Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: Sister Citizen

Author: Melissa V. Harris-Perry
Pages: 378
Genre: Non-Fiction (Women's Studies)
Series/Standalone: Standalone
Version: Paperback
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Yale University Press
Source: Private Purchase

Synopsis (GoodReads):
Jezebel's sexual lasciviousness, Mammy's devotion, and Sapphire's outspoken anger—these are among the most persistent stereotypes that black women encounter in contemporary American life. Hurtful and dishonest, such representations force African American women to navigate a virtual crooked room that shames them and shapes their experiences as citizens. Many respond by assuming a mantle of strength that may convince others, and even themselves, that they do not need help. But as a result, the unique political issues of black women are often ignored and marginalized.

In this groundbreaking book, Melissa V. Harris-Perry uses multiple methods of inquiry, including literary analysis, political theory, focus groups, surveys, and experimental research, to understand more deeply black women's political and emotional responses to pervasive negative race and gender images. Not a traditional political science work concerned with office-seeking, voting, or ideology, Sister Citizen instead explores how African American women understand themselves as citizens and what they expect from political organizing. Harris-Perry shows that the shared struggle to preserve an authentic self and secure recognition as a citizen links together black women in America, from the anonymous survivors of Hurricane Katrina to the current First Lady of the United States


I guest I should start with a little disclaimer.  I am a huge fan of Melissa Harris-Perry (and Rachael Maddow).  I have very few regrets about giving up cable, but two of the biggest regrets that I have are missing out of The Food Network and MSNBC.  So, when I saw that Harris-Perry was coming out with a book, I was excited and I put it up for selection in my book club, hoping that they would pick it. They did and it led to a great group discussion.

On to the review.

 The whole of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America can be boiled down to one simple yet complex question that Melissa Harris-Perry asked on page 20:
What does it mean to be a black woman and an American citizen?
I knew that Sister Citizen was going to be a winner when Harris-Perry opened the book with  showing how Janie Mae Crawford's (protagonist) experience in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God directly reflects that of Black women in America today. And then later comparing Hurricane Katrina and it's aftermath to the Hurricane that took place in the book.  While also I have to state that while I did not enjoy Their Eyes Were Watching God, Melissa Harris-Perry analysis of it put the whole book in a new perspective.  I didn't get as much out of Their Eyes Were Watching God as she did and now I am disappointed that I didn't enjoy it more.

Melissa Harris-Perry expertly tackles the stereotypes that black women face (The Mammy, The Jezebel, and The Sapphire) and their struggle to fight them.  Harris-Perry illustrates this struggle with a chapter that she titled "Crooked 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. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion. 
It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room

I can honestly say that there just wasn't much that I disagreed with.  Most of it made since based on my experience as a black woman and an American.

I will say that my least favorite section was "God" and that is basically because I felt that she could have been slightly more critical.  I think she throw a soft ball (is that the right terminology?) and that it was the least organized of the sections.  I will say that I did agree with what said about the black church, but I am non-religious.  I think she hit the nail on the head when said:
The church, in the broadest and most plural sense, is a site of struggle for sisters.
I also think the the chapter on Michelle Obama was weak.  I did like how she gave examples of the First Lady trying to "stand straight in a crooked room".  But even after six years with Michelle being in the spotlight, it felt like that chapter was lacking in something (what I don't know).

Final Grade: A

Overall Recommendation:

I would highly recommend Sister Citizen: Shame Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.  My review doesn't do it just but I think I will let this one sit for a while and read it again in a couple of years.  To see if it still rings true (which I am sure it will).

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