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 Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’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.