Melissa Harris-Perry is a Tulane University professor and founder of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She is particularly well known, however, by her commentary at The Nation and on numerous television programs. Her specialty is investigating the debilitating political, cultural and social pressures put upon African American women, and drawing out their ways of responding. It is this interest that informs her new book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, published this year by Yale University Press (which includes a sub-subtitle: "For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics / When Being Strong Isn't Enough.)
In Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry examines the most potent stereotypes of American black women -- the promiscuous Jezebel, the appeasing Mammy, the angry Sapphire -- in a search of how they play out in real life. In particular, she's interested in how these stereotypes influence black women's participation in democratic life as citizens -- not just as voters and candidates, but as organizers, as taxpayers, as people who are deserving of the full slate of public services, and as people who believe they can effect change in their communities.
In the author's telling, Sister Citizen becomes a hybrid of genre. She draws deeply from literature, including the writing of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange. Equally, she draws from historical narratives, psychology, and social science, including data analysis and focus groups, to tease out patterns of black women in public and private life. The stories that have most provoked ideas of stereotypes, shape, and citizenry in recent years get due attention, including the rape accusations against the Duke University lacrosse team. The Hurricane Katrina debacle weighs heavily on the book as a political, media, and personal narrative, and the varying understandings of Michelle Obama's public persona serves as Sister Citizen's concluding section. Harris-Perry's narrative stance is emphatically in how black women see -- or don't see -- themselves as citizens, including their own expectations of their political involvement. This book is not satisfied with an overview of how black women are "seen."
Harris-Perry is at her strongest when she breaks down the devastating and unseen culture of shame that is put upon and often internalized by black women; it is fed by a dangerous form of misrecognition that harms both individuals and societies. Harris-Perry is nuanced in her understanding of shame not only manifesting as a sort of shrinking-away, but in the compensating "strong black woman" stereotype that seems positive, but leaves little room for the full scope of human vulnerability. Shame, then, serves as a kind of social control. It creates the "crooked room" -- a metaphor the author returns to frequently -- that makes it difficult to stand straight, or even see straight. The discussion of shame and misrecognition reminded me of Harris-Perry's brilliant speech to the Planned Parenthood of San Diego and Riverside Counties, which details how shame takes shape in our bodies.
Sister Citizen's literary analysis is thoughtful and enlightening; Harris-Perry is innovative in how she gives significant space to art's intersection with real-life political patterns. In her discussion of black women's participation in and understanding of religion, for example, the author weaves through an examination of Baby Suggs in Morrison's Beloved. Harris-Perry is clever in manifesting intersecting genres in a book that, in turn, centralizes the intersecting identities of black women.
The book is weaker in its latter section, with much of Harris-Perry's analysis feeling thin. I am no social scientist, but it seemed to me that she leaned rather heavily on her focus groups, which included a total of about forty women in various cities. While much of the conversations that came out of the groups are fascinating, few enough participated in them that they can't be more than anecdotal -- a fact that is belied by the attention Harris-Perry gives them. As well, the book has striking oversights, as with the infamous New Yorker cover satirizing the fearful perceptions of Barack and Michelle Obama: Arab garb for Barack, militant and angry Black Power garb for Michelle, an American flag burning in the fireplace, and a framed image of Osama bin Laden over the fireplace. Harris-Perry takes a surprisingly literal approach to the cover, taking pains to note that while Barack had been photographed in Arab dress in the past, Michelle never had the Afro she is drawn with. Well, of course she didn't. That's the point of the satire: it represents unfounded and exaggerated fears.
Sister Citizen is intended for a broad audience, but it is also intended to serve as a well-documented book of social and political science. Harris-Perry often uses the first-person voice and engages easily with storytelling, and at the same time, she is clearly seeking the precise language of a researcher. These two ends are not automatically opposed, but at times, the language of the book felt strained with the weight of its multiple purposes and audiences. The cautious, clear repetition of the social scientist sometimes undercut the heart of the personal storytelling of the narrator. The self-defining words of the women featured in the book sometimes seemed dissonant against the author's walk-through of research data. (It's worth noting that the expansive endnotes and appendices serve the book well by including the full scope of data and research, without getting too much in the way of the narrative.)
Altogether, Harris-Perry's unconventional book wobbles as it straddles academic rigor and mainstream accessibility, intimacy and analysis, but its ideas have worth, interest, and urgency. This book is a brave accounting of ambiguous, but defining, public myths. It is a strong voice for the cultivation of both public and private space for all citizens.