Born in Seattle, Washington on October 2, 1973, but raised in Charlottesville and Chester, Virginia, Melissa V. Harris-Perry is a professor of political science at Tulane University where she is the founding director of the project on gender, race, and politics in the South. Her previous book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, won the 2005 W. E. B. Du Bois Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and the 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.
Besides being a columnist for The Nation Magazine, Dr. Harris-Perry frequently appears as a guest or fill-in host on MSNBC on The Thomas Roberts Show, Up with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. She is also a regular commentator for many print and radio sources both around the U.S. and abroad.
Melissa lives in New Orleans with her husband, James Perry, and her daughter, Parker. Here, she reflects on her life and career and on American culture and politics while discussing her new book, Sister Citizen.
Kam Williams: Hi Melissa, thanks for the interview.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely, Kam! How are you?
KW: I have a slew of questions from readers, so let me jump right into them.
Are there any plans to get your own prime time TV show?
MHP: At the moment, there definitely aren’t any plans for a prime-time show. I really love sitting in for both Rachel [Maddow] and for Lawrence [O’Donnell], and I will do that again to support their having a little time off during holidays and over the summer. But my experience guest-hosting meant going in around noon and not leaving until about 10 PM. That’s quite time-consuming, especially since my whole life takes place between noon and 10.
KW: What interested you in writing Sister Citizen?
MHP: I had started the project before Hurricane Katrina, but the real turning point for me was the race and gender politics that emerged on the national stage after the levee failure. That was, for me, a consolidating moment in my attempt to understand the experience of contemporary Black women trying to be American citizens.
KW: What message do you hope readers will take away from the book?
MHP: I suspect different audiences will take away different things from the book. For instance, my editor at Yale University Press, who is a white male, felt that he’d been introduced to some black women’s literature he’d never read and to some stereotypes and ideas that he’d previously never engaged with. By contrast, some Black women I’ve talked to about the book weren’t surprised by what they read. They found that it resonated with their experiences and perhaps contributed to their vocabulary and gave them some new ways of thinking about the political meaning of those experiences.
KW: What was the most important lesson you learned from this project?
MHP: I learned two lessons: one from the research, one from the writing. From the research, this idea that you just have to be strong if you’re a Black woman. And in the process of writing, I learned that you can’t write a book in the margins of your life. I’d forgotten how much uninterrupted time it takes to write chapters, and how you have to push everything else aside and really focus.
KW: Do you enjoy being a guest news anchor for Rachel Maddow, and do you plan to pursue anchoring your own show?
MHP: Sitting in for Rachel and Lawrence is beyond fun. It is one of the most exciting and challenging things I’ve done in a very long time. Part of what I love about it is that the host has already assembled a fantastic staff for me, developed credibility and built an audience. So, I just have to walk in, bring my ideas and work my butt off for a few days. It’s really the best of both worlds. As far as anchoring my own show, I won’t say I wouldn’t do it, but I can’t imagine how that would affect my ability to parent my child.
KW: Why the negative response to The Help?
MHP: Oh, Gosh! I could spend all day answering this one. The intensity of my negative response was in part related to having just published Sister Citizen. So, I had been thinking a lot about the stereotypes and the images of black women. Both the book and the film are, for me, terribly problematic, because they’re very, very dishonest, romanticized versions of one of the most important aspects of African-American women’s working lives, namely, being domestic servants. For most of American history since slavery, that’s the type of work that we’ve done. My grandmother was a domestic worker. The Help claimed to be told from the perspective of the African-American maids, but it isn’t. I could go on in considerable depth about it, but let me address the two most dishonest aspects. The first is the fact that although the author tried to illustrate the tension between white women and their maids, she ignores the Black women’s relationships with two other very important groups in the household: the white men and the white children. She refuses to imagine that they could have felt anything other than pure love, attachment, affection and fidelity towards the kids they were hired to care for. It is such a bizarre, romantic notion that they didn’t have mixed feelings about spending so much time caring for children of privilege while their own offspring went neglected because they were in these white households. 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.
KW: Yeah, like how the misleading images in Gone with the Wind came to replace the truth about The South during slavery.
MHP: 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. That’s why the most distressing aspect for me about The Help has been the number of African-American women I’ve encountered who didn’t know how dishonest the story was. I just don’t want us, in our own politics, to fall into the trap of reproducing it.
KW: Do you then have a problem with Viola Davis for agreeing to play the lead character?
MHP: I have no criticism of Viola Davis, just as I have none of Hattie McDaniel’s performance in Gone with the Wind. In fact, I find them both to have done exceptional work with the roles that they were given. Honestly, I understand that, as Hollywood actresses, they need to work. I also appreciate how Viola had tamped down her character to speak in a much more recognizable, Black Southern woman’s voice than the caricature which Kathryn Stockett presented in the book. So, I’m not criticizing Viola Davis, but rather I’m disappointed that this is the version of black womanhood that American audiences are so jazzed-up and excited to consume. There’s nothing like a redemptive mammy. [Sarcastically]
KW: Did you get any backlash over your live tweeting about The Help?
MHP: Oh, yeah! But I need to point out that I wasn’t just losing my mind, but that I had been assigned by my job to tweet live in the theater. That was one of those rare occasions where my snarky, more animated side came out. And I’ve learned over time that that is always the self that gets the most criticism.
KW: Do you see a link between the state of contemporary Black men and Jim Crow segregation?
MHP: Yes, for both Black men and Black women. We are barely removed from Jim Crow. My father attended segregated public schools, and he’s not an old man. Slavery is becoming more distant, but Jim Crow is not. There are so many effects, but I’d say that the single most important residual impact of Jim Crow is the continuing reality of residential segregation in most American cities and towns. And that impacts everything from educational and employment opportunities to real estate values to access to transportation to the quality of one’s environment. Housing affects everything, and we continue to live in very, very segregated communities.
KW: When did 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?
MHP: 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.
KW: How might female gender stereotyping in other ethnic groups also become a ‘convenient’ way for patriarchies to treat women as objects rather than subjects?
MHP: The only thing in The Help that irritated and offended me more than how it portrayed Black women was how white women were portrayed. Look, I grew up in, went to school in, and now live in the American South, and southern white women are interesting, complex and quirky, even the ones with racial anxieties. Stereotypes work to help divide women from recognizing their common interests. Think of how hard it would be to create a gender-based movement across racial lines as long as one group believes that it has to be strong while seeing the other group as passive and weak. We could also go into the stereotypes of the saucy, mercurial Latina and the docile, easily-dominated Asian woman.
KW: 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?
MHP: 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. That being said, I believe that in 21st Century America it’s perfectly legitimate for children with a Black parent and a white parent to identify themselves as biracial, if that’s their preference.
KW: I recently reviewed a very thought-provoking documentary called, Biracial, Not Black, Damn It!, in which they interviewed dozens of mixed people who don’t want to be seen as just Black.
MHP: All I have to say is: Good luck with that in America! [LOL]
KW: I remember thinking it was odd when I was in college, when this brother tried to befriend me by saying, “We mulattoes have to stick together.” I told him we could be friends, but both my parents were Black and I grew up in a Black community, so I didn’t have any identity crisis.
MHP: I never had one either, not at 7, 17, 27 or now.
KW: We all know about the famous test done by Dr. Kenneth Clark in 1954 for the Brown vs. Board of Education case. In 2006, the filmmaker Kiri Davis recreated the doll study and documented it in a film entitled A Girl Like Me. Despite the many changes in some parts of society, Davis got the same results as Dr. Clark did a half-century earlier. What do you think needs to be done to put an end to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes which continue to affect Black females?
MHP: I’m raising an African-American child who has both black and white dolls. Something I was struck by was how she’s renamed two of them Malia and Sasha when Barack Obama became president. As a parent, I have an appreciation that there are counteracting, positive images for this generation of little girls growing up with Malia and Sasha in the White House as the First Daughters.
KW: Do you think President Obama is doing enough for African-American communities throughout the U.S., or have major issues like wars, the oil spill, and The Great Recession been too much for one administration during one term? What more do you think he could be doing right now?
MHP: I think the most critical needs of the African-American communities aren’t being addressed primarily because of decisions being made by Republican Congressional leaders. The efforts to kill the president’s healthcare, jobs and stimulus packages have all been at the behest of the Republican leadership.
KW: Some polls indicate that President Obama's support is waning in the African-American community given the state of the economy and black unemployment rate. Do you foresee the Republican Party increasing its efforts to get the black vote in 2012, and making any inroads in that regard?
MHP: No, the Republicans don’t need black folks to vote Republican, they just need them to not vote.
KW: What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
MHP: I’m horrible with money. I make bad business decisions every hour of the day. My best professional decision was taking my first job at the University of Chicago.
KW: Who is the person who led you to become the person you are today?
MHP: Undoubtedly, the biggest influence on my life is my mom, followed pretty closely by my dad.
KW: How do you define success? And, what key quality do you believe all successful people share?
MHP: For me, success is when I’m making a contribution and fully engaging all of my talents. In terms of the key quality, it’s being willing to continue to believe in yourself even when other people don’t, and being able to fail and to come back.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
MHP: Woo! Drink lots of water, and nap. I’ve made some really big messes along the way, whether on the academic side or on the media side. It hasn’t been a straight path. But a lot of those mess-ups have led to opportunities, so I guess I’d say be fearless, and keep bottled water with you, so you don’t dehydrate.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Melissa, and best of luck with the book, MSNBC and teaching at Tulane this year.
MHP: Thanks so much Kam. It’s been fun!