The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America

The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America

1.0 1
by Tamara Winfrey Harris
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

The Sisters Are Alright exposes anti - black - woman propaganda and shows how real black women are pushing back against distorted cartoon versions of themselves. When African women arrived on American shores, the three - headed hydra - servile Mammy, angry Sapphire, and lascivious Jezebel - followed close behind. In the '60s, the Matriarch, the willfully unmarried

Overview

The Sisters Are Alright exposes anti - black - woman propaganda and shows how real black women are pushing back against distorted cartoon versions of themselves. When African women arrived on American shores, the three - headed hydra - servile Mammy, angry Sapphire, and lascivious Jezebel - followed close behind. In the '60s, the Matriarch, the willfully unmarried baby machine leeching off the state, joined them. These stereotypes persist to this day through newspaper headlines, Sunday sermons, social media memes, cable punditry, government policies, and hit song lyrics. Emancipation may have happened more than 150 years ago, but America still won't let a sister be free from this coven of caricatures. Tamara Winfrey Harris delves into marriage, motherhood, health, sexuality, beauty, and more, taking sharp aim at pervasive stereotypes about black women. She counters warped prejudices with the straight - up truth about being a black woman in America. ''We have facets like diamonds,'' she writes. ''The trouble is the people who refuse to see us sparkling.''

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
05/18/2015
Winfrey-Harris wants to set the record straight on the lives of black women in America. Through her own recollections and interviews with other, mostly middle-class, black women, she shows the obstacles they fight against, the flak they receive—including from black men—and how well many of them are doing despite it all. This energetic, passionate, and progressive mission statement illuminates old stereotypes that continue to dog black women today: servile, self-sacrificing Mammy; emasculating Sapphire; licentious Jezebel; and the post-1960s image of the Matriarch, a baby-producing single mom on welfare. More poignantly, Winfrey-Harris shows how negative perceptions cause African-American women to “hold their tongues,” “deny their sexuality,” and despise their appearances. At the same time, she emphasizes the extent to which black women are now directing their own lives and overcoming the race and gender biases so embedded in the culture. To wit, African-American women have the highest workforce participation rate among all American women, and in 2013, 1.1 million owned their own businesses. Jamyla Bennu, an entrepreneur featured in the book, founded Oyin Handmade, a company aimed at showing black women how to take care of and celebrate their hair. Winfrey-Harris amplifies the voices of African-American women speaking for themselves, and the results are powerful, relevant, and affirming. (July)
From the Publisher
“This energetic, passionate, and progressive mission statement illuminates old stereotypes that continue to dog black women today. Winfrey-Harris amplifies the voices of African-American women speaking for themselves, and the results are powerful, relevant, and affirming.”
-Publisher's Weekly

“Harris challenges age-old constructions of black womanhood with real-life accounts from black mothers, daughters, aunties, and girlfriends who reject the popular narrative of brokenness.”
-Jason Parham, Gawker

“Using a combination of anecdotal evidence, historical research, and well-documented facts and studies, Harris has compiled an engaging and informative treatise on black womanhood in America.”
-Lori L. Tharps, The Washington Post

“The Sisters Are Alright enters a space where we're publicly contemplating race — and blackness in particular — quite a bit lately. That public contemplation has been fraught with a mixture of frustration, grief and anger at the way black people are treated and the way black bodies are viewed in the United States.”
-Soraya Nadia McDonald, The Washington Post

“The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative for Black Women in America challenges stereotypical portrayals of black women and highlights the need for nuanced, complex characters.
- Ariel Cheung, USA Today

With its insightful blend of personal narrative, cultural critique and reflective interview, your book follows in the critical and literary footsteps of such feminist/womanist writers as Michele Wallace, Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks. Similar to these authors, you unpack the often damaging effect the myth of the self-sacrificing black superwoman has on black women's mental health and wellness.”
-Sikivu Hutchinson, The Feminist Wire

“One of the things I loved about [this] book was how it emphasized how self-love could help radically shift some of these perspectives. [This] book really tackles specific stereotypes that shape the way American culture perceives black women.”
-Arielle Bernstein, Rumpus

“Through explorations of marriage, motherhood, health, sexuality, beauty and more, Tamara Winfrey Harris counters warped prejudices by going far beyond the trope of Black women portrayed in American media. The Sisters Are Alright exposes anti–Black-woman propaganda and shows the truth of what it's like to be a Black woman in America, a counter-narrative to the distorted depictions of themselves Black women are so often subject to.”
-Amani Ariel, Blavity

“The book pairs Harris' impeccable writing with stories of Black women and how they have been shaped by the stereotypes that are dictating how we view those around us.”
-Emily Taylor, NUVO

“The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, Winfrey Harris' first book, tackles long-standing stereotypes and misconceptions steeped in racism and misogyny surrounding Black women's sexuality, beauty, health and more. Included are interviews she conducted with hundreds of Black women of different ages and backgrounds.”
-Ebony Chappel, Indianapolis Recorder

“[Winfrey Harris] speaks to real Black women, relaying the fact we are not as broken as society paints us to be. After all, we are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in America, we have to be doing something right.”
-Chelcee Johns, Madame Noir

“The Sisters Are Alright invites Black women, and those who love and care about Black women to reject this age-old stereotype in favor of a more expansive and progressive notion of women's sexuality.”
-Susana Morris, About News

“Winfrey Harris' book comes with us, both the celebrities and the sistahgurl down the street, letting us speak our own lives to power in this moment on our own terms.”
-Andrea Plaid, Feminist Wire

“Winfrey-Harris uses her distinctive voice to explore how Black women are thriving despite the odds stacked against us. She explores everything from marriage to sexuality in a way that will definitely cause affirmative head nods as reading.”
-Evette Dionne, Clutch Mag

“It's a book that reminds me that I'm not alone, and that I'm not crazy. All those moments I felt insecure or inadequate as a young adult — a young adult without many Black girlfriends until I became a young adult — weren't simply psychosomatic. By utilizing the anecdotes of other Black women, Winfrey Harris inspired me to wonder how my story might resonate with others, just as theirs resonate with me.”
-Akirah Robinson, 1839 Mag

“Tami Winfrey Harris provides some answers from both a historical and contemporary perspective. She argues that because of a pervasive public opinion about black women, assaults against them are often not perceived as newsworthy.
Winfrey Harris's book shows us that public representations of black women can be beneficial when the women involved are in control.”
-Laina Dawes, Hazlitt

“This book is a gift. With just the right mix of sister wit, statistical information, and a few well-timed rhetorical side-eyes, The Sisters Are Alright rushes in to save black women from the stereotypes that threaten to dull our shine.”
—Brittney Cooper, PhD, Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies, Rutgers University

“Winfrey Harris [digs] into the project of remaking representations of black women as they truly are—joyfully diverse, indelibly complex, and powerful architects of their own narratives."
—Andi Zeisler, cofounder and Editorial/Creative Director, Bitch Media

“Winfrey Harris sets the record straight. This is a love letter to all the sisters—beautifully human and gorgeously flawed. Reading this book I felt seen, heard, and deeply understood. This is self-care between two covers.”
—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow

Library Journal
06/01/2015
By her own admission, Winfrey Harris is angry. This slim debut offering displays the author's well-deserved frustration for stereotypes like the subservient Mammy, emasculating Sapphire, and immoral Jezebel, and how each is portrayed in pop culture. In relating how these stereotypes (and others such as the Welfare Queen) affect black women, Winfrey Harris uses numerous anecdotes from peers to demystify the "strong black woman" and "angry black woman" as well as media fascination with the "black marriage crisis." Of note is the chapter on health, which explores the taboos of depression and suicide within the black community and the prominence of food deserts in certain areas. Unfortunately, Harris's information comes from a limited focus group; the only notable women mentioned are Beyoncé and Michelle Obama, which makes one wish pre-21st-century icons were included. VERDICT Those who believe in postracial America will gain the most from this book; black women won't find much they didn't already know here, though they may obtain affirmation. With frequent mentions of the politics of black hair, this manifesto could complement collections in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists, Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps's Hair Story, and Chris Rock's film Good Hair circulate regularly.—Stephanie Sendaula, Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781459685130
Publisher:
ReadHowYouWant, LLC
Publication date:
07/07/2015
Edition description:
Large Print
Pages:
208
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.44(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Sisters Are Alright

Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America


By Tamara Winfrey Harris

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Tamara Winfrey Harris
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-353-7



CHAPTER 1

Beauty

Pretty for a Black Girl


Thirty-nine-year-old Heather Carper grew up in Kansas and learned at least one lesson very early: "Black girls were never the cute ones. You could be 'cute for a black girl,' but you were never the pretty one."

To be an American woman of any race is to be judged against constantly changing and arbitrary measures of attractiveness. One decade, being waif thin is in; the next, it's all about boobs and booties. Wake up one morning, and suddenly your lady parts "need" to be shaved smooth and your gapless thighs are all wrong. The multibillion-dollar beauty and fashion industries are dedicated to ensuring that women keep chasing an impossible ideal, like Botoxed hamsters running on the wheel of beauty standards.

But while expectations for how Western women should look have evolved over centuries, one thing has remained constant, and that is black women's place at the bottom of the hierarchy. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson praised the skin color, "flowing hair," and "elegant symmetry of form" possessed by white people, writing that black men prefer the comeliness of white women "as uniformly as is the preference of the [orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species." Stereotypes of black women were designed in part to provide the antithesis to the inherent loveliness of white women, leaving other women of color to jockey for position between the poles of beauty. Old beliefs die hard. Hundreds of years later, in 2011, the London School of Economics evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa published a series of graphs and numbers at Psychology Today, "proving" that black women are "far less attractive than white, Asian, and Native American women." Because ... science.


Moments in Aright

Anala Beavers, age four, knew the alphabet by the time she was four months old, could count in Spanish by one and a half, and never leaves home without her US map. (She knows all the state capitals!) Anala was invited to join Mensa in 2013.


Neither a Beast nor Fetish Be

The inferiority of black beauty continues to be reinforced partly through popular culture. In allegedly liberal Hollywood, black women are nearly invisible as romantic partners. American fashion catwalks remain so white that former model and activist Bethann Hardison, who formed the Diversity Coalition to challenge whitewashed runways, was moved to pen an open letter to the industry:

Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches fashion design houses consistently use one or no models of color. No matter the intention, the result is racism. Not accepting another based on the color of their skin is clearly beyond 'aesthetic' when it is consistent with the designer's brand. Whether it's the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.


Black beauty is even marginalized within subcultures that pride themselves on subverting mainstream values, according to twenty-seven-year-old Black Witch,* who is active in pagan, punk, and Lolita fashion communities. Lolita fashion originated in Japan and is inspired by frilly, Victorian-era dress-lots of petticoats and delicate fabrics. Black Witch says that many of her fellow community members see Lolita femininity as at odds with black womanhood.

"They call us ugly. They say we look uncivilized in the clothes," she says. "I once heard a person say, 'I'm not racist, but that looks like an ape in a dress.'"

Increasingly, black women are even absent in our own culture's illustrations of beauty.

"I don't really watch music videos anymore, but I have noticed that white girls are the 'it thing' now," says Liz Hurston, thirty-four. "When hip-hop first came out, you had your video girls that looked like Keisha from down the block, and then they just started getting lighter and lighter. Eventually black women were completely phased out and it was Latinas and biracial women. Now it's white women. On one hand, thank God we're no longer being objectified, but on the other hand, it's kind of sad, because now our beauty doesn't count at all."

Seeming to confirm Liz's observation, in 2006 Kanye West told Essence magazine, a publication for black women, that "If it wasn't for race mixing, there'd be no video girls.... Me and most of my friends like mutts [biracial women] a lot." In a society that judges women's value and femininity based on attractiveness, perceived ugliness can be devastating. The denigration of black female beauty not only batters African American women's self-esteem, it also drives a wedge between black women with lighter skin, straighter hair, and narrower features and those without those privileges.

Thirty-five-year-old Erin Millender says that the time she felt least attractive was as a teenager. "I went to a very white high school with a very J. Crew aesthetic," she says. "I was brown. I am built stocky. I've always had a butt ... and not a tiny, little gymnast booty either. I was aware of the fact that I did not conform to the beauty standard."

Erin is biracial. Her mother is Korean American and her father is black. Many would see her light-brown skin and shiny curls and note her advantage over black women with darker skin, broader features, and kinkier hair. But Erin says that in school she was teased for "anything that was identifiably black. White kids don't know the difference between various grades of nap. They see frizzy hair and brown skin? That's just nappy hair to them—the same as any other kind of black hair. Brown skin and a big booty gets 'ghetto booty.'"

But at the predominantly black schools she attended before high school, Erin says some black girls targeted her, jealously pulling the long hair that brought her closer to the ideal of mainstream beauty. "Then, after school, in ballet, white girls made fun of my butt."

And the attention of men like West, who fetishize biracial women, is no honor. "[It is] creepy and insulting." Erin says that far too often that appreciation comes with backhanded compliments "implying that I don't really look black and would be less attractive if I did," plus "shade" from other black women, "who assume I think I'm better than somebody."

Black looks are not just erased; features commonly associated with people of the African diaspora are openly denigrated in American culture. (Though it is important to note that blackness is diverse. Black women can be freckled, ginger, and nappy; ebony skinned and fine haired; and every variation in between.)


Get the Kinks Out

Hair is a lightning rod for enforcement of white standards of beauty. And reactions to black women's natural hair help illustrate the broader disdain for black appearance. While black hair can have a variety of textures, most tends to be curly, coily, or nappy. It grows out and up and not down. It may not shine. It may be cottony or wiry. It is likely more easily styled in an Afro puff than a smooth chignon. For centuries, black women have been told that these qualities make their hair unsightly, unprofessional, and uniquely difficult to manage.

Don Imus infamously called the black women on the Rutgers University women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos." In a ubiquitous late-night infomercial for WEN hair products, the host refers to black hair as "overly coarse," assuming that white hair is the baseline next to which other hair is "too" something. In the 1970s, when veteran investigative reporter Renee Ferguson debuted a short Afro at the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis, she was told that she was "scaring" viewers. Forty or so years later, some young black-female reporters still report being told to straighten their hair. In the summer of 2007, a Glamour magazine editor sparked outrage among many black working women when she told an assembled group of female attorneys that wearing natural black hair is not only improper but militant. Even the US military is ambivalent about black women's hair. In 2014, new military grooming guidelines provoked furor among black servicewomen and prompted a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel from the women of the Congressional Black Caucus. The guidelines had banned styles traditional for black women without altered hair textures and also referred to some hair (guess whose) as "matted" and "unkempt."

The message that black natural hair is innately "wrong" is one that girls receive early. In 2013, two cases of black girls being punished at school for their natural hair made headlines. Seven-year-old Tiana Parker was sent home from an Oklahoma charter school and threatened with expulsion because her dreadlocks were deemed "faddish" and unacceptable under a school code that also banned Afros. Twelve-year-old Vanessa VanDyke also faced expulsion because of her voluminous natural hair that Florida school authorities found "distracting."

Is it any wonder, after generations in a society that affirms white features while disparaging those associated with blackness, that many in the African American community have internalized negative messages about their appearance and learned that beauty requires disguising, altering, or diluting blackness and that we pass that inferiority complex on to younger generations?

Patrice Grell Yursik, founder of Afrobella.com, does her share of counseling black women scarred by a lifetime of beauty insecurity and parents who could not transcend their own conditioning. She shares a memorable conversation she once had with the mother of a young black child with cerebral palsy. The woman confessed to using double the recommended amount of a caustic chemical relaxer on her daughter's hair in an effort to make it straight. The mother was distraught that despite her efforts, the child's hair held on to its kinks.

"I was horrified. It made me want to cry," says Patrice. "This poor child who cannot fend for herself and cannot physically take care of herself is enduring this burning on an ongoing basis for what? So she can be what? Why are we doing this?"

It should come as no surprise that most black women, rather than wear the braids, twists, Afros, and dreadlocks that black hair adapts to most easily, alter their hair's natural texture chemically or with extreme heat or cover it with synthetic hair or human hair from other races of women.

Let me be clear: black women should be free to wear their hair as they please, including straightened. But as Patrice Yursik urges, "It's really important for us to ask ourselves the tough questions. Why are we in lockstep in relaxing our hair? Why do we all come to the decision that this is something we have to do for ourselves and our children, [especially when] so many of us hate the process and see damage from it.

"Always do what makes you happy, but at least know why it's the thing that makes you happy."

During the "black is beautiful" 1970s, many black women embraced their natural kinks, but that rebellion gave way to assimilation in the Reagan era. The popularity of neo-soul music in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with its iconic faces such as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Angie Stone representing for natural hair, opened the door for a new generation of women to embrace the nap.

The challenge was that many would-be naturals found little support in traditional places for beauty advice, including beauty magazines (even ones catering to black women) and professional stylists. Often, even mothers and grandmothers were of no help; the hair care that many black women learned from their fore-mothers was solely focused on "fixing" or "taming" natural hair, not on celebrating its innate qualities. Many black women had not seen or managed their natural texture in decades. Black beauty magazines such as Essence continued to mostly feature models with straightened hair. And, until the recent renaissance, education for beauticians included little to no training about the care of natural black hair. Stylists were tested only on their ability to handle straightened black tresses.

What is profound about the natural-hair revolution is that it has been driven by everyday black women searching for a way to honor their natural features in spite of all the messages encouraging the contrary. Finding no support in the usual places, black women created what they needed, forming communities online. Forums buzzed with women offering support and maintenance and styling techniques when family, boyfriends, and employers rejected the natural look. Women with similar hair types learned from one another's trials and errors. Naturals pored through Fokti (a precursor to Flickr) to find photos of cute natural styles on everyday women. Naturals began eschewing the preservatives and chemicals in mainstream beauty products and instead searched for natural alternatives. Black women such as Jamyla Bennu, founder of Oyin Handmade, began creating natural products in their own kitchens and selling them.

"I didn't come from a family where people had [chemical relaxers]," Jamyla says. "My mom's hair is very loose; it's not like mine, so she didn't have the skills to do the cornrows and stuff like that. I was the Afro puff girl. Although it was always affirmed, there were not a lot of ideas about how to wear my natural hair."

Bennu muddled through, finally beginning to relax her own hair in junior high school. But seeing more natural women in college opened her eyes to new options. "'Oh my gosh, that's what you're supposed to do with it! You can twist it. You can braid it.' I stopped perming my hair and have had natural hair ever since."

In about 1999, Jamyla began making hair products for herself "out of general craftiness." She experimented with common ingredients, like honey, coconut oil, and olive oil, that she had grown up using in her beauty routine. And, true to the ethos of the time, she shared her recipes. A freelance website designer, she eventually took a chance and began offering a few of her products online. Today, Jamyla and her partner, her husband Pierre, not only have a thriving online store but a brick-and-mortar retail space in Baltimore. And Oyin Handmade products can be found in select Target and Whole Foods stores across the country.

The natural-hair movement is "an example of women deciding for themselves what's important, what's beautiful, what's natural.... Not only how they want to look, but what they want to use to make themselves look that way. It's a really empowering moment in black beauty history and in beauty industry history because it's a kind of user-driven change."

Jamyla, like several other black women, has become a successful entrepreneur through the black beauty renaissance, but she has done so in a way that is uniquely affirming, unlike most consumer beauty brands. When my first box from Oyin arrived in the mail, it included a small container of bubble solution, two pieces of hard candy, and a card that read "Hello, Beautiful."

Jamyla says that approach comes from "myself as consumer, as a feminist, as a person who loves being black, who loves natural hair. I was in a place of pure celebration and discovery, and so was everyone else around me. So were the people with whom I was sharing the product. It didn't even make sense to try to market as if to a deficit or a lack, because I didn't see a deficit or a lack.

"A lot of black women grow up with so much negative messaging around their hair—not only from the marketing, which is, 'Fix it by doing X, Y and Z.'" Jamyla points out that caregivers often frame black girls' hair as a problem from the time they are small. "Sometimes we'll get messages like, 'Oh, this stuff. It's just so hard to deal with.'

"My political feeling is that it is very serious work to love yourself as a black person in America. I think it's an intergenerational project of transformation and healing that we are embarking on together."

Jamyla says that when she found herself with a platform to reach black women, it was important to deliver an empowering message. "You know that this is fly, right? I know you know it's fly, I'm going to echo that to you so that you can feel a little bit stronger in knowing how fly you are."

Now, mainstream beauty and cosmetics industries are playing catch-up in the movement black women began. Not only are homegrown brands like Oyin enjoying broad success, but major cosmetics companies have debuted lines catering to black women who wear their hair texture unaltered. In 2014, Revlon purchased Carol's Daughter, a beauty company with roots in the natural-hair movement. Even Hollywood is taking notice, thanks to stylists like Felicia Leatherwood, who keeps natural heads looking good on the red carpet. Her styling of Mad Men actress Teyonah Parris (Dawn) made all the flashbulbs pop at the 2013 Screen Actors Guild awards. Buzzfeed gushed that the actress had "the flyest hair on the red carpet."

"We never thought that would happen," said Leatherwood of the attention-getting coif. And perhaps neither did Parris, when she first did what many black women call "the big chop"—cutting off relaxed hair, usually leaving short kinks or coils. Parris told Huffington Post: "I cried. I cried. I was not used to seeing myself like that, I did not want to walk outside.... My [friend] ... had to literally come over to my house and walk me outside because it was such an emotional experience, and it wasn't just about hair. It was what my perception of beauty was and had been for all of my life, and then I look at myself in the mirror and I'm like, 'That doesn't look like what I thought was beautiful.'"


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Sisters Are Alright by Tamara Winfrey Harris. Copyright © 2015 Tamara Winfrey Harris. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Tamara Winfrey Harris is a writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, In These Times, and Ms. and Bitch magazines and online at the American Prospect, Salon, the Guardian, Newsweek/Daily Beast, xoJane, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Clutch magazine, and Change.org. She has been called to address women’s issues in major media outlets, such as NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 9 months ago
Hu