10/07/2011 07:05 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2011

The Scholar and the Stripper

Looking around the long cherry wood rectangular tables, I waited anxiously to raise my hand. This particular day in our "Women in Literature" course led by my favorite professor, our class discussion had taken a brief detour from our present material regarding the lives of black domestics to a candid conversation about stripping and the connotations of such a risqué yet intriguing world.

To be fair, all aspects of our rich and transformative class discussion explored a handful of avenues as to why women strip. We explored what possible reasons the women might be experiencing to resort to participating in sexual objectifying behavior.

I proceed to share a story about my indirect experience with a stripper one day at a bank.
Last May, in the Bank of America closest to Spelman's campus, I stood behind a young black woman depositing her night work into the bank.

Her Gucci handbag hanging from her shoulder was overstuffed with wrinkled single dollar bills and a handful of large bills. She was tall, slender and bronze. She waited patiently, passing the time in line playing a game on her iPhone. Her long, straight, jet-black hair, rested on her shoulders, blended in with her tight black t-shirt. When it was her turn, the bank teller's eyes and mine met, the look in his eyes was of confusion and embarrassment for the young woman.

In what seemed like the longest six minutes of my life, while watching this transaction, I wondered: Does this beautiful young woman even consider herself a stripper? IS stripping her only means to live? Was this a last resort? Or does she maintain she is not those long nights on a stage, aligning herself with the same "I am not what I do" mentality that black domestics during Reconstruction exercised?

"At least being a domestic was honest work," my professor shared. Her simple thought about black women's work history in this country juxtaposed to the image of black stripping as normative.

From reading Kathryn Stockett's The Help to Tera W. Hunters' To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War to Alice Childress' Like One of the Family, we examined the origin and lives of black women domestics and history of honest work of blacks in the country. The lives of black domestics in the South during Reconstruction was the reality for most black women in this country, but it did not define who they were; it was their job, not the core of who they were.

The public forum in which I was able to witness this young black woman's self-degradation was simply appalling. I began to recall a host of conversation's I have had with my colleagues in our "Women in the Media" class last semester and currently, "Women in Literature" class. I was brought back to a discussion about stripping and its social connotations.

Very explicitly, my peers felt that stripped is a self-inflicted, negative way to be perceived in an American context. As black women, we are already marginalized and deemed inadequate, especially in how our bodies are constantly criticized in popular culture. What then makes it worse, is when the focus of this severe criticism and degradation is not only participating in such behavior, but also using the materialistic benefits as a way to rationalize this profession.

As the modern-day stripper, at a time where imagery of hyper-sexualized behavior has become a normative gesture within popular culture (especially for an already oppressed demographic), why is that behavior socially and culturally acceptable? Many rappers do not shoot a music video without the use of over-sexualized women, and the women being paid to be objectified brag about the pros of being one: since when is stripping, or sexual objectification the manner in which to secure social mobility and financial security?

Sitting in a classroom full of black women seeking higher education, it is nearly impossible to not be transformed by a single thought. My colleagues were deeply invested in a conversation about black women being viewed as erotic and sexually desired. Especially when black women's history in this country, in the context of what it means to be a black woman working, originated from working as domestics.

As active and participatory scholars we are able to realize the missteps of Stockett's work and her narrowed representation in the lives of black domestics while we also tried to bridge the gap between the honest lives of black domestics and the overt sexualization of black women's bodies in a popular cultural context.

In understanding that as black women, we are not navigating in a post-racial society, how does stripping constitute sexual liberation and not diminish the fight against equity and the tolerance of black bodies in popular spaces? Today, the black stripper is her job; she is defined by what she is doing, the objectivity she is perpetuating.

That day at the bank is unforgettable because it provoked a host of unanswered questions. I understand that my ability to analyze the situation with a scholarly perspective is not afforded to everyone. In no way am I attempting to judge this young lady, but more so understand her position in society as a black women that may be completely unaware of her marginalized position.

I will not be able to erase the image of her on a stage, selling herself short of her self-worth; the very same self-worth she doesn't even know she has.