Fans of Melissa Harris-Perry have come to love her for keen analysis and her ability to deliver complicated concepts in a way that is understandable to general audiences. (Don’t believe me? Check out her show on MSNBC on weekend mornings..good stuff!) I couldn’t wait to read Sister Citizen for that very reason; I was eager to hear what she had to say about the impact of common stereotypes black women constantly face. I wasn’t let down.
Harris-Perry’s basic argument is presented as an analogy: the constant barrage of stereotypes of black women — in the media, in politics, in popular culture, in their own communities, etc. — create a “crooked room,” and black women are left trying to stand up straight in this crooked room. Then, pulling examples from literature and current events, Harris-Perry sets out to illustrate the hyper-sexual Jezebel, angry Sapphire, and selfless Mammy stereotypes, which still have a political and cultural impact on black women to this day.
Each chapter starts with an excerpt from important fiction texts, such as Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Bluest Eye, and The Color Purple. I loved this approach and thought it was a very effective way to set the stage for more intricate social and cultural analysis. Using these literary illustrations, she would then branch out and start analyzing current events, such as the portrayal of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, or the constant attempts during the 2008 presidential campaign to portray Michelle Obama as an angry black woman. She held focus groups with everyday black women and included some of their responses to highlight the complicated realities and self-perceptions that they face on a day-to-day basis; even some of the more “positive” stereotypes (Strong Matriarch, for instance) can come at a great personal cost.
The book is academic in nature but very readable; Harris-Perry did a commendable job of pointing out the myriad of ways that stereotypes are still manifested. However, I would have loved to hear more about the effects of stereotypes on black lesbians and black trans women (black lesbians are mentioned briefly, but thorough analysis was definitely lacking). It’s an eye-opening book overall, though, and should be required reading for lots of people (particularly activists and feminists).
And though I know it has nothing to do with content, can I just end by saying how much I love that cover? Because seriously. It rocks.
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America was released on September 20, 2011 by Yale University Press.