To mark the International Day of the Woman on March 8 and Women’s History Month, Yahoo Lifestyle is exploring notions of feminism and the women’s movement through a diverse series of profiles — from transgender activist Ashlee Marie Preston to conservative campus leader Karin Agness Lips — that aim to reach across many aisles.
Ever since she burst into national view as an MSNBC commentator, and then host of her own show in 2012, Melissa Harris-Perry has been telling it like it is.
But the esteemed professor of African-American studies and political science — at the University of Chicago, followed by Princeton University, Tulane University, and now Wake Forest University, where she is also the executive director of the Pro Humanitate Institute and founder of the Anna Julia Cooper Center — has been speaking and writing frankly about race relations and human rights for much of her life.
It was in a way unavoidable, considering the groundbreaking Southern family Harris-Perry, 44, comes from: Her father was the first dean of African-American affairs at the University of Virginia, and his twin brother was the first chair of aeronautic engineering at MIT. Their legendary status infused the family with the fierce belief that being black in this country was not a reason to be held back.
Today, MHP, as she’s known, is teaching, writing, leading, and parenting (she has three daughters) younger generations to be strong thinkers and leaders, with feminism at the core of all her messages. She recently spoke with Yahoo Lifestyle in honor of Women’s History Month, touching on topics ranging from the Women’s March and its recent controversy to raising a rebellious teen.
Yahoo Lifestyle: Ahead of the March for Our Lives, you wrote for Elle, where you are editor-at-large, about who is and who is not allowed to be angry in our culture. The Parkland students have done a great job at bringing students from across the country, including Chicago, into this anti-gun-violence movement. How else can we change the narrative?
MHP: The kids are great. The students from Parkland themselves, I think, are highly aware of the ways in which they operate and are clearly deploying their race and economic privilege to … acknowledge and recognize … their peers who were less able to do so. We can go back to Rosa Parks, and the idea of how Rosa Parks’s role in our memory is so different from [that of] Claudette Colvin … the unmarried, pregnant African-American girl who had also resisted Jim Crow segregation just a month before, and been arrested on the bus, but didn’t have the training of being an activist and just wasn’t reputable in the same ways.
I saw you address the crowd at Power to the Polls, the Women’s March Las Vegas event in January. You said, “Saying thank you to black women is not a damn hashtag.” What did you mean?
Part of what I was doing was telling my personal family story. My family has long thought of itself as originating itself from my father and his twin brother, highly accomplished men. I’d recently gone back and was reading this late 1950s Ebony article [now framed] that reported on my dad and his twin brother and called them “the genius twins of Richmond, Virginia.” This time I noticed in the story, more carefully, my grandmother. And there’s one [part] in which they’re talking about my dad and his brother going off to this academic summer program, and how my grandmother, who was a really brilliant seamstress … knew, because the boys were going to this summer program, that they weren’t going to work that summer, so there wasn’t going to be coal to heat the house that winter. It was the first time it has truly occurred to me how much that story is not really my dad’s story or my uncle’s story — it’s really my grandmother’s story. And as much as they were geniuses, how could they possibly be geniuses unless they came from a genius — one literally willing to be cold in the winter so that they could go to school? It floored me. I couldn’t speak.
— Melissa Harris-Perry (@MHarrisPerry) February 21, 2018
We don’t really know how to recover the genius of a black woman who died never being degreed or rich or any of these particular things that we call success, but nonetheless made every other single thing possible. So what I want to do is when we say, “thank you, black women,” what we’re actually doing is having a reclamation of their genius, and thinking about how to make public policy that would’ve made life easier for Grandma Rosa just so that her sons could learn.
What’s your take on the recent controversy surrounding Tamika Mallory, and her refusal to denounce the anti-Semitic, homophobic statements of Louis Farrakhan?
My sense is she has a personal connection to Minister Farrakhan, that that personal connection is about a deep loyalty that extends way farther back to a community — like, decades deeper than the Women’s March — and that in many ways, the Women’s March and her leadership takes advantage of her sets of ties. … So my sense is that the most dangerous anti-Semite in the country currently lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And to have any concern about Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is weird.
Like, Louis f***ing Farrakhan? Are you serious? Because Louis Farrakhan is empowered to do what? He runs an organization that controls what resources? And creates what policy? And owns property where? I mean, it’s weird. The president of the United States has questioned the humanity — like are they human — of Jewish people. The president of the United States. So I’m super-duper focused on that. And that various people walking around the planet are racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, is, like, shrug-my-shoulders true. I mean I’m a black woman. Most people I’ve worked around, worked for, worked near have opinions about me that are typically pretty f***ing horrifying. Like, I grew up in the South in the 1970s with a white mother and a black father. I don’t thought-police people. From my perspective it’s like, “OK, sure.”
We saw Barack Obama break ties with his minister, Jeremiah Wright, following controversy during his campaign. …
We said, “Oh my God, Jeremiah Wright said racist words, in our opinion, and you must now break your ties with your minister!” And as far as I know, that family has never had a church home again. That’s rough. I mean, I’m sure they’ve gone to church as an official matter … but they don’t have a church home, which in the black community is actually a big f***ing deal. So they broke their relationship with their minister, but at least they got elected to office twice. As far as I know, no one is offering that to Tamika Mallory. And she’s being asked to denounce this by people who, as far as I know, have never denounced their racism, sexism, their homophobia. That’s strange; no. So it’s not that complicated to me. I wouldn’t [apologize] either. No. We get to all pick our own relationships.
The thing I’m always worried about in the world is power, and how power is wielded in ways that cause inequity. So if you can show me that Minister Farrakhan has taken his position and used his position to create inequity and inequality for Jewish people, then I will denounce that tomorrow. But holding horrifying opinions seems to me to be a protected right under our Constitution — so protected that I even think it’s OK for our president to hold them. And our president uses his horrifying opinions to then enact them into policy. If he believes that Mexicans are rapists and then withdraws DACA, that’s a problem. So I’m always much more interested in racism, sexism, homophobia when they are manifest as a matter of inequity in public policy.
Your daughters are 4 and 16. How do you balance teaching them about all the injustices in this world without terrifying them with reality?
They’re sort of funny and different in this way, and my big girl, who’s 16, is like not what most people would probably expect. [Laughing] You probably think, “Oh MHP, 16-year-old daughter, I’m sure she’s, like, burning down the streets!” No, she’s more like your first black Republican first lady! A little bit. Not completely, but more like that than burning it down in the streets. She’s been in about three years of very, very strong rebellion. So what does rebellion against MHP look like? I’m real sex-positive and feminist and progressive, so my kid is like, “My God, sex is dirty, and drugs are bad!”
She goes to an all-girls high school, [and the day after Trump was elected] they were all in tears, and Parker being Parker looks at the young women in her class and says, “Pull yourselves together; he’s your president now, be respectful!” [Laughing] And I was like, “Oh my goodness, no!”
But my kids are just like fish swimming in the waters of social justice and race talk and feminism conversations, and it is just what we do and talk about and think about in the house. So in that sense it’s not scary, because it just is. So I think, because the news is fodder for conversation and because we try not to either talk over their heads or make things like, ‘Oh that’s just for adults and kids shouldn’t know about it,’ what I hope is that it feels empowering in whatever way she wants to feel empowered. So when we do have political disagreements, which we sometimes do, what she knows is that there’s no thing that she could say or do or believe that would keep her outside the circle of our family and of our love.
With the 4-year-old, she’s actually the most woke child on the planet. She somehow is, like, from Wakanda! [Laughs] I don’t really know how it’s possible, but even though she’s only 4 she goes first to the black kids on the playground, and loves her people from the core of her soul. It’s not that she knows what politics are, but she does seem to have a preference for blackness and always has. It will be interesting to see what all that turns into, but man, I think that kid might actually be Alicia Garza who I had by accident. She just showed up that way. I always say: You’re a sociologist until you have children, and then it’s your nemesis, because you realize they come however they come. And you can crush that experience or you can nurture them, but they show up how they show up. I like them both a lot, and I can’t wait to see who they turn into.
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