The Crooked Room    

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America:
For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough
By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011, 378 pp., $28.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Sheri Parks

When President Barack Obama sat down for an interview with Matt Lauer of the NBC Today Show, he was asked to respond to the labeling of Michelle Obama as an Angry Black Woman, a reference to Jodi Kantor’s book, The Obamas (2012)It is a question the Obamas have faced before about the tall, elegant, and intelligent First Lady.  The Angry Black Woman stereotype is an extreme version of that of the Strong Black Woman, which although it is less exaggerated, is also a source of controversy.

Black women are supposed to be strong, stoic, and selfless, a message that comes at them from all directions: black culture, the larger American culture, white women, other black women, men, the black church, the workplace, and their families.  For African American women, strength is an almost universal requirement. It is also impossible: nobody is strong all the time. Yet many African American women work to uphold this standard, and an emerging body of work examines the effect of this effort in their everyday lives.  Sister Citizen is the newest of these.  Its author, Melissa V. Harris-Perry, is a professor of political science at Tulane University and the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South.  After being a regular guest on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, Harris-Perry is now hosting her own show, which carries her name, on the same network.

Gender, race, and social class are the major fissures of American life; they have historically been used to define who has power and who has not.  Poor black women have been triply oppressed and marginalized from the “main” constituents of the each group. When women are considered, they are not white women.  When black people are considered,  they are not black men.  While they share concerns with black men and with women of other races, they also have their own specific needs—and it can be lonely at the crossroads.  Harris-Perry writes,

The silences in black political agendas and in national partisan organizing are in areas where black women have the most critical needs.  African American women not only struggle at the intersection of multiple forms of marginalization; they also find that their political labor often leaves them mentally and physically less well.

The Strong Black Woman is at once an opportunity and a cage, fraught with the historical contradictions that come from sitting at the cultural nexus: she is masculine yet female; powerful among the powerless; black, but intimate with whites. Although Harris-Perry admires the strength and resilience of the black women she knows, she is more concerned with the cage the stereotype creates, which she conceptualizes as a room made crooked by distorted gender and racial expectations of black women.  Sister Citizen depicts them as attempting to stand up in a room constructed to keep them off balance. “When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room and they have to figure out which way is up…It can be hard to stand up in a crooked room.”

The Angry Black Woman forms one of the room’s crooked angles. Harris-Perry describes the ways in which Michelle Obama was attacked during the 2008 presidential campaign.  Obama’s Princeton University senior research thesis was released and examined for supposedly angry statements; during the campaign she said that in her adult life she had never been more proud of her country, which was interpreted as a sign of her latent anger.

Other distorted angles originate from within black culture.  Harris-Perry examines the gender politics of the black church, breaking the long-held silence of the women who fill the pews, pass the collection bowls, and staff the committees, yet do not hold the power.

It’s no accident that the subtitle of Sister Citizen echoes the title of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 experimental choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Sister Citizen’s structure, too, is innovative: Harris-Perry includes interstitial pieces of literature between her analytical chapters.  For Colored Girls pierced through the expectations of strength, stoicism, and lack of self-interest to cry out the pain of black women.  In the 1970s, even to “consider suicide” was to step far outside of the racial role offered to and accepted by many black women, who were supposed to be responsible for everybody else. While black women have often used their strength to insure the survival of their families and communities, the Strong Black Woman is a role largely defined by other people and created to meet their needs. Sister Citizen strives to enlarge the opening for black women to move out and onward on their own behalf.

But what if a woman does not want to or cannot be strong?  And is strength always the best, most effective way to be?  Harris-Perry poses this last question to her field of political science, which is usually concerned with macro-level action, such as gathering votes and getting elected to office. She brings to it insights from women’s and cultural studies, which examine the everyday, micro- and community-level lives and work of women, and define “political” in a more personal and immediate way than is traditional in her field. How, she asks, does living with the Strong Black Woman image influence the daily political work of black women? Harris-Perry describes the intra- and intercultural expectations blocking black women’s paths as they try to find their way out of the crooked room.  The most striking intracultural example is the way in which they have been relegated to the lesser roles in the black church, despite making up the majority of the membership.

Black women are misrecognized by others.  Harris-Perry discusses how they internalize this misrecognition and the resulting shame and self-conflict they feel, even after they have attained affluence and power. “African American women,” she says,
are structurally positioned to experience shame more frequently than others. As a group they possess a number of stigmatized identities and life circumstances….Black women who escape many of these circumstances must still be content with damaging racial and gender stereotypes.

Sister Citizen is an ambitious book—as it needs to be.  Since African American women sit at the intersections, an interdisciplinary approach is necessary to capture the complexity of their lives.  Harris-Perry combines quantitative and qualitative methods, evidence and literary analysis. Interdisciplinary work is daunting, and she wisely does not take on the entirety of black women’s lives, often delineating what she is not going to do. Sometimes her omissions show how challenging the work is. For example, using quantitative data, she finds that women who identify as Strong Black Women are likely to try to solve problems at the personal level rather than to use political organizations or the state.  Other works, such as Talk with You like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890–1935, by Cheryl D. Hicks (2010) and “‘So I Just Took Over’: African American Daughters Caregiving for Parents with Heart Failure,” by Nancy Thorton and Faith Pratt Hopp (Families in Society, April-June, 2011) provide postslavery examples of self-reliance as a necessary option for black women after other services have failed them. Harris-Perry describes how African American women cried out during and after Hurricane Katrina, to little avail. Yet these examples and the data she analyzes do not account for the troubled history of black women and the state or helping organizations, and literary examples, while providing useful mythic narratives, are not social-scientific evidence.

Harris-Perry takes research on the Strong Black Woman into the important new territory of political action.  Although it is not the primary focus of the book, Sister-Citizen points out that African American women provided Barack Obama’s margin of victory. Soon after delivering his victory speech, he was joined onstage by his wife, their two daughters, and his wife’s mother—a family of women. Like Obama’s, many African American families are dominated by women: the future of the race depends upon them. Perhaps recognizing that will lead to directing more attention to their needs and concerns.  As the future of women goes, so goes the race. And because of their position at the intersections, African American women are powerful barometers of where the rest of the country is going as well.

 

Sheri Parks, Ph.D., is associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park and the author of Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture  (2010) which traces the images of the Sacred Dark Feminine and the Strong Black Woman through western and American culture.

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