Monday, May 9, 2011

Melissa Harris Perry, Sister Citizen

Melissa Harris Perry  Photo Copyright: 2011/ L Monroe/Now Rise Books
Melissa Harris Perry is at Yale University Press, today, making preparations for her forthcoming book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (Yale University Press.) More expressively, "For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn't Enough" is the sub-title at the bottom edge of the dust jacket that will speak to a lot of Black women, as we come to grips with the fact that we need each other to survive and thrive in this 21st century. If Black women have lost this truth, then Perry's book may serve as a catalyst for redemption and revival among Black women, and thus Black families, at this time when our community needs it most of all.
An excerpt from the YUP catalog explains that while Harris-Perry’s work is "[n]ot 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”  (

Sister Citizen (Yale University Press, Fall 2011)
I am eager to read Sister Citizen because, as a member of a mainstream Black women’s political group for some years, I've recognized a chasm between women who embrace our organized political group and the women we try to recruit who actually shun organized activism. Many of these women do not see their identities or their own personal interests as being relevant to a discussion of politics--whether the discussion is about the politics of our hair, bodies, color, education, money or relationships. 

This chasm is especially and heart-breakingly evident between generations. My political group seeks younger women to balance our venerable members who are veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. However,  so many Black girls today are too far removed from the revolutionary winds of social change of the Sixties and Seventies that uprooted racial stigmas and liberated my generation, and a few after mine, to absorb the mantra that we were "young gifted and Black."  That is a very different message for young girls (and boys for that matter) to absorb versus the historical mammy, or Sapphire myth, or the contemporary and offensive "ho," "b----" or other stereotypes  that are directed toward Black girls.

Whether Black women choose to join one of America's two mainstream political parties, or an alternative political group, what is most important is that we understand that organizing together and raising our voices is the way we will affirm our identity. Can we control our image with as much self-interest and tenacity as a corporation protects its brand? Bottom line, to effect positive change in the quality of our lives on any issue, personal or broadly social, is not only possible, it is our responsibility. 

It is the way that we take hold of the birthright to American citizenship and make it our own.     

If anyone gets an advanced copy of Melissa Harris Perry's book, please share your views with readers here.  Thanks!

Updated: May 15, 2011

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  1. This is an incredibly generous post. Thank you. --MHP

  2. I look forward to reading Ms.Perry's book. As a columnist, ( I have written frequently about the historical, and ongoing, wholesale disparagement of black women, especially by the media. One recent episode of a crime television show included dialogue in which a white man referred to an African American assistant district attorney as "The Help." This is but one example of the negative portrayal of black women by the media. I shudder to think of what will happen when the movie based on the book, "The Help" is released. There are scenes in that book that can truly damage the existing negative image of black women. I shudder to think how much Hollywood will further stomp black women into the ground with the release of the movie. All of us must become more attuned to the overt and covert ways in which black women are disparaged--and to resist further denigration whenever and however possible. Of course black women are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place--if we speak out we are hostile and angry--if we don't we are "content" and unenlightened. I worry so much about all young black girls and how they will fare in a world that prefers white women. Ms. Perry's recent commentary about black-white wealth disparities should concern us all--but this disparity should be particularly troubling for the fate of black women and their children. I hope Ms. Perry's "Sister Citizen" will spur a genuine discussion and action. My greatest fear, however, is that some readers will view her research as somehow confirming of long held stereotypes. I look forward to reading the book.

  3. "Sister Citizen" is the most comprehensive look at the stereotypes plaguing black women that I've ever read. Melissa Harris-Perry proves again that she is one of America's most incredible political minds. It is remarkably academic and instructive; it uses a strong mixture of history and the present to tie together the themes it introduces. You understand within a few pages that this is not just another author's look at the long-suffering of black women in this country, it's a textbook, written by an educator who brilliantly connects the concepts in each chapter to the ones covered before it. Most importantly for me, as a black woman, I found myself reacting out loud again and again as Ms. Harris-Perry illustrated the many ways 'mis-recognition' has taken hold over the history of African Americans in this country, and the specific political impacts that have resulted. This book is an amazingly well-written, important work that should be required reading in history classes across America, and that most certainly should be gifted to as many African American women young and old, as possible.