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The Melissa Harris-Perry Revolution Will Be Televised

Harris-Perry turned a public moment of political controversy into an even more public career in mainstream media.
 
 
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It's a day before the Democratic National Convention and Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry has packed her bags in preparation for what will likely be the turning point of the 2012 race to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Her New Orleans home has been destroyed by Hurricane Isaac, and her veneer of calm was pushed to the breaking point over the weekend by a guest on her eponymous MSNBC show who dared to endorse the merits of a trickle-down economy in which corporations are rewarded for the “risks” they take.

“What is riskier than living poor in America?” Harris-Perry boomed. “Seriously! What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner. I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I am sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky.”

Her impassioned response is a perfect example of Melissa Harris-Perry at her finest.

Progressive woman-of-the-people or academic elitist, self-promotional sell-out or ambitious workhorse, Obama lackey or political provocateur -- Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry has been labeled many things throughout her career. But even as certain labels plead questionable motives, what cannot be called into questioned is Harris-Perry’s insatiable thirst for knowledge and her pivotal role in transforming the face, race and gender of both academia and media alike.

Harris-Perry, who is also professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South, is known for her skilled and critical perspective on African-American issues. She doesn’t merely have an opinion, but an intellect that makes people pay attention to what she has to say – even when they disagree.

Prior to her move South, Harris-Perry was associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, where she walked the same halls as Dr. Cornel West, who was once very fond of Harris-Perry, referring to his former colleague as “one of the most talented intellectuals of her generation,” imbued with “sophisticated quantitative skills, a sense of history and a synthetic imagination.” But then came the widely speculated-upon academic rivalry between Harris-Perry and West that allegedly led to his blocking her tenure at Princeton. The final blow came when Harris-Perry took a bold public stance against West’s political position regarding President Barack Obama.

“In an self-aggrandizing, victimology sermon deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness, Professor West offers thin criticism of President Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years,” she wrote in a scathing article for the Nation.

Harris-Perry went on to mock West and his “dear brother” Tavis Smiley as hypocrites in bed with “Wells-Fargo, Walmart and McDonalds,” while simultaneously deriding the president for his inattention to pivotal issues in the African-American community. Not surprisingly, West lashed back: “There’s not a lot of academic stuff with her, just a lot of twittering,” he said in an interview with Diverse magazine. “She’s become the momentary darling of liberals, but I pray for her because she’s in over her head. She’s a fake and fraud. I was so surprised how treacherous the sister was.”

Treacherous? Or simply daring to be an intelligent black woman who refuses to walk lock-step with a black male academia embroiled in a battle of ego versus who is more compassionate on the subject of impoverished African-Americans?

Already something of a known entity from her frequent appearances on MSNBC shows “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” and the "Rachel Maddow Show,” it wasn’t until this heated exchange with West that she was thrust into the national spotlight.

“After all these years, I’m still not sure what Professor West is most angry with me about,” Harris-Perry said in an interview with AlterNet. “I have no idea. But the issue with Professor West is less important to me than how sexism operates.”

That said, Harris-Perry expertly sidesteps the suggestion that West may be envious of her success, before going on to make her larger point about gender politics in academe. “I don’t know if he’s personally jealous, but when I look at the regular circumstances of the academy, African-American women and men are often complicit in silencing black women’s voices, or in encouraging black women to only use their voices to talk about race and racial equality,” she said. “But not to use those same powerful voices to talk about sex, sexual equality, and gender equality. You get rewarded for being a race woman, but less rewarded for pointing out sexism in your work.”