Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America
By Melissa Harris-Perry
Yale University Press, 2011, 378 pp.
Review by Camille Goodison
Melissa Harris-Perry’s chosen title for her latest book, Sister Citizen, echoes the title the late feminist writer and poet Audre Lorde chose for her classic essay collection, Sister Outsider. Perry makes no mention of this in Citizen, the only reference to Lorde being the poet’s most famous quote—“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”—but I feel the implication is there. While Lorde’s essays, published a generation ago, were categorized as despairing and strident, Perry seems determined to have the country acknowledge that black women have always had a particular say in the movement towards justice for all, speaking truth to power, correctly and boldly, even when being ignored and assailed.
In media interviews, Perry has made it clear she believes it is necessary that black women reclaim this history of visionary black women (Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, etc.) who have been able to name the real offense and return the blame where it belongs. Neither the problem nor the solution is new—organize to change the system. Instead Perry radically revisits history in order to look at contemporary American culture. Sister Citizen is meant to be a project not of despair and alienation, but its opposite. The book’s subtitle, For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough—a play on Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf—makes the point.
Whatever Perry’s aspirations, much of Sister Citizen is painful, particularly the early chapters which look at modern-day manifestations of the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire stereotypes. Perry’s case is convincing. It is true, African American women’s lives are frequently burdened by the lies told about them, in no small part because so many people are willing to accept those lies as truth. This puts black women in the unenviable position of being little more than objects and playthings for other people’s agendas. Anyone reading Citizen would certainly be able to identify the more famous cases listed there. Through literary and media analysis, experimental research, and political theory, Perry tries to understand black women’s political and emotional responses to these pervasive negative stereotypes.
The responses are frequently touching and it occurs to me that not enough has been done in this area. There are more studies on the stereotypes themselves than on black women’s emotional responses. This also reveals the power of those myths as none suggests that black women may have an interior life, none worth paying attention to, anyway.
These personal testimonies were touching because there is something to Perry’s theory of the crooked room. In an old study, cognitive psychology researchers would put people in a room where everything was at an angle. They found that some people would arrange themselves in order to be in line with the crookedness, tilting themselves by as much as 35 degrees and reporting themselves as straight. Perry’s research turns up something similar in the responses of the many women she interviewed—distinct, dignified individuals who found they could not avoid society’s distorted images of themselves. One could easily find this distressing. This applies not only to negative stereotypes, but to ones black women have created for themselves, such as the strong black woman, in order to “stand straight” in this crooked room.
What could be more painful than to be dismissed as invisible while also having your actions subjected to intense scrutiny? There’s a ring of truth here when Perry says: “…because of their history as chattel slaves, their labor market participation as domestic workers, and their role as dependents in a punitive modern welfare state, black women in America live under heightened scrutiny…. As members of a stigmatized group, African American women lack opportunities for accurate, affirming recognition of the self and yet must contend with hyper-visibility imposed by their lower social status.”
We all want to be accurately recognized and appropriately valued, as well as to lay claim to a private self when necessary. Perry shows how black women are frequently denied access to all three things, and even worse their private, intimate selves are often presented in a harsh public (distorted) light, providing no way to run. Perry talks a lot about shame and its role in the lives of black women and how those stereotypes continue. Shame, it turns out, is hardly an empowering emotion. I’m reminded of those Katrina “refugees”—a group of dazed, bedraggled people who had lost everything—being directed to board transportation out of state. All this while television cameras rolled. I remember one woman saying, sadly, as she touched her head, “But we’re dirty. My hair.” This wasn’t an unfortunate, ill-timed expression of vanity, but a real statement of grief. “What will the viewers (America) think of us?” Whatever viewers did see, it may well have occurred to this woman that more than a few may not have seen her.
Sister Citizen offers fresh takes, particularly for any student of American race and gender studies. Fresh mostly because of the women’s stories. For this reason, the concluding chapter on Michelle Obama feels out of place, though I understand why Perry found it necessary. Perry’s political instincts are correct, though. Like her, my preferred history of black women in America is with the more ordinary (Wells, Hamer, Nash), debating strategy in groups.
Camille Goodison is a graduate of Syracuse University (MFA) and Binghamton University (PhD) programs in fiction. She currently teaches English at the City University of New York.
Hugh Laurie, Eric Clapton & Wynton Marsalis
Blues, Jazz and Gospel New Orleans Style
Reviews by John Zavesky
Leave it to the British to once again demonstrate that they can do it as good as any American and better than most. Hugh Laurie’s Let Them Talk is one of those wonderful surprises that happen so rarely, a TV star actually coming up with an album worth listening to. Laurie and his odyssey to New Orleans was the subject of a PBS American Masters Series. Surprisingly, Laurie proves to be a master of the New Orleans genre. This is evidenced by the roster of guest artists appearing on the album that include Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Allan Toussaint and Tom Jones.
Laurie begins his album with “St. James Infirmary,” one of the best-known jazz numbers, indelibly etched into our collective musical conscious by Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording. Laurie pulls it off like a pro breaking the song into two parts and giving it a majesty that lets the listener know this isn’t some TV dilettante messing around. Laurie is the real deal. Next, Dr. John handles vocal duties on “After You’ve Gone” while Laurie plays the piano.
Laurie’s dry wit and sense of humor comes through with the selection of songs that range from well known to obscure. Clarence Williams’s “You Don’t Know My Mind” has a lighthearted musical quality juxtaposed with lyrics that are anything but. “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” is another brave take on one of New Orleans’ original jazz practitioners. “Swanee River” is not the typical song most American artists would cover. Laurie begins with a traditional interpretation that takes a left turn and becomes a boogie-woogie number conjuring up the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis. Laurie is audacious enough to even include his take on “Tipitina,” a song most indentified with Professor Longhair. Laurie closes the album with the witty title song, “Let Them Talk.” Laurie is smart enough to know that when it comes to playing, all you can do is put your best foot forward and hope that others appreciate your performance. In Laurie’s case, it’s well worth the listen.
There is probably no better known practitioner of the blues than Eric Clapton. When he was first coming up the ranks of rock stardom and met blues idols like B.B. King and Muddy Waters, Clapton told them, “I’m just doing this [blues] until I can get a gig with a jazz band.” Clapton finally got that gig with Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues: Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center that is manna from heaven for jazz and blues traditionalists. One might think Clapton’s rock style of playing blues would run counter to Marsalis’ jazz subtlety, but both are masters of their respective genres. What is so exciting is to see and hear just how well Clapton melds his fire-breathing guitar playing with New Orleans jazz.
The album comes in either a single CD or a CD/DVD combo. My recommendation is for the combo. While the CD is great, nearly all the stage dialogue and verbal interplay between Clapton and Marsalis has been cut out.
Marsalis assembled an incredible band of traditionalist players. Clapton brought former Grease Band member Chris Stainton to play electric piano. The band rehearsed for three days and then put on a performance that can only be classified as once in a lifetime.
From the start, Clapton and Marsalis demonstrate that their respective styles are entirely compatible. The band begins with the light hearted “Ice Cream,” not a song one would ever think to associate with Clapton. “Forty-Four” and “Joe Turner’s Blues” are both solid blues numbers played in that distinctive New Orleans fashion. “Kidman Blues” features trombonist Chris Crenshaw on vocals. His vocal cadence is dead on, conjuring up images of field laborers’ call and response. One of the most ambitious efforts is the band’s take on “Layla.” While the original will always hold a special place in the anthem of 1970’s rock, you haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard “Layla” performed by probably the best second line outfit ever assembled. Taj Mahal comes on at the end of the performance to close with one of the most moving versions of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and follows with an energetic encore of “Corrine, Corrina.”
Marsalis & Clapton Play the Blues does not necessarily break any new musical ground, with the possible exception of “Layla,” but it is an album and performance steeped in tradition that pays homage to a revered musical form. It is the collaboration of these two extremely talented players that makes this such an exceptional performance and disc. It also proves that the New Orleans style is still as fresh and exciting as ever when performed by those who march to their own beat.
John Zavesky is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Press/Enterprise, Z Magazine, and the San Diego Union, as well as other periodicals. He is currently working on a crime novel.