Not Oprah’s Book Club: Sister Citizen

We at Feministing have long been fans of Melissa Harris-Perry who has become a voice for young women in politics and specifically for young women of color who were tired of feeling invisible in political conversations. Her political analysis is on point, but she is also unconventionally honest, which sometimes makes her controversial. And she is not afraid to walk that line between academic rigor and mainstream accessibility. (She also blurbed my book–which was an honor since I am a long time fan).

So, when I sat down with her new book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, I was already expecting her usual rigorous, forward-thinking candor in laying out the ways that black women’s identities have been bent to the will of historical forces. The task at hand is formidable as is her use of resources, spanning over a century worth of stories, poems, movies, music, fiction, legislation and even natural disasters to paint a picture  of black women’s political identity formation. And as she moves from locating shame as a tool of social control, to the empowering stories of the black women that came before her, I realized that this might be one of the first books I have read in my generation that locates black women’s political identity at the center of all political thought.

She makes this clear on the first page of her introduction explaining that directly participating in politics is not the only way we are politicized,

The struggle for recognition is the nexus of human identity and national identity, where much of the most important of work of politics occurs. African American women fully embody this struggle. By studying the lives of black women, we gain important insight into how citizens yearn for and work toward recognition.

As we struggle for figuring out how to move from the margin to the center, Harris-Perry simply starts with this rather clear cut formula and builds her narrative around it–an exciting example of exactly how you put black women at the center of politics.

Harris-Perry’s work exemplifies the gradual recognition in mainstream dialogue to the concepts of intersecting identities, a friction that came to a head during the ’08 election and continues to exist on the periphery of political conversations. As we move to more complicated spaces with female Republicans claiming to be “feminists” or debate over the role of race in our assessments of Obama it is more clear than ever that we need better analytical tools to decipher the politics of the people we vote for.

More importantly, this book is a much needed intervention to the ways that black women are talked about in the mainstream media. This is particularly salient in her treatment of the coverage of the Duke lacrosse rape case, something that I still reel from when I think about, as I was one of the bloggers attacked by right-wing blogs for my suggestion that race played a really strong role in the response to Mangum’s case. Given the way the case played out I have always felt shame and anger at not having the proper tools to truly express what I felt was the larger injustice in that case (I was also really young in my blogging career–so just had a hard time expressing complicated things in general).

But since that time, one thing has never changed–irrelevant of whether Crystal Mangum told the truth or not–race played a strong role in people’s response to the case. Harris-Perry lays out the argument so clearly, I want to xerox it and mail it to every person that criticized me during that time. She argues that when it was found that Mangum’s story was not true this was used as an opportunity to claim that all the historical dynamics around race and gender were also untrue.

Public conversations about race often have this (for lack of a better term) black and white tenor to them–either something is 100% racist or it is not racist at all. And if it is not 100% racist than everyone who is “complaining” about it is holding on to archaic models of identity politics that do not apply because racism is over, so they should really stop talking about it.

In the case of Mangum this rhetoric was extended to suggest that since she lied–black women are liars that accuse powerful white men of rape for political gain. The next logical step would be that all the sexual assault of black women that has occurred at the hands of white men (and slave owners if you look at it historically) didn’t really happen. And let’s tack on it the attacks against the Duke professors who stood in solidarity with Mangum who were now  characterized as a bunch of leftie hacks that made their careers complaining about race. The outcome was ugly and hurt the way we talk about sexual assault and black women since then. Every time I hear a conservative commentator say, “another Duke,” I cringe, because they are not just talking about Mangum’s story, but instead the story that is used to disprove that black women can ever bring about charges of sexual assault.

When backed into a corner like this, black women have little public space to talk back, to uncover shame or tell their own stories. Harris-Perry carves out this possibility in a way that is refreshing and much needed. Reading this book was not just healing for my political mind, it also gave me a new set of tools to add to my arsenal when calling out the way that black women, and by extension all women of color, are represented in politics, media and culture.

You can get Sister Citizen on Amazon, so get on it!

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