The rejection of southern hip-hop in 9 parts
Respectability politics is a belief that if marginalized individuals set aside cultural aspects that are not accepted by the larger dominant parts of society, then this will produce better treatment from said group. The term “respectability politics” was reportedly first expressed by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book,Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. A Professor of History and African American Studies at Harvard University, Higginbotham’s deep dive into the belief that conformity to mainstream standards of behavior and appearance could protect marginalized cultures was groundbreaking at the time. It was also an unfortunate reminder that respectability and worthiness, in terms of blackness, has always and may consistently be an internalized metric.
In 1903, another Harvard educated scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois coined the phrase “The Talented Tenth.” The term first appeared in Du Bois’ book, “The Negro Problem”, where Du Boise goes on to write the following:
“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”
As part of the “Talented Tenth,” it is your “job” to “pull up” other Black people that are “beneath” you—or more accurately, the ninety percent. Du Bois specifically wrote it as, “The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground.” These actions are taken in the name of Black leadership; however, what qualifies as “worth saving” and who sets that standard?
The dangers of respectability politics or ferreting out who is worthy, lies in the ability for these beliefs to hide in plain sight or even go undetected in oneself for years. These notions can hide behind even the most public expression of Black celebration—like relocating from New York to attend an HBCU in the South and embracing the safety of being in an all-Black space but rejecting Southern blackness. Or sometimes it looks like refusing to consider artists as “real hip-hop” because they rap about Monte Carlos and El Dorados.
In the context of the Great Migration, some of the African Americans who migrated north did their best to bury their Southern traditions, culture, and even accents. While some of the African Americans in the North tried to distance themselves from those moving in order to maintain their perceived social standing and respectability. Yet, compartmentalizing blackness in percentiles and operating under the guise of the respectability politics is an illusion. It’s a mirage in the middle of a long hot desert--diving headfirst into which will only hurt you. It has never offered replenishment from anything—least of all the evils of racism.