Lori L. Tharps is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University and the author of the memoir “Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain.”
THE SISTERS ARE ALRIGHT
Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America
By Tamara Winfrey Harris
Berrett-Koehler. 146 pp. Paperback, $15.95
Ironically, “The Sisters Are Alright” appears at a time when sisters seem anything but. As I write these words, the fate of Sandra Bland and four other black women who died while in police custody is galvanizing a hashtag movement seeking to bring attention to what seems an unrelenting and underreported tidal wave of abuse and ridicule of black women. In early July, Serena Williams, one of America’s greatest athletes, earned her 21st Grand Slam title with an electrifying win at Wimbledon; in response, several media outlets chose to critique her body type. Also in July, the mayor of Airway Heights, Wash., Patrick Rushing, came to national attention after posting a Facebook message referring to our first lady as “Gorilla face Michele.” He then refused to apologize for his racist language, claiming that his choice of words was just “playful” banter. All of this in just one month suggests that the sisters are not all right.
Journalist and blogger Tamara Winfrey Harris believes otherwise and sets out to prove it in this, her first book. 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.
With chapters on beauty, sex, health, marriage and anger, Harris hits all the hot-button issues that typically engage black women in this country. In each chapter, she points out distortions applied to black womanhood — all black woman are angry, all black mothers are single mothers — and then cites the life experiences of women who challenge the myths. We hear from a single mother who was raised by a single mother and, predictably, she’s all right. In the chapter on marriage, we meet Kim Akins, a happily single black woman who, far from lamenting her non-coupled status, celebrates her freedom. “I would tell black women to live their lives to the fullest,” she says. “Don’t wait for a partner to take you to the Alps. Go see them yourself. When you fill yourself up, you’re more attractive, and if romance doesn’t happen, you’re still full of you.”
Akins’s story is neither instructive nor necessarily representative, but it challenges the typical story foisted on black women in America. In literature and in film, on television and even in our history books, the narrative of the black female experience is too often one-dimensional, if it is portrayed at all. “A hyperfocus on black women’s challenges, with Mammy, the Matriarch, Sapphire, and Jezebel forever in the shadows, gives an inaccurate and narrow picture of black women’s lives,” Harris writes in her introduction. “What black women really need is for the world, including many people who claim to love them, to recognize that they cannot be summed up so easily.”
The problem with “The Sisters Are Alright” is that, in her attempt to change the broken narrative of black women in America, Harris spends too much time reiterating what’s broken and not enough time constructing a thoughtful alternative version. Without seeking a sugarcoated truth, I would have expected to see more examples of black women beating the system or defying the limiting images that Harris laments. In the chapter on sex, for example, the author examines the black woman as hyper-sexed myth but uses Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé as case studies!
Instead of giving considerable ink to the black women who are shattering stereotypes, Harris offers micro-sidebars scattered throughout the book under the awkward heading “Moments in Alright” to highlight moments in black women’s lives. In the chapter dedicated to beauty, for example, there’s a “Moment” that reads, “College-educated black women are the most likely group to read a book in any format.” While that is definitely a positive fact to share, why is it in a chapter about beauty, and how does it fit into the new narrative that Harris is trying to construct? Had these sidebars been expanded and organized in a more coherent way, they could have served as the inspirational nuggets the author surely intended.
From outliers such as Oprah to everyday heroes such as Ruth Simmons, who was the first black president of an Ivy League university (Brown), examples abound of black women who refuse to be pigeonholed. But they are not in this book. Nor are the renegades, intellectuals, writers and cultural icons throughout history whose very existence defies the notion that black women are an imperfect group. Their voices, along with a more thorough and nuanced presentation of the statistics and scholarship on black female achievement, could have bolstered Harris’s claim that the sisters are indeed all right.