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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

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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.

378 pages, Hardcover

First published September 20, 2011

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About the author

Melissa V. Harris-Perry

6 books270 followers
Melissa V. Harris-Perry is professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She previously served on the faculties of the University of Chicago and Princeton University.

Harris-Perry is author of the eagerly anticipated new book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (Yale 2011) which argues that persistent harmful stereotypes—invisible to many but painfully familiar to black women—profoundly shape black women’s politics, contribute to policies that treat them unfairly, and make it difficult for black women to assert their rights in the political arena. Her first book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, won the 2005 W. E. B. Du Bois Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

Professor Harris-Perry is a columnist for The Nation magazine, where she writes a monthly column also titled Sister Citizen and contributes to the group blog The Notion. She is a contributor to MSNBC. She regularly provides expert commentary on U.S. elections, racial issues, religious questions and gender concerns for both The Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. Harris-Perry appears as a bi-weekly guest in her own segment titled Sound Off during the 11AM MSNBC dayside show with Thomas Roberts. She is a regular commentator for many print and radio sources in the U.S. and abroad.

Her academic research is inspired by a desire to investigate the challenges facing contemporary black Americans and to better understand the multiple, creative ways that African Americans respond to these challenges. Her work is published in scholarly journals and edited volumes and her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology.

Professor Harris-Perry's creative and dynamic teaching is also motivated by the practical political and racial issues of our time. Professor Harris-Perry has taught students from grade school to graduate school and has been recognized for her commitment to the classroom as a site of democratic deliberation on race.

She travels extensively speaking to colleges, organizations and businesses in the United States and abroad. In 2009 Professor Harris-Perry became the youngest scholar to deliver the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University. Also in 2009 she delivered the prestigious Ware Lecture, becoming the youngest woman to ever do so.

Professor Harris-Perry received her B.A. in English from Wake Forest University, her Ph.D. in political science from Duke University and an honorary doctorate from Meadville Lombard Theological School. And she studied theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She lives in New Orleans with her husband, James Perry, and is the mother of a terrific daughter, Parker.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 307 reviews
Profile Image for Monica.
582 reviews610 followers
October 22, 2022
I loved the concept of Sister Citizen. I think MHP hit this one out of the park in terms of content and scholarly analysis. The idea of the book is to analyze the black women in America. Her examination is primarily through popular culture and historical events.

Harris-Perry examines three persistent stereotypes: the Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire. The Mammy looks a how black women are viewed as caretakers who put the well being of the people they are serving over their own people or families. The Jezebel examines how black women are viewed as hypersexual a particularly offensive view in my mind when one considers the history of rape in the African American experience. The last view is Sapphire which is a name given to describe the angry black woman. Irrational, mean and crazy according to the stereotype. Harris Perry examines these stereotypes through American history, society and popular culture. She demonstrates that these views are ingrained and systemic.

The book is very well done, with countless examples of her points in books, in songs in historical accounts, in plays and movies etc. It is very compelling work. My only issue is that because the evidence to back up her assertions is steeped in popular culture, the book though only 10 years old comes across as dated. This is an unintentional consequence that is only highlighted because she did such an excellent job. In my view in these last 10 years America has backslid and there are so many important, overt and obvious examples absent from this book (because they occurred after it was written). My most fervent wish is that she would update this every decade to keep this necessary book indisputably relevant. Also frankly, anyone who doesn't appreciate Tyler Perry's portrayal and view of women goes way up in my book. It's a tremendous sign of intelligence. I am an unabashed MHP fan. Highly recommended reading.

4.5 Stars

Listened to the audiobook. Lisa Renee Pitts did an excellent job.
December 6, 2011
Melissa Harris-Perry pulls no punches with her insightful and scathing indictment of the institutions and the damaging myths about black womanhood that keep them from fully realizing their citizenship and their identity. She explores the genesis of such stereotypes as the promiscuous Jezebel, the self-sacrificing Mammy (once again made popular with the inexplicable success of The Help) and the emasculating Sapphire. The book is filled with anecdotes, but it's also backed with meticulous research and she also uses powerful novels like The Color Purple, The Bluest Eye, Their Eyes Were Watching God and for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf to link black women's varied experiences to the struggle for recognition and personhood. She uses the metaphor of the "crooked room" to describe how black women do their best to live within the perimeters of a world that often defines them through the lens of hatred and fear.

Parts of this book were hard for me to read because many of her observartions are true in my own life and while I identify myself as a feminist, I find the movement's lack of diverse voices and understanding of the dual burdens of race and gender (and in many cases sexual orientation) that black women face highly troublesome. One of the chapters I was delighted to read had to do with how black women view god, and I have the feeling a lot of black pastors are going to hear Perry's criticism of them and she may end up shunned because she exposed a lot of truths about how the church fails to bring black women's issues and needs to the front. There are also chapters on the railroading of Shirley Sherrod (an incident I wrote about on my LJ blog http://thevixenne.livejournal.com/402...) and the 'rebranding' of Michelle Obama in order to make her "safe" for Americans who aren't comfortable with a black woman stepping out of the box and/or claiming her power to personhood.

There are a lot of people who should read this book, mainly consisting of:

1) Gloria Steinem. I will never forgive or forget her insensitive op-ed article in the New York Times when she tried to force black women to place gender before race when it came to support for then candidate Barack Obama, in spite of the fact that black women have to deal with both. I'm inclined to mail her my personal copy so that she will finally understand how hurtful her comments were and maybe a real and lasting apology will come from her lips.

2) Black men who need to understand the intersectionality of race and gender on black women's lives.

3) White women who swear up and down that The Help "opened their eyes" to racial injustice and who defend author Kathryn Stockett from black women readers who were rightfully offended by her mis-treatment and mis-representation of what it meant to be a maid in the segregated South;

4) Black women who refused to side with Prophetess Juanita Bynum when she went public with her husband's abuse and who told her that she shouldn't have aired "her dirty laundry" for the world to see. These are thge same black women who sided with Clarence Thomas against Anita Hill;

5) Black men like Tyler Perry, Steve Harvey, misogynist rappers and others who profit on black women's insecurities when it comes to relationships and/or maintain stereotyped images of black women in the media;

6) Everyone on Fox News, providing that they are capable of reading something that doesn't come directly from Roger Ailes;

Perry's book isn't a comfortable read, but thoughtful social criticism shouldn't be. It is, however, a book that I think may shape the next wave of black feminists to start taking their own issues more seriously rather than being a part of other people's agendas.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,699 reviews2,299 followers
May 31, 2020
Compelling and well-researched, Harris-Perry sets it all out in Sister Citizen. She covers a lot of ground here, and there's a strong case for a second edition since its publish date of 2011. The last 6 years have provided a lot of data and cases to bolster her message in this book.

Opening with a passage and analysis of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, she draws the parallels between the fiction events and the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina 70+ years later. The beginning of the book details the social history and framework of New Orleans post-Katrina, as well as the way the story of the storm and how it was translated to the public. I was particularly struck by the semantics adopted by the media of "Katrina survivor" vs. "refugee", appearing to be completely tied to the race of the person. Harris-Perry, in her own research in New Orleans psot-Katrina, draws from oral histories of many survivors. It's a heart-breaking, but eye-opening, section of the book.

The chapter on shame as a societal construct is profound. How is shame used by groups, by governments, by institutions? What does this do to the victim over time/generations? How does shame differ from guilt? The last question led to a specifically interesting quote:

[Guilt's] specific focus on behavioral violation can encourage empathy, and motivate the guilty to altruistic action. Something different happens with shame, by imposing a lasting stigma on their very identity. It is proclaiming that a person (herself or himself) is defective, rather than motivating restitution. Shame debilitates and encourages avoidance.

The book moves into common societal streotypes of African-American women: "Jezebel" with loose morals and a strong sexual appetite, "Mammy" the asexual matron who dutifully cares for her charges - even leaving her own family behind, and "Sapphire", the angry, domineering female with little regard for others. Each of the three stereotypes receives treatment, pointing out the origins of the stereotype in popular culture.

Using these stereotypes as a framework, Harris-Perry moves into specific cases showing the stereotype / trope "at play". This section of the book was surprising; these stereotypes have become so commonplace that many continue to perpetuate them, sometimes without even realizing it. Citing popular culture (the stand-up of Chris Rock and the dozens of Tyler Perry movies that make jokes at the expense of black women), Harris-Perry delves into events that underscore these stereotypes. Looking at the Duke University Lacrosse scandal in mid-2000s, we see the popular depiction of the black female "Jezebel" who was hired to strip/entertain for the lacrosse team, and the scandal that erupted after the woman accused the players of rape. Before the charges were dropped and the players were released, the Duke community rallied around the alleged victim, depicting her as a strong single mother. Professors at Duke - "the Duke 88" - stood up for her, believing her story to be true. When DNA evidence proved that the woman was lying, many in the public turned against the "Duke 88" allies who had stood up for her, claiming reverse racism, and using the "angry black" Sapphire stereotype to describe the people who had done no wrong. It was an infuriating reversal on the community that had already been hurt by this woman's dishonesty.

The final chapter of the book is dedicated to the most prominent African-American woman and her family: Former First Lady Michelle Obama. While Michelle Obama regularly fought the stereotypes that others tried to impose on her: "Jezebel" when she was once referred to as Barack's "baby mama", and other situations where her physical body became headlines, including her "Sapphire" anger/attitude, she became one of the most popular and favored of any First Lady in history.

There is so much more that I don't have time to touch on here in this review. This book is an outstanding study, and I am grateful that I was able to read and learn from it.
Profile Image for arieswym.
27 reviews28 followers
December 28, 2015
Loved it and am going to buy it (the copy I read was via the public library)

Skillfully weaves a narrative about the 3 major stereotypes of black women: Sapphire, Jezebel, and Mammy; and the ways that they still impact the way black women view themselves and are viewed/portrayed by others.

Most impactful/resonant to me were the parts on shame and the strong black women, building on what I'd read in When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down and Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America
Profile Image for Angela.
502 reviews94 followers
April 22, 2012
Having written a several-paragraph review of "Sister Citizen" before running out of battery and seeing it completely erased, I will attempt to rehash it with slightly more brevity. In her book, Melissa Harris-Perry covers roughly four major topics: the three traditional stereotypes faced by black American women (the promiscuous "Jezebel," the angry "Sapphire," and the nurturing "Mammy"), the more superficially positive stereotype created in response to this of the strong black woman and why it can also be damaging to individuals, the black church and its role in issues of importance to women, and the interplay of these stereotypes and the effect they have on popular cultural responses to the events of recent African American history, including hurricane Katrina, the Duke lacrosse scandal, Michelle Obama becoming First Lady, and the Shirley Sherrod brouhaha.

With the issues of racial stereotypes having come prominently into the news via Trayvon Martin's death while I was reading "Sister Citizen," it was fascinating to see how a number of the phenomena Harris-Perry describes played into the popular opinions and coverage of the issues. Particularly resonant was the idea that people want to see the world as just and fair, and how this drives people to blame the victims of unlucky outcomes or assume that people whose lives have gone well have acted in a particularly good way. The psychological research mentioned and surveys conducted by Harris-Perry herself are the most interesting parts of the book.

Somewhat weaker is the section on the black church. This seems to be where most of the author's scholarship experience is, but I remained unconvinced that the church has failed its members in the ways she describes. She demonstrates that black women have the same views of gender and politics regardless of their involvement with the church, so while it may not be specifically supportive of the women who comprise 2/3 of its membership, I wasn't convinced that the church has a deleterious effect in this area either. The brief history of the black church did provide an excellent bibliography of resources on learning about it, but I thought that otherwise the section was somewhat awkwardly shoehorned into the book, only making it quite back on track with the response to Tyler Perry's interpretation of Ntozake Shange's play. My other main criticism of the book would be its reliance on examples and excerpts from fictional works, which fortunately lessens as the book goes on.

On the whole, I felt like my understanding and perspective of recent black American women's history was tremendously improved by reading "Sister Citizen." It has, however, increased my reading list by about half a dozen books and exposed gaping holes in my knowledge of American literature.
Profile Image for Christine.
6,550 reviews473 followers
June 8, 2017
What I really like about this book, besides the fact that Harris-Perry is one of the most honest authors I have ever read, is the fact that it is about women and politics, and not about women and media.

However, the most distrubing section (and most powerful in some cases) is the brief paragraphs were Harri-Perry mentions a desire by a certain group to errect a Mammy monument on the National Mall, right near the Lincoln Memorial.

It is a very powerful book, though at times very analytical. Yet, considering the quasi keruffle about race in my city at the time I read this, I found to be very timely (and far more revelent).

I like the fact that the politics were dealt with though sterotypes. I learned much and will most likely watch tv to find Harri-Perry actually talking.
Profile Image for Bill.
51 reviews4 followers
September 29, 2011
I picked up Sister Citizen because I am interested from a legal perspective in the implications that stereotyping of African American women has in the workplace. The book more than rewarded my interest.

The book is a pastiche of literary excerpts, critical essays, news analysis, focus group reporting, and statistical surveys that covers everything from the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the success of Michelle Obama and the shaming of Shirley Sherrod. In between it packs powerful statistical analyses of the attitudes of African American women toward everything from themselves to God.

Unifying the work are several potent themes. One is the way in which the expectation that African American women will live up to the image of the "Strong Black Woman" is both a source of strength for African American women and an obstacle to full political involvement in the community. The obverse of self-reliance is inhibition about seeking help from others. A second is that the way in which women are treated is often determined by which of several stereotypes are imposed on them. A third is the way in which community solidarity can turn into community shame.

A particularly valuable contribution of Ms. Harris-Perry's opus is that not only does it reveal the results of introspection on the part of the women it studies, but it also reflects their attitudes toward the larger white community. As such, it shines a spotlight on some common ground between the two, but also reveals significant gulfs in understanding.

African American women occupy a unique place in the Black Community and in society at large. They are among our most vulnerable citizens both in terms of resources and negative stereotyping, At the same time, the word they used most often to describe themselves was "strong," and they are pillars of their families, churches, communities, and society at large. The aim of this book is to point the way toward their fuller integration into American society, both so that their contributions will be more fully realized and so that they can lay claim to the broad support of the society to which they contribute.

Profile Image for Andre.
510 reviews138 followers
January 23, 2012
I love the analogy that undergirds this book, "trying to stand up straight in a crooked room." Ms. Harris-Perry does a remarkable job of explaining this challenge that is often mis-diagnosed by all. She provides history mixed with present day situations that make hers analysis clear and insightful. The discussion of myths and stereotypes and the effects of them on Black women is instructional. I hope that not only Black women embrace this book, but my fellow Black men do so as well. There is no doubt that we (brothers) have bought into the strong black woman myth often to the detriment of our mothers, sisters, daughters and spouses. I know I've been guilty of the purchase of this delusion. This is not to say that Black women are not, or can't be strong, but to gain a greater grasp of the effects of the myth. Certainly, if you want a more in-depth understanding, you'll have to buy this book and be guided by Ms. Harris-Perry's brilliance.
Profile Image for Crystal Starr Light.
1,345 reviews811 followers
February 10, 2020
Bullet Review:

I don't think I will do a full review of this, but I do want to add to my initial bullet review.

I decided to read this based off my Goodreads' Friend, Christine's, review. Please check her review out, as it will be much more complete than mine.

I ended up catching this on audiobook (thank you again, Audible!) and when my internet went out back in August of 2019 (the Great Internet Outage of 2019), I started listening to this instead of listening to YouTube when doing household chores.

This is not what I would consider your stereotypical "pop science/social science" nonfiction book. It has excerpts from black fiction and poetry. The format, along with how information dense it could be in places (and listening to a bunch of facts and figures is somehow worse than reading it) is really what takes away a star from this review.

The message of this book is astounding, even more so with Obama out of office. The various ways black women are "damned if you do, damned if you don't" by white men, white women, black men and even black women are astounding. You sometimes shake your head and wonder, is there any chance at equity?

This book doesn't sugarcoat the difficulties in black women's lives and how easily they are stereotyped as the Jezebel (the overly sexual woman), the Mammy (the caretaker of white people), and the Sapphire (the angry black woman) - and even how the positive stereotype of the "Strong Black Woman" can be equally damaging!

As a white woman, I hope to have even more compassion for my sisters, to have more understanding and to be better in my interactions with all people, so as not to help perpetuate these stereotypes anymore.

(And whaddya know, this ended up nearly being a full review! Ha!)
Profile Image for Tayari Jones.
Author 20 books28.8k followers
November 6, 2011
The crux of Harris-Perry's argument is that the prevailing stereotypes of black women profoundly affect the ways that black women are seen by America, but also the ways that they see themselves. This misrepresentation shapes and often limits black women's participation as American citizens. While scholars may find some of the ground covered here to be a bit familiar, "Sister Citizen" is written for the benefit of all Americans - sister citizens, brother citizens and anyone else who cares about the way this country works.

"Sister Citizen" is difficult to classify, as it blends novel excerpts, poetry, focus-group transcripts, political analysis, tables, charts, photographs and a touch of speechifying. The title nod to Audre Lorde's audacious "Sister Outsider" lets us know that this is an author who is not afraid to have an opinion. The work's second subtitle, "For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn't Enough," isn't quite as raw as its inspiration, Ntozake Shange's groundbreaking choreopoem, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf."

Harris-Perry's focus is on the lived experience of black women, but also the ways that black women are perceived by America. Her exploration of the images of black women in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is exhaustive and sometimes a little exhausting. In addition, she casts an unflinching eye at the Duke University lacrosse case, the R. Kelly trial and other hot-button subjects that will no doubt spark conversations around many a dinner table.
Profile Image for Chideziri.
31 reviews
January 8, 2013
I found "Sister Citizen" to be the most comprehensive book I have read regarding the stereotypes plaguing black women. The book is clear and concise. This has helped me to better understand myself as a black woman and how I fit in our country. I felt validated about a lot of personal experiences. Ms. Harris-Perry proves again that she is one of America's most incredible political minds. I appreciate how she is using peer-reviewed sources, empirical data,and recent events to tie her themes together. Ms. Harris-Perry says it best: "This book is not a work of history but it relies on black women's history as a frame for understanding contemporary politics. It is not a work of literary criticism, but it relies on literature written by and about black women. It is not a biography...It is not a traditional social science text, but it makes use of empirical data. This book is concerned with understanding the emotional realities of black womens' lives in order to answer a political, not a personal question: What does it mean to be a black woman and an American citizen?" (p.29)Ms. Harris-Perry masterfully gives scenario after scenario of the impact of mis-recognition over the history of African-Americans --using peer reviewed sources. The focus groups she conducted were interesting as well as the story about how black women (including Ms. Harris-Perry herself) struggled to survive during hurricane Katrina. She gives a heart wrenching 'boots on the ground' account of how people experienced hurricane Katrina, sharing the untold human losses and emotional traumas people endured. I cried and caught my breath aloud as I read the story of Ms. Phyllis Montana-Leblanc. You will be changed if you read this book better or worse. Paraphrasing another review "If a discussion about color, race and sexism are subjects you may not be interested then don't read the book, it will only make you angry". Toward the end she talks about Michelle Obama and Shirley Sherrod. Try to read this with an open mind.
Profile Image for Alison Rose.
742 reviews70 followers
July 3, 2016
This is a powerful, thorough account of what it means to be an African American woman in the US, both historically and in the present. The intersectionality embodied by women of color is an important and poignant viewpoint from which to see our culture, society, and political landscape. Melissa Harris-Perry does a wonderful job of making this viewpoint clear and accessible, and shows us how it feels to live in the mind, body and soul of a black woman in the US - the struggle for recognition as a real person and not one of various harmful stereotypes that so many still cling to despite their obvious harm and falseness. An important read for anyone who wishes to be an ally in the causes of social justice, racial and gender equality, and working toward a nation that recognizes all of its residents as true full citizens. Please do yourself and others the favor of reading this book!
Profile Image for Alex Templeton.
640 reviews31 followers
February 5, 2012
This is one of those books that I am truly glad I read, because it has taught me valuable things that I feel that I should know as a feminist interested in social justice. Harris-Perry writes convincingly of the stereotypes that shape African Americans womens' lives, personally and politically: the oversexed Jezebel, the caretaker Mammy, the Strong Black Women. Her arguments consist of the ways in which those stereotypes determine behavior (going out of one's way to behave in a way that refutes them, for example) and even the ways in which the more positive ones--the Strong Black Woman--can lead to unhealthy ways of being. Of course, I am a Caucasian woman, so I have no idea what it is like to be an African American woman in American society today and can therefore neither praise nor refute Harris-Perry's depiction of that life. Still, I have been thinking about these ideas ever since and assume that they will make a difference in framing my future encounters with African American female students.
Profile Image for Gabriella.
265 reviews236 followers
July 15, 2014
Great analysis and relevant/helpful depictions of all the stereotypes mentioned and their real-life political and social implications. Towards the end, however, MHP starts to throw in all of her perhaps newfound analysis about black female church life and the implications of Michelle Obama and this feels a lot less deliberate, substantiated, and well-developed than her earlier chapters do. Still great, and highly recommended by yours truly.

P.s. Can be borrowed as an audiobook on Hoopla, for those of you with awesome library systems. :)
Profile Image for J Beckett.
142 reviews404 followers
September 5, 2014
This is a must read for all women and men. A surprising, informative and extraordinary trace of the history and often tragic social view of African-American women. Melissa Harris-Perry provides a wonderful script confirming the amazing strength and unquestionable beauty of African-American women despite stereotypes, narrow minded historical assumptions and inaccurate media driven images.
Profile Image for Win Scarlett.
30 reviews18 followers
November 7, 2014
I found the chapter on Shame helpful in creating a framework for analyzing the implications of public vs. private hegemony.
Profile Image for Les.
358 reviews32 followers
March 24, 2016
Slow, thunderous clap for this one. I'm not giving this 5 stars because it's flawless. It's very dissertation-y (which means repetitive in parts and overstating what's already clear) even though there was obvious effort to make it readable to a more general public. And while I agree 150% about her analysis of black women and religion, specifically the Christian church, I found that chapter lacking word economy to a degree that became frustrating. But that's it. I think every bibliophile has a book or two that they wish could be issued as assigned reading to anyone they consider forming a genuine, adult friendship or relationship with. In short, let me know what you think of this, for it will go a great length toward telling me how much you understand what I know to be true and what's more, what must be understood and accepted as my fact for me to form any serious degree of mutual respect and trust with you; let me know what you think of this and how you think of it so I can know if you are worth investment of my time (and vice versa I suppose). That "it" book for me now, has been updated to this one. From her literary analysis of Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Bluest Eye (breathtaking) and For Colored Girls (best articulation of how T Perry disempowered it with his shenanigans) among others, to her choice of illustrative poetry and lyrics to the harder analysis and tackling of contemporary issues from links to slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and its dependence on gender inequity, to the church to the Duke lacrosse aftermath and the whole Shirley Sherrod b.s. - not to mention intertwining so many non-fiction books - Medical Apartheid, Killing the Black Body, Shifting and a number of other works...yeah. She "gets it" in the most profound and thorough way possible. I wouldn't expect a lot of people, including some/several black women, to appreciate or agree with much of what she says. This makes it all the more valuable. The book is about 5 or 6 years old now, but will always be true because it focuses on what has always been true - for some of us anyway.
Profile Image for Telly Reads.
104 reviews5 followers
July 16, 2015
Any black woman not awaken politically to the American society and how black women must navigate it, then the words, statistics, and examples used by Harris to explain the crook room (destructive, inhibiting stereotypes) that black women live in America will go over your head. I love how Harris base black women's politics around the crooked room theory, and have to find ourselves in this room misaligned with the stereotype of Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and the "strong black woman." Two passages from the book that will forever stay with me, "Strength is the rent a black woman must pay for the room she takes up on earth" and "in the United States, black women's bodies have often been valued only to the extent that they produce wealth and pleasure for others," make me reflect how I have aligned myself in the crooked room, how have I used my own strength and sexuality in society. While I do not co-sign black feminist rhetoric, as I find black feminism destructive to the black community, black family, and black womanhood, I do find this book to be a great read for black women as it makes them reflect how stereotypes have inhibited them politically, economically,spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
Profile Image for El.
1,355 reviews504 followers
January 19, 2014
Melissa Harris-Perry is a political commentator for MSNBC, hosting her own round table show, writes columns for The National, is an author of two works of gender and race, and is a professor of political science at Tulane University. In the past year she has been a guest on The Colbert Report and has been in the spotlight for an unfortunate comment that was made on-air about Mitt Romney's family and her subsequent apology.

As she is a very honest and direct commentator, her persona on her show on MSNBC comes across as being very aggressive, sometimes hysterical, and tends to become emotional quickly. Agree with her politics or not, the fact that you can go to YouTube, type in her name, and find relatively easy titles of clips including the words "meltdown" or "hysterical" or "screaming rant" is much in line with exactly what she discusses in her second book, Sister Citizen.

One of the main points Harris-Perry makes in this book is that black women are portrayed in media and society in one of three ways: as the Mammy (nurturing, matronly), the Jezebel (over/hypersexualized), or as Sapphire (aggressive, angry). She points to references in literature and media as well as looking at how African American women are portrayed in everyday news reports in newspapers, magazines, and TV/radio, in addition to how your everyday Jane and John Doe tend to pigeonhole based on their own stereotypes. It's interesting to me now, looking at some of her clips on YouTube, that people have sensationalized her words by putting some of the more dramatic episodes where either she (or one of her guests) becomes angry, like she or her guests are being held up for others to see as yet another Sapphire.

Beyond these stereotypes, and/or in light of these stereotypes, Harris-Perry also discusses shame and how African Americans tend to feel and express that emotion. While it's a state familiar to anyone regardless of race, gender, or creed, Harris-Perry's argument is that African American women feel shame differently and more so than other demographics as they are black (strike one, per society) and women (strike two, per society).

Again, agree or disagree with her as you will, but Harris-Perry's thesis is interesting and important. The disappointment for me in reading this is that while I found the background information interesting, such as her connections to certain literature, and appreciated her numerous and solid citations throughout, she did not offer up any solutions. I know, I know, look at another white person who has no solutions of her own giving someone crap for not having any solutions. That makes me a dick, right? I had hoped that Harris-Perry could offer readers something new. Her information isn't entirely groundbreaking, but is important for readers, and could certainly be beneficial to readers who feel that racism and sexism are no longer issues in society, or that those are things of the past, and isn't life grand now? They would certainly find a lot of this relatively groundbreaking.

But for the rest of us who are aware of many of the ongoing issues, and have watched and/or studied and/or experienced racism or sexism, we already appreciate the problems discussed by Harris-Perry. That being said, it never hurts to hear it again.
Profile Image for Christine.
208 reviews9 followers
October 4, 2015
There are a bunch of excellent reviews on this book on goodreads. Check them out.

This book is excellent reading for anyone with a desire to understand the intersection of race and gender as it applies to black women in the US. It covers three stereotypes: Jezebel, Mammy, Sapphire, and how they result in tropes that support the systemic oppression of African American women.

The section titled God provides some interesting analyses on the differences in how black women see God and the church compared to other groups. This section in itself could be fleshed out, given the role the church and religious belief play in the black community.

The final chapter is titled Michelle and discusses fictive kinship, how black women see Michelle Obama in themselves or as close representations of their community. It also delves into some of the challenges the major stereotypes play in Obama's position of First Lady.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
19 reviews
December 14, 2013
I have three words to sum up this book:


Prof. Harris-Perry succeeds in delving deeply and often painfully into the many trials and tribulations that black women endure and how it affects us all on the macrocosmic level. What makes this work poignant is Prof. Harris-Perry's use of empirical and anecdotal evidence, mixing the old oral customs with 21st century evidence gathering, to paint a larger picture on how trapped black American women are in terms of race, gender, class and ability.

There are two aspects that I wish Prof. Harris-Perry would have touched on a little more: black women as atheists and black women who are also members of the LBGTQA community. The fact that she does not touch on these subcommunities, in my opinion, further illustrates how difficult it is for a black woman to "stand up straight in a crooked house".

Two more words: THANK YOU.
Profile Image for Naomi.
1,383 reviews272 followers
August 8, 2013
Melissa Harris-Perry's analysis of the relationship betweens racist and gendered stereotypes on the political participation and experience of citizenship for African American women is detailed, nuanced, and compelling. A fine addition to the body of literature on shame and its effects in contemporary society, now we need a next actions, counteracting the shame manual for liberation. Harris-Perry grants the reader glimpses of how we might change this experience and truly recognize one another with compassion and justly, and leaves us yearning for more. Highly recommended for individuals and for small groups, particularly congregational small groups seeking greater understanding of the social issues that limit and bind Americans, and our responsibilities toward one another.
Profile Image for Donald.
18 reviews40 followers
August 4, 2016
I found this book interesting and informative - it examines the stereotypes of black woman in the USA - she identifies three main ones -- which she calls Sapphire (the angry matriarch), Mammy (asexual nurturer) and Jezebel (oversexed)and the author shows how difficult it is to break free from the stereotypes.

I took my time with this book, as I had to consider the main points. On reflection i could see how these "roles" played out with the people around me and those in the public eye.

It certainly contributes to understanding on race and racism, with a focus on the black woman

I think men and women should read this to broaden understanding of stereotypes, that although we may know exist, are not conscientized about them
Profile Image for Britt.
111 reviews55 followers
November 4, 2015
This book was amazing. I appreciate the research, the ideas and the insight it presents. While the perspective is profound the book is succinct and digestible for a wide variety of audiences. This is the kind of book you buy and then borrow out over and over again...
Profile Image for Kristi Connell.
70 reviews2 followers
June 21, 2020
Even more relevant now, nine years after its publication, this book is exhaustively sourced and an eye-opening look at how racial tropes have real impact. It’s an academic treatise, so it went a little slow for me at times - but that last chapter, “Michelle,” hits like a gut punch. SO GOOD.
Profile Image for Jim.
1,789 reviews61 followers
February 26, 2014
Not a light read - Melissa Harris-Perry is obviously very intelligent and she has done her research. (And some of the experiments and surveys were conducted by her.) That being said, if you can spend a little time with it, this book is fairly accessible.

She gives a compelling argument:

"It is African American women, surviving at the nexus of racialized, gendered, and classed dis-privilege, who mark the progress of the nation."

This book is about exploring the myths of African American women, as viewed by society and how this misrecognition impacts their lives. It is a wonderful, eye-opening exposition about the life of black women in the U.S. How, in the past couple centuries African American women had to adopt personas opposite of these myths simply to counteract them, even if this dissemblance did not represent their true identities.

The chapter on shame was enlightening.

If you are constantly told that you were a problem, you eventually feel that you are a problem; and the more you feel like a problem, the more you notice negative feedback. It is harder to concentrate because you are working to manage the psychological effects of feeling ashamed. In this way, social rejection shapes experiences of the self and the world.

The shame chapter was excellent reading for anyone dealing with individual shame - as a start to understand what it is, and what it does. But if individual shame runs so deep, and is so destructive, how much more insidious is the collective shame that Harris-Perry describes? I think I'd take it one step further though - it's basically institutionalized shame.

If anything demands reparations, it's this. This is not liberal white guilt. This is documentation of a real thing, and we cannot ignore the damage we have done to an entire group of people. And what implications does this have for damage we are doing to other people?

Something else that is interesting is the ideal of the strong black woman. Harris-Perry says, "the strong black woman does battle against the vicious stereotypes of black women perpetrated by racism and patriarchy. But while she creates a standard for self-improvement and racial empowerment, she also encourages silence in the face of structural barriers." She creates a standard that cannot be met.

Overall, an excellent book. We all need to take as many steps as we can to understand people who have different experiences than we do.
100 reviews
January 11, 2017
I only recently learned that the feminism I have always subscribed to is actually White Feminism. I hadn't heard the phrase Intersectional Feminism until only a year or two ago. This book doesn't use that phrase, but it has given me so much more vocabulary and background information towards understanding that black women are fighting a battle with an almost entirely different (and more sinister) set of obstacles besides the struggle for equal pay and affordable childcare and adequate women's healthcare, etc. As when I watched Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair for the first time years ago, I found myself humbled and awed and devastated. I end this book with more of a vision on how to be a true ally, because to conquer the insidious assumptions about women in general, we will need all women at the table, especially the one's who are raised to have supernatural strength (for better or worse...), and that means that white women have to first understand and fight the unique stereotypes and injustices that befall sisters of color, because otherwise black women have to choose between fighting for racial equality and gender equity, and there is historically (and currently) plenty of reason to not trust white women.
Profile Image for Korri.
584 reviews2 followers
December 1, 2011
Melissa Harris-Perry's exploration of how black women are impacted emotionally and politically by the stereotypes--both negative and positive--surrounding them is recommended reading for everyone.

It feels like black women live with the Miranda warnings permanently hanging over their heads in all situations: 'You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you...' Perceptions about African American women don't often correspond to their realities. Harris-Perry likens this to attempts to stand up straight in a crooked room--it's easy to think that the room is correct. In this book she offers a much needed correction to the distorted images at the intersection of racism and sexism.

Making good on the second wave feminist notion that 'the personal is the political', Harris-Perry combs through examples from literature, theology, and sociology to examine how the pervasive iconography of Jezebel, Mammy, Sapphire, and the strong black woman informs interpretations of national events (Hurricane Katrina, the Duke lacrosse scandal, and the shaming of Shirley Sherrod) and understandings of the self.

Profile Image for Micah.
603 reviews9 followers
January 9, 2012
The last quarter of this book kicks it from four to five stars. This is a thorough look at black women in American politics, but not in the traditional sense. This is more a look at how all the things that go into being a black woman inform how they think and act politically. Even that is an over simplification of what the book sets out to do.
The book is well researched and well documented. That's a plus. I feel like the last part of the book really brought together all the little pieces. The first bunch of the book explains social ideas and concepts that pertain to black women, how they are perceived and portrayed by media, white people (male and female) and black men.It goes through a bunch of different stereotypes and caricatures that are laid on black women and explains how they came into existence, how they've evolved and how they directly effect the lives of black women. Then it's all wrapped up in looks at Michelle Obama and Shirley Sherrod. It's a really powerful close. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,720 followers
January 30, 2019
A moving, beautifully written, carefully argued, far-ranging examination of the stereotypes that shape and constrict the lives of Black American women. I loved the particular mix of examples Harris-Perry chose to build her arguments, from literature to journalism to historical events to focus groups. I felt guided through some very tough territory by this thoughtful author. She gave me confidence to expand my thinking and to recognize the ways cultural stereotypes have misshaped my beliefs. Some of the hardest passages to read were about the differences in response to the Katrina disaster, depending on the race of the respondent. Even more hard to think about perhaps were the many instances Harris-Perry cites of Black women accepting limiting and hateful cultural stereotypes of themselves, either when judging themselves, or when judging other Black women. Even though a lot of what is written here is hard to take in, this is a hopeful book, one that gave me a lot to keep thinking about.
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