Growing Up Black In the Purity Movement

When we substitute cultural stereotypes for biblical mandates, we run the risk of alienating people from both.

The origins and the dark side of the purity movement and the shaping of our assumptions about the ideal woman do not negate the biblical commands about purity. Those commands apply to all of us without exception, regardless of our ethnic background or American experience. I am not talking about the Word here, but a full package femininity stereotype that has more to do with our cultural assumptions than with the Bible.

 

A few months ago, my class read Ain’t I A Woman, a speech that Sojourner Truth gave at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron Ohio. She spoke during an incredibly pivotal season in American history: the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the dying years of American chattel slavery, the birth of first wave feminism, and the height of Victorian ideology.

We all know the picture that the Victorian stereotype paints: a beautiful, virtuous woman, the pinnacle of decorum and purity. And Sojourner used the picture to her advantage:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Her point is crystal clear: these Victorian standards of womanhood only applied to certain women in 1851.

One hundred and fifty years later, many of those same Victorian stereotypes occupy precious space in some quarters of evangelicalism, in spite of their history of barring certain kinds of women from participating in their full expression.

PURITY RINGS & PURITY TALKS

My parents gave me my purity ring when I was twelve.

Now, this was 2002. I Kissed Dating Goodbye was five years old. Purity balls were in full swing, and my parents were black Christians in their mid-thirties who had just started homeschooling the year before.

I grew up in a household where sex was far from taboo. Both of my parents made sure I knew that it was safe to ask them anything, and had enough kitchen makeout sessions to assure us that their sex life was healthy (so gross in the best way).

Blessedly, I didn’t have a conversation about giving away pieces of my heart or plucking petals from my rose. In fact, the ring was given with very little pomp and circumstance.

BLACK GIRL & PURITY CULTURE

However, as I grew older, my slice of Christian subculture began to add to that teaching.

A different picture took shape: sexuality was a dangerous tool that a woman should only wield in marriage. A good Christian girl saved her virginity, not out of obedience to God, but as a special gift for her husband on her wedding night. In gratitude for this gift, she would be promised a perfect sex life, and a husband who never strayed as long as she was putting out.

Her dignity was earned through her chastity, and lost through her lack thereof.

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