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Sister CitizenReview - Sister Citizen
Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America
by Melissa V. Harris-Perry
Yale University Press, 2011
Review by Isabel Adonis
Sep 4th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 36)

I come to this book as a sister, but not a citizen. I am a mixed race woman living in the UK, and there are no doubt resonances and subtleties, particularly of the political scene, that I am not privy to. But in addressing the condition of Black American women, the book has much wider, international, and inter-racial implications. In the introduction Perry lays out her purpose:

"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?"

And though the book largely talks psychology, her overall aim is political. Politics impacts psychology and psychology impacts politics. In particular, stereotypes guide social policy.

  The book is laid out as a multilayered and colorful quilt. The pieces of cloth, old and new, reveal the varying guises of the black woman. She is motif, pattern, theme and design. We see her in literature, in poetry, in the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, in myth, in the ubiquitous stereotypes accorded to her from a history of slavery. We hear of her universal shame and dishonor, the way her nameless body is exploited by the media. She makes an appearance in focus groups where her responses are noted. We hear also how she reacts to these conditions, and how, in the face of extreme adversity, she feels compelled to reinvent herself as 'strong' and how in the face of this stereotypical misrecognition she can't be merely human, ordinary. And as the black woman stands before the black church and the transformative power of religion Perry explores her role in the religious community.

Perry vaunts the black woman, holds her up to be seen, because recognition, or more to the point misrecognition, is what this book is all about. Society does not, perhaps, cannot see this woman at the very bottom of society, cannot feel this 'other' woman at the margin of American life. Yet in as much as a society is to be deemed morally good, her life as black woman remains a measure, a barometer for a just society.

"It is African American women, surviving at the nexus of racialized, gendered, and classed dis-privilege, who mark the progress of the nation." 

At the center of the quilt detailing the many guises of the black woman, Perry utilizes the notion of 'the crooked room' to illuminate the struggle of the black woman in American life. In a psychological study in the years after World War 2, subjects were asked to sit in a crooked chair in a crooked room and were required to align themselves vertically. In the attempt to stand straight in the crooked room some people were seen to distort their bodies up to 35 degrees yet still report that they were vertical It was left to the few to stand more or less straight in this distorted room.

"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."

To verify these claims Perry conducted focus groups to explore the way in which black women experience how they are perceived by others and how this impacts their self perception. Out of this study three stereotypes emerge, namely, Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire. The source of these myths is the relations between black and white communities, but both black women and black men also communicate these myths. The myth of Jezebel is the highly sexualized wanton woman, while Mammy represents an asexual persona who is prepared to put others needs before her own. Sapphire on the other hand is the angry black woman.

She quotes the work of Arendt's The Human Condition (1958) who details a fundamental connection between the public outer self and the inner private self.

"Since our feeling for reality depends utterly upon appearance and therefore upon the existence of a public realm into which things can appear out of the darkness of sheltered existence, even the twilight which illuminates our private and intimate lives is ultimately derived from the much harsher light of the public realm."

But this requirement for privacy is repudiated by the heightened scrutiny both in the public realm and in the scrutiny of the state.  The black woman's body is not her body, and the image of the black woman, because of the history of slavery, is still 'owned'. The innate power of her body is exploited to sustain the the power of others, and this undermines any sense of there being a recognition of self in relation to a democratic state and the political social contract.

 In the United States, black women tend to live in poverty, are more likely to suffer stress and hypertension, and more likely to be sexually assaulted. Degrading humiliation through the violence and the oppression of stereotyping is the price of the ticket.

 "Social ideas like race, gender and class thus have a powerful effect on personal feelings."

The myths are both scurrilous and powerful; having named the problem as the black woman, they lend justification for further oppression. The body and the sexuality of the black woman is a threat to society and the function of the myth is to distort and to control.

In Zora Neale Hurston's, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) Janie's desires are dangerous and must be controlled. She is married off by her grandmother to an older man, forcing her to become a female eunuch whereby her desire for life and sex can be controlled. Her husband offers her, through his body, the opportunity to be seen and the status of being an object of desire, which is a distortion of her own wanting. She is imprisoned in a crooked room, a room where she resists, through her own fearlessness, the effort to tame her. Eventually, through the mutuality and recognition she finds with Tea Cake, she is able to make the necessary changes to fulfill her curiosity and personal desire. Perry uses Janie's story to illustrate the impact of the Jezebel myth and the attempt to resist and transcend it.

According to Perry, the black mammy stereotype, the aunt Jemima, is the central figure in the creation of the American psyche and the crooked room. She is asexual, loyal and pleasing, willing to distort, through fear, her own sense of humanity and sense of self. But the object of her service is the white community and this is an image poorly regarded by the black community. However in one of her focus groups Perry discovers a subverted mammy myth in the way that black women regard themselves; the object of service is simply transferred wholesale to the black community.

 The black woman as Sapphire, is seen as angry and complaining; 'always angry about something' are the words which accompany her. She is seen as pathological and is endlessly problematized by society. She is the repository of American shame.

After  the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the nameless black woman on the front of Newsweek serves as an image to shame America. Her agonized visage is exploited as a bridge to public understanding of the ordeal faced by her and other black women. Through her face the world witnesses both the humiliation of the personal and the political in the delayed response to help her.  The black woman is seen. The political leaders are seen. And though a unique opportunity arose for some kind of understanding and discernment between the personal and the political, no recognition takes place. For a moment, America reclaimed its rightful shame at the plight of one woman, one of many, but the moment passed, and the shame was passed back to her.

Surveys after Katrina revealed the racial disparity between how black and white groups viewed the aftermath of the storm. For while White Americans saw it as a natural disaster, complete with administrative failures, Black Americans saw it as a racial disaster.

In Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) both Celie and Shug are black woman characters that are shamed by society, but who through their mutual recognition resist shame and are transformed. And in Toni Morrison's, The Bluest Eye (1970) Perry relates the tragic life of the young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who internalizes a desire for the white woman image. She is poor, she is ugly and to the world she is unacknowledged and marginalized. This is what society makes her and therefore this is what she is. In response she shrinks away from life; if the community cannot see her, then  she will react by not being there. She is an object, dehumanized, a vulnerable, still absorbent child bobbing around in a sea of indifference and contempt.

  To counteract the negative stereotyping of black girls and women, Perry tells us that African American mothers and grandmothers instil their daughters with a positive pride in black achievements. She makes references to the term "fictive kinship" which refers to connections and allegiances which black people might have to other black people, as if seeing them as one big family. But she reminds us that this positive identification comes with its own in built negative side. When a black woman distinguishes herself she is applauded but when she fails to live up to this high expectation she is a figure of ridicule and shame in which the whole 'family' partakes.

"The flip side of pride is shame, and like racial pride, racial shame is an important political emotion."

In order to counteract the distortions and images of the crooked room Perry informs us that black women have created yet another image, that of the 'strong' woman. This new self, this new idealized expression serves as a reaction to the crooked room in order to counter the shaming images of society.

 "The strong black woman serves as a constructive role model because black women draw encouragement and self assurance from an icon able to overcome great obstacles."

But Perry points out that this image becomes another prison, a defense to hide the fact of human frailty and vulnerability. Like Pecola, the black woman makes herself invisible behind the strong woman image and paradoxically makes herself more likely to be a target of shame.

Perry then turns her attention to the church and to review the role of the black woman in this institution. What she sees is somewhat similar to the political sphere, where the African American woman is present, but still struggling for full recognition. And while black women have been and are at the center of the church both historically, socially and culturally they are subject to a religious doctrine mediated by the image of a black male Christ and black male preachers. The black woman is not merely the mother of the church but the center of the faith community where she expresses herself  through preaching, music, literature, art and political organizing. Religion and the church are central to her identity and view of herself. But even here black woman must maintain the image of invulnerability. She must be one thing and not the other and with no place in between. Showing weakness, showing sadness becomes a 'white' thing, and part of the way white women are seen.

Perry ends the book with a portrait of the first lady, Michelle Obama and her relationship to the concept of the crooked room.

"I have chosen Michelle Obama because she is the most visible contemporary example of an African American woman working to stand up in a crooked room. The success in gaining accurate recognition is emblematic, if not typical of black women's citizenship struggles."

She points out that no black woman is immune from racial stereotyping and reveals how Michelle Obama is scrutinized and denigrated as a baby mama, an angry black woman, as terrorist, as hyper-sexualized as well as being subject to the ubiquitous conversation about her body, what she wears and the size of her booty. The usual stereotypes, Jezebel, Mammy and Sapphire raise their ugly heads, but Michelle Obama is seen to resist these (mis)representations. Perry's claim is that Michelle Obama stands up to these distorted claims and pushes them aside.  Publicly she gives an impression of softness and warmth, is highly visible and has taken on a safe role as mother and adopted safe social issues to be involved in. There is the suggestion that this woman in the White house has the power to transform the image of black women in America, as she has become one of the most well liked women in the country.

"Defying generations of stereotypes and shame, she has managed to become one of the most popular individuals in the country. Michelle Obama is the living breathing possibility of sister citizenship."

This is a brief overview of what is a lengthy study and a comprehensive analysis of the lives of black women in America.

  The research is so extensive, the truth so obvious, and deeply resonant with my own experiences as a black woman in the UK, that I found myself doubting the truth in the truth so to speak. Sometimes I found the book all too painfully accurate.

Where I have a more serious criticism, and I hesitate to enter the political arena too deeply, is with the ending of the book. That Michelle Obama is a special kind of person, married to a special kind of man is too much of a coincidence and too convenient. Perry puts her on a pedestal and sees her as a liberating influence for all black women.  Out of all the black women who struggle to realize their integrity, and stand straight in the crooked room, she is the proud example. Michelle Obama has come to recognition because she is the wife of the president, but not in her own right, and her image is undoubtedly manufactured. Is this not another projection, the creation of a new, improved stereotype?

Is the fiction of fictive kinship at play here? 'People like me' are upright citizens.  This for me is where the book started to fall down and loose its credibility. Surely the people who stand up in the crooked room, do so alone, without outside reference or opinion.

 At the beginning of chapter one, Perry uses Audre Lorde's oft used quote about the master's tools, and yet it is the master tools that she employs to gain an 'objective' view of the black woman. Despite her colorful quilt, she, like the white man, views the black woman from outside. She separates herself from the object of her study, thus making the black woman 'other' to herself.

In the original study, the psychologist is able to stand outside the crooked room and take an objective view of what is upright. But there is no equivalent position outside society; the psychologist, Perry, me, you, Michele Obama, are all in the crooked room together, and all thinking we are standing upright. The master's tool, the objective position, is another myth, that creates yet another stereotype in the image of Michele Obama and Perry herself , 'strong yet soft'.

This is the psychological paradox of identity that Perry does not address; that there can be no identification at all that is not with, or against another, and that does not become a stereotype. We cannot stand straight in the world by means of identifications which are static, but must keep moving like a cyclist to maintain our balance. The demand for completion, for perfection, to have arrived at the meaning of one's being, is a rejection of the process of living, which is always to be learning anew, how to stand upright.

To study black women is to study the whole of society and not a fragment. People like quilts because they offer a vision of wholeness, of integrity but this is not quite what Perry gives us. Black women live in relation to the whole of a society where black and white people are not separate entities and where there is no notion of black without a notion of white. It's not just black women that have to contend with battling with stereotypes, the same is true for white women and black and white men. The crooked room, the dependency on images and cliched references is the society we all live in.  She neglects white people and whiteness and what she leaves out is revealing, just as what black women leave out by creating images is also revealing. This is not to criticize the focus of the book, though, merely its scope.

I'm not an African American woman. I'm also looking in a sense from outside. I'm a black woman living in Wales. Actually I'm not black at all because my mother was white and Welsh and my father, black and West Indian. The community I have always lived in is white. But my brown skin condemns me to the stereotypes of blackness and to the notion of the crooked room. I have at once far too many children, in danger of being sexual with white women's husbands, am angry, have an identity problem, am negative and a trouble maker and want to be different. I found this book very liberating because it enabled me to give meaning to my own experiences of being misrecognized.

I can certainly testify to the difficulties facing the black woman and the real hurdles of coming to a true sense of identity given the distortions in society, where attempts at self definition are thwarted at every turn.  To stand up, to be myself in a room where I am over prescribed by stereotypes from without is no easy matter.

I agree with Perry that the view of the black woman is distorted and degraded. I agree that in the negotiation of identity between individual and community, what and who the black woman is, is 'already known'. The stuff of racism is the projected view where stereotypes promote the safety and a culture of knowing. For the sake of social homeostasis, the dark body requires classification, then is ignored in order for those in power to function. the dark body fixes the point upon which the political is dependent, a fixed point where those in power can function.

Stereotypes of the black woman are the language and model which sustain the racial differences and hierarchies. The crooked room of society is viewed as democratic, the sense of crookedness, seen as normal life. But the normal life of the black woman is in itself a distortion. 'Others', a kind of symbolic diseased body, must be created, and the body of the dark woman remains a convenient 'mule' for this burden. Distortions of images and the need to maintain the old tropes are manufactured on the body of the black woman.

The crooked room is society, a society which functions from the safety of images and where language is both linear and polarizing. The  black woman is defined by a language that does not recognize her. She is systematically subject to stereotype; these images must be kept intact.

  But the act of resistance is inevitably another distortion of the self. Because of course black women are sexual, are mothers, are at times angry and at times passive. Just like the rest of humanity.

Audre Lorde tells us in Sister Outsider (1996),

"The white fathers told us: I think therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free."

The possibility exists that the life of the black woman can be transformed. In her invisibility, her nothingness. she can be complete, be everything she can be without recourse to the opinion of others. Through acceptance of herself through her own embodiment she finds the balm to end the meaninglessness of race and racism  for herself. Only then can an undistorted political engagement with the crooked room of society begin.


© 2012 Isabel Adonis


Isabel Adonis is a writer and artist living in Wales. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Educational Studies from the University College of North Wales. She's published in New Welsh Review and Urban Welsh.(Parthian)



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