Saturday, February 18, 2012

Melissa Harris-Perry: Sister Citizen

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Melissa Harris-Perry is the kind of intellectual that a) everyone should read, b) the US needs more of, c) I only know about from twitter, d) makes twitter worth using, e) makes me want to use the word "problematize" even though I swore I would never do such a thing after graduating from college, or f) all of the above. The answer is, of course, all of the above. If you're not following her on twitter, right now, it's not too late: I'll help you. I'll even include a nice list of related folks to follow if you want to get started on using twitter in a useful, intellectual, thought provoking, activist kind of way.

"Sister Citizen" takes a look at "black women's politics" in a way that looks integrates the trite white feminist saying that the personal is political and oversimplified idea of politics as the relationship between a person, the ballot box, and her elected official.  Harris-Perry bases her discussion of black women's politics on the ideas of recognition and misrecognition: "Formal participation in the government," like voting, "is only one part of a more encompassing effort to be recognized within the nation. The struggle for recognition is the nexus of human identity and national identity, where much of the most important work of politics occurs." Black women, Harris-Perry argues, are consistently misrecognized, making it excruciatingly difficult for them to interact effectively with other women, black men, and the state.

Harris-Perry uses a metaphor taken from cognitive psychology of "field dependence," a type of learning style that looks at people's ability to separate themselves from their surroundings. She cites a study with a "crooked chair" in a "crooked room" some people (the field dependents) visualized themselves as straight in this crooked setting, even when the situation was as tilted as 35 degrees. But some people tried to stand upright (the field-independents) in this skewed situation. "Sister Citizen" works off of this theme: "black women are standing in a crooked room, and 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 is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room." Using well-known examples from black womanist literature (to be slightly anachronistic), Harris-Perry walks readers through historical examples of the crooked room and attempts to right it.

Harris-Perry identifies three main stereotypes that have historically created these crooked rooms that black women continue to live in: the promiscuous Jezebel, the asexual Mammy, and the angry Sapphire. She walks us through how each of these stereotypes in turn has served to deny black women recognition from white society, black men, other black women, and the state both intentionally and as black women accede to the stereotypes as a way of coping with the crooked room.  She then brings into play a forth category, an alternative self-image often embraced by black women themselves, the "strong black woman," who "suppres[es her] emotional needs while anticipating those of others." This image, Harris-Perry writes, of a woman "as unassailable, tough, and independent is nurtured within black communities." Although the image is a positive role model when compared to the crooked rooms created for black women by racist white society, the strong black woman is not allowed to be "simply human": she must deny herself everything, including pain, weakness, and any reliance on men, which opens them up to further shaming, a topic I haven't covered here but which Harris-Perry explains in beautiful detail. In essence, the strong black woman is another crooked room that black women must fight.

"Sister Citizen" is a wonderful, thought provoking book. The book has a fascinating chapter on the black church and on the ways that the church and belief serves as a psychological comfort for black women why simultaneously undermining their very sense of self and political agency. Harris-Perry uses Hurricane Katrina to show how the nation's concerns with race are literally written on black women's bodies. She involves the stories of women from focus groups as well as statistics from larger studies, making the book both accessible and credible. The final chapter on Michelle Obama is a rare look at a celebrity in its complexity. My only (small) complaint with the book is its sole inclusion of black and white: every statistic that I recall and every discussion of black women in the US compares them only to white women. I want to be clear: Harris-Perry has no obligation to include anyone besides black women, but a short mention of methodology or reason for exclusion of discussion of other women of color would have been a good enough reason, especially after invoking authors of "This Bridge Called My Back," which explicitly raises the question of erasure of women of color.  The book is a fast read, and a must read for anyone interested in questions of race, gender OR class. One of the take-homes from "Sister Citizen" is that you can't separate one out of those three, and that you can't separate black women from the health of the nation. In the introduction, Harris-Perry quotes the women Combahee River Collective (contributors to "This Bridge Called My Back"): "If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression." We're not there yet, but Harris-Perry has provided a tool to help us get there.

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Anonymous said...

Beautifully written review. DHB