Melissa V. Harris-Perry reflects on American culture and politics while discussing her new book, “Sister Citizen.”

Kam Williams | 10/26/2011, 9:39 a.m.
(Photo courtesy of Melissa V. Harris-Perry) Melissa V. Harris-Perry reflects on American culture and politics while discussing...

Clearly, the book was written from the perspective of a person who had been raised by one of these loving black maids and who therefore couldn’t imagine anything but affection on the part of the caretaker.

The second dishonest aspect of the book was how it ignored the violence by white men against blacks. One scene in the movie that just made me want to rip my hair out was when, in response to the Medgar Evers assassination, all the maids finally decide to talk to Miss Skeeter. That is made up! That is not what happened!

The truth is that when Medgar Evers was murdered, the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi organized themselves and went out into the streets en masse, thereby not only putting their jobs in jeopardy but risking violent reprisals on the part of the police and the white community.

“The Help” ignores that brave, real-life effort in favor of a fantasy suggesting that what they needed was to share their stories with a white woman in secret.

A careful author would’ve done her research and then incorporated what actually transpired, because accounts about these maids’ bravery are readily available.

The danger that I fear now is that “The Help” will become the historical record because of its popularity, and that people who see the movie will come to believe that that’s really what happened.

Yeah, like how the misleading images in “Gone with the Wind” came to replace the truth about the South during slavery.

Exactly! That’s precisely what happened with both “Gone with the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation.” Popular films are so powerful and compelling that it’s often easier to accept their versions of history than the much more complicated true stories.

When did we black women get so far off the mark with our public image? With all we’ve accomplished, why is self-esteem still such a problem in our communities?

In 1619 [when the first slaves were brought to America]. There has never been a moment when African American women were fundamentally celebrated as model citizens. Even at this point in history when we have a black first lady, we see the power of these negative stereotypes about black women in that the dishonest mythology continues to thrive.    

There are people who want to identify themselves as biracial because they feel that they have to acknowledge both cultural identities. What made you decide to identify yourself as black?

This is the weirdest question that I am consistently asked. When I grew up in Virginia in the Seventies, there was no such thing as biracial. I understand that in 2011 you can opt to self-identify as biracial, although others might still identify you differently.

Having a white parent undoubtedly makes for a different childhood experience than having two black parents. However, I think the idea that you’re somehow rejecting whiteness if you don’t identify yourself as biracial is odd because everybody engages in whiteness.

If you live in America, you’re doing whiteness all the time, even if you have no white people in your family. So, I don’t know what people mean when they ask me whether I’m embracing my whiteness. Whiteness is ubiquitous.