As soon as I read the title The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women In America, I knew that this book was going to be a must-read due to its confident air. As much as I support revealing the hard truths of what it is to be a Black woman in America, fighting the grain against not just racism but sexism, and in days like ours, transphobia, sometimes I do feel exhausted at the inflated topic.
Why do we have documentaries that again share the widespread notion that Black women and women of color who are dark-skinned have low self-esteem? I’ll be good without ever having to see Dark Girls again. Where are the documentarians looking for Black girls who love themselves? Why aren’t they immortalized on film? Right now, the constant battle of still having to explain that Black beauty is beautiful is prominent through social media accounts like ProBlack.Princess. And while often an encouraging page, I sometimes do wonder if my fellow sisters are tired of having to do this. Having to re-affirm to themselves and the world that we like ourselves just how we are (and that fashion and beauty choices are just a reflection of the tradition of other cultures and races of girls wanting to have fun too). But I know it’s imperative because of the misogynoir rhetoric that is too damn adamant in American culture, a systematic hate that is also sometimes dismally promoted by our own communities of color.
Officially entering are The Sisters Are Alright, written by Tamara Winfrey Harris, a journalist who’s been published by the Chicago Sun-Times, NY Times, Bitch, Ms. and the Guardian. In her first book, she knocks it out of the park in how she presents her research and thoughts with love and positivity while exploring the myths of Black women, subjects already her forte. In 123 pages, Winfrey Harris sassily and more importantly smartly explains what has led to the tall tales of Black womanhood misrepresentation, squarely categorized by the three major labels of attack: the mammy, the Sapphire and the Jezebel. She further uses these harmful stickers to express how they have affected Black women in their career, mental and physical health, sexuality, and family life.
But first, as I mentioned, the glorious Preface of the book, initiated by a poem.
I love black women. I love the Baptist church mothers in white. I love the YouTube twerkers. I love the sisters with Ivy League degrees and the ones with GEDs. I love the big mamas, ma’dears and aunties.
I love the loc-wearing sisters who smell like shea butter. I love the ladies of the “Divine Nine.” I love the “bad bitches” in designer pumps and premium lacefronts. I love the girls who jumped double Dutch and played hopscotch. I love the Nam-myobo-renge-kyo chanters, the seekers, and the atheists.
I love the awkward black girls and the quirky black girls and the black girls who listen to punk. I love the “standing at the bus stop, sucking on a lollipop” ’round the way girls. Black womanhood – with its unique histories and experiences marks its possessors as something special.
*Places hands to chest* Floored is probably the best way to express how I felt after I read that poem. Instantly, I felt that Winfrey Harris understood me. I felt loved. And with that intro, she leads her readers into a land where Black women are not in competition with each other but are truly are each other’s keepers. When educated Black women are left to fend for themselves as vixen-type girls seem to get all the reign, the message of the author’s poem is often a forgotten one from every aspect of the Black girlhood and womanhood in that one’s experience or lifestyle is not any less important than another one’s because they are different. The poem also slammed that other great stereotype that Black women are monolithic.
A lot of the homework featured in The Sisters Are Alright is extremely relevant and pretty current. If you are a Black woman or WOC, much of the news clips may not even be new to you. Included are the incidents where Bill O’Reilly found it plausible to blame Beyoncé‘s sexuality on Black teenage pregnancy (moronic), when the New York Times unimaginably began a profile on Shonda Rhimes by calling her an “angry Black woman” (corny AF), the lack of media coverage for the deaths and assaults of Black women, and the simultaneous caricaturing and fetishization of the Black woman’s body. (The author also spoke to everyday women and carried their stories as examples). Winfrey Harris gives it to readers, well-informed or not, no-chaser in just how much of what the media has taught and told us about the Shaniquas and the Keishas are complete and total BULLSHIT.
It is not that reality producers have mostly angry black women to choose form when casting the latest ode to consumerism and trifling behavior. It is that producers specifically search for, hire, and elevate those willing to traffic in gender, race, and class stereotypes in exchange for marginal fame. A mad black woman aloft like a Valkyrie, weave flying and eyes ablaze, gets ratings and days of viral video and lights up social media like a Christmas tree. A calm and reasonable black woman handling her life like a functional adult? Well,who wants to watch that? … The proliferation of angry black women in popular culture perhaps explains why so many black women report that they are assumed to be angry by default (pg. 79).
Sadly, the notion of black women as oversexed, emasculating workhorses remains not just in the majority culture but deep in the bones of a black community influenced by the braoader culture’s racism and sexism-as well as in the considerable rewards that come with enforcing white, middle-class, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative respectability (pg.7).
What is profound about the natural-hair revolution is that is 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 spaces, black womenc reated 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…Black women such as Jamyla Bennu, founder of Oyin Homemade, began creating natural products in their own kitchens and selling them (pg. 22).
For centuries, the notion of black female strength has also been used to challenge our humanity and feminitity. Long after the era of the cult of true womanhood, by the age of the Equal Rights Amendment, when middle-class women fought to come down off the pedestal of idealized womanhood and progressive folks celebrated the strength of various marginalized peoples, black women were still seen as uniquely tough (pg. 95).
What was the most eye-opening for me as a reader innately familiar with the tribulations and achievements of Black women from The Sisters Are Alright, was towards the end where Winfrey Harris discussed the health and well-being of Black women and the troublesome stigma of the celebrated phrase “strong Black woman.”
The last quote above was a part of the author’s analysis in that while 99% of WOC have embraced the storied mantra, it has also harmed us in not allowing us to be momentarily vulnerable and the inveterate human beings that we are. Even in our darkest hours, Black women are expected to have a stoic attitude and cry behind closed doors. The weight of the world looks for space on their shoulders, which is already overcrowded in having to be the caretaker and therapist for families, friends, co-workers, acquaintances and even the dog.
With so much emotional stress that lends itself to mental and psychological disintegration, the strong Black woman is not allowed to ask for help or admit that she needs someone to keep an eye out for her too. I had never thought of the phrase “strong Black woman” to be detrimental before. But in reading “Chapter 6: Strength Precious Mettle”, my heart ached for my mom and the many moms everywhere that couldn’t catch a break or breathe for themselves as they were painted with steel hearts and minds with the “just get the job done” mentality. Such an orangutan level of stress had abetted many Black women to have health problems, elevated depression, and has even caused death. I found myself asking, “what about mom?”
A Black woman’s strength is, of course, admirable. But behind it all, remains a beating heart that doesn’t and shouldn’t be forgotten needs nurturing too.
Through the last chapter, Winfrey Harris wrapped it up beautifully in sharing the ultimate dream that every Black woman and WOC has in America in that: “Black women are not seeking special treatment-just to be treated as human beings of worth. We are searching for good faith and the benefit of the doubt. We are hoping for relief from twisted images of ourselves and the burden of always having to first disprove what people think they know of us. If society will not give us this-if our communities will not demand this for us…Black will still be alright (pg. 119).”
By the last page, I felt uplifted, reborn and ready to continue my mission to do my best and do right by the women of color that came before me. Like so many, I know better when the media tries to feed me bullshit about my worth, beauty or talent. Thankfully, I also grew up in a household where my mother wouldn’t have tolerated myself believing I wasn’t good enough because I was brown. But I’ll be lying if the thoughts didn’t cross my mind later in life in that so much of the hardships I have had weren’t because I was brown or Black but because the world still places Black women in two boxes for their own comfort when it comes to representation. Light or Dark. Beyonce or Erykah Badu. What if you’re a medium brown Afro-Latina and are just influenced by everything. Where do I fit in? What about the other Black girls?
And Winfrey Harris is certainly not alone in her mission to change the tattered narrative of the history of Black women that is more courageous than advertised. Azealia Banks is an underappreciated crusader for “Black girl craft” but her impulsive antics gather more media attention than her often intelligent statements. Amandla Stenberg stood up for Black girls everywhere when she challenged cultural appropriation against the sister of one of popular culture’s most famous rich and famous families and that individual responded pretty tone-deaf. The fight and efforts will continue until America learns today or ten years from now. Godspeed.
Through Winfrey Harris’ work, I found an ally and her book The Sisters Are Alright should be required reading and canonized amongst the breakthrough words of Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, treated as the next generation of true blue (Black) feminist truth telling.