Time To 'Redefine' Media Portrayals Of Black Women

Lawyer, columnist and political commentator Sophia Nelson says it's time for black women to push back against how they are portrayed in popular culture. i i

Lawyer, columnist and political commentator Sophia Nelson says it's time for black women to push back against how they are portrayed in popular culture. Damon Douglas Moore hide caption

itoggle caption Damon Douglas Moore
Lawyer, columnist and political commentator Sophia Nelson says it's time for black women to push back against how they are portrayed in popular culture.

Lawyer, columnist and political commentator Sophia Nelson says it's time for black women to push back against how they are portrayed in popular culture.

Damon Douglas Moore

On the surface, it might appear that many black women have achieved the American dream; they're excelling in politics, business, media and academia.

But Sophia Nelson, a political commentator and author of Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama, says that even though these women have achieved a level of success that their mothers could only dream of, their accomplishments aren't being reflected in popular American culture.

Nelson tells NPR's Lynn Neary that it often feels like successful black women are "under attack" in America. She cites reaction to Michelle Obama's statements during the 2008 presidential campaign as an example.

"[Michelle Obama] was attacked for her statements that she was proud of her country for the first time," Nelson says. "Then they looked into her senior thesis at Princeton and said that perhaps she had racial issues."

The final straw, Nelson says, was the now-infamous July 2008 New Yorker cover depicting Michelle Obama "with an afro, with a machine gun on her back ... looking like [she was] about to start some type of takeover, or burn some kind of building down."

Cover of 'Black Woman Redefined"
BenBella Books
Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths And Discovering Fulfillment In The Age Of Michelle Obama
By Sophia A. Nelson
Hardcover, 260pages
BenBella
List price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

Nelson says that's the image that set her nascent plans for a book about black women in motion.

"I was like, 'Good grief, it's time we did something about this,' " she says.

According to Nelson, the irony of the New Yorker cover is that Michelle Obama is really more like The Cosby Show's Clair Huxtable than a stereotypical "angry black woman."

"I'm a kid of the '80s, and I grew up watching Claire Huxtable," Nelson says. "And then Michelle Obama comes along, and it's [a] living, breathing Claire Huxtable living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She's got a husband; she's got kids; Mom lives at the house with her; she's got great arms; she hangs out with her girlfriends; she has date night."

But Nelson says that while Michelle Obama may be living proof that some black women are doing it all, most educated black women are still really struggling.

According to Nelson, African-American women are underrepresented in leadership positions, most likely to file discrimination suits at work and most likely to be recruited but not retained and advanced in a profession.

An attorney, Nelson says she felt much of those constraints in her own former workplace.

"I was in a big firm and it was just not a pleasant experience," she says. "There were very few people that looked like me, and you do feel a sense of isolation. And I'm a pretty friendly girl, and hardworking."

Nelson's Black Woman Redefined focuses on the experiences of black women, but she hopes it will also be read by those with the power to influence those experiences in the workplace.

"I'm hoping that we can have a dialogue," she says, "where we can kind of talk openly about these things, without pointing fingers or casting blame."

Excerpt: 'Black Woman Redefined'

Cover of 'Black Woman Redefined"
BenBella Books
Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths And Discovering Fulfillment In The Age Of Michelle Obama
By Sophia A. Nelson
Hardcover, 260pages
BenBella
List price: $24.95

Some say we have conquered the world as accomplished black women; I say that we have yet to conquer ourselves.

Sisters, it is time we had a candid and meaningful conversation about just how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in valuing the things that truly matter in life. Black women have survived the unimaginable, and many of us have thrived in the midst of it all. We come from good stock, sisters, and we should never forget that truth. We must honor those who came before us, who sacrificed their hopes for ours, who could not dream as big as we can, and who gave us their extraordinary examples to dare us to be more, do more, and achieve more.

The twenty-first-century successful black woman is brilliant and tenacious and not afraid to flex her intellectual, spiritual, or financial muscles. She has accomplished, earned, and owned more than black women of any other generation in American history. Just forty years after the civil rights and women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s, successful black women have rapidly scaled the ladder of success to the top. Today, against all odds, we stand proud in corner offices throughout corporate America, in partners' meetings at law firms, in hospital operating rooms, in academia's ivory towers, in trading rooms on Wall Street, in the studios of media and entertainment conglomerates, in the research labs of prestigious scientific institutions, in the halls of Congress and the White House.

Think about it: we now have three generations of amazing black females in the White House. There was no way Mrs. Marian Robinson could have ever dreamed in 1964, when her daughter was born, that she would join Michelle and her granddaughters, Sasha and Malia, to call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home.

Wherever you look in the second decade of twenty-first-century America, you will find a sister at the top of her game. You know her when you see her. There's an invisible "S" tattooed on her chest, just beneath her camisole, for "Superwoman." She is strong, independent, and ready for any challenge in the workplace. She's sharp and confident, sports fine shoes and the best handbags, drives a nice car, and loves the Lord. She's politically active as well. That's why, as a group, black women were the largest and most reliable voting block for candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. She's the pillar of her church and the committee chair of her sorority, and she is the most important community fund-raiser. She is well connected, highly visible, and always on call, ready to help a family member or friend in need. She's the go-to on everyone's speed dial, for volunteers, for mentoring, for money, and for comfort.

Today we celebrate a growing cadre of accomplished black female superstars, such as Xerox Corporation CEO Ursula Burns, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, U.S. ambassador Susan Rice, NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, model-turned-TV-star Tyra Banks, Tony Award–winning actress Viola Davis, Academy Award–nominated actress Taraji P. Henson, Brown University president Dr. Ruth J. Simmons, Rear Admiral Michelle Howard, the Honorable Ann Claire Williams (U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for the Seventh Circuit), and sports icons Venus and Serena Williams, just to name a few. Everywhere you look you can see sisters making an impact — moving and shaking, and reshaping the world around them.

Yet there's something amiss.

When did our achievements start to trump our fulfillment? Somehow, a significant slice of this intriguing community of women has disconnected from what our mothers and foremothers valued. Somehow, far too many of these highly successful sisters who have achieved the American Dream have replaced love, relationships, and family with ambition. Somehow, our strength has been transformed into a galvanized coat of armor, shielding us from our pain and depriving us of an authentic and joyful life. In spite of all we have accomplished, everyone around us — friends, family, coworkers, brothers, and even our younger sisters — have decided that we've become too hard, too aloof, too independent, and too strong. As one twenty-eight-year-old sister told me this past spring, "I admire the accomplished, older black women in my life so much professionally, but I don't want to be like them — alone, and childless at forty."

Life as a strong black woman, who is always independent, always a survivor, always a caretaker, always on, and mostly doing it alone, is hard and lonely. And Lord knows, armor gets really heavy when you're forced to wear it 24/7. Eventually, the strong black woman (or what we call in our studies "ABW" for "accomplished black woman") lifestyle can take its toll on your psyche and your health.

From Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama by Sophia A. Nelson. Copyright 2011 by Sophia A. Nelson. Reprinted by permission of BenBella Books.

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Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama

by Sophia A. Nelson

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