doctor that something hurts and they respond, “No, it doesn’t,” or they ridicule you for having a low tolerance for pain? None of us like it when our pain is not respected.  Thus, we must not do to others that which we do not want done to us. We must respect the pain of others even if that means owning the ways in which we have been complicit in that pain. It truly is only when we are able to take the pain and hurt seriously that healing can begin.

Getting to the source of the pain that inflicts various bodies means that we must also commit ourselves to doing the hard and tedious on the ground work of gathering the information about the statues and laws which continue to place undue burdens upon certain bodies and even deny them a way out of their pain.  For instance, we must look at the implications, get the facts, and  collect the data when it comes to “Stand Your Ground,” “Conceal and Carry,” ” Mandatory Sentencing,” and other laws.  Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Nothing is more dangerous in the world than sincere ignorance or conscientious stupidity.” If we are not to add to a more dangerous world, then we must become aware and knowledgeable concerning the ways in which various laws do undue harm to certain bodies.

In the end, those of us who claim a feminist or womanist identity have in some way found a way, through it all, to stand up straight. Thus, as religious scholars, we have a theological mandate to create a world where all bodies can likewise stand. We have no choice but to do the work so will enable us to proclaim to the Sarah Baartman’s and Linda Brent’s of our world: “Stand up Straight.”

Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.”  She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul.  Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.

Categories: Activism, Body, Community, Ethics, General, Justice, Music, Violence, Womanist Theology

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8 replies

  1. i like the stand up straight story

    i think it could also mean try to uplift people rather than put them down

    these days, everybody’s critisizing, chastizing, bullying

    others because uplifting others and helping others

    takes effort

    but we must uplift


  2. Who are (or were) Sarah Baartman and Linda Brent? Were there more than one of them? Yes, standing up straight is good. My mother used to tell me to stand up straight, too.


    • Sarah Baartman was also known as the Hottentot Venus. When she was around 20 she was taken from her home in Cape Town and brought London in the early 1800s where she was made into a traveling exhibit. Europeans were fascinated by what they saw as her protruding buttocks and genitalia. Even after she died, she remained on display as her genitalia and brain were placed on exhibit in Paris Musee de l”Homme where it remained until at least 1985. She symbolized in the white imagination the degenerate sexuality and inferiority of black women. Her remains were not returned to South Africa until 2002. There is much written on her as well as a documentary. Linda Brent was the pseudonym for Harriet Jacobs who provided perhaps the first autobiographical narrative of life as female slave, “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl.” These women are a significant part of our human story, and significant to understanding the story of race. That their story is lost to many is an example of the tradegy of subjugated history.


  3. What a wonderful post. My mother always used to say to me “stand up straight.” At the time, I took it to mean that she was commenting on my posture, but now I think she was also saying “respect yourself” and “stand with others who need it.” She grew up in a society that was extraordinarily oppressive towards both people of color and women. She escaped at a young age to pursue her dreams, but she never forgot what she had experienced, heard and seen directed to both herself and others. She always taught my sister and I to respect ourselves and be activists for what we believed in. Now, I think, when I find myself weary and need encouragement to keep on doing what I know needs to be done, I’ll think of my mother saying “Stand up straight.” Thank you for this post!


  4. There’s a crazy-wonderful lady who runs a small dress shop down the street from where I live, selling clothes she makes herself. She has a chalkboard outside the shop that challenges everybody who walks by as regards their conformity. A week ago, she had chalked in: ”Normal is a setting on a washing machine.” Yesterday the message said, “Why do you keep trying to fit in, when you were born to stand out?” If anything makes me straighten up and fly right, it’s those signs!!


  5. This is a great post, admonishing us all to do what we can to help before we ask others to stand up straight. My mother also told me to “stand up straight” when I was young (also posture stuff, I think), but it was a rather punitive demand. Instead I will invite myself and others to stand tall, because that has a better ring for me. Of course, as soon as I wrote that I started to wonder if that was something a short person would take offense at. Sigh…


  6. This post got me excited this morning! I love how you used the story out of Luke’s gospel to show how we should respond to hurt as individuals and as activists. And thank you for tying recent examples to women too often not spoken in history. I know Sarah Baartman, but I’m going to have to look up Linda Brent.


  7. Oh, Linda Brent = Harriet Jacobs! How did I forget that?


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