Friday, May 10, 2013

Notes on Barbara Smith, Trudier Harris and Melissa Harris Perry

By Briana Whiteside

In “Some Home Truths on the Contemporary Black Feminist Movement,” black feminist scholar Barbara Smith addresses the myths and truths surrounding black women and feminism. She charts Third World and women of color’s attempts at exposing sexism as heinous, dehumanizing, and oppressive. Smith’s article is noteworthy as it addresses the myth that black women are “already liberated”—further extends a limiting though popular character type—the strong black woman role.

The myth/archetype of the liberated black woman or the strong black woman is also discussed by Trudier Harris in Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature and Melissa Harris Perry in Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Smith, Harris, and Perry collectively view the role of “the strong black woman” as dehumanizing, hazardous, and unfair to black women.

Smith asserts, “the myth confuses liberation with the fact that black women have had to take on responsibilities that our oppression gives us no choice but to handle…the ability to cope under the worst conditions is not liberation, although our spiritual capacities have often made it look like a life.” Trudier Harris terms the role “the disease called strength,” as she exposes the minimal space—if there is any at all—where women can be vulnerable to inequalities, open and honest about daily struggles, and be taken care of by others. Melissa Harris Perry observes that “black women are standing in a crooked room…sometimes black women can conquer negative myths, sometimes they are defeated [but] misrecognition hinders the ability of black people [women] to function as citizens.”

Smith’s, Harris’s, and Perry’s explorations of the liberated or strong black woman role is important, namely because their observations serve as an entry for further investigating uncanny black women. The black women characters in Octavia Butler’s Patternist Series and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon somehow surpass the recognizable strength that black women are expected to have; they struggle with “normalcy” in their narratives, and they escape the stipulations of being characterized as strong black women.

The identification and critique of the problem of "strong" black women is important, and an additional focus on uncanny black women characters, who might be identified as strong but not characterized or plagued by that strength, could prove useful as well.

Briana Whiteside is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Black Studies Program.   


joshua woodard said...

this word liberation why is it used so many times does that mean to be a feminist you are free of what a man thinks. or is it deeper than that, see the stereo type i know is a feminist doesn't think a man is worth anything in this world. so why not dispell the myths that exist about your new found out look on life. can a black women or a women in general ever be fully free of what society see's them as answer that for me big sis because if im correct a feminist should stand for equality and empowerment for all women not just hating men

Unknown said...

My dearest brother, while I am just getting my feet wet in feminism I will attempt to answer your questions or concerns. To be a feminist does not necessarily mean to be free from what others think. Feminism, more specifically, black feminism symbolizes empowerment of black women. In areas where black women have been ignored, harmed, not taken seriously, or silenced, through feminism these women are given an opportunity. They are given the opportunity to speak out on pressing issues, such as sexism, discrimination, pain, happiness, etc. The common misconception about feminism is that many people give too much credit to men. To me, feminism has nothing to do with what men think about women, but what women think about themselves.
To your second question, no black women cannot be fully free of the stereotypes society puts on them. No matter how hard they try, the mammy, angry black woman, strong black woman, sapphire, and all those other archetypes will resurface in some way. I think one reason why black women are not able to rid themselves of these harmful character types is because society loves to label and categorize things.
To your last comment, initially, feminism was a movement of equality and empowerment of women, but it left out black women. In turn, black women created their own movement. They were not really welcomed in the male dominant Black Arts Movement, and the movement that was supposed to be for women left black women out.
I think you should read the blog I wrote about Misunderstanding Feminism to get a better understanding of what black feminism means to black women.