Technologies of GospelCircuits and Networks of Sacred/Secular Innovation
The American Civil Rights Movement, Motown Records,
and the Sound of
Radical Black-Baptist Respectability
“Respectability politics,” so-called, has really taken it on the jaw recently.
If you’re in doubt, ask historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the person who coined the term (full disclosure: I did graduate work with Dr. Higginbotham.) She gave a somewhat recent interview at For Harriet and added a little generational background on the term.
I remember there were people there who made comments to the effect of, “This respectability, it’s so snobbish, and it’s so middle class.” I remember saying to them, you didn’t read it carefully then, because this is exactly what it is speaking against. You see, this kind of righteous discontent, it’s a discontent, don’t think that this doesn’t mean that you don’t defy. Think of the Civil Rights marchers. When you think of those images from SNCC, when they are walking in there you see them in their Sunday clothes, but they’re defying the laws aren’t they? They’re sitting at those counters. They’re not going away when people are coming. hen you see all these white thugs are coming and they’re throwing coffee on them and they’re cursing at them, the world looks at that and sees who is respectable.
The #MotownStudies posts that will follow aren’t meant to defend or snatch back the concept of “respectability” from those who hate the concept. But I do have this theory that 1960s-1980s Motown is basically, foundationally, “Baptist” and that the Baptist Respectability liturgical aesthetic guided that corporation’s artist and repetoire (A&R) corporate decisions, in the midst of the most intense Civil Rights struggles (also in turn guided by a Baptist clergy and lay sensibility) this country has known.
One of the takeaways of Righteous Discontent is that there are multifaceted ways of doing respectability. Again, if you’re in doubt about the the Baptist roots of Motown respectability, FBOFW, consider the career of Maxine “Miss” Powell of Artist Development, Dean of Students at Motown U.
In other words, Motown Records was an institution of higher education. And not simply for its artists. It educated the entire planet on our (Afircan-American) cultural norms and traditions. I would also argue, our religious aesthetics, and Evangelical power to persuade in the service of social change.
Black Respectabilitists of the era were all too aware of the phyisical and emotional cost of asserting one’s “respectability”. The genius of Motown Record’s successes lies in the ability to tap into a generations-old Black Baptist tradition of doing exactly that.
Miss Powell was a member of the historic Hartford Memorial Baptist church, at the time, the seat of the Michigan Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC). This is an important institutional detail because the PNBC was the main “Martin Luther King” branch of African-American Baptists; breaking off from the National Baptist Convention, whose pastoral head Rev. Joseph Jackson, was one of King’s notoriously consistent critics of the respectability-eschweing Southern Christian Leadership Council brand of pursuing Civil Rights.
I argue that these gradations of “respectability”-aspirant values aren’t necessarily “white” values and in fact have little to do with appeals to whites. They are, in fact, Black Baptist Churchlady values, out of a specific, indigenous African-American tradition and beauty standard that adapted dynamically to the time. That’s what the Victorian-era Baptist lay leaders of Righteous Discontent were doing. They were very good at it. African-American liturgical and aesthetic traditions are very good at adapting to the times while at the same pushing the boundaries of those tradtions in order to form new ones, with or without an inherited mantle of social and political “respectability.” I also forward that the internal contradictions of historically-black church denominational approaches to social progress find their nexus aesthetically in the hot mess that was Motown Records, particularly circa 1960-1972.
Maxine Powell had a saying she’d repeat in various interviews:
I never saw prejudice, I just saw human beings. I knew if you had class, style and refinement that it would make you outstanding around the world.” When you see all these white thugs are coming and they’re throwing coffee on them and they’re cursing at them, the world looks at that and sees who is respectable.
For those not familiar, this is the heart of Black Baptist respectability. Don’t kid yourself that such respectability was simply accomodationist, capitulationist, or apolitical, especially in an era when simply putting a ballot into a box, or sitting at a particular lunch counter, or trying to check in to theame room as your white peer on the entertainment checked into, could get you killed by both state and paramilitary/vigilante actors. And your killers would face no consequences.
It’s what makes those of us who are heir to these traditions so dangerous, and so irresitably interesting. More on that to come.
Just to mix things up, I’d like to leave you with a result of what happens when Motown magic combines almost-deliberately uncool Radical Baptist Respectability with Pentecostal preacher’s kid’s lead vocalist Liz Lands and the Voices of Salvation, in a mildly Latin-ova, African Methodist Episcopal Church arrangement, on the Gordy label.
The organist and their bass pedals was the bassist on this track. Very, very nerdy.
In that light, here’s “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” like you’ve not ever heard it before, and probably Motown as you’ve never heard it before, either.