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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