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] gmail.com.
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.