These are the realities Tamara Winfrey Harris wants to make known. In her new book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, 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.
“Part of being black in America and getting along is wearing the mask,” Harris tells me. “That is part of being a woman, too. Sometimes, at least in public, we have to hide our authentic selves for survival. But when we do that, we need to know why we do it. We need to know that it isn’t because our authentic selves are wrong, but because society is.”
Gawker: What was the motivation behind writing The Sisters Are Alright?
Tamara Winfrey Harris: I am just so tired of seeing black women portrayed as problems. My frustration hit its peak during the obsession with black marriage rates a few years back.
Do you know what it was like to be a black woman during that ridiculousness—abiding books and news segments and newspaper headlines dissecting what the hell is so wrong with you that no man wants you? Because, make no mistake, low black marriage rates were blamed solely on black women. Were we too fat? Too aggressive? Too masculine? Too easy? My personal favorite—too educated and competent? I’ve been married for nearly 15 years and that conversation had me doubting myself. And this debate was happening as fewer people of any race married in the US and abroad and black men remained just as single as black women. And here is the other thing—the conversation often involved people talking about black women but not to us.
The black marriage discussion is a great illustration of how black women are defined by our perceived problems in a way that is heavily influenced by stereotype. Mammy, Sapphire, et al, were all up and through that discussion. I wanted to explore why society, including our own communities, cannot see black women’s complexity. I wanted to counter a narrative that I think is broken with authentic experiences from black women. The book isn’t about us being perfect or without problems. It is about black women being human.
When did you realize you were “alright”? Self-love is not something black women are taught in American culture. Was it a specific experience? When did the moment click for you?
For me, coming to an understanding that I am fundamentally okay was an evolution rather than one defining moment. A lot of it was age. I am 45 and getting older can radicalize you, in part, because you care less about what other people think. I could not, would not have written this book at 25.
I was introduced to a bit of feminist ideology in college and in my mid-30s began to explore it more, in particular discovering the work of black feminists who taught me to challenge some of the things I had accepted as true of myself and other black women. For instance, I let go of the idea my thick, coarse, spirally hair had to be relaxed to be attractive. I ditched my belief in “fast-tail girls” and “unacceptable” black female sexuality. Mine sounds like a very academic journey, I know, but that’s who I am—a nerd girl at heart.
The book arrives during a time when black womanhood is simultaneously under attack and idolized to a degree we’ve never experienced before, at least in cultural and political spaces. Do you feel the “narrative” is shifting in one direction more than the other?
What I have noticed is an evolution in who has a voice when we publicly discuss race and gender in America. Historically, feminist and black civil rights movements have been reliant on the idea of trickle-down liberation. Black women would get ours after the white women and black men who were the voices of those respective movements got theirs.
By contrast, Black Lives Matter, a leading force in the modern black civil rights movement, was founded and is run by black women. We can find pundits and scholars like Zerlina Maxwell, Charlene Carruthers, Jamilah Lemieux, and Brittney Cooper talking about race in the media at least as often as Al Sharpton, Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson. A black woman, Roxane Gay, has one of the most popular recent books on feminism. Two black women of trans experience, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, have platforms that were unthinkable just five years ago. And, of course, there is First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughters—three black women doing black girl stuff in the nation’s house.
This moment is unprecedented if also relatively new. I am not confident that the negative narrative about black women has changed much yet. But I am sure that black women have growing power to make our voices heard and to clap back at the idea that we are especially flawed as human beings.
Early in the book you write: “But black women are not waiting to be fixed; they are fighting to be free—free to define themselves absent narratives driven by race and gender biases.” Ownership is an important theme throughout the book—black women taking ownership over their bodies, their careers, their health, their emotions, their families. Can you talk about the importance of ownership for black women in terms of how they self-actualize in a society not built for them?
Stereotypes of black American women have endured from slavery to 2015. Society is not going to love us anytime soon. All that will save us from being consumed by all that is loving ourselves and each other.
It takes work, though. It means black women have to thoughtfully consume information about ourselves—questioning it, turning it over in our heads and assessing it for bias. We have to view with suspicion those who want to tell us how to be or what is wrong with us. We have to support our sisters in being perfectly imperfect—complex human beings who are essentially okay. And we have to be able to look in the mirror and accept ourselves as the same.
Would you say American culture is largely afraid of black women and their potential? I’m thinking of someone like Serena Williams, who is without question one of the greatest living athletes today—really, what more does she have to prove?—but she is constantly vilified for being so dominant.
Fear, I think, implies some acknowledgment that black women possess game-changing positive qualities. I am not so sure America believes that. Serena is the GOAT, but her playing style is often said to be artless. She has coolly endured decades of naked racist disrespect, but she is called ungracious. She is built like a brick house, but is labeled unbreakable.
I think the problem is not that America fears our potential, but that it believes black women have no potential at all. And so, our individual and collective wins are twisted into losses. America is so invested in the ain’t-shitness of black women that up is down and right is wrong. Misogynoir—as feminist scholar Moya Bailey calls the intersection of racism and sexism—is a helluva drug.
Despite achieving more than most women and men ever will, there is nothing Serena can do to prove her worth to people who refuse to see it.That is part of the problem black women face.
The conversations surrounding black female sexuality and sex expose all the contradictions popular culture places upon black women and their bodies. One of the women interviewed, Cristal Lee, raises an important point. She says: “I would love to see more women feel free to think beyond this sense of sex as obligation or a chore or something we give away or something we do to keep men, but instead to think of sex and personal satisfaction. I am a student of myself—what pleases me… what I enjoy.” How does sexual liberation factor into how we go about rethinking the narrative surrounding black women in America?
I have encountered critics of this book who are appalled that I believe women like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj figure positively in a discussion about the myth of black female hyper-sexuality. They would rather I focus on black women who show their asses less…or something. They cannot see that this thinking is a reflection of a problem.
American culture devalues women who are overtly sexual. Black women and girls are thought to be uniquely libidinous, putting them at risk of disrespect, at least, sexual exploitation and assault, at worst. Historically, the accepted response to this bias has been that black women should perform sexual respectability at all times. But that is more acquiescence than liberation. Many black women I spoke to said trying to outrun the Jezebel myth left them disconnected from their pleasure and misunderstanding their own bodies and sexual health. That is, until they realized birds do it, bees do it—and so do black women. And, damn it, it’s supposed to be fun.
For the women I interviewed, part of embracing their “alrightness” was realizing their human right to a sex drive. And as long as that sex drive is expressed with responsibility and consent ‘ain’t nobody’s business what you do. Real liberation from the black Jezebel narrative means our culture coming around to the realization that a woman’s sexuality has no more bearing on her human value than a man’s does. Frankly, getting to that space would be a win for more than just black women but all women.
On the topic of marriage, you write: “The popular mythology about black women and marriage” suggests “that they need to make fundamental changes to who they are to attract partners.” Why do you believe there is such a disproportionate need for black women to constantly fit the requirements of others to live a so-called happy life?
I don’t think the demand to fit the requirements of society is disproportionate for black women. This is how all women are treated. In our society, a woman’s value is equal to her ability to attract men and remain within the confines of acceptable femininity. That’s sexism.
What is unique for black women, because of the intersection of racism, is that we are not viewed as inherently feminine. People believe we need coaching to act like ladies. We require correction. However we are, we need to be different. The irony, of course, is that authenticity is a better path to happiness than pretending to be someone else. But recent discussions about black marriage aren’t about black women’s happiness, are they?
So what does it mean to be a free black woman living on your own terms?
Part of being black in America and getting along is wearing the mask, as Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote. That is part of being a woman, too. Sometimes, at least in public, we have to hide our authentic selves for survival. But when we do that, we need to know why we do it. We need to know that it isn’t because our authentic selves are wrong, but because society is.
But every black women must also know what concessions to sexism and racism she will make and what is too far. Straightening your hair for a corporate finance job to pay the bills is one thing. Entering an unhealthy marriage, because you are pregnant and don’t want to be the stereotype of a single, black mother that society abhors—as one woman I spoke with did—may be another. We have to understand the line where we lose ourselves.
The only way we can successfully negotiate this bargain and live free is by accepting and loving ourselves—the self behind all the masks—in defiance of the rules society has created that were never about our well-being anyway. What Audre Lorde said was true: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” We can create our own personal narratives and be free or let ourselves be defined by racism and sexism and be consumed.
I want to end with a quote from feminist writer June Jordan. She once wrote: “I am woman. And I am seeking an attitude. I am trying to find reasons for pride.” What does that mean to you?
May I answer a June Jordan quote with a June Jordan quote? Because that made me think of this, also from Jordan: “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name. My name is my own my own my own.”
My attitude is one of “alrightness.” I know I am not wrong. And I know my sisters are not either. For a black American woman, that knowledge is hard won. God, you don’t know how hard that knowledge is to catch. But I have it in my hands now and that makes me proud.