The book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women In America written by Melissa Harris-Perry is eye-opening account of labels that have been placed on Black women historically and how those same labels continue to permeate and disable the lives of African-American women today.  The book is written from a political science context in which Harris-Perry uses empirical data, surveys, and focus groups to gather and collect information that backs up theories and historical landscapes that have had a profound effect on Black women for centuries.

Harris-Perry begins with the story of ‘The Hurricane’ from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (another book on my 2013 list).  She talks about the protagonist Janie and her struggles with self-identity and struggle to find an authentic loving relationship in a world where her black womanhood makes her vulnerable to people and systems that keep her suppressed.  Janie lives in a world where she is not able to make her own decisions, she is not her own woman, and does not have the advantages to enjoy the personal freedoms we as women value today.  The story is relevant to today’s Black woman because there are stereotypes and deep seeded issues of misrecognition that we still carry with us today.  In Sister Citizen, the term the Crooked Room becomes the landscape for how this process of oppression is used towards us and within us.  She uses this metaphor to explain the stereotypes that misguide Black women into thinking that these types are what define us, which as a result alters our aesthetic sense of who we are.  The types of Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire have cultivated in our community since the dawn of slavery.  Though some of these stereotypes may appear archaic and ill conceived to feminists and others, there is no question that these ugly images creep into contemporary figures in the form of reality TV shows, music videos, and films.  These images are also used in ignorant social commentary by political pundits, bloggers, and news journalists who either have racist intentions or simply use these hurtful clichés as a way to sensationalize and evoke a response.

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What struck me the most about this book, and was quite personal for me, was the notion of misrecognition. I believe that many of us feel like our voices are suppressed and that we are not given our fair share of the kind of identification that we deserve.  As a young nerdy black girl growing up, I always felt like an outcast or that no one was interested in paying attention to me because I was different.  I was the uncool black girl and in my school all of the black women were cool and popular.  In hindsight, it made me realize that maybe some of them were living in a crooked room.  I’m sure that some of them appreciated and valued the things I liked as a nerd (comic books, anime, musical theater, etc.)  however, they chose to like what was okay by pop culture at the time, because they wanted to fit into an identity that would allow them to feel and be recognized  by others.  I tried to sometimes walk into that crooked room and keep my back hunched down like them but eventually they saw me for the poser that I was and always kicked me out.

Misrecognition is just a small sample of what Harris-Perry discusses in this analysis of how we perceive ourselves as well as how others view us.  Towards the end of the book there is an excellent chapter about Michelle Obama and how she had been desecrated by the media as America’s first African American FLOTUS.  The harder the press and the media chooses to minimize her,  the stronger Michelle chooses to stand firm and stand tall in the Crooked Room.  Michelle chooses not to conform to please others, but to simply be herself.  Many of the points expressed in this book about the unhealthy images and social conventions of Black women were not much of a surprise to me.  However, what I did learn is why women today still hold onto these models and how both Black men and Whites support these types whenever an ‘alleged scandal’ emerges.  For example, the way the media and the NAACP demonized Shirley Sherrod’s comments about a White farmer.  Comments that elicited a vitriolic response from both Blacks and Whites.

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It’s an enlightening piece of material and it will allow you to understand why our contemporary society functions in ways that help facilitate these stereotypes.  The quote by Shirley Chisolm at the end defined in totality what this book meant to me and will mean to others who read it.  Shirley Chisolm was the first Black woman to be elected to Congress and the first to run for President of the United States.

Shirley says:

“I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.”

Being yourself. That is exactly what helps me stand straight in the crooked room.

You can purchase a copy of Melissa Harris-Perry’s book on Amazon HERE