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Challenging Stereotypes about Black Women

Melissa V. Harris-Perry

Eliza Gallie was a free black woman living in Petersburg, Virginia, before the Civil War. She was divorced, owned property, and had financial resources that made her unusual among free blacks in the Confederate South. In 1853 Gallie was arrested and charged with stealing cabbages from a white man’s garden. Autonomous and assertive, she could afford to fight back against the scurrilous claim. She employed several aggressive attorneys who argued her case. But a Southern, white, male legal system declared her guilty and sentenced her to be publicly whipped on her bare back. Historian Suzanne Lebsock reminds us, “She was helpless in the end, the victim of the kind of deliberate humiliation that for most of us is past imagining.”

In 2002 historian Chana Kai Lee, not yet forty years old, was a tenured professor at the University of Georgia and the author of an award-winning biography of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. Complications from lupus caused two severe strokes within a week. Though she was left with disabled speech and diminished physical capacities, her department chair insisted that to keep her job, Lee must immediately return to the classroom. Her physician wrote multiple letters explaining the severity of Lee’s condition, but she was pressured to resume teaching because “the state is concerned about sick leave abuse.” Reflecting on the humiliating and physically impossible task of addressing a large classroom only weeks after a stroke, Lee saw herself as victimized by familiar stereotypes about black women. “Images of a ‘welfare cheat’ kept playing in my head. Ph.D. or no Ph.D., tenure or no tenure, I was just like the rest of those lazy black folks: I’d do anything for a cheap ride. I’d take advantage of any situation. I’d exaggerate and manipulate good, responsible, white folks who played by the rules, all to avoid my responsibilities.”

Lee’s stroke and its humiliating aftermath occurred more than 150 years after Eliza Gallie was publicly flogged for supposedly stealing a white man’s cabbage. The country was a profoundly different place in 2002 from what it was in 1853. Black women are no longer enslaved, and they enjoy the constitutional assurance of full citizenship. Centuries of struggle, sacrifice, and achievement have altered basic economic, political, and social realities for black women in vast and meaningful ways. Being required to limp and slur in front of dozens of college students is horrifying, but it is not the same as being publicly whipped. Lee was forced by economic necessity to return to work. Gallie lived in fear of racial murder against which there was no reasonable protection in the United States in 1853. Their experiences are not the same.

Yet there is a thin but tenacious thread connecting Gallie to Lee. Each is a woman of relative economic privilege and freedom. Powerful white institutions subjected both to public humiliation and physical suffering. As a historian, Chana Kai Lee interprets her experience of punishment as resulting from the practice of stereotyping black women as welfare cheats. The jurors in antebellum Petersburg, Virginia, were willing to convict Gallie in part because they believed black women to be dishonest and criminal, willing to steal white men’s property even if they owned their own. The two women are linked across centuries of change by a powerful web of myth that punishes individual black women based on assumptions about the group. Their stories are painfully familiar to many African American women who feel that they continue to be mistreated and humiliated as a result of lies told, and widely accepted, about black women as a group. They force us to consider how and why American governments, American popular culture, and even black communities have contributed to the humiliation of African American women. Their experiences also lead us to ask what resources black women use for psychic self-defense and how successful they are.

Although historical myths are seldom imported wholesale into the contemporary era, they are meaningfully connected to twenty-first-century portrayals of black women in public discourse. African American women who exercise their citizenship must also try to manage the negative expectations born of this powerful mythology. Like all citizens, they use politics to lay claim to resources and express public preferences; but sister politics is also about challenging negative images, managing degradation, and resisting or accommodating humiliating public representations.

From Sister Citizen by Melissa V. Harris-Perry. Published by Yale University Press in 2013. Reproduced with permission.

Melissa V. Harris-Perry is the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair, Executive Director of the Pro Humanitate Institute, and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center, at Wake Forest University. Her previous book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, won the 2005 W. E. B. Du Bois Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

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