Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, by Melissa Harris-Perry

What means to be a black woman and an American citizen?  This is the question that Melissa Harris-Perry tries to answer in Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

Sister Citizen is a multi-layered book about the complexities in the lives of African American women.  About what it feels like to be a citizen in America when you are a black woman, in a body that it has been racialized and gendered in a way that
produces shame, fear and distress.

There are some broad ideas in the book, particularly the notion of politics recognition and visibility of the black woman in the American society and politics. ‘Recognition’, says Harris-Perry, ‘is a useful framework because it emphasises the interconnection between individuals and groups. Individuals from disempowered social groups desire recognition for their group but also want recognition of their distinctiveness from the group.’

Taking recognition seriously means understanding the correct relations between the state and its citizens. Citizenship is membership in a community and a nation. Citizenship is bound with recognition. Harris-Perry argues, that black women in America are frequently not recognised for what they really are. Their bodies, their minds, are invisible to many whites who do not see them as individuals with distinctive talents, accomplishments, and burdens. The myth of strong black woman has formed a crooked image and contributed to the misrecognition of black women by denying them their humanity.

Misrecognition can lead to psychological and social withdrawal. Repeated acts of misrecognition leads to shame and transform the identity of a person. Melissa Harris-Perry uses stories from current events, such as the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the literature, and personal narratives of black women to describe the struggle of African-American women to be seen, appreciated, and recognised, not only as supporters, as caretakers, and as the undergirding of their men’s ambitions, but also as distinct individuals, and valued and respectable citizens.

Melissa Harris-Perry explores the stereotypes that have affected Black women throughout history and discusses the effects in their personal lives. The Mummy, the asexual, passive and self-sacrificed domestic worker, the distorted image of promiscuous and oversexualised Jazebel, and the strong and angry black woman, the matriarchal Sapphire. Harris-Perry analyses the attitudes of African American women towards faith and God and the ways that black churches maintain the subjugation of black women, ‘through their promotion of inequitable gender leadership and their teachings about male domination in the home.’ She explores the emotionality in the lives of black women and how these emotions affect their political choices. She discusses the struggle of the black woman to maintain the façade of strength which the black comminutes and the church require from her. ‘The strong black woman is denied her sadness,’ she argues.

Sister Citizen is well written and informative.  Using empirical social science, statistical and experimental data, and individual biographies and examples from literature, Melissa Harris-Perry shows how the psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political. She highlights how misrecognition limits the opportunities for African American women. Sister Citizen is a political book, but it has much wider, inter-racial, and international implications.