Sisters and Citizens, Part 1: An Interview with Melissa Harris-Perry
For several years, I’ve been particularly interested in what’s happening with women, specifically Black women, especially Black Christian women. And so I have been exploring what it means to occupy each of those spaces, a unified identity that I call BCW (Black Christian women).
Questions of identity, markedly so for women of color, are critical because they fundamentally answer many of the determinative inquiries of our lives. For example: Whom do we love and who loves us? How are we able to live out our commitments to family, friends, and faith? What ideas become our focus spiritually, economically, politically, and professionally? How do we communicate and deal with our unmet needs and desires? Similarly, movements like Black Girls Rock! and the Spelman protest against misogyny in the rap industry are concerned not only with mass-marketed stereotypes and public perceptions of Black women, but also with how the manufactured persona affects how our families, co-workers, lovers, and fellow congregants view us.
These things matter not just for us who are already of full adult age and experience, but also for those younger and future generations of Black Christian girls (BCG) who follow. What will they learn from us about what it means to serve God wrapped in deep brown, café au lait, or bronze skin?
I will explore these questions and others in this series. Given that this is an election year, I thought it appropriate to examine BCW identity first through a political lens. I conducted an interview with Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane University, and author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. She also is the host of a new eponymously named weekend news show on MSNBC. What follows is an excerpt of our discussion, specifically related to the impact of stereotypes on the political involvement of Black Christian women; and the role of the gospel in our politics. The context for our conversation largely centered on reproductive issues, as these have dominated political discourse as of late, and provide an interesting perspective from which to consider larger issues of identity.
This excerpt from our discussion was edited for clarity and conversational flow.
CHANDRA WHITE-CUMMINGS: Over the years, Black women have been portrayed in various unflattering ways by society. There’s the “Jezebel,” who’s promiscuous and sexually undiscerning, and the “strong Black woman,” who’s resolutely independent and often viewed as almost masculine in demeanor. How do you think these sorts of stereotypes play out for Black women, and Black Christian women, in reproductive politics?
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: As much as it is the thing that can get women riled up in the public sphere, the fact is our reproductive lives are only one part, one relatively short part of our long lives as women. But they shape so powerfully how people understand who women are. So this is a relatively brief part of our overall life, but the choices we make: whether or not we choose to ever have children, how many children, whether in marriage or outside of marriage, whether as teenagers or older women. Every single reproductive choice you make, to the extent that other people know about it, ends up being a potential source of judgment, criticism, and shame. I think that is particularly true for African American women. Part of that is the Jezebel stereotype, part of it is the broad sense that so many different groups of people feel they have every right to weigh in on the choices that Black women make.
Obviously there is an element of this that goes back to the legacy of slavery where Black women’s reproduction was to the financial benefit of those who owned them, owned their bodies, and therefore owned their children. But it is also part of the discourse of the 1980s about the so-called welfare queen. The whole world has a right to speak about whether Black women have children. There’s almost no part of American culture and political life where there isn’t some group that feels it has the right to speak about Black women and their reproductive choices. So all of those negative stereotypes then weigh in on us as we’re trying to make decisions as autonomous individuals about our own lives, and all those criticisms are very loud in our heads.
CWC: It seems one of the true dangers of the stereotypes is that they are not only placed upon us by others but we also use them to limit ourselves. For example, once we’ve made a certain choice, there’s always the interminable second-guessing. Then if we feel any sense of regret, disappointment, or self-examination over the decision, the stereotypes and shame hit us again because we don’t feel at liberty or like we have permission to get help to deal with what we’re feeling. Do you think that’s the case?
MHP: Absolutely. You hear critics of abortion say that all women regret their abortion. But all women also regret their children. There’s no reproductive choice that you ever make that isn’t one part regret and one part happiness. We’re complicated, we’re not automatons. So do you regret an abortion? Sure, you feel like, What if? But at the same time, you might ultimately think it was the right decision for you. Similarly, do you love your children? Absolutely, every second of every day, but sometimes you just wish they would go to sleep and leave you alone! So there’s no choice you make that isn’t complicated. But I think that’s part of what happens in the way that we talk about women, almost as though they’re not human and can’t have complicated relationships to all of the adult choices that they make. The single biggest issue in shame is not that it’s just about the judgments others make of us, it’s about the judgments we make of ourselves that then limit our ability to seek help, to vocalize our own experiences, to claim our right to have complicated feelings about it.
CWC: Given the fact that African American women have such a close identification with faith and with the church, why do you think that image hasn’t become part of the stereotype about us?
MHP: I think it depends on the circumstance. Undoubtedly in the context of policy-making we normally hear about the negative version of who Black women are, but I also think there’s this whole thing of how Black church women are depicted on TV. I hate depictions of Black church on TV because they make it seem like a show instead of worship. For example, the number of times they show a Black woman at church in the throes of ecstatic religious passion, but without any understanding that it’s not a show or a dance to be performed; it’s an act of worship.
So I do think it’s a part of our stereotype, but one that is largely misunderstood — one that is assumed to be in a lot of ways almost funny. I also think it’s an interesting counterpoint to the Jezebel stereotype. On the one hand you have this vision that Black women are sexually lewd, lascivious, loose hip-hop hoochies, and then on the other hand that we are these church ladies. So I think it’s all about what is useful for the people who are developing the stereotype.
CWC: Great point, because another way that the faith stereotype often manifests is in this idea that says, “Black women are supposed to be some of the most devout, the ones who hold their religion most closely, so why is there so much pathology in your community, why isn’t that piety being reflected?” What’s your response to that? Is our Christianity lived deeply enough so that it’s truly transformative?
MHP: I suppose I have a different experience of what the supposed transformative aspect of the gospel is. When I think about what I mean when I call myself “Christian,” it really is about living in a state of grace, and knowing in a very powerful way that my human failures are not the end of the story about who I am. It doesn’t mean I take them lightly or that you can behave any way you want. For example, I know some devout Christian women who curse like sailors, but they are also the people that would take their last egg and cook something for someone on the street. Or they stay on their feet late at night cooking for church events and barely get a thank you for it. Similarly, I know women who have one or two children out of wedlock but are profoundly and devoutly religious people. And I don’t experience that as their moments of morally failing God, quite the opposite. I see it as part and parcel of their Christian faith.
CWC: Given how pervasive and longstanding these stereotypes are, what are effective political resistance strategies for Black women? You make a reference early in your book to a need for the creation of “new forms of politics.” Is that what you consider an effective political resistance strategy?
MHP: More than anything, what I’d really love to see us doing politically is putting ourselves at the center of our own political agendas. This is particularly true for women in Christian communities. We often internalize the message of the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think we shouldn’t internalize that message. It’s obviously an incredibly important lesson, but we internalize it in a way that no one else in the church does. So other people are perfectly happy to put us on the cross. For me, the goal of the Christian narrative is not to turn Black women into additional sacrificial lambs, but that the liberation of the Cross is meant for Black women as much as it is meant for every one else. We have a right to say when something isn’t good for us. But instead, what we’ll often say something like, “It’s not good for me, but it’s good for Black men. And so I’ll take the hit on this one because I want to do what’s right for Black men.” I think the new model is the one that goes ahead and puts Black women and our politics at the center.
CWC: Why do you think the political involvement of African American women hasn’t continued on an upward trajectory after the civil rights movement?
MHP: I think that we romanticize the moment of the civil rights movement in certain ways. Part of it is a visibility question. When we had a reason to vote, like we did in the 2008 election, we showed up and did. So if you ask why do I think involvement has fallen off, I believe it’s in part because we haven’t seen active mobilization on the part of political parties and organizations saying Black women matter so let’s go out and make sure they are engaged. When it did happen, we were right there and organized and prepared to go into it.
Subsequent parts of this series will consider several of the ideas brought out in this interview.