Q&A with Tamara Winfrey Harris

 

Hailing from Indiana, Tamara Winfrey Harris has written for a slew of great publications around the county. Now, she is releasing her first book and a storm of praise seems to be following close behind. Her non-fiction work The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America starts with one simple statement. "What is wrong with Black women? Not a damned thing." 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. 

NUVO: What inspired you to write The Sister Are Alright? Were early versions of the book centered on the same ideas you?

Tamara Winfrey Harris: This book is a culmination of the writing I have done for the last eight or so years. I have focused on the intersection of race and gender with politics, pop culture and current events for media like The New York Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, American Prospect, Ms. magazine and other outlets. But what really got me going was the conversation, which reached a fever pitch a few years ago, about black women and marriage. In case your readers haven't heard, black woman are half as likely to marry as white women. Now, this is true for a host of reasons, but the reason that seems to drive popular discussion is the idea that black women are doing something wrong not to be "chosen." We are singled out for dissection even as marriage rates continue to fall among other groups in this country and throughout the Western world.

As I began to speak to black women about marriage and research the issue, it was clear that the racist and sexist stereotypes driving the analysis of black marriage rates also affect other issues in black women's lives, like health, motherhood, even beauty practices. My book expanded to focus on the reality behind negative stereotypes of black women—a reality that is, thankfully, more nuanced, empowering and hopeful than what people commonly hear.

NUVO: What did you learn about the troupes of the Mammy, Sapphire and Jezebel while researching and writing this?

Harris: Researching for Sisters confirmed for me what I already knew as a black woman—and that is that we still carry the burden of stereotype on our backs. Those four "controlling images," as feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins calls them, influence how people see us and, too often, we are forced to make concessions to that bias. For instance, some women spoke about being obsequious at work to avoid being labeled angry, black women. A married mother of twins talked about a student in her graduate program assuming she was a single mother despite her wedding ring. Many women talked about the expectation that they will be unnaturally strong and never vulnerable, asked by churches and family and friends and employers to give until they drop.

NUVO: Did your own view of black womanhood change at all during the writing process?

Harris: It reinforced for me how amazing black women are—not because we are black and women, but because we are humans with all the vivid complexity that entails. Those tired stereotypes cannot contain our multitudes.

NUVO: What kind of responses have you been given since the book release?

Harris: I have spoken to so many black women who were happy to finally read a book that gives voice to their experiences. I've also heard from women of other races who can relate to many of the feelings and experiences shared in the book. That is what I hoped for. To think that I actually achieved this? It feels amazing!

NUVO: What do you think is the most damaging troupe for black women in society today?

Harris: All of them. Any view that renders women less human is damaging. They all need to go.

NUVO: What needs to happen as the first step for society to not see blackness and womanhood in a negative light?

Harris: Oh, if we could only do that, so many things would be better...

One important step—and the one I suggest in Sisters—is that we need to begin chipping away at stereotypes that have followed black women for hundreds of years. That means, we have to first understand that much "common wisdom" about black women is actually bias. Knowing that, we need to evaluate beliefs, behaviors and assumptions. When someone meets me for the first time, I don't want them to be "colorblind." My race and gender are part of who I am. What they should not do is make judgements about what those aspects of my experience mean before they know me.

I also think it is important that all of us learn to view pop culture critically, because it plays a huge role in reinforcing stereotypes of just about everyone. For instance, it's okay to rest your brain while watching trash TV sometimes. I know I do. But we need to understand that our favorite reality programs are cast and edited specifically to play to our worst instincts and reinforce stereotypes about catty women, "gold-diggers" and brawling black women.

NUVO: How did internet feminism shape this? How has it changed you?

Harris: The Internet can be wonderful sometimes. I think what it has done is give voice to lots of people who did not previously have space in mainstream media. That includes black women. Consider that pre-2008 election, the designated media spokespersons for black America seemed to be Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and perhaps Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson. Nothing wrong with these men, but making middle-aged straight men the voice of all things black certainly erases a host of experiences, especially those of black women who make up more than half of the black community. Now you see a greater diversity of voices represented, including feminist women, many of whom first emerged online. And you see black women leading modern civil rights movements and using the Internet, in part, to do it. The founders of Black Lives Matter? Three black women.

The Internet has also made it possible for diverse women to have a stronger voice in feminism. Not just black women, but also other women of color and poor women, queer women, transgender women and everyone who is many of these things.

NUVO: What was the selection process like for the other voices and stories in the book?

Harris: I, of course, looked for women with compelling stories to tell, but it was also important to me to cast a wide net and really get at the diversity of black women's experiences. I wanted to talk to young and old, straight and gay, married and single, middle- and working-class, religious and agnostic, urban and rural...you get the picture. The result was not perfect. Certainly the women highlighted in the book cannot stand for every black woman, but then, that is sort of the point of the book. Black woman cannot be summed up easily and surely not with four centuries-old biased narratives.

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