By Tony Lindsay
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America
By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011, $20 (Cloth)
A reader of Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen may ask what could Michelle Obama, Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel, a crooked room, and the persona of a strong Black woman all have in common. And due to Harris’ writing strategy, the question will go unanswered until the last pages of the text.
Perry argues that America’s view of Black women is skewered by stereotypes and prejudice, and this altered view places Black women in a crooked room, which affects their health and politics.
They are not seen for who they are, but are instead defined by stereotypes that lead to mis-recognition…and trying to survive while being mis-recognized is extremely hazardous to one’s health and political views.
Life in a crooked room is stress filled and leaves one with little political value.
Perry: “This book is concerned with understanding the emotional realities of Black women’s lives in order to answer a political, not personal, question: what does it mean to be a Black woman and an American citizen? Black women are rarely recognized as archetypal citizens.”
Black women cannot be viewed as “archetypal citizens” while other citizens are viewing them as Mammies, Sapphires, Jezebels, and Super Women. Perry offers a different perspective on the Super Woman or strong Black woman persona.
Views Of A Black Woman
The persona of the strong Black woman is seldom viewed as a negative; however, super women aren’t human. They are not allowed to be sad, lonely, or in any type of need. They are seen as someone who can always get the job done – a woman who can “drop a baby” and get back out into the fields.
A super woman is viewed as a beast of burden. And a Black woman who views herself as abnormally strong and totally self-reliant ostracizes herself from needed help; i.e. the political system.
No demands are placed on the political system if one is super. A super woman can exist outside of politics, and certainly the political system does not need to offer a super woman anything.
Perry: “It is possible that attachment to self-reliance pushes Black women in a politically conservative direction by encouraging politics of self-help rather than one of structural change.
“The intuition is simple: to the extent that Black women believe they are naturally endowed with a superhuman capacity to overcome life’s obstacles, they may be less likely to support political agendas and public policies that seek to dismantle the structural barriers facing Black women and more likely to support those aimed at individual empowerment.”
This view of Black women as super is a mis-recognition that hinders viewing them as equals, as human, as citizens, and thereby places them in a crooked room.
Perry explains the crooked room: “When they confront race and gender stereotypes, Black women are standing in a crooked room, they have to figure out which way is up.
“Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some Black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion. It may be surprising that some gyrate half-naked in degrading hip-hop videos that reinforce the image of Black women’s public lewdness.
“It may be shocking that some Black women actors seem willing to embody the historically degrading image of Mammy by accepting movie roles where they act as the nurturing caretakers of White women and children.
“It may seem inexplicable that a respected Black woman educator would stamp her foot, jab her finger in a Black man’s face, and scream while trying to make a point on national television, thereby reconfirming the notion that Black women are irrationally angry.”
Here, Perry labels the three common stereotypes used to characterize Black women and aide in constructing the crooked room: the ever-helpful Mammy; the big booty Jezebel; and the always angry Sapphire are expounded upon in the work.
Perry argues that America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama, refuses to fit into either stereotypical role, thereby standing straight in the crooked room.
Even though the media has attempted to portray her as a Sapphire – for example, the satirical cover of The New Yorker July 21, 2008 – she remains a poised wife who is often photographed in loving situations with her husband and children.
She has fought against comments that attempt to apply the Jezebel label due to her physique, and again she rebuffed such comments by continuing to dress in a dignified manner despite naysayers.
To address the Mammy role Perry offers, “Calling on Michelle Obama to take on a more active policy role while her children are still young is, in a way, requesting that she use her role as First Lady to serve as the National Mammy.
“Michelle refused. Instead of assuming that the broader public sphere was necessarily more important than the needs of her own children, she made a choice that has been denied to generations of Black women.”
The First Lady illustrates that although the crooked room exists, Black women do not have to bend to it.
Melissa Harris-Perry’s book, Sister Citizen, warns Black women of the crooked room and the effects it can have on a woman’s health, politics and citizenship.
Perry shows the detriment the crooked room has been, historically, to the community of Black women. This is an important read for both women and men.