When Black People Were Not “Ladies” or “Men”

At the church I serve (Gifts of Life Ministries), every fourth Sunday during our Power Hour Bible Study session before morning worship, we have what has been affectionately called “Ask the Pastor.”  During this session, members and visitors can ask me any question that has been on their minds. When we first started doing this, I thought many of the questions would focus squarely on theology and/or the Bible. I even thought that some of the questions would focus specifically on our church’s mission and vision; maybe even a complaint or two. However, to my surprise, the overwhelming focus of the questions has centered on contemporary news topics. Members have asked me everything from the meaning of Black Lives Matter, to what should we do about the deaths happening in our community. We have talked about issues centering around GLBTQ communities (especially the marriage debate), local politics, and the happenings in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, and Cleveland. Yes, we have talked theology and the Bible but usually when we do; it’s around these contemporary issues.

This past Sunday was no different. The very first question of our members had was, “Pastor, what do you think about all of these so called Religious Freedom bills that states are enacting?”  The reason for her asking is that our neighboring state, Mississippi, has recently passed a bill that would allow business owners to deny service to same-sex couples. As we discussed the question, another member asked about the Bathroom Bills that states are enacting as well. This started a good robust discussion as I shared with them what I knew about the bills; especially the one in North Carolina. When the members understood that the bill stated that people must use the bathroom of their birth gender, one member yelled, “How would somebody know what you have. Are they going to be checking the stalls in bathrooms?” Another member flatly said, “We probably have been going to the bathroom with transgendered folks all our lives anyway and just did not know it.” Moreover, our discussion on the bathroom bills also opened up a discussion on transgender people and while everyone did not understand, they were all in agreement that these bathroom bills amounted to some type of discrimination.

As I reflected on the question and the argument that supporters use in defense of these bills; “Would you want your little girl to go to the bathroom with a man who could put on a wig and say he’s transgendered”—I thought about this picture that’s hanging in our study at home.  I think it can help us shed a little bit of light on what’s happening right now with Bathroom Bills. 

Maybe one of the reasons why several members of the church see bathroom bills and religious freedom arguments as discriminatory was because some of them lived during the time when the bathrooms in the picture above was deemed okay. As the picture indicates, black people were not “ladies” or “men” just “colored.” “Ladies” and “men” were reserved only for white people. Also, there were no calls for concern about black women and men using the same bathroom—transgender or otherwise. Additionally, there was no concern about men going into bathrooms with “little girls.” Just if you were “colored” you all had to share the same bathroom.

Several members of my church remember these days. We need to remember them now as folks unearth rhetorical arguments to justify all manner of discrimination. The sad part is that they do not have to go far to find such arguments. They can just dust off speeches and writings from segregationists, change the dates, places, and rhetorical situations and have a “new” but yet “old” speech for such a time as this. I guess its true what folks say, the past is always prologue.

Andre E. Johnson is the Founder and Managing Editor of R3

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