Ain’t I A Woman? Melissa Harris-Perry Explores Black Womanhood in “Sister Citizen”

September 28, 2011  |  

by Ezinne Adibe

Professor, political commentator, columnist, and author Melissa Harris-Perry, whose book, “Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought” won the 2005 W. E. B. Du Bois Award, returns with her latest book to explore the multi-realities facing black women as they attempt to affirm themselves. Harris-Perry, who can regularly be seen on MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts Show and the Rachel Maddow Show, returns with “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America”, an exploration into citizenship and black womanhood. Sister Citizen examines what it means to be a black woman and an American citizen in the 21st century. Taking a deeply concise and committed approach, Sister Citizen explores pervasive stereotypes impacting black women’s lives today and their effects on black women’s claims to the full rights of citizenship.

Atlanta Post: Can you talk a bit about some of the pervasive stereotypes that you explore in your new book?

Melissa Harris-Perry: Part of the reason that they remain so pervasive is because we reproduce them in popular culture pretty often. There exists a catalogue of negative ways that African American women have been characterized. At one point I talk about the Mammy figure in the “Sex in the City” series and in the first Sex in the City film. If I were to say there are Mammies in Sex in the City people might ask me what I was talking about. There are no black housekeepers, but what we do see are these black women who are actually inconsequential characters and who we typically never see again. They pop up in white women’s lives with these magical abilities. They come in, and despite having resources or being younger, are able to fix all of the problems that the white women are having.

At its core, that’s actually what the Mammy image is. It’s the idea that an African American woman might have skills, talents, and capacities, but they’re never put to use for herself. They’re never used to follow her own dreams or to nurture her own family or community. Instead, these skills, talents, and capabilities are always put to use assisting white women or white families. We see this pretty regularly deployed in contemporary media.

The same thing with the angry black woman. I have my criticism of her, but there is this idea that Maxine Waters is always angry about something. As if there is no context to what she’s angry about. I’ve often seen Maxine Waters angry, but she’s always angry about something quite specific. There is also the idea of black women as oversexed or hypersexual. This is reproduced in everything from hip-hop music to cartoons. I talk at one point about how First Lady Michelle Obama before the election was called Barack’s baby mama, despite the fact that Barack and Michelle were the only couple who were married to the first spouse and raising the biological children of that family.

I try to go back and show that these stereotypes are historically rooted, but the point is that they are very active and alive right now.

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  • G

    Im going 2 buy this book on Amazon 2day. Yo keeping it real: The only thing ur statistics show is that the system works! Im a free thinker. We AA’S r the only 1’s who can fix our problems.

  • mouth

    I love Melissa. That is all…

  • Keep it Real

    Ms. Harris-Perry, It appears that America is not the only one who see's Black American Women through a narrow lens. Black women have perpetuated their current negative perceptions. If we are to be honest with ourselves, how do you think a group of women are going to be perceived when 72% of their kids are illegitimate with no men in the home? Are their academic and economic opportunities post 1970 then, therefore, limited because of self inflicted irresponsibility and nativity or is because of limited opportunities? My answer, unlike yours, is both! How could this be an issue primarily of cultural abandonment by black men and continued racial abandonment by the American society when between 1900-1950 only 20% of black kids were illegitimate? When test scores and grants will allow the poorest blackest little girl to go the the whitest and most elitist school in this country? The majority of academically high achieving dirt poor black girls at these university unfortunately today are most often not from the Black American ghetto but third world countries in Africa and South America. Now, I ask you, which little black girl had more opportunities? African immigrants in the U.S. are the most highly educated group of people in the entire country. The question must be asked therefore, what would the academic and economic achievements of American blacks today be if the majority of the of the current black families were not fractured dysfunctional? We know now after three generations of welfare baby mammas, that high illegitimacy leads to high rates of academic failure. High rates of academic failure leads to unemployment. High rates of unemployment leads to high rates poverty. High rates of poverty leads to crime. All of which leaves the black community dysfunctional with negative perceptions of the community and negative perceptions of the people within the community.

    It appears to me that the Progressive, Liberal, Socialist, Mantra of "victimization" and Feminist Mantra of "the man is wanted but not needed in the home" which was embraced by blacks (IMO hijacked) post Civil Rights Movement has caused just as much if not more harm to the black family as Slavery and has done just as much damage to black women as Jim crow and Segregation. Your inability to acknowledge these points leaves your book and work IMO at best stuck in a myopic paradigm.