This Is A Melissa Harris-Perry Appreciation Post

I first encountered Melissa Harris-Perry on the eve of the 2008 presidential nominations. At that time, one thing was certain: The Democratic candidate for president would be a Black man or a White woman; a minority in political system which has been reppin’ the old White guys since 1789. Because this was such a huge deal, political pundits and balloters alike immediately began raising unprecedented questions about race and gender: Which candidate could do the most people the most justice?

The legendary second waver Gloria Steinem believed that the answer was Clinton, whom she endorsed in a New York Times op-ed:

Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).

I caught myself raising a finger when I initially read that, as if the words on the screen had ears and would listen to my disputations of, “Um, that’s not entirely true. All Blacks were still susceptible to voter discrimination, from KKK threats to Jim Crow laws.  Hence the fucking Voting Rights Act of 1965, Gloria. And don’t even get me started on this ongoing voter ID shit.”

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I didn’t have to argue with my computer monitor for much longer. Harris-Perry–then Harris-Lacewell–appeared on Democracy Now! alongside Steinem, where she articulated my feelings with much more eloquence and much less profanity:

What’s she’s trying to do there is to make a claim towards bringing in Black women into a coalition around questions of gender, and asking us to ignore the ways that race and gender intersect…I think that ignores an entire history of White women that have in fact been in the White House. They’ve been there as an attachment to White male patriarchal power. It’s the same way that Hillary Clinton is now making a claim towards experience. It’s not her experience. It’s her experience married to, connected to, climbing up on male patriarchy. These are exactly the ways in which this system actually silences questions of gender that are more complicated than simply putting White women in positions of power, and then claiming that women’s issues are cared for.

I was 19 during the last election. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d learned my first lesson in intersectional feminism from this previously-unknown scholar. A Duke University alumna, Harris-Perry doesn’t just work at the intersections in her acclaimed texts; she is the intersection. Raised in Virginia by a formerly Mormon White mother and a Black father employed in academia, her life is as layered as the points she’s so damned good at making.

Take for example, her even-handed critique of the straining relations between Black and LGBT organizations:

I want the NAACP to come out clearly on the civil rights issue of marriage equality but I would also like to see where are HRC and GLAAD when we are marching for Trayvon Martin and — I mean, like I want us to be allies, but I need the allies to be on both sides.

Currently a professor at Tulane University in NOLA, Harris-Perry has made regular appearances on The Rachel Maddow Show, and even landed her own eponymous weekend program on MSNBC this year.

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If you are unable to view episodes of The Melissa Harris-Perry Show where you are, I recommend her Facing Race lecture from Princeton University. If you’re not the “Oooh, sitting through a hour-long academic lecture totally turns me on” kind of queer like I am, let me promise you that this one is well-worth it. Harris-Perry is the queen of hilarious Powerpoints and pop culture references.

Harris-Perrys’ most defining career moment occurred several weeks ago when she tore new ones for several anti-welfare advocates during a roundtable discussion about  Martin Gliens’ book, Why Americans Hate Welfare:

What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner. I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I’m sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No, there’s a huge safety net, that whenever you fail, we’ll catch you, and catch you, and catch you. Being poor is what is risky. We have to create a safety net for poor people and when we won’t because they happen to look different from us, it is the pervasive ugliness. We cannot do that.

 The moment has been turned into a .gifset with over 22,000 hearts, which is the approximate amount of hearts that instantly appear in my eyes whenever Harris-Perry comes on my teevee screen. She just…gets it; it being everything from modern Southern racism to African-American stereotypes perpetuated in the media. In an election season not too unlike the one when she first came on my radar, “getting it” could not be more important.

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Sarah Fonseca is from tiny Georgia towns yet always finds herself in big cities. An essayist and journal-keeper by heart, her work has been featured in Lambda Review, Lavender Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, and Thought Catalog. Her ultimate goal in life is to get back to that seven year-old place where everything was backwards ballcaps, long hair, and red rover.

fonseca has written 47 articles for us.

36 Comments

  1. Thumb up 6

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    She is amazing! She sent me the course syllabus for her Women in Politics class at Princeton in fall 2009, I haven’t read them all, but the ones I did read were amazing. She also took her class to tour Rachel Maddow’s studio and had live twitter discussions with her students. Everyone should read Sister Citizen! It is the first political book I think I read after getting my poli sci degree where I felt instantly validated as a woman of color.

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    let me start by saying that i admire her FIERCELY and basically all the wonderful sense-making things she says makes my mind explode with happiness etc etc LOVE HUH

    but

    am i the only one who is sometimes reminded of whitney mixter when seeing pictures of harris-perry……there’s just something about her mouth and eyes, idk idk, i am so confused, i blame it mostly on cold meds?

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    I love MHP, too! Ever since back before she had her own show, when she was a very frequent guest on Rachel Maddow’s show. (Her own show’s success has made me think that she’s kind of like the Stephen Colbert to Rachel Maddow’s Jon Stewart.)

    Thanks for pointing us to that lecture!

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    That debate between Melissa Harris-Perry and Gloria Steinem on the ’08 election is one of my favorite things in the world.

    At the time I had a kind of sanctimonious published feminist author as an English instructor who loved to talk about how it was interesting to watch these two intersections up against each other in a presidential race, and that the black male candidate would most likely win because white women were just still so much more downtrodden, and it would make me twitch. Literally twitch. I Could. Not. Wait. to run to her with that clip as soon as I saw it.

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    Melissa Harris-Perry is EVERYTHING. This blog post made my heart melt. My girlfriend recently asked me “If you had the option to meet either Melissa Harris-Perry OR Rachel Maddow, who would you pick?” I lust after Rachel Maddow like the majority of queer women I know, but I had to pick MHP. Her show nourishes me and my identities (black/queer/liberal/sex-positive/feminist/woman) in a way that Rachel Maddow simply cannot. I’m not harping on Rachel Maddow at all (I am glued to the screen every night when I watch her show) but I do think there is something to be said about how identity informs the way one reports on the issues. I feel like all of my identities are integrated into the discussions that MHP has on her show, and for that I am eternally grateful. I never knew I could get so much out of one program!!

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      I think privilege is waking up to see all of your identities reflected in the media around you and calling it normality.

      Also: any native French speakers here? I got told off for using LGBT in an essay yesterday because it’s an anglicism, but the only alternative my lecturer could offer was “homosexuel.” Given that I’m talking about the invisibility of marginalised identities in French pop culture, I particularly don’t want to be party to the invisibility of bi and trans* folk. Any ideas for bona fide French ways of saying that?

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        I always think its interesting how hard certain phrases and concepts can be to translate into another language.

        French is really missing the word for queer.

        I’d totally say LGBT too cause it stands for french words too but I’m not a native speaker either :)

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    Her tweets were so on-point last night during the presidential debate; like this one: “I do wish POTUS would stop repeating the idea that the “mentally disturbed” are primarily responsible for gun violence.” My thoughts exactly MHP.

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    She’s just so fantastic about articulating all the thoughts and feelings that I get too emotional over to articulate properly. I wish I could just have her by my side all the time when I have to explain things to ignorant people. I’ll just have to keep those gifs and youtube videos handy.

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    My favorite thing about MHP is how fucking smart and articulate she is when enraged. It’s a superpower. When I get angry about things (especially politics) I’m usually reduced to hand-flapping, swearing, and weird shouty/grunty noises.

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    ‘If you’re not the “Oooh, sitting through a hour-long academic lecture totally turns me on” kind of queer like I am, let me promise you that this one is well-worth it.’

    Wait there are queers who don’t get turned on by hour long academic lectures?

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    She’s my professor! And I’ve become the one outspoken lesbian in the class, so anytime she mentions anything about queer issues, she nods at me or asks my opinion. It’s pretty sweet, I can’t lie.

    Also I think I’m in love with her oops.

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      SO JEALOUS. Oh Sweet baby Jesus I just melted from the jealousy. MHP and Rachel Maddow are the reasons I watch MSNBC, and they’re how I stay up to date on my current events and politics.

      Oh, and hi, Speegz. Should’ve known you were around AS. I’m Jessica’s sister. ;)

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