Sister Citizen: Harris-Perry

Melissa Harris-Perrydoesn’t like the book or movie “The Help,” and that’s an understatement. It wasn’t the topic of her talk at the Princeton Public Library today, but somebody asked that question and set her off on one of her always provocative, often funny, riffs on racial politics.
She returned to Princeton today (October16, as shown on the screen in the lobby) to talk about and sign her book, “SisterCitizen: For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough.”
She listed three familiar stereotypes. The first is The Mammy as in HattieMcDaniel (and, there’s that “The Help” book again.) The second is The Jezebel. The third is the Angry Black Woman, as in Sapphire.
A current stereotype is “Strong Black Woman,” but Harris-Perry questions whether that should be today’s acknowledged goal. 
She got an uncomfortable laugh from the packed room at the library when she noted that, if “strong” is the compliment for a black woman, the highest compliment for a white woman is “thin.” In the book she says that the goal of strength contributes to “pervasive experiences of shame for black women… a shame management strategy that has both emotional and political implications for black women.” It leads to “political anorexia.”
Skimming the book (a long, long line to get it signed) brings me to comments about Michelle Obama, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law, who decided not to take an active role in her husband’s administration in order to focus on being Mom in Chief. “She subverts a deep, powerful, and old public discourse on black women as bad mothers….Black single motherhood is blamed for social ills ranging from crime to drugs to urban disorder…”
“Michele Obama’s insistence on focusing on her children is also a sound repudiation of the Mammy role. Mammy…ensures order in the white world by ignoring her own family and community. Calling on Michelle Obama to take a more active policy role while her children are still young is in a way requesting that she use her role as First Lady to serve as the national Mammy. Michelle refused.”
The Mammy stereotype in “The Help” enrages Harris-Perry. From the viewpoint of the white author, at no time in any black servant’s life, does the servant not utterly adore the white children she cared for. Nor does the author acknowledge the difficulties and consequent feelings that the black servant might have regarding her ability to care for her own children and husband.

Worst: by making up a disempowering history (the white author gets the money and the job and leaves her co-authors behind in Jim Crow Mississippi), the real history fades.
 The real history is that, when Medgar Evers was killed, those same black domestics in Jackson– had actually organized on their own behalf. ”By telling the story this way, it either suggests that there weren’t real women who did real things or it allows us to ignore how much more dangerous, complex, and personal those stories were than this fictional one we’re getting.

The line for “Sister Citizen” booksigning stretched from the library’s front door to the library’s back door.  The initial chapter is available at Amazon.

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