In Knee Length, poet and journalist Khalisa Rae navigates the nuances of an inherited conservative legacy. Pulling from memories of her religious upbringing and education, family history, and matrilineal teachings, Knee Length is a history reimagined and excavated—a rebellious relearning of desire and respectability, family and faith.
I’m Here with Mary Magdalene
Growing up in a private Christian school and a Baptist church, people always talked about the difference between Mary Magdalene and Mary, Jesus’ mother, like one was pure and the other was unholy. This age-old comparison of women that we do. This inevitable battle of “hoe” vs virgin. As a teen, I had front-row seats to this war of holiness between the innocent darling and the Jezebel. Days at church spent watching matriarchs turn their noses up at the “loose women” whose dresses showed a little too much skin. The ones they’d tell my girlfriends and me to stay away from. Nights spent eavesdropping on my mother’s phone conversations about the “shaky-moraled” woman that stole someone’s husband, or the “Jezebel” that lured so-and-so into bed with her. You’ve heard the stories. In conversation, our mothers never dared to use the “h” word. Still, we all knew that’s what they said behind closed doors. To us, they’d call them “fass”.
In our mothers’ eyes, “fass,” aka fast-moving women, moved so quickly through men—through life—that they lost their morals. As a result, division was created. A line drawn in the sand—us vs. them. I mean, we literally sat on opposite sides at church.
It’s funny to me now. I can see the Mean Girls moment in the Bible: countless women walking past Mary Mag with judgy looks on their faces because not only was she sexually liberated, but she had favor with Jesus. So, the slurs and slander poured in. Not because other women cared that much about her getting her rocks popped, but because they wanted that sexual freedom and access to the holy one for themselves. The straight-laced women would fan their church fans as they peered over and scoffed at the women deemed less than them. It’s as polarizing today as it must have been then, and times really haven’t changed much. The so-called hoe is still the enemy.
Harlot vs. Holy One
When I was in school, we all knew which “fass” girls to stay away from. Our mothers knew and their mothers, as did the deaconesses and Sunday School teachers. Word spread like wildfire about girls that were “skirt hikers” and “shirt un-buttoners,” girls that kept red lipstick and a change of clothes in their backpacks. Me, I’d spent so many years at private school in plaid uniforms that I didn’t experience public school-style individuality until I was 13 or so. We still had those that would tie their white shirts in a knot to expose their midriff or unbutton their blouse to show cleavage. The ones that advocated for shorter skirts at student council meetings. And, of course, the girls that skipped class and started dating early. I thought it would be easy to stay away from them because, at first glance, they didn’t have anything I was jealous or envious of. Their many boyfriends seemed like a hassle, and I didn’t want to flaunt my body or fail out of class. None of that felt like freedom, especially since they always got caught, and I wasn’t trying to ruin my soon-to-be straight-A, valedictorian potential.
But at church, I secretly coveted the freedom of girls that played by their own rules. Those that looked like they let their hair down and danced in the rain. They walked into a room with boldness and an air of “who cares?” They chewed gum during church, applied lip gloss during hymnal readings, paraded around their handsome, younger men, or wore extravagantly ruffled dresses that hoisted up their boobs. The way they held their heads, you could tell they did it all for themselves. I was sure the secret lingerie and lace panties they wore were for personal empowerment. When I pictured these various Mary Magdelenes, they were always double agents, and underneath their alluring dresses were knives and throwing stars. They were ready for battle at any moment, like Charlie’s Angels.
It was this attitude that I envied: that a sexy woman was a powerful woman. In my mind, to lure men to sleep with them was a skill only the most calculated and intelligent women had. Much of my youth was spent weighing the consequences of throwing caution to the wind. But my “good girl” friends and I, those of us who did as we were told and always followed the rules to the letter—inside, we were dying to break free. To step out of bounds.
One day during my first year of high school, my friend Kiyanna invited me over to her house, and I remember her asking me if I knew how to dance and roll my hips. We put on songs by Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, and she taught me the “Hit Me, Baby, One More Time” choreography before moving on to Destiny’s Child moves. That was the kind of freedom I longed for. Not to be sexy for someone else’s gaze, but to know I had the power to choose what to do with my body. To know that I was in control. I watched Britney and Beyoncé, studied their movements, and took note of how they were in control of their bodies in a way I had never been. Although they oozed sex appeal, I longed for the ability not to care. To let loose, but never let them see. I remember getting caught singing raunchy songs outside my middle school with the “fass” girls and having to memorize Bible verses as punishment. They were called the outcasts. I took that as a lesson to never be caught with the girls that didn’t follow the rules again, but to do a secret recon of their power. The girls that said, “no” simply in the way they held their head and stride. Those were the ones I wanted to mimic.
So instead, I secretly stayed close to the fass girls, learned their ways, and studied their behavior. I was always the goody-two-shoes that did what she was told. The straight-A student that cried when I got a C. I was the Rory Gilmore darling that never cursed or skipped school. You could find me obeying whatever my mom said, always with my nose in a book. But the more I studied young and old Mary Mags in my life, the more I noticed I began saying “no” more. I started to find my own individual style, outside of the life my parents or peers had laid out for me. Who was I when I wasn’t people-pleasing and obedient?
For me, my study of these beautiful, fearless women was about self-actualizing and digging deeper to how they accessed their power. Could their freedom rub off on me and give me the autonomy I so desired? So many of my life decisions had already been set for me. Somewhere along the way, saying what I needed/wanted and being confident was equated to being immoral. Church lessons about fire and brimstones cemented that my wants and desires were linked to shame and promiscuity. And I internalized that. We’d hear the boys in the hallway making comments about what they “did” to ‘ole girl’ and how she let him ‘beat.’ My friends and I would roll our eyes at the boys’ derogatory comments about who let them “hit” and who was “easy.” I remember watching Easy A and thinking about how true to life the movie was. Once a young girl starts self-actualizing in explorative ways, being sexually active doesn’t matter; she is instantly labeled “slutty” or a social pariah.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we were placing labels on girls for characteristics we should praise them for. Confidence. Power. Autonomy. Outspokenness. Was this the message? That we were supposed to sit quiet, be meek and mild, and not own the bodies we were in?
I wondered about Mary Mag, about how much stress and pressure came with being such a scrutinized, liberated woman. I internalized the message that being outwardly sexy was the quickest way to get labeled and outcasted. Like Mary Mag, being the confident woman was also how you gained enemies and became the town leper. So I played nice in public, but my Mary Magdalene side was begging to get out behind closed doors. Not to mention the Sunday morning shame-centered sermons and how Mary Magdelene women were depicted. The message we’re fed is that little “fass” girls grow up to be adult delinquents. That somehow they’re destined for damnation. So much salt was thrown on the prostitutes of the Bible when in reality, they were spiritual bosses. Jesus seemed to be drawn to these “women of the night,” and I imagined it was because they were more connected to holiness than many of the people posing as righteous.
These were the nuances the pastor never spoke about, the many verses the judging deaconesses conveniently skipped over—the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet. It’s easy to label them prostitutes, and much harder to explore their depth. Mary Magdalene was ride or die. She stood by Jesus’ side through thick and thin. Not to mention, she had the most complex job—the truth-teller and truth-holder. Listening to her John’s stories all day and then acting as counselor to Jesus couldn’t have been easy. What were we afraid of?
I think it was that power. Whether it be with sex, or body, or fashion, or attitude, something about not following the rules scared all of us. Since then, I’ve been trying to embrace that fear. Whether it be just reclaiming all the words my private school made us wash our mouths out for, all the “dirty” words my mother didn’t dare allow me to say. I learned the power of “yes” and “no.” It was that truth-speaking and assertiveness that we were all afraid of—the woman who lit her cigarette after the revival and flicked it toward the sky. Who wore the red nail polish everyone told her was inappropriate here. The huntress carrying a thousand little secrets. She that named a target and hit it every time.