Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry refers frequently to the crooked room in which African American women find ourselves in her book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America. She writes of Zora Neale Hurston's protagonist, Janie Crawford, falling in love with Tea Cake and Michelle Obama, owning her body, her connection to the legacy of black motherhood, her respectability as a woman who has chosen domesticity while also owning her power as an educated black woman. She mentions Ntozake Shange's play and Tyler Perry's misinterpretation of a film, too.

When they confront race and gender stereotypes, 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 may seem inexplicable that a respected black woman educator would stamp her foot, jab her finger in a black man's face, and scream while trying to make a point on national television, thereby reconfirming the notion that black women are irrationally angry. To understand why black women's public actions and political 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. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.
When she wrote that "black women are rarely recognized as archetypal citizens," or that to be a black woman is akin to trying to stand straight (and tall) in a crooked room, all I wanted to do was cheer. She named for me, as a writer and a reader, impressions and ideas that are rarely named in our culture. I knew that she would, which is why I loved the book and the idea of it before I even read it.

There are few authors who write extensively about the misrecognition of black women in society or the emotional, financial and political implications of that. There are also few books that explore the crooked room and gaze of black women in the church - they have remained the backbone of traditional Christian organizations, for example, while largely being cast aside for leadership positions.

For us to fully be citizens, it is required for us to at least try to stand up. And often, because of the myths associated with our superhuman strength or our supposed mannishness, we are criticized when we try. As Harris-Perry writes, "Sister politics is also about challenging negative images, managing degradation, and resisting or accommodating humiliating public representations." The most refreshing part of the book for me was Harris-Perry's analysis of Michelle Obama's significance to black women and American culture. She deftly sums up what it is, exactly, about Michelle that has prompted odd discourse about our First Lady.
It is an act of resistance for a black woman to demand that her body belong to herself for her pleasure, her adornment, even her vanity, because in the United States, black women's bodies have been valued only to the extent that they produce wealth and pleasure for others.
It would be so nice if this weren't true. But because it is, the best we can hope for are more books that provide solace for those of us who effort to stand straight in the crooked room.

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