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Two Years After Being Dropped by MSNBC, Duke Alum Melissa Harris-Perry Isn’t Going Away

Carl W. Kenney Aug 22, 2018 7:00 AM
Melissa Harris-Perry

My life and work have been connected to political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry—who received her bachelor's at Wake Forest and her Ph.D. at Duke—ever since she wrote Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, which was published in 2004. Among other things, the book examined how my sermons and columns influenced the political views of members of the congregation I served. I had no doubt that Melissa would rise to the top.

In 1999, I performed her first wedding ceremony. The marriage didn't last, but with Melissa, that's not an indication of failure, but more of a reflection of her ability to pull herself up when a person—or cable TV network—disappoints her.

Starting in 2012, she developed a following at MSNBC, where she hosted the Melissa Harris-Perry Show on weekend mornings. She called it "Nerdland"—an unrepentantly wonky exploration of the week's political happenings. She redefined what it meant to be a nerd and created space for conversations about black women in politics.

In February 2016, Melissa wrote a widely publicized email to her show's staffers announcing that her show was taken off the air "in the midst of a campaign season" without explanation. "I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head," she continued, adding that she would only return if she were allowed to do substantive work. NBC responded that many of its daytime shows had been "upended" because of breaking political news, but the relationship was beyond repair, and Melissa never went back on the network.

A few months earlier, when Melissa visited the University of Missouri—where I was then an adjunct faculty member at the school of journalism—we talked about her leaving MSNBC. Officially, MSNBC let her go, but, in my mind, Melissa decided to walk away after being treated like leftovers. She knows she's not a journalist, but she brought the clearheaded expertise of a political scientist to the overheated world of cable punditry, and that's what MSNBC's honchos were too blind to realize they needed throughout the 2016 election.

Melissa isn't one to shed tears over things people don't understand. And she hasn't gone away. She's doing the heavy lifting in Wake Forest with her current husband, James, and their two daughters. James is president of the Winston-Salem Urban League. The power couple recently founded the Perry Political Partnership, a political consulting business. They also opened Anna's Park Homestead, a farm where they sell fresh eggs.

Melissa is currently the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University, as well as the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center, a project that investigates how gender and race intersect to support women's politics in the South. She's editor at large for Elle.com, and director of the democratic engagement program Wake the Vote at Wake Forest.

"Those kids saved my life in many ways," Melissa says of the students enrolled in Wake the Vote. During the 2016 election, she pulled together thirty of them, conservative and progressive alike; they committed a year of their lives to experiencing the American political system, traveling first to early caucus and primary states, later to national political conventions, and volunteering for local campaigns. This year, she's preparing for Midterms Matter, a one-semester version of Wake the Vote in which students will travel across the country and work with candidates from both sides of the aisle.

Melissa will be in Durham on August 25 to speak at the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People's eighty-third annual Founders' Day Gala. I caught up with my old friend to discuss the lessons she's learned since the publishing Barbershops and what she could have contributed at MSNBC if the network hadn't the plug in the middle of the campaign.

INDY: You spent five years in Durham while completing your Ph.D. at Duke. What are some of your best memories while living in Durham, and how has the city changed since you graduated?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: In 2014, I returned to live permanently in North Carolina. Coming back to North Carolina was a homecoming in every way. Like all homecomings, it is profoundly complicated. Nothing has changed, and everything is different. Durham is such an important city for my own personal history. It is where I became an intellectual adult. It is the city where I met my best friend in all the world. And Durham is where I first taught college students—at North Carolina Central University. It is also a city of profound racial historical relevance, from black business to black industry to black culture to black politics. Durham's history is the history of our people. I still feel all of that personal and collective history when I am in Durham. At the same time, I see the encroaching gentrification, the razing of historic homes, the loss of long-held land to make way for commercial concerns unlikely to benefit the communities I most love. I love a good rehab, and retail can be great, but I worry about what we lose.

In Barbershops, you used my sermons and columns from the Durham Herald-Sun to measure the impact the black church has on how people think about politics. What's changed related to that since you wrote that book?

There no such thing as "the church." When I look back at your sermons and columns used in writing Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, the work was ahead of its time. In thinking about this question, we have just lost Katie [Cannon, one of the first to write on womanist theology], and I've been thinking a lot since she died about her contribution in this political and public world.

In one way, what you were doing at Orange Grove [Missionary Baptist Church, where Kenney was pastor until 2002]—a black, feminist, liberal critique of the social-political world while simultaneously providing pastoral guidance—I never found in another church like I found in that moment. So the groundwork that you laid, Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright laid, Dr. Canon laid, you don't get to walk into the promised land. You don't get to see it in your work, but you get to see it in public space.

The work of the church in prosperity space, using Jesus for self, has always been there and it will always be there. The struggle continues. I think about sitting in church and reading your columns and listening to your sermons while thinking about intersectionality, a practiced and lived theology. No one else is doing this. We need a new word to talk about intersectionality, to talk about the fight with baby daddy, where black folk are around queer identity, and other issues that impact faith. You have to be nuanced to pastor a church. It only happens because you were fighting. All these people are fighting, and most people will never know these people.

You can bring people to the feminist holy spirit, but if she don't heal you, they won't listen. Bringing people to a God who did not judge them is hard when you still need to be healed. The political imperative makes people feel it and experience what it means, but it's hard to hear all of that if you still need to be healed.

I'm reminded of the conversation we had on your radio show in Chicago while you were on faculty at the University of Chicago during the Duke Lacrosse scandal. We both fought against language that questioned the credibility of women like accuser Crystal Mangum. Our support of poor black women stirred controversy among defenders of the lacrosse team. As a black woman who critiques images of women in public life, what's left to be said that would help Duke, Durham, and the nation think more critically about what happened?

It's so hard given the crucial change of the Me Too movement—what counts as evidence, who counts as a credible witness to believe, who is allowed to tell their story within the court of public opinion, and even how we witness the black woman's response. Black women are very reticent to report sexual assault. Black women are more likely to be survivors of sexual assault at every age, but they remain silent.

How can it be if black women are such a small minority of those who report being survivors of sexual assault? If any part of our story does not hold up, it's not just us being judged, it's our entire community. For black women, Me Too is just a movement. The backlash is bad, if not worse, for black women. The conversation becomes part of a broader conversation: Every black woman is a liar. Black women remain silent because they couldn't take any of it anymore.

So while white women participated in the Me Too movement, black women weren't there, and no white women paused to ask where we might be.

When you came to speak at the University of Missouri in September 2015 to discuss Black Lives Matter, it appeared then that MSNBC was moving in a different direction. I don't want to rehash what happened, but I would like to hear what you could have offered in the form of deeper analysis before and after the election.

I have a perspective most New York City-based reporters did not and do not have. Because I live in the South and maintain genuinely diverse relationships. Because I am a scholar who understands political outcomes within a scholarly context and because I was not and I am not tied to the business of media. For those reasons, if I had been on air in 2016, I would have brought a very different analysis to the election than was offered by those who were on the air.

I often take weeks to walk my students through the data that backs up claims. I don't think Donald Trump's win is evil. I don't think all Trump voters are good people, just like all Hillary Clinton voters are not good people. These issues are super complex and are based on data. I had no doubt that Trump would be elected, and that's based on data rooted in history. If the American media had bothered to put the history, expertise, and experiences of black women into their political analysis, they would have come to the same conclusion. Instead, they devalued the knowledge and experience of black women, and that continues to dominate post-election analysis.

Black women were the key to victory for Clinton. The Democratic Party enjoys advantages among female voters when there is support from black women. In 2012, black women voted at a higher rate than any other group and gave 96 percent of votes to Barack Obama. Black women needed to see that Hillary mattered to them. She had to earn their vote. It would have helped if Hillary chose a woman of color as the vice presidential candidate instead of a white man. She needed black women to believe she represents the future of their own black daughters and sons. Hillary failed to give black women reason to believe this.

The wisdom of black women isn't taken seriously as political information that might help us understand the outcomes of the election. The media looked at pundits and pollsters who asked the wrong questions and formed the wrong conclusions. They did that while earning high television ratings for their laughably inaccurate coverage of a circus presidential campaign.

Black women are the solution for the Democratic Party, but they continue to believe white voters are the answer. They continue to believe Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have the populist message to bring white working-class voters back to the party. They deny the data that Trump's primary supporters were more affluent than Clinton primary supporters. Black women are the answer, but the Democratic Party fails to invest in the leadership, issues, and concerns of black women.

backtalk@indyweek.com

Carl W. Kenney is the co-producer of God of the Oppressed, a documentary examining black liberation and womanist theologies.