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A Shameful Attack on an Intelligent Black Woman: Salon Goes Too Far on Melissa-Harris Perry

In my review of Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry, I noted how much I appreciated Harris-Perry’s coverage of misrecognition of the “strong black woman.” It seems that Gene Lyons and the editors of Salon could stand to read Dr. Harris-Perry’s book.

In a piece entitled Obama’s bridge too far, Lyons launches an out-of-the-blue attack on Harris-Perry, using language to suggest that she is a race traitor, a Jezebel, and a kind of reverse-Klansman. Shame on Salon for publishing the piece. My hope is that the inevitable backlash will open some more eyes to the intolerable misrecognition of black women in American society, and to the function of shame around black women in the political sphere.

It is almost laughable how Lyons follows Harris-Perry’s script for the shaming of black women in public life to a T. Rather than attacking her argument alone on its face, he suggests Harris-Perry doesn’t belong in politics–that she is “whining,” a PhD “trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds,” and hyper-focused on race to the point that she can’t be taken seriously. Lyons dangerously frames race as a topic that is not matter for serious discussion, reminding the reader of conservative pleas to “colorblindness” in 2008.

“Furthermore, unless you’re black, you can’t possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession increasingly resembles a photo negative of KKK racial thought.” Black solidarity becomes an object of derision, a reverse racism in a colorblind (read, white-by-default) world. Harris-Perry’s legitimate substantive critiques of Obama, her nuanced way of looking at his administration, are ignored.

I find it particularly funny that Lyons calls Harris-Perry “a left-wing Michele Bachmann, an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things on cable TV,” in light of Harris-Perry’s comments at a recent Center for American Progress book discussion. She pointed out (to paraphrase) that despite derision, mocking, and the fact that nothing positive is ever said by the majority about it, black women continue to do amazing, beautiful, remarkable, creative things with their hair. There’s a parallel here–Lyons tries to shame Harris-Perry about her attractive looks, as if being attractive and intelligent were a mortal sin for a black woman, automatically reducing her words to silliness on a Bachmann scale, but I bet you anything Harris-Perry is going to go on being vocal about politics and being a snappy dresser despite Lyons’ attempts to shame her.

We cannot accept identity-based attacks like this in a supposedly progressive publication. As a long-time reader, I demand an apology from Salon–and suggest that its editors crack open a copy of Sister Citizen post haste.

Radical Reading: Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry

Radical Reading is a column where I review books of particular interest to a queer, feminist, radical audience.  If you have a book that you would like me to review or would like to put me on the list of reviewers for your press, please contact me at judithavory [at]

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’ve been a huge fan of Melissa Harris-Perry since she first started appearing as a guest on The Rachel Maddow Show.  She has a tremendous voice and is particularly agile at synthesizing complex information about politics, current events, and social science in an accessible way.

That said, I’m not surprised that I enjoyed her newest book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.  The book uses a slightly different framework than usual for looking at black women’s struggles in the US: instead of focusing on simple unequal distribution of resources, Harris-Perry uses a lens of misrecognition throughout the book.  Misrecognition, or failure to see black women as their full, authentic selves, is a denial of humanity that colors black women’s lives and prevents them from participating fully in public life.  Harris-Perry uses this lens to show how black women are denied full citizenship when they are recognized only as familiar stereotypes–the Mammy, the Jezebel, the Sapphire, and the self-sacrificing strong black woman.

Of course, none of these ideas are really new, but Harris-Perry presents them in a way that is very relevant for 2011.  She uses an interdisciplinary focus, blending polling data, her own focus groups, literature, current events, and politics.  Though there is some feminist influence at work, this book reads less like works I’ve read by black feminist authors focusing specifically on the feminist lens and more like general non-fiction.

Hurricane Katrina is a theme that weaves throughout the arguments presented, along with the stories presented in literary classics like Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Harris-Perry also looks at current events like the Duke Lacrosse scandal and media coverage of Michelle Obama, but blends these discussions with historical comparison.  Black women’s history in the US is presented in a way that would be relevant for a high school or college student today, and I can see this book being used in the classroom.

The frame of misrecognition is particularly interesting, because it gets to the very humanity of the issue.  I particularly liked how Harris-Perry tackles the ideal of the “strong black woman,” putting this self-sacrificing, superwoman figure next to other stereotypes and revealing the personal and political problems it creates.  Though the strong black woman is a positive character, she too is a misrecognition, and Harris-Perry posits that this idea of what black women should be may lead some black women towards political conservatism through a belief in individual responsibility.

This isn’t a primer on black feminism, or a treatment of all the historical issues related to black women in America.  But it is a particularly skillful treatment of some of the issues black women in America face today, seen through the lens of public misrecognition of their true, complex selves.