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Exposing Myths About African-American Women

Publicists often advise authors to be ready at a moment’s notice to give the “elevator speech” about their books to anybody and everybody who will listen.

Dr. Melissa V. Harris-Perry, the Tulane University professor, MSNBC commentator and pundit, is no stranger to media interviews. When she talked to Diverse just weeks before the book was due out, she was still working on that sound bite about her latest book: Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (Yale University Press, September 20, 2011, ISBN-10: 0300165412 ISBN-13: 978-0300165418, pp. 392).

“I think it is something like this,” she said. “I am interested in how African-American women feel as they do the work of trying to be American citizens. It is not a book about Black women holding political office or seeking office. It is about how the race and gender stereotypes thwart our emotional, intellectual and political lives in ways that can lead African-American women to be politically engaged but often not politically engaged in their own interest.”

The stereotypes that she explores have dogged Black women at least since slavery and, as she argues, have continued to play cameo roles in contemporary controversies. The caricatures are instantly recognizable as the triplets: “Mammy” (self-sacrificing, devoted, competent); “Jezebel” (promiscuous, available, hypersexual); and “Sapphire” (angry, loud-talking, emasculating). Readers are perhaps most familiar with the problems “Mammy” presents.

“Mammy had no personal needs or desires,” Harris-Perry writes. “She was a trusted advisor and confidant whose skills were used exclusively in service of the White families to which she is attached.” (Her family must fend for itself.)

Perhaps the most dangerous stereotype, however, is “Sapphire” because, to paraphrase Harris-Perry, if “Sapphire” internalizes the myth of the “strong Black woman” and takes pride in being her, she may not demand help, justice or a voice at the table. Others will concede nothing because, after all, the Black woman is so strong.

The book is not only about how others perceive Black women, but also about how Black women perceive themselves. As Harris-Perry demonstrates, the indelible, distorted images constrict and shape how Black women act or fail to act in the political arena for their own good. The professor aptly describes the Black woman’s constant battle to be recognized as a fully human, authentic individual.

“Sometimes, Black women can conquer negative myths, sometimes they are defeated, and sometimes they choose not to fight,” she writes. “Whatever the outcome, we can better understand our sisters as citizens when we understand the crooked room in which they struggle to stand upright.”

Harris-Perry, who is a professor of political science at Tulane and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South, said that she hopes the book will have broad appeal beyond academia.

“I really hope that it is the kind of book that a book club of Black professional women would adopt and read—and find useful things to have conversations about,” she added. “I hope it’s the kind of book that women who read Ebony or Essence could read. … I am really hoping that an 18-year-old at Shaw University who reads this, goes, ‘Oh, that’s what’s going on. There is a name for what I have experienced.’ That would be very gratifying.”

To explore the stereotypes, Harris-Perry applied various tools, including focus groups, statistical analysis, experimental research, surveys and literary references.

Drawing from history, she reflects on the forced nudity of African women on the auction block, the gross debasement of the “Hottentot Venus” and a congressional effort to erect a national monument to “Mammy” near the Lincoln Memorial.

She discusses apparitions of the big three stereotypes that loomed in more recent events such as the New Yorker cover depicting Michelle Obama as a fist-bumping “angry Black woman” or Fox News’ description of her as President Obama’s “baby mama.”

Asked whether merely presenting this book could mark her as “an angry Black woman,” Harris-Perry said, “I assume that, any time I show up in public, there is the possibility that I can be seen as the angry Black woman.”

The professor was recently embroiled in controversy herself over her column in The Nation criticizing Dr. Cornel West, a former colleague in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, for his criticism of the president.

“In a self-aggrandizing, victimology sermon deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness, Professor West offers thin criticism of President Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed Black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years,” the article said.

Dr. Boyce Watkins, a scholar in residence at Syracuse University, complained in a blog on that Harris-Perry “has gone after Professor West as if he were the man who stole her first born child.

“One has to wonder if Harris-Perry’s attacks on West are just as personal as she believes West’s attacks to be on President Obama,” he wrote.

Harris-Perry took issue with suggestions she was getting back at West for some role in blocking her promotion to a full professorship earlier this year. She said she had no knowledge of how or whether he took a position on it.

“I don’t know that he is not, as far as I know, my greatest supporter,” she said.

It was no secret, she said, that they had long disagreed on many issues, but she maintained a deep respect for him as “one of the most important academicians of the 21st Century.”

“One of the things I absolutely agree with him on is that he has both a right and a responsibility to be critical when he believes criticism is necessary,” she said. “I am not a fan of quietly dealing with our problems behind closed doors—not airing our dirty laundry. Of course, he should speak out, but I reserve that same right for myself.”

Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., the chairman of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies, said he was not aware of any animosity between West and Harris-Perry while they were colleagues at Princeton. However, he said that the evidence that her criticism in The Nation “was personal,” was the nature of the piece.

“That seems to me very straightforward,” he added.

Harris-Perry said she had been considering moving on from Princeton even before her marriage last year to James Perry, a recent candidate for mayor of New Orleans. The professor said being at Princeton was an “isolating experience.”

“It very much has a Princeton way of doing things, and if you don’t do things the Princeton way, it’s very easy to feel like the ultimate outsider,” she said. “I always had a sense of double consciousness at Princeton.”

Princeton’s decision not to promote her indicated to Harris-Perry that she was not valued there and that it was time to leave. Since she arrived there in 2006, Harris-Perry had held the title of tenured associate professor. Because she already had tenure, in her view, the university would not have had a lot at stake in granting the promotion in rank.

“All that promotion to full professor is, from my perspective, just them saying, ‘Hey, we really like what you do, and we would like for you to stick around and keep doing it,’” she said. “So the fact that they didn’t, was a pretty clear signal that those things weren’t true.”

Glaude, who helped bring her to Princeton, said her assessment on that issue was “by any measure wrong.” At Princeton, he said she proved to be a “very creative thinker” and an “extraordinary teacher” who was adored by students.

“I can’t talk about the process,” he added. “But it was not based on any judgment about her value or not. It was based on the scholarly record.”

Now installed at Tulane, Harris-Perry said she was looking forward to shaping the new center on gender, race and politics, creating its programs and building relationships in the New Orleans community.

“It’s like having a baby,” she said. “You don’t know what it is going to look like.”

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