Writer Tamara Winfrey Harris is half myth-buster, half crusader and all the way fed up.
Deeply unsatisfied with the way black women are oft portrayed in media, Harris wanted to write a book that would celebrate black women, challenge the pernicious stereotypes that follow them, and document how and why said stereotypes are so damaging and why they persist.
Harris is a part of the blogging revolution that spearheaded those online conversations that eventually spilled into spaces such as Twitter and Tumblr. She wrote a personal blog, What Tami Said, which examined the intersection of race and pop culture, before she moved on to doing the same thing for Racialicious and outlets such as the New York Times and Bitch magazine.
A book just seemed like the logical next step.
“The Sisters Are Alright” enters a space where we’re publicly contemplating race — and blackness in particular — quite a bit lately. That public contemplation has been fraught with a mixture of frustration, grief and anger at the way black people are treated and the way black bodies are viewed in the United States.
In one of the most frequently quoted passages of his new book, “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”
Roxane Gay, writing on the death of Sandra Bland, took his thesis one step further: “It is also traditional to try and destroy the black spirit.”
Then there’s Harris, writing specifically of black women, and taking care to avoid conflating the black male experience with the definition of the black experience, period: “Maligning black women, regardless of our personal or collective truth, is part of America’s DNA.”
But embedded in “The Sisters Are Alright” is a spirit of optimism and defiance. While deconstructing stereotypes with a pop cultural palette, Harris sprinkles short missives of good news, labeled “Moments in Alright” like this one:
In 2013, there were 1.1 million black women-owned businesses in the United States — a number that has risen by 258 percent over the last sixteen years, making black women the fastest-growing segment among women-owned businesses.
Harris’s “Moments in Alright” are akin to the “Black Excellence” segment hosts Kid Fury and Crissle have incorporated into their weekly podcast, “The Read.”
Harris’s book is a love letter to black womanhood. Indeed, Harris prefaces it with poem proclaiming her love for black women of all types.
“I love the sisters with Ivy League degrees and the ones with GEDs,” she writes. “I love the big mamas, ma’dears, and aunties.”
The Washington Post spoke to Harris about her first book. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
A lot of the material you cover is stuff people who were regular readers and commenters on Racialicious in its heyday would find familiar. Who is this book for and why was it important to document these issues in a book rather than just on the Internet?
I think, primarily, the book is for black women. I’ve been really disheartened with how society talks about black women, and I wanted to push back on the narrative and mostly amplify black women’s voices, so I wanted to talk about some of the roots of anti-black woman propaganda but I also wanted to replace that with something, the authentic stories of black women. I think those of us who spend a lot of time online in feminist and anti-racist spaces — it can feel like everyone is there, but the reality is everyone is not. There are a lot women, a lot of people who will have never seen my work on Racialicious or picked up a copy of Bitch magazine and this book is as much for them as it is for people who may have followed my writing.
So it’s like an introduction?
Yes. I think those of us who are very immersed in these ideas — we hear them all the time. But I think a lot of people are not. A lot of black women don’t get that affirmation and there are a lot of people who may sense that some of the things I talk about are wrong — they may sense that something is wrong with the way people, for instance talk about Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj — but they can’t quite put their finger on it. I think this is for them and helping people work through ideas and letting black women know they are not alone and they may find some of their stories in this book.
What’s the reaction been to the book?
The reaction has made me feel wonderful. I don’t know what it was like when people were releasing books before social media, but the immediate feedback that you get is kind of amazing. So I’m hearing from women who say “I feel so inspired. I feel so moved and thank you so much and I love hearing these stories.” And that makes me feel like this was definitely worthwhile.
Didn’t this book start out as a book about the so-called “black marriage crisis?” But it’s clearly about more than that. What changed?
A few years ago, that conversation was so ever-present. And there was so much wrong with it. So much sexism and racism underlying the way people talk about black women and marriage. But as you dig into that discussion, you really realize that the same problems, the same stereotypes that underpin that discussion also underpin the way people talk about black women and beauty, black women and motherhood. So the book became bigger because the issue is really bigger.
Have you noticed any differences in the way we discuss black women broadly since you started this project? Have things improved?
[Laughing] I don’t know that things have improved in two or three years, but one thing I can say is that there are a lot of smart women pushing back on negative ways that people talk about black women. There are a lot of people pushing back on the way black women are left out of conversations about race.
We’re having this huge conversation about extrajudicial violence and it requires a hashtag, #SayHerName, because black women are being forgotten. So that, to me, is positive.
That was one of the criticisms I saw of “Between the World and Me;” that so often, the black experience gets boiled down to the black male experience even though black men and women experience racism differently.
Yes. When there is a single story and there is a rush to proclaim one book the book everyone needs to be reading about race, no matter how wonderful it is, there are going to be a lot of stories that are left out. More so, can you ever imagine a situation where a book that was just about black women would be called the book about race that you need to read? Probably not.
So, you say explicitly that “The Sisters Are Alright” focuses on middle class black women. Is there a reason for that?
I didn’t necessarily want to concentrate on middle class black women, but I realized when I looked back over the book that I had created that most of the women were either middle class or educated or both. I started by trying to cast a wide net and try to get a diverse group of women, and I think that I did, but I wanted to acknowledge that the women in the book don’t represent every woman. This book is certainly not the only book you need to read about black women.
Do you ever worry about being subsumed by this really circular conversation? There’s this quote attributed to Toni Morrison:
The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
I often wonder if it’s possible to get stuck in the same holding pattern? But then, on the other hand, it’s difficult to let things go unchallenged, because that’s how they become truth. Do you ever struggle with that?
No. There’s this great quote by Deesha Philyaw … she says as a black woman, you need to acknowledge the things that are happening to you, but then be about the business of moving forward and living your life. I think we can acknowledge the things that are happening to us and, to another thing she did was quote August Wilson in “Fences,” and say “don’t worry whether or not someone likes you. You best be sure they do right by you.” I think we can fight and make sure people do right by us while also living our lives to the fullest.
Tamara Winfrey Harris will be reading from her book Wednesday, July 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Busboys and Poets on 14th Street NW.