Book Review: Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry

Posted October 5, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 5 Comments

Book Review:  Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-PerrySister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry
Published by Yale University Press on September 2011
Genres: Nonfiction, Politics, Social Science
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 392
Source: my shelves

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This book is not a work of history, but it relies on black women's history as a frame for understanding contemporary politics. It is not a work of literary criticism, but it relies on literature written by and about black women. It is not a biography, but it gives some black women an opportunity to tell parts of their personal stories. It is not a traditional social science text, but it makes use of empirical data. This book is concerned with understanding the emotional realities of black women's lives in order to answer a political, not a personal, question: What does it mean to be a black woman and an American citizen?

(from the pages of Sister Citizen)

Melissa Harris-Perry’s latest book, Sister Citizen, takes a look at the traditional stereotypes that have affected Black women throughout history: the oversexed and oversexualized Jezebel; the asexual, loyal and nurturing Mammy; and the matriarchal Sapphire (the Angry Black Woman). It describes the origin of each of these stereotypes and the ways in which these stereotypes have affected Black women not only in their personal lives, but also in their political lives. Harris-Perry uses statistical data from a number of studies, as well as African American literature and personal narratives, to show that these stereotypes not only affect the ways in which Black women are misrecognized in society by others, but also to show the ways in which Black women misrecognize themselves. It also explains how this misrecognition in turn causes shame and health issues, both psychological and physical. These stereotypes pervade literally every aspect of Black women’s lives. Harris-Perry compares the battle against these stereotypes to finding an upright position in a crooked room. She explains that when confronted with one of these stereotypes (or a crooked room), some Black women will fight it and be determined to find the true upright position, while other Black women will bend and distort themselves in order to feel like they better fit the crookedness of the room itself.

In the Introduction, Harris-Perry begins by reminding us that politics is about more than just political parties, voting, elections and public policy. Politics is also about the struggle for recognition, which in Harris-Perry’s words:

…is the nexus of human identity and national identity, where much of the most important work of politics occurs. African American women fully embody this struggle. By studying the lives of black women, we gain important insight into how citizens yearn for and work toward recognition.

With this, Harris-Perry sets out to prove her claim that “the internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political.” Over the course of the book, she provides proof to back up that claim and she shows just how difficult it is for Black women to shake the stereotypes and find their authentic selves–and the difficulties involved in gaining recognition for those authentic selves. She explains just how limiting these stereotypes are and how they lessen opportunities for Black women to be leaders in the public sphere.

Harris-Perry writes about Michelle Obama and her role as first lady as an example whom everyone has some knowledge of. Because Michelle is so visible in this role, we have seen the many issues she has had with being accurately recognized for who she really is. After President Obama’s election, the press wasted no time weighing in on Michelle’s background and racial heritage. While some news outlets spoke mainly of her upbringing in Chicago and her connection to the historical African American experience, more virulent outlets such as Fox News took delight in describing her as “Barack’s baby mama.” This description is directly connected to the stereotype of Black women as sexually immoral. The Jezebel stereotype also comes into play with the way some media outlets talk about her physical body and the clothes she wears. More than once, Michelle Obama has been accused of being an angry black woman and has even been portrayed as such in political cartoons. This stereotype was first imposed upon her when her college thesis was made public, in which she described the problems she had with being an African American at Princeton University and how she often times felt like a visitor and not a part of the Princeton community. News outlets then went on to question “whether Michelle harbored resentments and hatred toward white people, white institutions, and America in general.” No one took the time to look into her claims, but instead immediately labeled her as angry. I could go on and on. But the point is that all of the misrecognition Michelle Obama has had to deal with is directly connected to the stereotypes discussed in Sister Citizen. In her position as first lady, Michelle has been forced by these stereotypes to distort her true self to fit the crooked room by choosing a more traditional role has family caretaker (and largely staying out of the realm of national politics), instead of being a more prominent voice as other first ladies have traditionally been. And Black women have to deal with this misrecognition at all levels, not just at the level of national politics.

What I enjoyed most about the structure of Sister Citizen is the fact that Harris-Perry didn’t rely entirely on studies, statistics and social science in order to make her argument. She used literature that I love and that I’m already quite familiar with, such as the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange; she used music lyrics from Sweet Honey in the Rock, a Grammy Award-winning vocal group founded in 1973; she used current events such as the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the Duke lacrosse scandal; and she used the personal narratives of Black women with whom she held group meetings as part of the research for the book. By doing this, not only did she show us how powerful these stereotypes are and how they influence and/or affect everything from what we read to what we see in the news, but she also made the subject more understandable and personal. By using examples that many people are familiar with–instead of relying entirely on social sciences and writing about her subject in the abstract–Harris-Perry provided people with many different things that they can relate to and physically see happening all around them. The feelings and ideas of the Black women whom she interviewed brought everything together and proved how very real the effects of these stereotypes are.

Sister Citizen is well written, informative, and insightful. Although Melissa Harris-Perry uses social science, professional studies and statistics throughout the book, she breaks everything down and explains it in terms everyone can understand. I highly recommend Sister Citizen to anyone who is interested in better understanding the roles in which these stereotypes play in the lives of Black women, and the ways in which our society and culture are responsible for their misrecognition. Personally, I believe that true progress in society starts with consciousness and understanding of our differences as groups–as well as individuals–so I recommend this book to anyone who is serious about social change. I will definitely be reading this one again.

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(Click here to learn more about Melissa Harris-Perry)

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