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“Sister Citizen”: Black Women in a Crooked Room

(Image: Yale University Press)

Zora Neale Hurston writes Janie Mae Crawford as an irrepressibly independent woman. Janie leaves the economic security of her emotionally deadening first marriage to pursue adventure and love. After the death of her second husband, she flouts social convention and follows her heart into an affair with a much younger man. When her beloved descends into madness and threatens her life, she kills him rather than allow him to destroy her.When she is ready to return home, she does so despite the whispers and scandal occasioned by her unconventional choices. By following this path Janie does not avoid pain, loss, and disappointment, but by choosing her own burdens rather than allowing the burdens of others to be heaped on her back, Janie refutes her grandmother’s prophecy that black women are the mules of the world. Janie’s quest is about carving out a life that suits her authentic desires rather than conforming to the limiting, often soul-crushing expectations that others have of her. In this way, her personal journey is a model of the struggle many black women face.

This struggle is interestingly mirrored in the post–World War II cognitive psychology research on field dependence. Field dependence studies show how individuals locate the upright in a space. In one study, subjects were placed in a crooked chair in a crooked room and then asked to align themselves vertically. Some perceived themselves as straight only in relation to their surroundings. To the researchers’ surprise, some people could be tilted by as much as 35 degrees and report that they were perfectly straight, simply because they were aligned with images that were equally tilted. But not everyone did this: some managed to get themselves more or less upright regardless of how crooked the surrounding images were.

When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion. It may be surprising that some gyrate half-naked in degrading hip-hop videos that reinforce the image of black women’s lewdness. It may be shocking that some black women actors seem willing to embody the historically degrading image of Mammy by accepting movie roles where they are cast as the nurturing caretakers of white women and children. It may seem inexplicable that a respected black woman educator would stamp her foot, jab her finger in a black man’s face, and scream while trying to make a point on national television, thereby reconfirming the notion that black women are irrationally angry. To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.

The subtitle of this book is an adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. For colored girls is a definitive artistic, visual, and poetic representation of the experience of the crooked room. It has sold more than a hundred thousand copies. The play was first produced Off-Broadway in 1975. The next year it became a Broadway production, and in 1977 it earned an Obie Award for distinguished production and a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress. The official publication, production, and awards history does not capture the meaning of this piece for African American women. Since its introduction more than thirty years ago, for colored girls has been a mainstay in the personal libraries of African American women, of black feminist curriculum, and of black women’s local theater productions. Literary scholar Salamishah Tillet describes it as the ‘‘black feminist bible,’’ and author Ntozake Shange observes, ‘‘Not a day goes by when some young woman somewhere isn’t doing a for colored girls monologue, making the voice her own, finding her own infinite beauty once again.’’

Shange’s piece viscerally depicts the crooked room that black women confront. The production portrays the harshest and most bitter experiences of black women’s lives. Her characters suffer sexual and romantic betrayal, abuse, rape, illegal abortion, heartbreak, and rejection. For colored girls has lasting significance for so many because it presents black women’s experiences with unflinching rawness that is not primarily concerned with translating these experiences for a broader audience. Its primary goal is to give voice to black women by acknowledging the challenges they face, not to invoke pity or even empathy either from black men or from white viewers. It speaks to and about black women, and it does so by using language, images, and experiences that resonate for black women. For many who love it, reading or seeing Shange’s for colored girls is like noticing not that one is alone in the crooked room but, rather, that there are others standing bent, stooped, or surprisingly straight. It is an experience of having someone make visible the slanted images that too frequently remain invisible. ‘‘The poems were addressing situations that bridged our secret (unspoken) longing. For colored girls still is a women’s trip, and the connection we can make through it, with each other and for each other, is to empower us all.’’

Shange’s work exposes the fragility of black women’s emotional lives and insists that the agony of their experiences is collective, structural, and not of their own making, but it is not exclusively an exploration of victimization. Though her characters know pain, they also know love, passion, exploration, joy, music, and dance. Despite the incredible obstacles they face, not all of her women are irreparably broken. Results from the psychological studies of the crooked room showed that many respondents did find a way to discern the true upright position even when everything around them was distorted. Hurston’s account of Janie Mae Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God is a literary example of this ability to find the upright, as is Shange’s final poem in for colored girls, ‘‘A Laying on of Hands.’’ Black women’s political history is similarly filled with examples of this independence. Black women of the early twentieth-century club movement resisted the lie of black promiscuity by leading a movement for temperance, modesty, and respectability. African American domestic workers resisted the idea of Mammy-like devotion to whites by living outside their employers’ homes, protesting unfair labor conditions, and nurturing their own families and communities. Women of the civil rights movement helped change the country, not through angry violence, but through disciplined endurance of racist counterattacks against their nonviolent struggle. These women managed to stand straight despite the crooked world in which they lived.

Sometimes black women can conquer negative myths, sometimes they are defeated, and sometimes they choose not to fight. Whatever the outcome, we can better understand sisters as citizens when we appreciate the crooked room in which they struggle to stand upright. In the next several chapters I will pose a number of questions about how black women’s politics is affected by the crooked images they encounter. Is it possible that black women’s organizing efforts and public reactions to issues of sexual assault are linked to their beliefs about the stereotype of black women’s promiscuity? Does the pervasive notion of Mammy help explain why black women are suspicious of coalitions with white women? Do black women often defer to black men’s religious, familial, and political leadership because they reject the idea that they are angry and domineering? Having a clear view of the distorted images and painful stereotypes that make America a crooked room for African American women is the first step toward understanding how these stereotypes influence black women as political actors.

To learn more about the titled images of the crooked room that contemporary black women encounter in the United States, I conducted focus groups with forty-three African American women in Chicago, New York, and Oakland. As a warm-up task, I asked participants to think about black women as a group and list the stereotypes or myths about them that other people may hold. I then asked them to write down the ‘‘facts’’ about black women as they saw them. They worked in groups and had very lively discussions about both the myths and the facts. Although these women lived in different cities, were of several generations, and had different economic and family circumstances, their discussions formed a coherent picture. They independently arrived at the same three stereotypes that many researchers of African American women’s experience also identify: Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire.

Like the women in the focus groups, some readers will find these stereotypes familiar, others may never have heard of these myths, and still others may not know the negative connotations attached to them. In the next chapter I will explore the historical and contemporary outlines of the three stereotypes at length, but for the purposes of understanding the general idea of the crooked room, here I offer the brief explanations given by the women in the focus groups. For those of you less familiar with these ideas, I ask you to trust me for a few more pages that Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire are common and painful characterizations of black women and that each has a long history in American social and cultural life.

As they identified the main stereotypes, the focus group participants said that black women are seen either as ‘‘oversexed’’ or as ‘‘fat mammies who aren’t thinking about sex at all.’’ There was broad agreement that white people generally saw them as either promiscuous or asexual. ‘‘Jezebel,’’ ‘‘maid,’’ and ‘‘Mammy’’ were the terms they used most often to label these stereotypes. Margaret, a fifty-two year-old woman from the West Beverly neighborhood of Chicago, said, ‘‘Just because we are African we’re supposed to be wild and all this. We are supposed to be from the jungle and like to have wild sex. Like that is all we think about. Folks think we’re hot to trot. Or they think we’re Aunt Jemima. It’s never in between.’’

Many talked about the ‘‘welfare queen’’ as an ever-present characterization. Although nearly all the women rejected the hypersexual and Mammy stereotypes, several agreed with the welfare queen myth. ‘‘That is not a myth,’’ one participant said. ‘‘That belongs on the ‘fact’ side of the page. There are a lot of black women out here living on the system.’’ Still, everyone agreed that not all black women conformed to the image of welfare cheat, and most argued that the stereotype was damaging even if it was rooted in real behaviors.

The focus group members believed that black men and other black women also perpetuated myths about black women. ‘‘Haters,’’ ‘‘gold diggers,’’ ‘‘overly demanding,’’ and ‘‘argumentative’’ emerged as the main intraracial characterizations of black women. One professional woman in her fifties said, “black men always try to say that we are manipulative and too bossy and too demanding. They act like they don’t know that black women are the backbone of the family. We keep things together. The man may be the head of the household, but we are the backbone and the backbone has got to be strong.’’

Throughout this book I will return often to these women’s voices. Their insights set my research agenda by giving me clues about where to look to understand black women’s emotional and political experiences. Their discussions of myths pointed me toward three particular characterizations: hypersexuality, Mammy, and emasculating anger. These were the recurring stereotypes that participants said influence how others saw them. Most of the women also talked about their personal strategies to counter these negative assumptions. ‘‘I respect myself, so I know that nobody can call me a ho.’’ ‘‘I let my husband be the man in our house, so he never says that mess to me [about being too bossy]. He knows he is my man and God made him the head of our home.’’ ‘‘I have never been on welfare. I worked two jobs, but I have never been on welfare.’’ These narratives reveal the ways that black women attempt to stand upright in a room made crooked by the stereotypes about black women as a group.

In their 2003 book Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden report on the results of their African American Women’s Voices Project. After surveying and conducting in-depths interviews with hundreds of black women, they discovered that ‘‘97 percent acknowledge that they are aware of negative stereotypes of African American women and 80 percent confirm that they have been personally affected by these persistent racist and sexist assumptions.’’ Their book provides detailed evidence of how black women accommodate other people’s expectations by shifting their tone of voice, outward behaviors, and expressed attitudes. The women in my focus groups offer additional evidence that black women believe others think negatively about them. Jones and Shorter-Gooden’s research shows that this awareness has real effects on how black women see themselves, how they pursue personal relationships, and how they comport themselves at work. I think it also influences how they understand themselves as citizens, what they believe is possible in their relationship with the state, and what they expect from their political organizing.

Excerpted from “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry,” published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2011 by Melissa Victoria Harris-Perry. All rights reserved. Published by permission.

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