In 1905, historian Walter Fleming wrote that after slaves were emancipated, Negro women ignorantly aspired to "live like their former mistresses, to wear fine clothes and go often to church," instead of working the fields or as domestics as they should have. He highlighted the tragedy that freedwomen aspired to be "ladies" when in fact they were bad mothers, promiscuous, prone to venereal disease, and just generally immoral creatures. "Negro women" he further stated, "were never as well-mannered, nor, on the whole, as good-tempered and cheerful, as the negro men.” Even during Reconstruction, "many negroes for a time seemed to consider it a mark of servility to behave decently to the whites," but "some of the blacks, especially the women, became impudent and insulting toward the whites." Witness the birth story of the Angry Black Woman spectre.
For centuries, it has been a hallmark of American-ness to not see ANY conceivable reason why black women should ever be angry about anything. When our behavior toward anyone has been anything less than deferential, it has therefore been understood as an "attitude problem." The "attitude problem" has been and continues to be attributed to black women ONLY, as a marker of what Fleming describes above - an unworthy woman who regrettably thinks that she should be treated with the same dignity as any other human being. EVERYONE consistently marks us with this "attitude" curse: whites, non-whites, black men, indeed our own mothers from the time we are toddlers.
Here's the thing, black women do not have attitude problems. What we have is the same range of emotions that all other human beings have. Why? Because we are, in fact, human beings. We don't cop attitudes or get belligerent. We get upset, or angry, or irritable under precisely the same circumstances in which all other human beings do. Accordingly, the bar for how and when black women should be able to express our emotions should NOT be SO monumentally higher than the bar for every one else.
The next time it occurs to you to interpret a black woman's (and if you ARE a black woman, your OWN) behavior as an "attitude," please first ask yourself if that is the language you would use if she was a white man. Better still, the next time you find yourself in a disagreement with a white male co-worker, imagine yourself telling him, "Whoa! You don't need to give me attitude!" or "Oh great, here we go with the 'tude,” or "Are you copping an attitude with me?” or "Don't give me lip,” or "You're acting belligerent," etc. Words. Have. Power. And when you tell yourself that a black woman has an attitude problem, you are giving yourself permission to treat her as some-THING different than you. Something less than. Something not worthy of the same treatment you would hope to receive if you were in her shoes. Something not worthy of the dignity with which you would treat your own wife, mother, daughter, sister, or aunt.
Many now see Sandra Bland as yet another black woman whose attitude problem got her in trouble. I see a woman who was stripped of her dignity by two police officers who regarded her as nothing but a freedwoman who mistook herself for a lady.
For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.