I'm a recovering debutante. I wouldn't go as far as saying a belle because I ain't with that frilly froo froo. Or girdles. I have a brain and I use it. I don’t own too many slips, or dresses, or wear much white. I don’t own a lacy parasol except for that one time where I had to accessorize with my lace ribbons for my annual Olan Mills photo.
If any black woman could be deemed a Southern belle, it’s my grandmother. I call her “Nana Boo.” Immaculately dressed, always smelling of fresh showers and Poeme perfume, loving, observant, and poised, Nana Boo will forever reign as my standard of respectability. In the black lady’s salvation army, she’s the general. Her fierceness is quiet. Her side eye is as pronounced as her wardrobe. Nana Boo’s experiences growing up as a black woman in the rural Jim Crow South laid the foundation for my early acknowledgement, and later debunking, of the rigidity of Southern black respectable womanhood.
Nana Boo's battles to make me ladylike started as early as I could say the word “no.”
“Wear these ribbons in your ponytails to be pretty.” No.
“Put on these white stockings and black Mary Janes to be pretty.” No.
“Wear this two-piece matching skirt and shirt set with red apples and rulers on it for the first day of high school.” Hell no.
I was a middle-class Southern black girl with educator grandparents, three degrees, and Southern charm that's both learned and inherited. I could curtsy with the best of ‘em. I daintily dropped a “yes ma’am” or “no sir” into nearly every conversation. My smile showcased a left dimple that should be illegal in all 50 states. I was dangerously charming. But I’m recovering. I'm recovering because I grapple with the idea of being ladylike in order to be valid.
I'm from the dirtiest part of Georgia, a city cemented in Civil Rights lore as the crowning failure of the movement. I’m in that camp that thinks of "ratchetness" as a Southern export of resistance to the norm. And as a ratchety debutante, I’m aware of, and know, how to perform respectability while leaving room to be complicated and make mistakes. For women of color like me, being publicly complicated, mistake-prone and human, is not ladylike.
I can’t function without a little red clay underneath my nails. I exist between the expectation of being civil to survive and being dirty to live. I dropped that pursuit of a lacy umbrella for a pink and white fitted "A" hat years ago. I’m a denim connoisseur who prefers a cold drank to sipping tea and doing pinky extensions. It is from this perspective that my grandmother inoculated me with respectability as a form of resistance. Still, I had a few small victories.
One of my first stands was in 1998. I’d just permanently transplanted in Albany, GA and it was my first day of 8th grade at Southside Middle School. Everyone knew my people. My Paw Paw was the assistant principal there for 30 years prior to my arrival, though he would some times take me to work and show me off as his “Gina Lou” when I was younger. The folks in the front office who were left from Paw Paw’s era cooed over me like I was still a toddler.
I wanted to start my time off at Southside right, and I couldn’t do that with teachers and administrators asking me to hug their neck and telling me to tell “Mr. Barnett hello.” I wasn’t me. I was “Mr(s). Barnett’s granddaughter.” People didn’t know my name. They just knew my Paw Paw and Nana Boo. I had respect on loan and that irked the hell outta me because I couldn’t get away with shit.
Even worse? Nana-boo escorted me down to my teacher Mrs. Adams’ room “just to see what was going on.” I knew Mrs. Adams my entire life. She was my Sunday School teacher and now my school school teacher.
I walked into the room with Nana Boo. I wore a navy blue sailor dress with a white collar, white socks, and black Keds. Dabs of Poeme perfume draped the crux of my arms and the back of my ears. I was too young to spray perfume on my chest. “That’s being too grown,” my Paw Paw scoffed.
My hair was tightly curled from the night before because of Nana’s old school Marcel irons, the ones that you heat on the stove and “click” together to curl the hair. I called them century curls. They took forever to put in my hair and lasted just as long.
The night before, I sat slumped on the old green stool in our kitchen smelling my burning hair and Alberto V-05 grease while Nana told me stories of her doing hair in college and not having enough time to get ready for church on Sunday because she was making other girls pretty.
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
“You have to always look neat and nice,” Nana schooled me. “Yes ma’am,” I said.
Click click click.
“You don’t want to be judged for not looking and smelling good,” she enforces. “Yes ma’am,” I said.
Click click hiss.
“Now look at Mama so I can make the part down the middle straight.” I looked at my grandmother’s beautiful brown face and sighed as I felt her hand on my cheek and the rat-tail comb slide across my freshly greased scalp.
“Nana," I pouted, "I can’t be ladylike like you.”
Nana slightly frowned while checking out my part. “You have to be ladylike to do well in this life,” she said.
“Yes ma’am,” I said as I put on my night cap and walked to the back of the house to get ready for bed.
The next day at school, I looked at my new classmates. Some smirked at me. I figured they were judging my lankiness and swim-noodle thin legs. I looked down at the linoleum floor and dug into it with my toe trying to hide my awkwardness. Nana gently touched my back, a silent demand that I stand up straight. Mrs. Adams introduced me to the class and asked if I had anything I’d like to say to them. I looked at Nana. She smiled. I gently tugged on my dress and frowned.
“Hey,” I say and quickly nod my head upward. “This ain’t, um, isn’t how I normally dress. Check for me tomorrow.”
My new classmates laughed. Nana did not.
I realized quickly that many of the things I desired violated lady-law. For example, the way I loved was unladylike. I was an equal opportunity hugger. I hugged for comfort. Hugging allowed me to wordlessly relay my love to folks without fear of criticism.
“Don’t hug boys," Nana Boo chided. "You don’t want people getting the wrong idea.”
In my head, I sucked my teeth, rolled my eyes and said, "Ain’t nobody checkin’ for Dre like that. Or Luke. Or Utah. Okay, maybe Utah. But they my folk. Ain't folks are supposed to hug?"
In real life, I said, “Yes ma’am.”
I learned early that speaking softly with correct grammar was ladylike. I also learned that telling dude or ole girl coming at me incorrectly to suck my nouns and eat my verbs ain’t ladylike. Passing notes on the church bulletin ain’t ladylike. Stifling giggles and gasps because your boyfriend winks at you and grazes your hand with his on the pew because you’re trying to be respectful of the church service ain’t ladylike, especially when Nana Boo was on duty.
My senior year of high school I was a debutante. For real. I was preparing to be introduced to the world as a young woman via the Utilis Matronae Debutante Club. I guess part of me wanted to do it, but mostly I did it for my Nana Boo.
I went to debutante ball practice every Sunday at the Monroe High School gym but snickered before I entered the gym. I went to Westover and my boyfriend went to Dougherty. I had little to no investment in the Monroe Tornadoes. Now I was in their space on a weekly basis. Hmph.
About a week before the ball, I did a final fitting for my dress. It was summer white, floor length, and strapless. I felt like a boss when I put on that dress. I twirled in the mirror. The dress twirled with me. I smiled at myself. My left dimple winked at me. I winked back. I was statuesque, a lot more graceful, and taller than those navy blue sailor dress days.
For that moment, I felt respectable in the way Nana Boo prepared me to be respectable. I was okay with it. I was beautiful.
Nana raised her eyebrows with a concerned look. “You need to cover your shoulders,” she said.
I try my damndest to give a supportive smile but the heaviness of my disappointment cocks my head to the side. “Yes ma’am,” I say.
I cover my shoulders with a shiny white chiffon jacket.
“You look beautiful," she says. "That jacket is very nice.”
“Nana these sleeves are ugly!”
“You look very nice.”
“Nana may I please not wear this jacket? For real these poofs….”
“They’re not poofs," she tells me. "They’re sleeves and are very ladylike.”
A frosty Friday night in December we head to the Albany Civic Center. I arrive with my debutante sisters and we marvel and coo over our dresses and tease each other about the size of the slips underneath that poof them out. Our escorts arrive, teasing and winking at us about our dresses. I see Utah. He’s Ann’s escort. He’s gorgeous as usual. I give him a quick hug while Nana Boo’s not looking, and whine to him about the puffs.
“You’re beautiful,” Utah says as he wraps his arms around me. “You’re the most beautiful girl here.”
I melt and muster a very soft, “Thanks, boo.”
We line up. We’re called one by one. I stand next to Daddy. He’s beaming. He pats my hand and squeezes my shoulders before we walk down the aisle.
“You’re beautiful, E-boo,” he says. “I’m so proud to be your daddy.”
“Thanks, Daddy! Don’t mess us up!” My girlfriends tell me later that those sleeves are lopsided as I walk down the aisle after my dad embraces me. Damn.
We walk down the aisle in the spotlight. I stumble a bit as my dress gets caught up in my shoes. Still, I walk in cadence with the announcer: “Regina Barnett is a senior at Westover High School. She is a potential honor graduate…”
I zone out and think about these big ass poofs on my shoulders. Lawd they big.
"She is the daughter of Reginald Barnett and Ilona Washington and the granddaughter of Eugene and Sara Barnett of Albany, GA.”
Daddy lets my hand go.
I walk underneath the ivy and white Christmas light ordained canopy. I look outward and curtsy. Spotlight’s on you, girl. You’re enveloped in whiteness. Spine straight. Smile wide. Don’t bust ya ass. I raise myself up while the audience applauds and I look beyond my escort to my Nana Boo. She blows me a kiss and nods her head. I wink at her.
I want Nana Boo to see that all the world thinks I'm a lady.
Quickly though, I realize that my being ladylike is an inherited struggle that never gets lighter. Even in a moment where this older generation could care less to seem respectable to the white folks. I don't have the words but I understand right there that black folk respectability is often parasitic instead of mutualistic. We feed on the (in)visibility of respectable gender performance that surrounds black bodies as validation of our own worth. It’s rare for black bodies to be mutually respectable in the same space at the same time. That’s too much like right. Hell, if anything, black folks’ respectability is commensal; the white folks that we model ourselves after are not even remotely affected by our performances.
Thirteen after my debut, I still invest in a performance of respectability. And only part of it is to please my grandmother. I feel an inherited obligation to move, walk and talk like the respectable Southern black women who have come before me, but I accept that I am not, and never have been, a conventional Southern belle. I do not, under any circumstance, want to be a white woman. I know now that the cyclical nature of race, gender, and respectability in the South is rooted in a history that privileges the white hand that writes it.
I realized at an early age that my kind of people wouldn’t be the ones twirling that lacy parasol; they’d be the ones behind it, or plotting how to get under it, or belittled by the ones doing the twirling. Yet those twirling ladies remained the standard, a romanticized whirlwind of Southern charm trying to push past racial disparity. If anything, black women’s push to be ladylike was a move to be acknowledged, to be visible on terms that registered as resistance in plain sight. Being ladylike signified a conscious effort to protect that little humanity publicly available for Southern black women. Today, I’m respectable on my own terms, respectable in way that branches from, but is not fully dictated by, Nana Boo and the countless other Southern black women who insisted on standing up straight, no matter the weight on their back, and being recognized — to themselves — as respectably black, feminine, Southern and human.
Regina N. Bradley earned her Ph.D in African American Literature at Florida State University in 2013. She writes about post-Civil Rights African American literature, the U.S. South, pop culture, race and sound, and Hip Hop. Her current book project explores how hip hop (culture) sensibilities can be used to navigate race and identity politics in this supposedly postracial moment of American history. Regina maintains a blog and personal website – www.redclayscholar.com. She can also be found on Twitter: @redclayscholar.
[Image by Jim Cooke]