Monday, February 01, 2021

Rev. Dr. Vanessa Lovelace: "We Don't Give Birth to Thugs" (summary)

Rev. Dr. Vanessa Lovelace
Twitter: @womanisthbprof 

Dr. Lovelace is an Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Lancaster Theological Seminary. She received a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University, an M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Bible (Hebrew), Culture, and Hermeneutics from Chicago Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.


Essay: "'We Don't Give Birth to Thugs': Family Values, Respectability Politics, and Jephthah's Mother"

This essay uses literary criticism and a womanist hermeneutic to expand on previous feminist and womanist interpretations of Judg 11 which have analyzed this story from Jephthah's unnamed daughter's point of view, by interpreting it from the perspective of Jephthah's unnamed (and silenced) mother (240, 243). The narrator describes Jephthah as a "mighty warrior" and the "son of a prostitute" (Judg 11:1). Lovelace argues against commentaries on this story that blame Jephthah's circumstances on the fact that his mother was a prostitute. She calls their lens one of "so-called family values" and says she is responding to those commentaries in this essay (240). Further, she draws a parallel from the negative characterization of Jephthah and his mother to the rhetoric surrounding black males born to single mothers (243).

Main points:

  1. Lovelace points out that in the United States when people want to talk about the “deterioration of the traditional family” this is usually coded language for the decline of the “white Protestant nuclear family” which they try to blame for the “decline of America." (240). This political rhetoric claims “nonconforming family formations” are the cause of their own “socioeconomic instability” instead of acknowledging the “oppositional domestic policy directives” (240).
  2. There is a popular perspective in sociology of families that is called "the functional perspective on the family" (244). This functionalist view argues that "significant deviation" from "the conventional family structure" (where the man works and the woman stays at home with the children) will create "social instability" (245). Lovelace points to a key moment when this “family values” rhetoric was elevated when Vice President Dan Quayle declared that the Los Angeles riots after the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted were a result of a “poverty of values” in the black community instead of acknowledging that it was a response to systemic racism and inequality (246).
  3. Lovelace talks about the racist language that is often used against black men, calling them "thugs" for things like celebrating after scoring a touchdown. She takes the title of her essay from what one Black mother said in response to a study that was done in New York: "We don't give birth to thugs; we give birth to children" (Brown-Manning).
  4. Commentators Smith and Klein attribute any moral failures on Jephthah’s part to a lack of strong male leadership in his family because his father was not around, or “stepped outside the traditional family structure to father a child by a woman who was not his wife” (257). Lovelace argues that by depicting Jephthah as a thug and a threat to society because he is the son of an unmarried woman, “he along with his mother, is racialized black” (250). 
  5. Lovelace shows how reading the story of Jephthah through the lens of “family values” as Michael Smith does, has the effect of “racializing Jephthah and his mother as black by assigning to them attributes that have been ascribed to black mothers and their children” (257). Because of this, Jephtha is seen as a “thug” similar to the way Black men today are so often stereotyped in this way.

Works Cited

Brown-Manning, Robyn. "We Don't Give Birth to Thugs; We Give Birth to Children: The Emotional Journeys of African-American mothers Raising Sons under American Racism." PhD diss., City University of New York. 2013.

Lovelace, Vanessa. “‘We Don’t Give Birth to Thugs’: Family Values, Respectability Politics, and Jephthah’s Mother” in Womanist Interpretations of the Bible: Expanding the Discourse. Edited by Byron, Gay L., and Vanessa Lovelace. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016.


This is part of my final project for "Womanist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.":

Key Terms in Womanist Bible Interpretation

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