African American women, the most visible yet invisible body in American (popular) culture and often restricted to hyper-sanctity or heathenism, are complicated. I can dig that. I just wish America’s public and popular sphere could dig that, too.
Perceiving the black female body as humane, however, is painfully difficult, considering the profitability of black women’s narratives reduced to stereotypical performance of black womanhood or the lack thereof. Cue the frenzy surrounding reality television series like Basketball Wives that presents its audience with problematic – and unchecked – distortions of reality today’s African American women face.
Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen investigates how these (mis)conceptions impact contemporary black women, suggesting that African American women are “misrecognized” while attempting to stand upright in a crooked room framed by stereotypes black women are often forced to occupy or challenge. Harris-Perry’s crooked room theory attempts to both historicize and situate the messiness of contemporary black women’s lives within a social-cultural critical lens that often negates their experiences: “when they [black women] confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing up 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… To understand why black women’s public actions and strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior.”
Sister Citizen engages this ‘crookedness’ through an interdisciplinary framework, borrowing from both academia and popular culture to reflect the murkiness of the contemporary African American woman’s experience while critically engaging the imagery and discourses that frame her existence. “Sisters are more than the sum of their relative disadvantages,” Harris-Perry argues. “They are active agents who craft meaning out of their circumstances and do so in complicated and diverse ways.” Her inquiry also reflects this diversity, interweaving academic analysis of stereotypes like the Mammy, Angry Black Woman, and Strong Black Woman with cultural observations, personal insight, and the reflections of black women Harris-Perry collects during group studies about these images.
Harris-Perry unifies her various threads of analysis through an overarching discussion of citizenship. Her treatment of citizenship is initially a discursive performance, hard to pinpoint, and frequently intersecting with feminism, race studies, and political science while grappling how black women are situated within these conversations. The ‘messiness’ of pinpointing black women’s citizenship, however, leaves ample room for varied interpretations of how African American women align with American social-cultural interactions and expectations. At times, Harris-Perry’s training in political science overtakes her analysis, reading more like a manifesto and literature review of political thought than an interdisciplinary foray into black women’s identities that she sets out to accomplish.
I was also struck by her treatment of eroticism and black women in popular culture. In a brief yet dismissive statement about African American women in hip hop, Harris-Perry re-enforces similar constructions of citizenship that she intends to dismantle. “Instead of offering a forum for sisters to voice their own truths,” Harris-Perry argues, “hip-hop made black women into silent, scantily clad figures who writhe willingly behind male artists.”
Although I agree that hip-hop culture is restrictively (hetero) masculine, Harris-Perry’s observations fall into the victimization discourse that is heavily frequented and just as suffocating. Her observations about hip-hop here are essential and romanticized, suggesting that the hyper-capitalist regime currently in place completely eroded inclusive discourse for women in hip-hop. Hypersexuality certainly sells, has prominent visibility, and is often problematic. Yet it’s important to note, as scholars like Tricia Rose and T. Sharpley-Whiting argue, that this dimension of black women’s sexuality is also a tool of power frequented by the same female artists and women that Harris-Perry dismisses. In this instance, Harris-Perry’s treatment of a black feminine erotic is staunchly politicized and restrictive, in stark contrast to her support of diverse citizenships and a frequently visited pitfall in how black women are assimilated into American culture.
Perhaps most refreshing about Sister Citizen’s dedication to black women’s complex realities is Harris-Perry’s coupling of her chapters with introductory vignettes of literary and performance pieces like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (which Harris-Perry borrows from for the subtitle of this book), “No Mirrors in My Nana’s House” by women’s gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock “ and poetess Elizabeth Alexander’s piece “Praise Song for the Day,” read at President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration.
It’s Harris-Perry’s intriguing and brilliant incorporation of Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal text Their Eyes were Watching God, however, that reveals the agency with which Sister Citizen seeks to engage its readers. Coupling a close reading of a passage about the horrors of the protagonist Janie and her husband Tea Cake face in the novel with the very real tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, Harris-Perry politicizes Hurston’s text to carve a new niche for discussion about Katrina and its aftermath from a feminine perspective. While much of her discussion includes political commentary following similar racialized veins of discourse in place about Katrina’s effects on New Orleans, her deepening of Katrina’s connections to black feminine discourse is innovative, engaging Katrina as a traumatic space geared specifically toward African American women.
It’s her inclusion of actual Hurricane Katrina accounts from black women like Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc and Denise Roubion-Johnson, however, that fittingly supplement the connections between shame, citizenship, and respectability Harris-Perry presents. These connections, she observes, are blurred and often overshadowed by outside expectations of black womanhood. The trauma of Katrina heightened this sense of anxiety and agency, with Roubion-Johnson observing “I was herded like cattle like everybody else regardless of my ability to pay for services. Nobody cared.”
Sister Citizen is a massive undertaking of critical thought. Harris-Perry is to be commended for her efforts to tackle the unusually large breadth and scope of black women’s experiences, offering as complicated an analysis as her subject. Aside from more generalized African American women’s stereotypes, Harris-Perry’s inclusion of Michelle Obama, Shirley Sherrod, and the Duke Lacrosse rape allegations are poignant and sharp contributions she makes to race, gender, and cultural studies. While the majority of her observations are accessible, her delicate treading between accessibility and ‘academese’ is occasionally weighed down by extensive jargon and rifts of literature reviews.
One of Harris-Perry’s most striking closing thoughts, however, can be used a springboard for further discussion into the visuality of black women in America: “Newsweek is the same publication whose cover image of a black woman Katrina survivor and her two children reduced white Americans’ willingness to support government spending for rebuilding New Orleans. Less than five years later, Michelle Obama and her children replaced Katrina victims as America’s default image of black women and children. But it is not clear that this substitution constitutes a meaningful or permanent shift in our national understanding of African American women.”
Returning to the frenzy surrounding reality television shows, African American women freely propagate and profitably engage in these scripted performances of black womanhood. Basketball Wives is produced by Shaunie O’Neal, a black woman. Harris-Perry’s observations leave room for questioning not only the implication of such imagery on Africa American women but their investment – economic and otherwise – in its sustenance. Does that default image of black women Harris-Perry references shift with expectation or trauma? The frivolity of American media’s relationship with race and gender leaves room for not only discussion of their role in the absorption and projection of black women in America, but also black women’s portrayals of themselves. Sister Citizen is a pliable tool to map out such implications.