Exposing Triple Myths: Dr. Melissa V. Harris-Perry Explores the Black Woman's Challenge to Move beyond Race, Gender Stereotypes and to Be Recognized as an Authentic Individual

By Dodson, Angela P. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, September 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Exposing Triple Myths: Dr. Melissa V. Harris-Perry Explores the Black Woman's Challenge to Move beyond Race, Gender Stereotypes and to Be Recognized as an Authentic Individual


Dodson, Angela P., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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Publicists often advise authors to be ready at a moment's notice to give the "elevator speech" about their books to anybody and everybody who will listen.

Dr. Melissa V. Harris-Perry, the Tulane University professor, MSNBC commentator and pundit, is no stranger to media interviews. When she talked to Diverse weeks before the book was due out, she was still working on that sound bite about her latest book: Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (Yale University Press, September 20, 2011, ISBN-10: 0300165412 ISBN-13: 978-0300165418, pp. 392).

"I think it is something like this," she said. "I am interested in how African-American women feel as they do the work of trying to be American citizens. It is not a book about Black women holding political office or seeking office. It is about how the race and gender stereotypes thwart our emotional, intellectual and political lives in ways that can lead African-American women to be politically engaged but often not politically engaged in their own interest."

The stereotypes that she explores have dogged Black women at least since slavery and, as she argues, have continued to play cameo roles in contemporary controversies. The caricatures are instantly recognizable as the triplets: "Mammy" (self-sacrificing, devoted, competent), "Jezebel" (promiscuous, available, hypersexual) and "Sapphire" (angry, loud-talking, emasculating).

Readers are perhaps most familiar with the problems "Mammy" presents.

"Mammy had no personal needs or desires," Harris-Perry writes. "She was a trusted advisor and confidant whose skills were used exclusively in service of the White families to which she is attached." (Her family must fend for itself.)

Perhaps the most dangerous stereotype, however, is "Sapphire" because, to paraphrase Harris-Perry, if "Sapphire" internalizes the myth of the "strong Black woman" and takes pride in being her, she may not demand help, justice or a voice at the table. Others will concede nothing because, after all, the Black woman is so strong.

The book is not only about how others perceive Black women, but also about how Black women perceive themselves. As Harris-Perry demonstrates, the indelible, distorted images constrict and shape how Black women act or fail to act in the political arena for their own good. The professor aptly describes the Black woman's constant battle to be recognized as a fully human, authentic individual.

"Sometimes, Black women can conquer negative myths, sometimes they are defeated, and sometimes they choose not to fight," she writes. "Whatever the outcome, we can better understand our sisters as citizens when we understand the crooked room in which they struggle to stand upright."

Harris-Perry, who is a professor of political science at Tulane and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South, said that she hopes the book will have broad appeal beyond academia.

"I really hope that it is the kind of book that a book club of Black professional women would adopt and read-and find useful things to have conversations about," she added. "I hope it's the kind of book that women who read Ebony or Essence could read.... I am really hoping that an 18-year-old at Shaw University who reads this, goes, 'Oh, that's what's going on. There is a name for what I have experienced.' That would be very gratifying."

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To explore the stereotypes, Harris-Perry applied various tools, including focus groups, statistical analysis, experimental research, surveys and literary references. Drawing from history, she reflects on the forced nudity of African women on the auction block, the gross debasement of the "Hottentot Venus" and a congressional effort to erect a national monument to "Mammy" near the Lincoln Memorial.

She discusses apparitions of the Big Three stereotypes that loomed in more recent events such as the New Yorker cover depicting Michelle Obama as a fist-bumping "angry Black woman" or Fox News' description of her as President Obama's "baby mama. …

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