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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry.

January 22, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry. Yale University Press (2011), Hardcover, 392 pages.

Sister Citizen is a rich book, full of themes worthy of a reviewer’s attention. I have chosen to discuss it from my own particular perspective, that of a white feminist. Sister Citizen was not written for me, and yet I am deeply moved and informed by it. What is going on?

The original subtitle which Melissa Harris Perry had for this was “for colored girls who considered politics when being strong wasn’t enuf,” an adaptation of the title of Ntozake Shange’s popular play, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow not is not enuf. Harris Perry adopt the stance of Shange’s play as her own, stating that Shange “presents black women’s experiences with unflinching rawness that is not primarily concerned with translating these experience to a boarder audience. Its primary goal is to give voice to black women by acknowledging the challenges they face, not to invoke pity or even sympathy from black men and from white viewers. It speaks to and about black women….” (30). For Harris Perry, hearing each other will lead black women to come together to bring about necessary changes for themselves as well as others.

Part of the strength of Sister Citizen comes from the author’s ability to draw on her own varied background. She has impeccable academic credentials: a Ph.D. from Duke in political science, and teaching positions at the University of Chicago, Princeton, and now Tulane. Her research has focused on attitudinal studies and “political culture,” not simply the government but the larger discussions that inform society. In Sister Citizen she draws on this research to give voice to a board spectrum of black women and to point out how black women are denied full citizenship in a political culture that fails to recognize them accurately and respectfully.

Melissa Harris Perry is also one of a community of black women scholars from various academic disciplines, and she summarizes their findings in Sister Citizen. Her notes provide an excellent bibliography of recent scholarship by and about black women. She has also read deeply in the emerging literature by black women and discusses it in detail. Images drawn from Zora Neal Hurston, Toni Morrison, and others contribute to the unity and power of her book.

Not willing to remain in an ivory tower, Harris Perry also regularly appears in the role of public intellectual in The Nation and on MSNBC programs where she often provides perspectives new to readers and viewers. Starting in February, she will have her own show, airing on Saturday and Sunday mornings. In Sister Citizen, she writes with the same combination of warmth and knowledge that she reveals in these venues. She rejects the strictly rational and argumentative style characteristic of much academic writing. In its place she structures her writing around her belief that experience can be a valid approach to knowledge. Refusing to manipulate readers onto a emotional roller-coaster, she uses storytelling to expand our understanding. Various women scholars have attempted such an approach in recent years, but few have been as successful as she is here.

For Harris Perry, black women never escape being both black and women, although they have sometimes been forced to chose their racial identity over their female one. To avoid being called “mammy,” they have been pushed to sacrifice their sense of themselves as women in order to prove their loyalty to their race. Such pressure emerged in the heyday of the black power movement and again in the primary campaign of 2008 between Obama and Clinton. In addition, Harris Perry notes that black women are rightly proud of their strength. Yet that self- image can result in failure to insure that their own needs are met personally or politically. Focusing their strength on serving others, they have not achieved the structural changes in religion and in politics that they themselves need.

At one level, the stereotypes of black women which Melissa Harris Perry describes were all too familiar. What was new for me was how she drew me into an emotional understanding how shame resulting from stereotypes can affect black women and how the stereotypes structure the concrete realities of black women’s lives. Her discussion of how stereotypes function as social control opened the door to new insights and inquires for me. She describes how the stereotype of hyper-sexed black women was useful to white men in justifying their own behavior during slavery. The same stereotype simultaneously reduced any chance of women reaching across the chasm created by slavery.

My highest compliment is to say a book led me to think further about a topic on my own. Reading Sister Citizen I began to consider other ways in which such images have interfered, and continue to interfere, with the possibility of black and white women finding common ground. White womanhood in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was defined in opposition to what black women were said to be. Saying that, I do not imagine powerful white men deliberately setting out to divide and control women through stereotypes. None the less, they profited by such a division. I can understand how white women may have thought they profited by identifying themselves in contrast to black women, but the process was seldom deliberate. (Of course, class issues were involved but race made the class issues invisible. For some of us growing up in “respectable” middle-class homes of post-WWII America, the only working-class women we knew were the black women working in our homes as domestic servants.) Harris Perry only begins our examination of how unexplored self-definitions limit women’s attempts to reach occasional common ground.

White feminists have long considered what it has meant for women to be defined traditionally as “not men.” We have pointed out the need to rid our understanding of false universals which claim to include all but in practice exclude women. (All men are created equal is a quick example.) We have also explored how we must expand our definitions of humanness to include allegedly female qualities like compassion for others. Harris Perry and other black women show us the need to engage in similar projects to rid ourselves of definitions of womanhood which are based on our own white experiences and discount the actual experiences of black women.

The first step in such a project is for all of us, black and white, female and male, to listen to the authentic voices of black women. Quoting the book and poem, This Bridge Called My Back, Harris Perry identifies the problem of using them as “bridges” to meet our own needs while ignoring the fact that they have needs of their own. Yet listening is a vital first step in ridding ourselves of the stereotypes we unconsciously hold. For me, books have offered a safe, non-invasive way to listen and to learn. In addition, I find black women’s history and literature fascinating in its own right because of the intricate ways in which black women’s’ stories are simultaneously mine and not mine.

There is another level I am reluctant to admit. I was raised to be “a lady,” white and middle-class in small-town Oklahoma. As an adult I found that being passive and pleasing was inadequate for meeting the challenges life dealt me. But I had no alternative model of what it meant to be a woman. Then I discovered the black women writers being published and republished in the 1970s and 1980s. They added a level of complexity to my understanding of myself as a woman and validated my strength as womanly.

The last thing I want to do is to use black women or their insights as my “bridge,” but I must admit the enormous role they have played in expanding my sense of who I am. And I am grateful to all of them, starting with my black women colleagues in grad school who helped me recognize that “all the women were not white and all the blacks were not men,” a startling, but not original, realization for budding historians like ourselves.

It is not my place to define black women. I have never been gracious to men whom I thought, rightly or wrongly, were trying to define me. I must leave it to Melissa Harris Perry and other black women to define themselves. I am grateful to listen and learn from them from a distance. Sister Citizen is a valuable step on my journey. I recommend it highly to others.

Books mentioned:

Ntozake Shange. for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is not enuf. Scribner, 1977.

Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Persephone Press, 1981. Poem by Donna Kate Rushin.

Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, editors. But Some Of Us Are Brave: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men: Black Women’s Studies. The Feminist Press,1982.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2012 3:49 pm

    I really, really want to read this book! I’m excited that Melissa Harris-Perry is going to be hosting her own news show, too 🙂

  2. January 24, 2012 11:52 am

    I’ll be discussing this with my Diversity Book Club on Thursday. Thanks for your insights. They are helpful to me. Gratitude to the black women in my life was one of the emotions I came away with, too.

    This book also has me thinking about politics a bit differently. I want to constantly ask myself and people around me, what will be the effect of this vote or action on black women? Because if we’re doing right by black women in our society, then we’ll be a whole lot closer to doing right by everyone.

  3. January 25, 2012 9:47 am

    Great. I think this is an important book and there is so much to talk about in it. The Washington Post is also running a series on black women this week and includes some comments by MHP. It’s not spectacular, but interesting and presents material that supports what Sister Citizen says. What else is your diversity book group reading?

  4. January 25, 2012 11:26 am

    Truly fantastic review, I look forward to reading this myself some day soon.

  5. January 25, 2012 12:12 pm

    Thanks for all you good words. If you would like to link to any of these on Real Help that would be fine with me.

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