Black Women's Empowerment

Commentary on the Crooked Room: You Mad Sapphire? You Mad…the Angry Black Woman Trope

Hello. My name is Jenn. And, I am an angry black woman. You know why? Well, because I, like all other human beings, possess the ability to get frustrated, mad, and downright heated when I experience injustice. But, what about that makes me a ‘Sapphire’ or an ‘Angry Black Woman’? That would be a) my hue and b) umm, my hue. I have dedicated much thought and the three previous installments of this series to Melissa Harris-Perry’s novel Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. The book, released in 2011, covers a host of topics affecting black women. And, in her combination of qualitative and quantitative research, she found that many black women struggled with shame associated with three competing stereotypes: the Jezebel, the Mammy, and the Sapphire. So, who is this angry black woman and where did she come from?

Meet Sapphire, Not the Precious Stone

Well, we’ve already walked through the slavery origins of the Jezebel and the emancipated negro ‘Jim Crow’ underpinnings of the Mammy. But, the Sapphire seems to have little foundational basis. Not only that, she is the least talked about character in the crooked room we have all come to know and love. But, Harris-Perry notes the redounding wavelengths television images have cascaded on real-life black women.

“The academic literature on stereotyping traces the popular representation of black women as uniquely and irrationally angry, obnoxious, and controlling to the 1930s Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show. The nagging, assertive Sapphire character on Amos ‘n’ Andy gave rise to an oft-repeated trope in popular culture representations of black women, from Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son to Pam on Martin. The brash, independent, hostile black woman rarely shows vulnerability or empathy…the angry black woman has many different shadings and representations: the bad black woman, the black ‘bitch,’ and the emasculating matriarch.”

Never heard of Amos ‘n’ Andy?

But you know exactly what she means about Martin right?

While I am inclined to agree, I find that the stereotype has a much more expansive and gargantuan base. Black women are seen as combative, violent, and aggressive in the eyes of the law as well. Black women, like black men, are more likely than their white counterparts to be imprisoned. And, in most cases, their offenses are repetitive and less egregious. So, though it is convenient to look solely to television images and those in movies, real-life truly mimics this trope. And, not only does the angry black woman creation trickle down to normal human beings like me, you, and a host of others, the image is reinforced in every school bus video on YouTube that depicts a violent altercation between a black woman and a black man, or woman, or whomever. Why? Because we have been taught that the image is true.

The angry black woman trope exists in the workplace too. Harris-Perry finds that this stereotype results in employers fearing that black women will be “unreliable” or irascible. And since this is a generally accepted stereotype, the misnomer has also made its way into modern medicine.

“Therapists are less likely to perceive a black woman as sad; instead, they see her as angry or anxious.”

And, to sum up Harris-Perry’s spot-on analysis of the angry black woman, she makes it extremely clear that society’s prevalence toward this unfounded stereotype has had real influence on black women’s lived phenotypes.

“[Black women’s] anger is not experienced as a psychological reality but is seen through an ideology that distorts black women’s lived experiences. The angry black woman stereotype hamstrings sisters who find that they cannot forcefully and convincingly advocate their own interests in the public sphere…because their passion and commitment are misread as irrational.”

It is society’s pre-conceived (and ill-conceived) impression that drives many black women to extremes. They may retract in order to disprove the stereotype. Or, they may simply espouse it since the crooked room tells them to. The former might get them further in a social sense, but it will do little to insulate them from the perceptions of others. The latter will likely garner the response expected: exclusion, hatred, loathing, and revilement. But, they may deem that safer in a crooked room with little oxygen for their true persona. Thus emerges the two-ness that W.E.B. Du Bois so remarkably articulated The Souls of Black Folk (1903).

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Sapphire’s Pathology

When I was in eleventh grade, I was asked by the Vice Principal of my public high school to grab him a jelly doughnut. Well, I had done this a number of times. And, being that I had an extremely high GPA, held several positions on the school council, and was pretty well-known amongst the faculty for being one of the “good kids,” I thought it okay. So, once the bell rung signalling the start of second period, I skipped right on over to the beloved patisserie across the street and grabbed a half dozen doughnut holes for myself too. Once I had crossed the street and was just about twenty feet from the school’s main entrance, I heard the very familiar whiz of a police vehicle. My first thought was to simply ignore it because there was no way in hell they could possibly be coming for me. As I continued my glide-like stroll, I heard a billowing voice over a speaker-phone call me out personally.

“You, in the blue jeans and red shirt. Please stop and turn around.”

As I stopped to look around and see if anyone else donned my attire, I realized that I was the only person within speaking distance of the cop. But, eerily enough, I wasn’t the only student outdoors. Actually, there were a few Asian males at the bus stop about a block away and a few Hispanic boys watching the conversation from across the street. But, I turned around nonetheless and flippantly addressed the young white male.

“I am taking a doughnut to the Vice Principal. His name is Marty. He asked me to go across the street for my second period IWE (internal work experience). I am not a truant. I have a 3.7 GPA. Can I please go back to school?”

“Law says I have to pick you up.”

“Pick me up? And take me where? I have to go to school. I am not a bad kid. I have never been in trouble. Can you just call the Vice Principal?”

“Law says I have to pick you up. Please turn around.”

“Are you for real arresting me right now? I don’t understand. This is crazy. Can I at least go get my backpack? Wouldn’t I have a backpack if I were truant or cutting class?”

“Miss, I am taking you to the truancy center. You can call your parents from there to pick you up. It doesn’t matter what you were doing or who told you to do it. Law says you can’t be off property during school hours.”

“What about them over there? They are leaving right now. Why aren’t you picking them up?”

And as he tightened a plastic hand-cuff around my wrists, I simply started crying. Not because it hurt. I cried because I was embarrassed that my classmates had seen me getting shoved in a cop car like a criminal. I cried because this cop didn’t seem to give a crap that I was a “good kid” no matter how hard I had worked at becoming one. I cried because I really genuinely wanted to go back to school. And, I cried because I was unsure what this meant for everything else. Was I going to be suspended? Was my mom going to kill me? Would this go on some type of permanent record? Would this impact my college admissions process? The questions were endless.

But, in that moment, just as now, I was reminded of my place. You know, that place where I am ‘supposed’ to exist. That place where hoochies, mammies, and bad girls live. My place in the crooked room. And as I called my mom and my brother crying bloody murder begging them to pick me up, their reactions to me only further cemented my angst, humiliation, hurt, and disillusionment with my prescribed role. Neither of them deemed it important to come to my aid. Neither wanted to leave work to rescue me. Neither wanted to free me of this snare my race and gender had gotten me into.

It is instances like these that produce those angry little black girls. It is instances like these that harden feminine hearts. It is instances like these that prove that neither academia nor athleticism nor altruism can work to defray the weight of the burdensome angry black woman load. And, in fighting this white cop, I was fighting against a larger societal vision for me. I was attempting to stand against something much bigger than myself to no avail.

This is the brilliance of the Sapphire. Not only does it cause black women to understate their accomplishments in an effort not to emasculate the men around them, it also leaves many feeling as though any uttering in their own defense will be seen as being angry just for the sake of being angry. It desensitizes others to the various plights of black women including rape and misogyny culture, single-parenthood, and statistically unequal wealth outcomes. It pre-marks every reaction as an irrational one. It gets folks like Rhonda Lee fired when others display more aggressive demeanors for similar issues. It makes a bus driver physically beating a young black woman a minor celebrity on YouTube. And it shames black women who strive to carve out their true space in the American social sphere…

So, what happens next? What does shame bring us all? Well, plainly, more shame. And so goes the vicious cycle of the crooked room.

To be continued…Shame

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