by Candice Benbow
The moment was the antithesis of one of Aretha Franklin’s most popular hits. As the world stopped to celebrate the homegoing of The Queen of Soul on Friday—the traditional black church gathering to celebrate Franklin’s transition from earthside to the Lord—the dark cloud of patriarchy and misogyny threatened to overshadow the service when a bishop failed to R-E-S-P-E-C-T pop star Ariana Grande, inappropriately touching her breast area for the world to see.
As part of the celebration, Grande sang Franklin’s hit, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” At the conclusion of her performance, Bishop Charles H. Ellis III called Grande to the pulpit, wrapped his arms around her (his fingers touching her breast) and made the racist remark that he’d thought “Ariana Grande” was a meal at Taco Bell. Some laughed and many cringed. But it was Bishop Ellis’ inappropriate touch that triggered most women, especially those who grew up in the church. It was a moment that, even a decade after Tarana Burke created #MeToo and its meteoric digital rise last year following the Harvey Weinstein accusations, proves that it is past time to publicly reckon with the mistreatment of girls and women in holy spaces.
Many church girls like me knew that moment. We’ve experienced it from pastors, deacons and older men who, under the guise of complimenting, have inappropriately commented on how nice we looked on Sundays. Later, how well we were growing into womanhood. Our girlhood, in church and on the street, cut short under the surveilling eyes of men. We made the same face as Grande (the embarrassed drop of the head, that uncomfortable chuckle) as we tried to maneuver out of unwelcomed embraces that lasted too long and lingering touches we never requested. And the shame was on us to carry. This behavior—almost always accepted or dismissed, even enabled—that made us coil our changing bodies inward, feeling the stinging humiliation of being fondled, the betrayal that our bodies were budding breasts and curves for the consumption of men.
Following Bishop Ellis’ apology and in response to those who came to his defense, many remembered when their complaints were dismissed with “that’s just how he is” and “he is just being friendly.” Others remembered why they never told anyone.
Candice Benbow is a writer and the creator of The Lemonade Syllabus, whose work focuses on faith, feminism and pop culture.