Melissa Harris-Perry, Scholar and TV Host, Joins Her Alma Mater

Charles Ommanney, MSNBC

Melissa Harris-Perry
April 21, 2014

"I’m in the part of my career where I’m interested in building the kind of lasting things that stay after you’re no longer here," says Melissa Harris-­Perry.

That is what she hopes to do by returning to her alma mater, Wake Forest University, this summer to take up the institution’s Presidential Chair, the second of only two such chairs awarded at the university; hers will be in politics and international studies. The move brings to an end a three-year stint in Tulane University’s political-­science department.

Now 40, Ms. Harris-Perry has built a reputation as an incisive scholar of American elections, race relations, religion, gender issues, and plenty else. She carries her expertise lightly, humorously, and, often enough, provocatively as the host of an unusually academic-­research-infused weekend news and opinion show on MSNBC that is named for her. She also contributes her measured but frank Sister Citizen column to The Nation.

She says she tries to exemplify the kind of academic she seeks as guests on her show: "They’re willing to take their specific knowledge and generalize up a little bit to the broader political conversation." Not a squeak about second standard deviations.

At ease with current social, political, and religious ideas, African-­American and not, she does not shout about social policy and social justice, nor does she pull punches. In a recent Nation column, for example, she argues that social scientists are "unable or unwilling to intervene when lawmakers misuse research findings that they barely comprehend." She argues that remarks by Rep. Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, implying that laziness underlies African-American joblessness, echo attitudes of Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s, President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and even President Obama today.

She catches no end of flak from both the conventional and the anti-intellectual right for her thoughts on, say, what underlies opposition to abortion, or why harmful gender and social stereo­typing persists. Judging by reviews and awards, her academic colleagues welcome her scholarly analyses of such issues in her books Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 2004) and Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereo­types, and Black Women in America (Yale University Press, 2011).

Ms. Harris-Perry will take with her to Wake Forest the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South, which examines many of the subjects of her books. The center, which has been until now her private corporation, is named for a key figure in early-20th-­century black intellectual life and was formed to support programs, courses, and research.

This summer Ms. Harris-Perry will begin expanding its course offerings, its programs, and the number of affiliated faculty members it draws from many disciplines as it becomes a Wake Forest center of undergraduate study and teaching. She hopes it may eventually host postdoctoral and public programs.

Ms. Harris-Perry expects that, once in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in English at Wake Forest before earning her doctorate in political science at Duke University, she will renew "a ton of intellectual and personal connections." She has those from her earlier teaching stints at the University of Chicago and Princeton University, too. The producers of her Melissa Harris-Perry television show do not risk coming up short of academic guests.

Wherever she has been, she has engaged and studied local issues—for example, in New Orleans, racist attitudes amid a federal response to Hurricane Katrina that was widely considered botched.

She says she won’t abandon New Orleans, in part because her husband, a political activist, will continue his work there. Both, then, will become commuters, Ms. Harris-­Perry says, speaking by phone over the cooing of her just-born second child.

During her 24 months with MSNBC, her publishing has suffered, she says, although she has a new book now out for review. She believes that being stretched—half each week on a campus, half in a New York studio—is worth the considerable effort. When the show eventually ends, as all such shows do, "I hope I look back and remember it both as a fun adventure but also that I made some contribution to the public sphere.

"Someday I’ll tell my students, ‘Oh, yeah, way back when Obama was president, I had a television show,’" she continues, "and they’ll say, ‘Which one was Obama? Oh right, the first black guy.’"