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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.
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.

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 BlackWoman 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."

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.