Melissa Harris-Perry takes her political insights from campus to cable

Interview by Chris Geidner
Published on February 15, 2012, 9:57pm | Comments

Raising President Obama's ''evolving'' view on marriage equality with Melissa Harris-Perry makes her laugh.

''Yeah, it's evolving,'' she says with an incredulous chuckle. ''I know. That's just so irritating.''

Melissa Harris Perry

Melissa Harris-Perry

(Photo by Chris Granger)

Looking at the possible Republican opposition this fall, she adds: ''Am I gonna vote for him? Yeah, I'm gonna vote for the president. But am I irritated by him talking about an 'evolving' position on marriage when he's the child of an interracial couple? That's nuts.''

Harris-Perry, also the child of an interracial couple, is having none of it. ''You know, like, stop. Just be evolved. Just stop. That's no good.''

Harris-Perry is not new to sharing her opinions, poking at political leaders or pushing – aggressively – for LGBT equality. But with this weekend's launch of her new MSNBC show, Melissa Harris-Perry, from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays and Sundays, she is ramping things up a notch.

The political science professor at Tulane University is taking an unusual step for a tenured college professor – and for a black woman, let alone an unabashedly liberal one. For Harris-Perry, though, it's a path of progress, both for herself and for the country.

With community activist parents whose directive was to ''go out into the world and do good,'' Harris-Perry tells Metro Weekly on a phone interview conducted as she was driven throughout the streets of New York City – accidentally to 30 Rock and then on to a photo shoot – that she is trying to do just that. Saying that she grew up at city planning meetings ''coloring on the back of programs and listening to citizens rant and rave about all the things going on in terms of land-use decisions,'' she is taking on this new project to ''rant and rave'' – and possibly discuss great philosophers – all her own.

Having regularly appeared on her show and substituted as a guest host for Rachel Maddow and other MSNBC evening show hosts, Harris-Perry's new show – which joins Chris Hayes's Up With Chris as the network's new weekend morning shows – is part of an effort by the network to amp up its weekend coverage. It's also a reflection of what Harris-Perry sees as the changing face of television, particularly of MSNBC. ''I see people and panels that look just more representative of what America, the American government, American ordinary people look like.''

Part of that America, Harris-Perry has regularly made clear, must be the full inclusion of the LGBT community.

In an essay for The Nation in 2009, Harris-Perry wrote, ''My fierce commitment to marriage equality derives, in part, from my personal biography as an interracial child, descended from American slaves, and raised in Virginia, beginning less than a decade after the Loving [v. Virginia] decision [that ended anti-miscegenation laws]. Even though I am heterosexual, marriage equality is personal.''

Beginning at 10 a.m., Feb. 18, Harris-Perry will begin telling her stories, sharing her views and putting the personal, the academic and the political on display for all to see.

METRO WEEKLY: How does a liberal, black, female professor get a TV show in America?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: I just had an email exchange with my colleague and mentor, [University of Chicago professor] Cathy Cohen, where I was expressing that same feeling. ''How did this happen, Cathy? Do you think this makes any sense?'' I think anybody about to take on a big project that is as public as the one I am about to take on undoubtedly must have, as I have, a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement and tremendous reservation from some other part of my brain.

An awful lot of how this happened is undoubtedly because of Rachel [Maddow]. And I don't even necessarily mean for me personally, although, that's part of it. Her willingness, first, to make me a regular guest on her show, which led to the network making me a contributor for the network, and then for her and her staff to ask me to sit in as a guest host, both of those things are a straight-line trajectory to how this happened. But, I think, more importantly, is the fact that Rachel exists that makes this possible. That she demonstrated so clearly that there is a ratings bonanza to be had for smart, a young woman who is not primarily there because she's adorable but is rather there because she is brilliant and has something to say about the news. Every time I watch Rachel on air, I think, ''Do people really know what's happening here? This is kinda crazy.''

She just made a lot of space. She's not the very first person to make that space, but she made it at MSNBC in a way that makes [my] particular hire possible. I think of Gwen Ifill as someone who for me is a real role model in this part of my life. Again, the point of Gwen Ifill isn't her adorableness, however adorable she might be. The point of Gwen Ifill is her intellect, her capacity, her ability to explain something to you that you didn't know before. But she was doing that on the public airwaves. It was very different that Rachel brought that to mainstream media.

MW: There was a time when you were guest hosting one of the MSNBC shows, and you had The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart – a black, gay man – as your guest. And the topic was not about some gay political development or a race-related issue. I remember thinking how unusual an occurrence that was.

HARRIS-PERRY: I have a slide that I use in one of my academic lectures that is Rachel talking to Eugene Robinson about something that has nothing to do with race, gender, sexual orientation or any of what we think of as the ''soft'' issues that marginalized people have been allowed to discuss on air. It's really the central political topic. I use it, in part, because part of what I have found so interesting about the Obama moment – the 2008-forward – is here you have a black man who's president of the United States and a woman as secretary of state. And yet, when you look at media, it feels like mainstream media has yet to catch up with the diversity of elected officials, which strikes me as a crazy thing to say. Why would it be harder to penetrate into the world that makes news than the newsmakers themselves?

MW: How have you addressed those questions in your preparation for beginning this show of your own?

HARRIS-PERRY: Probably, much less self-consciously than you might think. Part of the benefit of coming over from the academy is that I am so naive of the norms of news creation that my naivety alone might lead to innovation that I don't recognize as innovative.

At one point, I looked around the room [at the show's staff] last week, and I was like, ''Oh my God, these are my graduate students!'' People whose ideas are huge and who have read a thousand books and who are very funny and have very keen insights. I don't know if it's a non-normative group of people or not, but I suddenly realized why I liked all of them so much. It's because they reminded me very much of colleagues and graduate students that I've had over the years – except for a few folks who are truly, like, serious TV veterans, and thank God they're in the room. They're pulling us back from having conversations about Immanuel Kant on television, which, apparently, is boring.

MW: From your background – although professors often appear on shows to talk for one segment about the issue they're the ''expert'' on – what was your process of becoming a public figure on television on many issues and not only an academic figure?

HARRIS-PERRY: I think like a lot of students who come to political science initially, I came because I actually like politics. I think about the 18-year-olds who fill up my classrooms now, and, for the most part, they don't really know what political science is as a field. They come because they happen to be the quirky newspaper reader among all their friends, or the person who actually watched the State of the Union. They care about politics. I think the same thing happened for me. I initially got into the field because I actually care about the political world. I grew up in Charlottesville, which is the home of Thomas Jefferson. I probably memorized the introductory sentences to the Declaration of Independence as a first-grader or something. I think of them the way other people think of their catechisms.

I never lost that initial passion for politics itself. And, I think that I just happened to be in unique times and situations that allowed me to express it publicly. Had I not, in 1999, decided to take a job at the University of Chicago, it's not clear to me that I would be here right now. But, I did, so that means that when this guy named Barack Obama ran against this guy named Alan Keyes in the 2004 Senate race, I was on campus. I was Barack Obama's constituent, and I had just written a book about black politics. And I was a local expert. So I ended up doing a thousand hours of PBS talking about the 2004 Senate race because I happened to be there. If I'd been a professor at the University of Maryland – another wonderful, fantastic place – that wouldn't have happened.

Had I not made the decision to come to Princeton – as much as I am hating that decision today – in '06, who knows what would have happened, because it was the fact that I was driving distance to New York that meant that when Rachel got her show in '08 that I could just hop in a car or on the subway and join her on set.

So some of it is about really making decisions to stay involved in politics, but some of it was very much the luck of the spinning wheel of political fortune that happened to make me the expert of things that were happening in the political world as they were happening.

MW: But where did that underlying passion come from?

HARRIS-PERRY: I got pretty radicalized as a result of some pretty bad personal experiences. I'm a sexual assault survivor. I never disclosed my rape. I never had any justice around it or anything. But, once I got to college, I got involved in sexual assault prevention work and that led to work around reproductive rights. We would walk as shields for women seeking abortions who were having to walk the gauntlet of the anti-abortion critics who were out there with the big posters of the aborted fetuses.

God help me, I worked on John Edwards's Senate campaign during the years I lived in North Carolina – just, literally, licking envelopes and putting stamps on things. Harvey Gantt ran for Senate during my years in North Carolina, so I saw, sort of, the classic example of a racialized campaign between Harvey Gantt and Jesse Helms. You can't be a part of that campaign and ever see the political world the same way again.

MW: You talk about these personal experiences, and how they shape your political perspectives and your life. What, even earlier on, were yours?

HARRIS-PERRY: My dad and mom are both real community activist kinds of people in different ways. My dad is a retired college professor, the first dean of African-American Affairs at the University of Virginia. So, we moved to Virginia in the mid-1970s.

This is a man who went to Howard University at the same time that Stokely Carmichael was there, was very much an advocate of black power community activism, very much a community development activist, so he always saw urban planning and housing as a way to do social justice work. I spent many, many hours as a child sitting in city planning meetings.

My mom has a very different background. She's a white woman who actually grew up Mormon in the West. So, when my dad was college roommates with Stokely Carmichael, my mom was at Brigham Young University. And I'm their kid. She went on to run community nonprofits during most of my childhood. She ran community-based day care centers, domestic violence shelters. She did the work of reproductive rights back before Roe v. Wade, so some of her work was during a time when abortion was legal in some states but not others, so they would provide safe houses to women who were crossing state lines to seek pregnancy terminations.

So there are the people who I grew up with. They were and are very clear that they're pretty uninterested in success by normal parental measures. It wasn't until I got to college that I found out there were people whose parents told them to make money. I can't even fathom the idea of my parents saying to me, ''You need to get a good job and make money.'' In fact, probably the opposite. The more money I make, the more they're worried about my eternal liberal soul.

Their directive was very clear: ''Go out into the world and do good.'' So, that was for me sort of my earliest experience. And, of course, growing up a black child in an interracial family in the immediate post-Jim Crow South. You can't miss all the political lessons of that.

MW: And, we now have a president who has taught America a lot about having grown up in an interracial family. As someone with a similar experience, how have you reacted to the way that America has taken Barack Obama?

HARRIS-PERRY: I'm constantly heartened by it. I know the rhetoric is really bad right now, and I know it feels ugly. In fact, we spend a lot of time on MSNBC pointing out the ugly rhetoric, and I think there's real importance in expressing it and putting in the light, in part so we can fight back against it, but I am such an optimist, I really am. It's sort of pitiful actually. I keep thinking that this is just the death rattle of this version of American racism. Not that we are on the precipice of a post-racial age, and any day now we're going to sing ''Kumbaya'' together in Benetton commercials. Not that. But that this particular version of assuming that a black body is inherently unequal and invaluable. It just seems so fringe to me as an idea right now. It seems to govern less and less of what human interactions are like.

And so, when I look at President Obama, I do not see perfection – not by my definition of liberal, lefty perfection, not at all. But, I do see his presidency, the first family, the visual images and the realities of him as both sometimes a real champion of progressive causes, sometimes a real champion for more authoritarian causes – but all of that challenges what it is we think ''the black guy in the room'' is, and in that way it's all good.

MW: You talk about this era of change – and a belief that it is getting better – on racial issues, but you've also been outspoken on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity – and their interrelation with race that some people shy away from.

HARRIS-PERRY: Again, I think, some of that moves to the personal and some of it is the professional. Which is to say that, for me, the question of LGBT rights is always read for me at least in part through my niece, who is 20 now. But she came out in ninth grade. Christina is her given name – everyone calls her Chris. Chris is not only gay, she is also gender non-conforming butch lesbian, and black, which also makes for some interesting times. So, it's not just a matter of what it means to be gay or not gay, but the ways in which her particular gender non-conforming self-presentation because she's butch has led her into experiences where she's had serious harassment and the kind of things that scare me and her mother to death. She presents often as male, but once people find out that she's not, the level of anger and violence that can generate is enormous.

On the one hand, I am just a good old-fashioned ally, HRC straight girl, who says we gotta have marriage equality, we gotta have ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' revoked, those are the big issues.

But, then I know that those things don't ultimately make nearly as much difference in Chris's life as the fact that she's going to look for housing in the next year or two. The issue is that when [she and her girlfriend] go in as a queer couple that they can actually be legally denied housing opportunities in most states in this country. Legally. She can't get a legal remedy for it, because sexual orientation and gender self-presentation are not covered under the Fair Housing Act. If she was being discriminated against because she was black, she could bring suit, but if the condo is full of black folks, it won't be because she's black, it will be because she's gay.

And I'm an academic, so there's also those issues. The other part is actually engaging with queer theory, which is trying to ask not just the most straightforward civil rights issues, but that full inclusion into the American project of lesbian, gay and transgender people should not just mean, ''Oh, good, now you can assimilate.'' It should mean that we have to challenge all of our assumptions as well. Expanding the citizenry ought to expand what the country is.

And I think that's the thing that is most terrifying to the right. It's why they keep saying, ''We gotta go back to this former America. We gotta go back, we gotta go back.'' And, it's the one thing that can never happen is the one thing that they keep saying we have to do. We're never going back. It's the one thing that will never happen, and it must just absolutely induce panic.

MW: Just recently, this question about Roland Martin and his comments. The question about not just whether they were homophobic or not, but whether it also was a question about enforced gender roles, enforced sex roles and this question of homophobia, and how those played together.

 HARRIS-PERRY: Yeah. Somebody, and it probably cannot be me, but somebody has got to write the ''Reading Roland Martin'' piece. This is the academic piece that says, ''Who is this African-American man with an important public space in which he gets to comment on American politics who is, on the one hand, operating within a very narrow constraint of black masculinity – this highly heteronormative, highly, almost, aggressive version of black masculinity – and wears an ascot?'' I mean, excuse me. That is fucking hilarious and fascinating stuff. How is he simultaneously like, ''I am so manly I cannot buy underwear from H&M anymore, but I will wear my ascot.'' [Laughs.] It's like, What?

It's fascinating, the fluidity of that self-presentation of black manhood and what that means and how that fits or doesn't fit with conceptions of black manhood associated, for example, with the black church. I mean, black church traditional teaching, which tends to be pretty viciously homophobic, or at least very vocally homophobic, while simultaneously doing the sort of performative aspects of it that do not fit within the most narrow definitions of masculine self-presentation that often go along with those ideas.

On the one hand, you can't do that kind of theorizing about metaphors when people's lives are at stake, which, once you have a public forum, as Roland does, and in the context of the violence against, particularly transgender and gay youth, you can't start tweeting about beating people. You just give up the right to do that. But, on the other hand, rather than just have a knee-jerk reaction to it one way or another, it's such an interesting public moment to learn and to try and unpack some of what we mean when we say ''manly'' or ''masculine'' or ''heterosexual.''

MW: Then there's the other side of this. The LGBT leadership, which is overwhelmingly white – where do you see their process missing out on opportunities to engage more fully?

HARRIS-PERRY: A lot of places. It feels to me as though questions of racism, of continuing racial bias within feminism, continuing racial and class bias within LGBT movements, these are core questions about where we're going next, and it's in part because basic identity politics is going to be insufficient for actual coalition building. That kind of identity politics is useful when you're just trying to figure out who could potentially be on your side – who has shared interests, but as we move toward nuance, we're going to require addressing racial inequality within feminism. Look, when I say ''address it,'' it's not like it hasn't been a central agenda item since the 1960s, both within feminism and within the LGBT movement – but we just have to keep doing it.

And, I think for me, sometimes it's that it's more painful when it comes from people who are supposed to be your allies. The most stingingly painful experiences I have are of sexism within racial equality movements. When I feel that someone is supposed to be my brother, and I experience patriarchy and sexism from them, it's just so much worse than if it's some old, white guy Republican somewhere. Because, he's not meant to be on my side.

MW: In D.C., with the anti-trans violence that this city's had over the past year, there could certainly be questions raised about whether that's getting the attention that it would get if there was a string of white, gay guys leaving Dupont getting beat up and killed.

HARRIS-PERRY: Yeah. Whose bodies matter? I don't have an easy solution to that one.

I think it's some of the hardest work we do because we're battling with so few resources and with such high stakes. What's on the line is literally our lives, and our ability to be safe, and our ability to thrive in our communities, and just coming off Black AIDS Day, the failure of the civil rights organizations to address HIV in black communities for two decades really. It took them that long to get on board because they didn't want to address issues of prison status, they didn't want to address issues of gay identity, and they didn't want to address issues of intravenous drug use, and so they just decided that HIV wasn't happening.

So, that's happening on one side, where the civil rights community was initially not doing what it needed to do, and then, on the other side, you had a very active, well-financed, largely white male anti-HIV community that wasn't addressing how it was decimating poor communities and communities of color. So, literally, these were bodies and lives that were lost in between.

MW: More broadly, how should engagement on these issues with LGBT equality be happening? What's missing from the discussion right now?

HARRIS-PERRY: Probably what's always missing – and I wouldn't say that this is missing any more from this discussion than from most political discussions – and that's just nuance.

I don't think it's any less nuanced than others, but one example would be the Cynthia Nixon comments about choice and the notions of sexual orientation and sexual preference as choice and the strict pushback that, ''No, it has to be biological, it has to be genetic, it has to be inborn. We don't have any room for talking about desire and choice and optional activity, because if we do, then we're suddenly in a land where we're going to lose our civil rights.'' But, I just think we have to be so careful about that because your rights as a citizen should not rest on if you have an oppressed status or a marginalized status, it shouldn't matter whether you were born into that status or whether you chose that status, you just shouldn't be discriminated against because of it. Full stop.

One example of this that fits in my life is that my mother, when she is not with her family, is a white woman. So, she goes through the world accessing white privilege in the way that white people do. But, when she's with her family, particularly with me or with my daughter or with my father – and particularly, in the '70s and '80s in Virginia – she was shedding her white privilege. She was having to experience many of the aspects of racial inequality that we experienced. Not exactly the same, but … she was a white woman who had a black baby. And that was a different kind of status. Should the law of fair housing not apply to her because she chose to have a black baby and wasn't born black? That's crazy. Of course not. Her choice of, kind of, residual blackness should not make her any less a full citizen.

So I think that for me is the part, those nuanced conversations, they're very much missing for me in ways that I think keep us from having the most robust political discourse I think we could.

MW: Some people blame cable news shows for part of the loss of that nuance. So, with your show, are you helping that or contributing to it?

HARRIS-PERRY: Undoubtedly, a little bit of both. Look, I love Politics Nation with Al Sharpton and The Rachel Maddow Show. And, I can't think of two shows on the same network that are more different in tone and content. I see them as my Old Testament and New Testament. I really need them both. I need to smite my enemies, and I need to understand them. And then I need to smite them, and then understand them. I probably will do a little bit of both on my show.

Melissa Harris-Perry premieres this Saturday, Feb. 18, on MSNBC. The show runs from 10 a.m. to noon weekly on Saturdays and Sundays.

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