The Saturday Rumpus Interview: Tamara Winfrey-Harris

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I’ve long been impressed with Tamara Winfrey-Harris‘s incisive essays, which I started reading a few years ago on her blog, What Tami Said. Tamara specializes in the intersection of race and gender with current events, politics, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, In These Times, Ms., and Bitch magazine and online at Fusion, The American Prospect, Salon, the Guardian, Newsweek/Daily Beast, XOJane, The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Change.org and Clutch magazine. She has been called to address women’s issues for major media outlets, such as NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Her first book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, will be released on July 7th by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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The Rumpus: I became such a fan of your writing online, and it was interesting for me to see how many of your ideas I was introduced to in articles and blog posts evolved into The Sisters Are Alright. Did you always know you wanted to write this book?

Tamara Winfrey-Harris: Yes and no. My initial idea was a book about the so-called “black marriage crisis” and the idea that black women must fix themselves to be more attractive to men. That conversation reached a peak a few years ago and it drove me crazy as an anti-racist feminist. But my publisher wanted something with a broader focus. As I began to think about it, a light went off. Of course! I can write about all the things that inform the conversation about black women and marriage. And those things negatively impact black women in many other areas and contribute to a skewed picture of us. Suddenly, I felt like I was writing a culmination of my work as a writer so far.

Rumpus: Your book really tackles specific stereotypes that shape the way American culture perceives black women. Do you think the articles that spoke about the “black marriage crisis” were aware of how stereotypes were shaping this discussion? Were they articles from within the black community, or in mainstream American culture? Or both?

Winfrey-Harris: I do not, because those things are so ingrained in American thinking—even in the black community. Consider that some of the central figures in the discussion were black men like Steve Harvey and Jimi Izrael. Yes, ABC was talking about it, too—gathering panels to dissect the problem with black women. But some of the same attitudes can be heard on Sunday in the black church and any day online.

Rumpus: Why do you think these stereotypes are still so common in American culture today?

Winfrey-Harris: Fundamentally because they are born of racism and sexism and those habits are hard to break. As long as those oppressions exist, black women will bear the burden of both.

Cover 300 dpiRumpus: One of the things I loved about your book was how it emphasized how self-love could help radically shift some of these perspectives. I thought of your book yesterday when I watched a clip of Michelle Obama speaking at Tuskegee.

Winfrey-Harris: I think if there is one thing black women can do for ourselves it is to refuse to accept the labels other people place upon us. We may not be able to change what everyone else thinks, but damn it, we can refuse to embrace those things ourselves!

Michelle Obama’s embrace of motherhood, in the face of many feminists who ignore intersection saying that she is wasting her potential, is one example of a black woman making her own story. Michelle Wallace wrote about the importance of black women making our own histories. Michelle Obama is certainly doing that.

Rumpus:I was also impressed to see her open up about feeling shocked that she was being seen in this one particular way—as angry, radical, etc. She talked about that New Yorker cover, for example. Do you think that black women sharing their stories helps to change these dominant narratives?

Winfrey-Harris: I really do think black women sharing their stories helps. For example, I am thrilled that there are many more black women in the pundit class today. I just wrote an article for Fusion about making black women’s lives matter in the new civil rights movement. I noted that pre-2008 elections, black America was represented on mainstream news by a handful of black men (Al Sharpton, etc.). Now we have Melissa Harris-Perry, Janet Mock, Charlene Carruthers, Joy Reid—all these women. I hope the fact that we now have these powerful voices will begin to change the way people see us as black women, and that it will also open the country’s eyes to our unique perspectives and needs.

Rumpus: I’m excited to read that article. It seems clear that some of the most important and influential feminists today are black women. I think this is one of the reasons I was so stunned by Patricia Arquette’s recent comments, and the ensuing debate about intersectionality.Where do you think that pushback comes from? Is it a kind of backlash?

Winfrey-Harris: For sure, I think the Internet has been sort of an equalizing force on several movements. It makes is harder to ignore voices that have been marginalized even among the marginalized. You know, I would really love to write a book exploring the impact of the Internet on third-wave feminism. I think it is a really ripe subject and a case can be made for both a positive and negative impact.

The pushback against intersectional feminism? Intersectional anti-racism?

Rumpus: Some people seemed to be offended by the questioning of Arquette’s comments, even though they were deeply problematic.

Winfrey-Harris: The reality is that there is privilege even within social justice movements. There will always be people who argue that, by asking that our needs be recognized, black women are being divisive. You hear it from white women within feminism. You hear it from black men within black civil rights movements. It is trickle-down social justice and it doesn’t work. It asks black women to wait for everyone else to be free and then MAYBE we’ll get ours.

Rumpus: Which isn’t fair at all. I’m fascinated by Internet feminism it is reshaping some of these discussions… You do a great job integrating interviews throughout your book. What was that process like?

Winfrey-Harris: Thank you! That was hard. As much as I really wanted to do some analysis of how stereotype impacts black women today, what I wanted most of all is to give diverse black women a chance to speak for themselves. I tries to cast a wide net. I was surprised at how eager black women were to talk about everything. One of the proposed titles for the book was Back Talk, because I wanted it to be a rebuttal for persistent anti-black woman propaganda. My only regret is that my pool is not as diverse as I wanted. The group skews toward middle-class and educated. And I am missing the voices of trans women. I mention in the book that the women I interviewed should not be seen as representative of all black women. But that is kind of the point. The public picture of us never could contain our multitudes.

Rumpus: That actually leads me directly into my next question—who would you say is the primary audience of this book?We talk a lot about gender and race in my classes and I am always stunned when students feel like if a book isn’t about their specific experience, it’s not for them. But I also got the sense that this text was something very special for black women specifically, as you said, a place for black women to speak for themselves.

Winfrey-Harris: I think black women will be my primary audience. I wrote this for me. I wrote it for them. We need more writing that is willing to speak to us with our humanity in mind. That said—I think there is something for other women (and men) as well—and not just the opportunity to hear from black women, which is important. But, as I point out in the book, sexism affects all women. It just visits each of us differently. For instance, many of the same sexist ideas that are at the root of the “black marriage crisis” hysteria impact other women. There have long been names, like “thornback” or “spinster,” for unmarried women in America, regardless of race. And all that finger-waving at single, black mothers is going to get to other women, too. The majority of babies born to women under 30 are born outside of marriage—women—not black women. Family looks different today and we all have to deal with it and biases against non-traditional families.

Rumpus: You must be so proud of this book.

Winfrey-Harris: I am! It has been my lifelong dream to write a book. I’ve wanted this since I was a kid. (Yes, a bookish, nerdy one). And I still can’t quite believe that this is happening!

Rumpus: It’s so well-deserved. Have you always considered yourself a writer?

Winfrey-Harris: Well, I have always loved to write. I used to write “books” and “magazines” when I was little. Reading and writing—those have always been my jams. I started my career on a newspaper copy desk and then transitioned into PR. So, writing was always a part of my career, but for a long time, I wasn’t writing for me. That changed when I started blogging in about 2007. Even then, I don’t know if I would have called myself a writer. It took a few years and many published pieces before I felt like I could claim that title. I have always looked up to writers and wanted to be a writer, so I was nervous about, I dunno. Being an imposter. But I am a writer now, I think.

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Images provided by author.


Arielle Bernstein is a writer based in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Salon, The Millions, and PANK Magazine, among other publications. She is a Professorial Lecturer at American University and editor of "Torch: Stories of America" at The Rumpus. You can follow her @NotoriousREL. More from this author →