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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.”


Dismantling and dissecting provocative socio-political issues is Harris-Perry’s forte. She refuses to see any single issue as flat, and points to her diverse array of supporters, many of whom are white, as well as her detractors, several of whom are black, as evidence that the voices of a few cannot always speak for a whole collective population. “That’s where I think we have to be very careful of separating racism and sexism, and individual’s people’s behavior.”

Harris-Perry is aware that her own individual complexity can read as disingenuous to some, and freely admits to failing at times to stay true to her voice in the face of media pressure while also embracing her missteps as part of the process. She proudly shoulders the mantle of “trailblazer” so the black women following in her footsteps, and attempting to navigate a “Crooked Room” – Harris-Perry’s term for a world tilting under the weight of racism and gender discrimination with only a select few noticing the shift – will have an easier experience.

“There comes a point when you recognize that there may be persistent race and gender stereotypes that impact how other people view you, but it doesn’t really matter, because these people aren’t empowered to give you tenure or not, to make your life possible or not,” she said. “There are those people who are so committed to their intellectual and political truths, they want to fight those battles even in the context of trying to survive, and I did that the best that I could. But I’m no Rosa Parks or Ida B. Wells.”

Perhaps not, but she also recognizes the platform advantages she is fortunate enough to have today that were not in place during the days of Parks and Wells. “With more power that having tenure gives me, what having a television show gives me, which each level of greater authority and responsibility, I’m able to navigate a little more, based on my own north star.”

That loyalty to her own north star often leaves Harris-Perry at odds with the African-American community she aims to champion, even as it opens the door for necessary dialogue. With black culture so steeped in Christianity, Harris-Perry’s willingness to speak openly as a progressive liberal on socio-political and subjective moral issues has yielded scathing criticism. But she believes in truth-telling at whatever cost, and is not afraid to point at religion as the culprit for the cognitive dissonance that many black Democrats face when voting from force of habit for a liberal agenda, while harboring strong conservative ideals on homosexuality and marriage equality.

“Are black folks homophobic? Sure. But I think homophobic in the general, run-of-the-mill American version of homophobia,” she said. “We just have a set of very bad theological understandings on what the Bible says about sex in general. We’re still pretty twisted up about slavery and Jim Crow. What exactly did God say about sex? Who God is…like, we also think Jesus is blonde.”

Harris-Perry points out that black Americans are attached to their stories from the pulpit that tell them. “God loves you, God has always loved you. He wants you to have equality, but in order to do that, you’re going to ... find one spouse, pray three times a day on Saturday while standing on your left foot … Then you’re going to have to shake this magic talisman and say ‘Goobie-Goobie,’ then it’ll all be fine.” And while Harris-Perry gets why other people get it, she still does not support it.

“That kind of magical story that everything is going to be fine if we do it that way -- that’s the sales pitch of conservatism. I understand why people who are in unequal circumstances buy it, because as hard as that may sound, that sounds way easier than the sales pitch of collective organization for the purposes of overturning social inequality.”

Similarly, as a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood, Harris-Perry pulls no punches in voicing her disdain for the hypocritical stance of those who question the benefit of the organization for black America based on the theory that its founder Margaret Sanger was a racist.

“If you believe this notion that an organization can never be more than what the founders are, then you can’t be a serious race [person] and be an American,” she says. “So, I’ll see you in Ghana, or Liberia, or wherever the hell else you want to be, but don’t come to me with that mess, because of course, it was founded in racism; hello, it’s America. Am I shocked that an organization was founded, in part, on racism? No, but it doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re talking about right now, which is black women and reproductive rights.”

These are fine examples of Harris-Perry’s propensity to step outside the box for the betterment of the black community. But as she asserts that most of the issues faced by people of color are “structural,” and insists that it is “intellectually lazy and short-sighted” for black people to allow conservative rhetoric to shape our political opinions, when the topic turns to President Barack Obama, she is uncharacteristically single-minded.

More than at any other time and on any other subject, Harris-Perry’s view of the president seems surprisingly narrow. Not because of her unfailing support of the 44th president of the United States, but because of her assumption that dissenting black voices are nothing more than opportunists who have found a silver bullet to notoriety and fame.

There are many black Americans who have questioned Obama’s reticence in addressing issues that specifically affect black communities – until it’s campaign time. There is, in fact, a lengthy list of legitimate reasons black Americans (or any Americans) might question the president’s political motivations: The arguably unethical military action in Libya, the compromise on a single-payer government healthcare option (while there are more African-Americans living in poverty whose higher mortality rates are negatively correlated with either sub-par or no healthcare), his shift in stance on oil drilling, and the extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and the Patriot Act. Despite these tangible criticisms of Obama, Harris-Perry claims that most of the push-back from black Americans is contrived.

“Are there some black people who legitimately disagree with Obama? Of course there are, they’ve written books about it,” she said. “Particularly, they know that if they write books about it and talk about it on television, there is a vast market for black people who don’t agree with Obama. So we’re going to see a disproportionate percent of coverage on that. But black people voter turnout has much less to do with some imagined disillusionment with the president, and much more to do with voter suppression tactics around the country.”

This line of thinking sounds like an assigned groupthink characterization of the black American political narrative -- more informed by collective consciousness rather than the individual perspectives, which is a major departure for Harris-Perry. For many, this is when her political motivations are placed under scrutiny. Though she is willing to lightly chastise the president, it has never been at the level she displayed in her public dispute with West. It will be interesting to witness how her relationship with the president changes and/or evolves after November 2012.

When the conversation turns to black women in contemporary media, however, Harris-Perry is back to her engaging analytical form. From reality television to movies and books, few could argue that black women have largely been denied individual agency and control. Instead they are often cast or drafted to represent black women and blackness as a whole. Here, Harris-Perry firmly voices her support for balance of diverse representation over suppression of individual identity – no matter how negatively it may be perceived.

“I’m not a fan of the suppression of any voice -- even if it’s not considered acceptable,” she said. “I don’t listen to just respectable hip-hop. I listen to some hip-hop and it exudes all kinds of different messages. I don’t look only at different landscapes of art; I like grotesque art and Cubist art and abstract art and Monet’s beautiful Impressionist art. I think in a robust democracy we should be able to have that complexity and that individuality.”

And don’t even get her started on Tyler Perry.

“I despise Madea probably more than any other representation of a black woman,” says Harris-Perry of Tyler Perry’s sobriquet goldmine. “But the fact that people believe she is some kind of an authentic representation of a version of black womanhood that they’re familiar with in their own grandmothers and aunts, means to me that as much as I despise it, there is no point in me trying to kill it because it represents some kind of weird, twisted truth that is worth talking about.”

Harris-Perry understands that she too represents a version of black womanhood that is “worth talking about” -- not because of her achievements, but because of her place in the collective black American psyche. There are people who approach her with screams of ‘I love you!” who have never even seen her show. But Harris-Perry is deeply aware of the pride in her success, and embraces the authentic place from which it stems. “What those people are saying to me is that they love that I have a show. They love that I’m making good. They love that I’m a pretty black girl on television, and that I’m identifiably black and will stay black. And they’re thinking, good job."

With all that she has achieved, it’s hard not to join the chorus in singing her praise. She has done a good job. Is doing a good job. And who knows where her hard work will take her next. “I always see myself in the classroom,” she said. “That’s what I love. I’m contracted to do another book and I’m excited to get that finished. There is just so much. But if Michelle Obama calls and offers me a position in the White House, well, hey, I can do that too.”

If you’re reading, FLOTUS, she’s in the book.

Kirsten West Savali is a journalist and cultural critic.