Sister Citizen Melissa
Born in Seattle, Washington on
October 2, 1973, but raised in Charlottesville and
Chester, Virginia, Melissa V. Harris-Perry is a
professor of political science at Tulane University
where she is the founding director of the project on
gender, race, and politics in the South. Her previous
book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and
Black Political Thought, won the 2005 W. E. B. Du Bois
Book Award from the National Conference of Black
Political Scientists and the 2005 Best Book Award from
the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American
Political Science Association.
Besides being a columnist for The
Nation Magazine, Dr. Harris-Perry frequently appears as
a guest or fill-in host on MSNBC on The Thomas Roberts
Show, Up with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show and
The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. She is also a
regular commentator for many print and radio sources
both around the U.S. and abroad.
Melissa lives in New Orleans with
her husband, James Perry, and her daughter,
Parker. Here, she reflects on her life and career and on
American culture and politics while discussing her new
book, Sister Citizen.
* * *
Kam Williams: Hi Melissa,
thanks for the interview.
Absolutely, Kam! How are you?
Kam Williams: I’m fine. You
know, I was walking across Princeton’s campus at dusk
one evening this past spring, and just by coincidence I
came upon you speaking at an outdoor event. Had I known
at the time that you were leaving for Tulane, I’d have
stuck around to meet you.
Melissa Harris-Perry That
probably was for “Take Back the Night.”
Kam Williams: I have a slew
of questions from readers, so let me jump right into
them. Jerry Doran says: You’re the prettiest and
smartest political pundit on television today. He would
like to know if there’s any way he and his wife could
take you to dinner in Stony Brook out on Long Island.
[Laughs] Sorry, Jerry, but it’d be pretty hard for me to
make it out there.
Kam Williams: Jerry would
also like to know when you’re going to get your own
prime time TV show.
Melissa Harris-Perry At the
moment, there definitely aren’t any plans for a
prime-time show. I really love sitting in for both
Rachel [Maddow] and for Lawrence [O’Donnell], and I will
do that again to support their having a little time off
during holidays and over the summer. But my experience
guest-hosting meant going in around noon and not leaving
until about 10 PM. That’s quite time-consuming,
especially since my whole life takes place between noon
Kam Williams: San Francisco
attorney Randy Knox, says he’s friends with your sister
Melissa Harris-Perry: She’s
the best! I’m the youngest of five, and Beth’s the
sister closest to me in age. She’s the one I grew up in
the house with, and therefore shared all the sibling
rivalry and sisterly joys with. She has two gorgeous
children and has lived in the Bay Area since she went to
Kam Williams: Randy, who
moved to San Francisco from New Orleans, would like to
know how you like The Big Easy, and if you’ve ever been
to a place called The Bunch Club.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I’ve
never been to The Bunch Club. Not yet. I absolutely
adore New Orleans. I’d been living here a few months out
of every year since Hurricane Katrina. Being here
full-time now is just a real pleasure. I love it!
Kam Williams: Does your
husband have any plans to run for mayor or any other
political office again?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Not at
the moment. There is a race or two that he’s
considering, but he hasn’t decided yet.
Kam Williams: What
interested you in writing Sister Citizen?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I had
started the project before Hurricane Katrina, but the
real turning point for me was the race and gender
politics that emerged on the national stage after the
levee failure. That was, for me, a consolidating moment
in my attempt to understand the experience of
contemporary black women trying to be American citizens.
Kam Williams: What message
do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I
suspect different audiences will take away different
things from the book. For instance, my editor at Yale
University Press, who is a white male, felt that he’d
been introduced to some black women’s literature he’d
never read and to some stereotypes and ideas that he’d
previously never engaged with. By contrast, some black
women I’ve talked to about the book weren’t surprised by
what they read. They found that it resonated with their
experiences and perhaps contributed to their vocabulary
and gave them some new ways of thinking about the
political meaning of those experiences.
Kam Williams: Judyth Piazza
asks: What was the most important lesson you learned
from this project?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I
learned two lessons: one from the research, one from the
writing. From the research, this idea that you just have
to be strong if you’re a black woman. And in the process
of writing, I learned that you can’t write a book in the
margins of your life. I’d forgotten how much
uninterrupted time it takes to write chapters, and how
you have to push everything else aside and really
Kam Williams: Lee Bailey
asks: Do you enjoy being a guest news anchor for Rachel
Maddow, and do you plan to pursue anchoring your own
Sitting in for Rachel and Lawrence is beyond fun. It is
one of the most exciting and challenging things I’ve
done in a very long time. Part of what I love about it
is that the host has already assembled a fantastic staff
for me, developed credibility and built an audience. So,
I just have to walk in, bring my ideas and work my butt
off for a few days. It’s really the best of both worlds.
As far as anchoring my own show, I won’t say I wouldn’t
do it, but I can’t imagine how that would affect my
ability to parent my child.
Kam Williams: Lee also asks:
Why the negative response to The Help?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh,
Gosh! I could spend all day answering this one. The
intensity of my negative response was in part related to
having just published Sister Citizen. So, I had
been thinking a lot about the stereotypes and the images
of black women. Both the book and the film are, for me,
terribly problematic, because they’re very, very
dishonest, romanticized versions of one of the most
important aspects of African-American women’s working
lives, namely, being domestic servants. For most of
American history since slavery, that’s the type of work
that we’ve done.
My grandmother was a domestic
worker. The Help claimed to be told from the
perspective of the African-American maids, but it isn’t.
I could go on in considerable depth about it, but let me
address the two most dishonest aspects. The first is the
fact that although the author tried to illustrate the
tension between white women and their maids, she ignores
the black women’s relationships with two other very
important groups in the household: the white men and the
white children. She refuses to imagine that they could
have felt anything other than pure love, attachment,
affection and fidelity towards the kids they were hired
to care for. It is such a bizarre, romantic notion that
they didn’t have mixed feelings about spending so much
time caring for children of privilege while their own
offspring went neglected because they were in these
Clearly, the book was written from
the perspective of a person who had been raised by one
of these loving black maids and who therefore couldn’t
imagine anything but affection on the part of the
caretaker. The second dishonest aspect of the book was
how it ignored the violence by white men against blacks.
One scene in the movie that just made me want to rip my
hair out was when, in response to the Medgar Evers
assassination, all the maids finally decide to talk to
Miss Skeeter. That is made up! That is not what
The truth is that when Medgar Evers
was murdered, the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi
organized themselves and went out into the streets en
masse, thereby not only putting their jobs in jeopardy
but risking violent reprisals on the part of the police
and the white community. The Help ignores that
brave, real-life effort in favor of a fantasy suggesting
that what they needed was to share their stories with a
white woman in secret. A careful author would’ve done
her research and then incorporated what actually
transpired, because accounts about these maids’ bravery
are readily available. The danger that I fear now is
that The Help will become the historical record
because of its popularity, and that people who see the
movie will come to believe that that’s really what
Yeah, like how the misleading images in Gone with the
Wind came to replace the truth about The South
Harris-Perry: Exactly! That’s precisely what
happened with both Gone with the Wind and The
Birth of a Nation. Popular films are so powerful and
compelling that it’s often easier to accept their
versions of history than the much more complicated true
stories. That’s why the most distressing aspect for me
about The Help has been the number of
African-American women I’ve encountered who didn’t know
how dishonest the story was. I just don’t want us, in
our own politics, to fall into the trap of reproducing
Do you then have a problem with Viola Davis for agreeing
to play the lead character?
Harris-Perry: I have no criticism of Viola Davis,
just as I have none of Hattie McDaniel’s performance in
Gone with the Wind. In fact, I find them both to have
done exceptional work with the roles that they were
given. Honestly, I understand that, as Hollywood
actresses, they need to work. I also appreciate how
Viola had tamped down her character to speak in a much
more recognizable, black Southern woman’s voice than the
caricature which Kathryn Stockett presented in the book.
So, I’m not criticizing Viola Davis, but rather I’m
disappointed that this is the version of black womanhood
that American audiences are so jazzed-up and excited to
consume. There’s nothing like a redemptive mammy.
Lisa Loving asks: Did you get any backlash over your
live tweeting about The Help?
Harris-Perry: Oh, yeah! But I need to point out that
I wasn’t just losing my mind, but that I had been
assigned by my job to tweet live in the theater. That
was one of those rare occasions where my snarky, more
animated side came out. And I’ve learned over time that
that is always the self that gets the most criticism.
Leah Fletcher would like to know whether you see a link
between the state of contemporary black men and Jim Crow
Harris-Perry: Yes, for both black men and black
women. We are barely removed from Jim Crow. My father
attended segregated public schools, and he’s not an old
man. Slavery is becoming more distant, but Jim Crow is
not. There are so many effects, but I’d say that the
single most important residual impact of Jim Crow is the
continuing reality of residential segregation in most
American cities and towns. And that impacts everything
from educational and employment opportunities to real
estate values to access to transportation to the quality
of one’s environment. Housing affects everything, and we
continue to live in very, very segregated communities.
Teresa Emerson asks: When did we black women get so far
off the mark with our public image? With all we've
accomplished, why is self-esteem still such a problem in
1619 [when the first slaves were brought to America].
There has never been a moment when African-American
women were fundamentally celebrated as model citizens.
Even at this point in history when we have a black First
Lady, we see the power of these negative stereotypes
about black women in that the dishonest mythology
continues to thrive.
Teresa also asks: Do you feel the pervasiveness of
mainstream media, movies, TV reality shows, etcetera
have tainted this generation's view of black woman/black
man relationships? How do we effectively change that
when bombarded with such crazy images?
Harris-Perry: That’s a really tough question. I
stayed away from domestic, personal relationships in the
book. I decided to focus on the public and the
political, and to leave that ground to psychologists and
Harriet Pakula Teweles asks: How might female gender
stereotyping in other ethnic groups also become a
‘convenient’ way for patriarchies to treat women as
objects rather than subjects?
Harris-Perry: The only thing in The Help that
irritated and offended me more than how it portrayed
black women was how white women were portrayed. Look, I
grew up in, went to school in, and now live in the
American South, and southern white women are
interesting, complex and quirky, even the ones with
racial anxieties. Stereotypes work to help divide women
from recognizing their common interests. Think of how
hard it would be to create a gender-based movement
across racial lines as long as one group believes that
it has to be strong while seeing the other group as
passive and weak. We could also go into the stereotypes
of the saucy, mercurial Latina and the docile,
easily-dominated Asian woman.
Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: There are people
who want to identify themselves as biracial because they
feel that they have to acknowledge both cultural
identities. What made you decide to identify yourself as
is the weirdest question that I am consistently asked.
When I grew up in Virginia in the Seventies, there was
no such thing as biracial. I understand that in 2011 you
can opt to self-identify as biracial, although others
might still identify you differently. Having a white
parent undoubtedly makes for a different childhood
experience than having two black parents. However, I
think the idea that you’re somehow rejecting whiteness
if you don’t identify yourself as biracial is odd
because everybody engages in whiteness. If you live in
America, you’re doing whiteness all the time, even if
you have no white people in your family. So, I don’t
know what people mean when they ask me whether I’m
embracing my whiteness. Whiteness is ubiquitous. That
being said, I believe that in 21st Century America it’s
perfectly legitimate for children with a black parent
and a white parent to identify themselves as biracial,
if that’s their preference.
I recently reviewed a very thought-provoking documentary
called Biracial, Not Black, Damn It! in which
they interviewed dozens of mixed people who don’t want
to be seen as just black.
Harris-Perry: All I have to say is: Good luck with
that in America! [LOL]
I remember thinking it was odd when I was in college,
when this brother tried to befriend me by saying, “We
mulattoes have to stick together.” I told him we could
be friends, but both my parents were black and I grew up
in a black community, so I didn’t have any identity
Harris-Perry: I never had one either, not at 7, 17,
27 or now.
Patricia also says: We all know about the famous test
done my Dr. Kenneth Clark in 1954 for the Brown vs.
Board of Education case. In 2006, the filmmaker Kiri
Davis recreated the doll study and documented it in a
film entitled A Girl Like Me. Despite the many changes
in some parts of society, Davis got the same results as
Dr. Clark did a half-century earlier. Recently, I heard
about a five-year old African girl who put her black
doll in the garbage. What do you think needs to be done
to put an end to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes
which continue to affect black females?
Harris-Perry: I’m raising an African-American child
who has both black and white dolls. Something I was
struck by was how she’s renamed two of them Malia and
Sasha when Barack Obama became President. As a parent, I
have an appreciation that there are counteracting,
positive images for this generation of little girls
growing up with Malia and Sasha in the White House as
the First Daughters.
Finally, Patricia says: You started the research for
your book circa ten years ago. What was the turning
point which made you decide that you had to write about
the very important subject regarding the image of Black
Melissa Harris-Perry:As I
mentioned before, it was what unfolded after Hurricane
Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks: To what do you
attribute some black women's denial of their hair, with
weaves, extensions, relaxers and wigs? Is there any
remedy for this denial?
Harris-Perry: That’s rough! I don’t know if it’s a
denial of our hair. I wear twists that are extensions.
I’m doing that because I’m growing out my natural hair,
and I can’t really do that on TV without some sort of
intervention. I’ve worn a perm during much of my
adulthood. Look, I simply do not judge African-American
women’s grooming choices. I don’t think that a white
woman is in denial when she dyes her hair blonde. And I
actually think we are the most varied in terms of the
choices we make about our hair. Some of it may be
political or psychological, but an awful lot of it is
just aesthetic, how we like to view ourselves when we
look in the mirror.
Irene continues: As a black woman I have seen white
women look at black women in blonde wigs and other white
woman wanna be styles and smile. Do you think black
women rejecting their hair and other aspects of
blackness affects the power dynamic between white women
and black women? Does this affect the power dynamic
between white men and black women, between black women
and black men, and ultimately of black women
Harris-Perry: I can understand how someone might
read wearing a blonde wig as a desire to be white, but I
suspect that the same shaming smirk can happen if you
wear a big afro or any number of other hairstyles. I
find that non-black women will engage me in conversation
about my hair, if I wear it in anything but the most
nondescript perm. From childhood forward, our hair is
one of the most critical, defining aspects of our
embodied selves as black women: how we get it done… how
we have to focus on it… the questions we have to answer
about it... and so forth. In the book, I talk about how
this desire for whiteness can impact us psychologically.
So, I don’t want in any way to suggest that that sort of
shaming, a desire for whiteness and white beauty doesn’t
exist. But I do think that we have to be careful not to
assume that getting a perm or wearing a blonde wig is a
desire for whiteness. It may or may not be. Listen, I
live in a poor black neighborhood where women wear blue
hair, green hair, and all kinds of stuff. So, I simply
see it as a different set of choices.
Rudy Lewis says: Melissa, you are spot on when it comes
to white feminism. But your responses to Cornel West's
attacks on U.S. economic policies with respect to the
poor and the middle classes and your support of the
Libyan War make me uncomfortable. Have these views been
placed in concrete?
Harris-Perry: I am a supporter of much of the Arab
Spring, as a matter of indigenous self-determination.
So, I see the United States’ role in Libya as an
appropriately restrained one in providing some
international support for the work of those trying to
bring democratic change against a regime that has
undoubtedly been dictatorial, particularly in the past
twenty years. I know some people side with Cornel West
and disagree with my support of the Obama
Administration, but I think that’s part of the robust
conversation of Democratic politics.
Yale grad Tommy Russell asks: Do you think President
Obama is doing enough for African-American communities
throughout the U.S., or have major issues like wars, the
oil spill, and The Great Recession been too much for one
administration during one term? What more do you think
he could be doing right now?
Harris-Perry: I think the most critical needs of the
African-American communities aren’t being addressed
primarily because of decisions being made by Republican
Congressional leaders. The efforts to kill the
President’s healthcare, jobs and stimulus packages have
all been at the behest of the Republican leadership.
Film director Kevin Williams says: Some polls indicate
that President Obama's support is waning in the
African-American community given the state of the
economy and black unemployment rate. Do you foresee the
Republican Party increasing its efforts to get the black
vote in 2012, and making any inroads in that regard?
Harris-Perry: No, the Republicans don’t need black
folks to vote Republican, they just need them to not
Kevin also would like to know why you left Princeton to
teach at Tulane, which is where he got his Masters in
number one reason was because I married a New Orleanian.
Secondly, Tulane offered me a promotion to full
professor as well as an opportunity to run my own
H. Lewis Smith had this reaction to your article
entitled “Black Liberals, Double Standard”: Your
point-of-view is reflective of many blacks who are aware
of the racism, but are blind to black people's
complicity in it all. The white man does not see us as
his equal...period, and never will. Fine, I say. You
don't have to like me...just respect me. And therein
lies the problem, the lack of respect. Until we as a
race can show we have what it takes to respect one
another, none is ever going to be given to us as a
group. Your thoughts?
would agree that liking is secondary to fairness and
equality, but recognition is tied to resource
distribution. So, it actually does matter what people
think about you.
Kam Williams: Is there any
question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone
Melissa Harris-Perry:No, I
think I already reveal way too much.
Kam Williams: Then do you
have a good, probing question I could ask other
Melissa Harris-Perry: How
about: How did your first big heartbreak impact who you
are as a person?
Kam Williams: Thanks,
that’ll be my Melissa Harris-Perry question. Now, the
Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
Melissa Harris-Perry: All
Kam Williams:: The Columbus
Short question: Are you happy?
Kam Williams: The Teri
Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good
[Giggles] This morning with my husband.
Kam Williams: What is your
Kam Williams: The bookworm
Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I’m
reading three: A surprisingly good first novel called
Girls in White Dresses.
With my daughter, I just read a
Marvin Redpost book called
Why Are You Picking on Me?
And Dorothy Roberts’ new book,
Kam Williams: The music
maven Heather Covington question: What was the last
music you listened to?
[Chuckles] That’s part of the good laugh that I had with
my husband this morning. I was playing Eric B. and Rakim
really loud as I pulled into our driveway.
Kam Williams: What is your
favorite dish to cook?
Macaroni and cheese.
Kam Williams: The Sanaa
Lathan question: What excites you?
Kam Williams: The Uduak
Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have
no idea. Sorry.
Dante Lee, author of Black Business Secrets,
asks: “What was the best business decision you ever
made, and what was the worst?"
Harris-Perry: I’m horrible with money. I make bad
business decisions every hour of the day. My best
professional decision was taking my first job at the
University of Chicago.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I just
had a birthday, so I’d say I see my age.
Kam Williams: Happy
birthday! If you could have one wish instantly granted,
what would that be for?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I
would want to know that my daughter is going to enjoy a
long, happy and healthy life.
Kam Williams: The Pastor
Alex Kendrick question: When do you feel the most
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sunday
mornings before church, when I’m home with my husband
and daughter, and we’re kind of doing our Sunday morning
Kam Williams: The Toure
question: Who is the person who led you to become the
person you are today?
Undoubtedly, the biggest influence on my life is my mom,
followed pretty closely by my dad.
Kam Williams: The Ling-Ju
Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
Harris-Perry: Riding around the neighborhood in a
plastic molded seat on the back of my mom’s bike at
about the age of 2.
The Judyth Piazza questions: How do you define success?
And, what key quality do you believe all successful
Harris-Perry: For me, success is when I’m making a
contribution and fully engaging all of my talents. In
terms of the key quality, it’s being willing to continue
to believe in yourself even when other people don’t, and
being able to fail and to come back.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow
in your footsteps?
Drink lots of water, and nap. I’ve made some really big
messes along the way, whether on the academic side or on
the media side. It hasn’t been a straight path. But a
lot of those mess-ups have led to opportunities, so I
guess I’d say be fearless, and keep bottled water with
you, so you don’t dehydrate.
The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be
Harris-Perry: Fondly, by my family.
Thanks again for the time, Melissa, and best of luck
with the book, MSNBC and teaching at Tulane this year.
so much Kam. It’s been fun!
Melissa Victoria Harris was
born 1973 in
Seattle and grew up in the
Virginia cities of
Chester, where she attended
Thomas Dale High School. She was the youngest of
five children of a black father, William M. Harris Sr.,
the dean of Afro-American affairs at the
University of Virginia, and a white mother, Diana
Gray, who taught at a community college and worked for
nonprofits that helped poor communities “I’ve never
thought of myself as biracial,” Harris-Perry says. “I’m
* * *
Cornel West v Barack Obama (Melissa
Harris-Perry ) /
Obama Apologist Harris-Perry Says
* * *
Interview of Melissa Harris Lacewell
Well, I think that
hip-hop has the insurgent possibilities and capabilities.
Now there's a little bit of a problem with hip-hop, and that
is it's a commodity that's bought and sold. And any time
you're a commodity that's bought and sold, you have at least
one aspect of your culture that can sort of go in a profit
But I will say that
hip-hop music like Gospel music, like Blues music, like jazz
music is the voice of a generation. And it has within it the
insurgent capacity, the capacity to say, "Look, I'm not
happy here, this is not enough, I expect more, I'm worthy of
more." And over and over again in hip-hop from the
mid-1970's until today, there's a strain of it that is
saying that. . . .
So there's a couple of
reasons why Imus could not have been quoting hip-hop.
First—it wasn't as though hip-hop taught America how to
degrade women or particularly how to degrade black women.
America had figured that out long, long, long before
hip-hop. Secondly, although hip-hop often uses the word
"ho," it rarely ever calls someone a "nappy-headed ho." So
we talked a lot about "ho." But we haven't talked much about
"nappy-headed." And "nappy-headed" is a way of saying you,
black woman, in your natural, physical state in, who you
are—are unacceptable, ugly, valueless. Now, that's not
Actually hip-hop tends
to dress up black women in long, straight wigs, much more
likely than it is to go to this place which is a very old
place around, slavery, around Jim Crow that says, "Your
physical self is an unacceptable, sort of orientation of
blackness. I can see that you're black from across the room,
and that's unacceptable to me."—Melissa
* * *
At MSNBC a
Professor as TV Host—Brian Stelter—12 February
2012—Week seven of Melissa Harris-Perry’s introductory
course in African-American studies at Tulane University
includes a lecture about “the hollow prize”—a theory
that African-Americans tend to be elected as mayor only
after a city has tipped into economic decline.
One day last
summer, when Ms. Harris-Perry was filling in for
Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, she recast the class lecture
as a television segment, invoking Detroit; her adopted
home, New Orleans; President Obama; and tax policy.
“I’ve given that lecture a million times—a million
times,” Ms. Harris-Perry said in a recent interview.
“But I do it once on Rachel’s show, and it was
everywhere the next day. It was up on Web sites, people
were e-mailing me—that, for me, was a really clear
indication of how powerful television is.” Now, MSNBC is
about to introduce a progressive talk show called
“Melissa Harris-Perry” on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Ms. Harris-Perry will be the only tenured professor in
the United States—and one of a very small number of
African-American women—who serves as a cable news host.
Is this a sign of the rise of the academic on TV? Though
cable news is still stereotyped by some as a 24-7
screaming match, there are now pockets of intellectual
stimulation that did not exist a decade ago.— NYTimes
* * *
Cornel West Takes Aim and Fires—Jamal Eric Watson—9
February 2012—West says that the attacks by his former
colleague, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, in The Nation and
on cable news were strictly personal. Harris-Perry left
Princeton last year and is now a professor at Tulane
University. She also hosts a weekend show on MSNBC. In
2006, West was responsible for bringing her to Princeton
from the University of Chicago after the two met at a
conference. She held a joint appointment between the
Center for African American Studies and the Department
of Politics and arrived with tenure.
But West says that,
shortly after she arrived, she no longer wanted to teach
in the Center for African American Studies and later
turned on him and Glaude, the chairman of the
department, calling them “hypocritical leftists.” “I
have a love for the sister, but she is a liar, and I
hate lying,” says West, adding that Harris-Perry later
said on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” that West attacked Obama’s
White mother in the interview with Truthdig.com. “I
don’t talk about people’s mamas. She’s reinforcing all
of the vicious perceptions of me as a racist, and she
knows better than that.”—DiverseEducation
* * *
The Race and Gender
Debate—Well, not only was I in New Hampshire, I was
also in Illinois. I taught at the University of
Chicago for years before coming to Princeton. So
Barack Obama was my state senator. He was my US
senator. So every time I hear people say he doesn’t
have much experience, I find it extremely
irritating, because it means that somehow
representing me in my government meant very little
experience. So I actually was there in Chicago and
in Illinois when Senator Obama took those stands
against the war, and I can tell you, it was not an
easy thing to do. So I’m appreciative of having been
represented by someone like him who had those kinds
I mean, what happened in New Hampshire, clearly
Barack Obama brought in the percentage in the polls
that he was expected to bring in. But a whole new
group of voters showed up to vote for Hillary
Clinton. It doesn’t look as though Barack Obama’s
poll voters actually abandoned him. It looked as
though they actually came and sincerely voted their
interest, which I think is a great sign for the
capacity of this campaign to move forward. But there
was a whole new group of voters, mostly women of
Hillary Clinton’s own generation, white women of
Hillary Clinton’s own generation, who did show up at
the polls and vote—cast a vote for Hillary Clinton.
And that’s what put her over the top.
And I do believe that much of that had to do with
this intersection of race and gender, the ways in
which Hillary Clinton became discernible,
understandable and recognizable to these voters in
her moment of anxiety and stress, in a way that
Barack Obama, as an African American man, remains
alien to many white women. In other words, it’s just
very difficult for them to see themselves in him.
But again, 36% of that vote who claimed that they
were going to vote for Barack did in fact show up
and do so. So I think it’s good news for the Obama
campaign, although it does continue to indicate the
ways in which white women’s particular race and
gender position can be of major benefit to them when
running against an African American man. . . .
Yeah, I—in fact, I’ve regularly
said that I don’t think that naked racism explains this.
He could not have gotten the kind of support that he got
in New Hampshire. Again, what I’m suggesting—and this
goes again to this question of complexity—is that our
understanding and expectation of who white women are and
how we respond to their suffering is quite different
historically than how we respond to the suffering,
anxiety, and stress of African American men and women.
So the people who said they were going to vote for
Barack Obama apparently voted for him, that 36%. But a
whole new group felt motivated to come out and vote for
Hillary Clinton, and that seems to be related to her
particular sort of performance on the Monday before the
election. And that does seem to me to be indicated in
questions of race and gender, without saying that these
people are naked racists.
I’m incredibly impressed by the voters of New Hampshire,
who take very seriously the trust in which the rest of
us as citizens put into them to make a decision, because
so often we are disenfranchised from the process,
because the early primary system allows just a few
voters to make these critical choices. And over and over
again, the people of New Hampshire were very serious in
how they were trying to gather information and make
decisions. I would not disparage them by claiming they
I would, however, say they’re part
of the American historical system that responds to white
women suffering in very particular ways, and it cannot
see African American suffering in the same ways.—Melissa
* * *
The Race and Gender Debate—I just feel that we
have got to get clear about the fact that race and
gender are not these clear dichotomies in which, you
know, you’re a woman or you’re black. I’m sitting here
in my black womanhood body, knowing that it is more
complicated than that. African American men have been
complicit in the oppression of African American women.
White women have been complicit in the oppression of
black men and black women. Those things are true.
And so, to pretend
that we can somehow take them out of the conversation
when a white woman runs against a black man, when she
tears up at being sort of beat up by him, when her
husband can come in and rally around her and suggest
that we need to sort of support her because she’s having
difficulties, while Barack Obama is getting death
threats, basically lynching threats on him and his
family, these are—for a second-wave feminist with an
understanding of the complexity of American race and
gender to take this kind of position in the New York
Times struck me as, again, the very worst of what
that feminism can offer—in other words,
division. . . .
You cannot both claim
this sort of role as independent woman
making a stand on questions of feminism and
claim that your experience begins as First
Lady of Arkansas.
You know, you simply have to stand on your own or not.
There are dozens of white women in this country who I
would be a huge supporter of for the American
presidency. The president of my own university would be
at the top of that list, but not someone who is making
this claim towards being president as her right as a
result of a relationship with a former president. I
think that’s exactly what we don’t need in third-wave
* * *
Hillary's Scarlett O'Hara Act—Black
women voters are rejecting Hillary Clinton
because her ascendance is not a liberating
symbol. Her tears are not moving. Her voice
does not resonate. Throughout history,
privileged white women, attached at the hip
to their husband's power and influence, have
been complicit in black women's oppression.
Many African American women are simply
refusing to play Mammy to Hillary.
The loyal Mammy figure, who toiled in the
homes of white people, nursing their babies
and cleaning and cooking their food, is the
most enduring and dishonest representation
of black women. She is a uniquely American
icon who first emerged as our young country
was trying to put itself back together after
the Civil War. The romanticism about this
period is a bizarre historical anomaly that
underscores America's deep racism:
The defeated traitors of the Confederacy
have been allowed to reinterpret the war's
battles, fly the flag of secession over
state houses, and raise monuments to those
who fought to tear down the country.
Southern white secessionists were given the
power to rewrite history even as America's
newest citizens were relegated to forced
agricultural peonage, grinding urban poverty
and new forms segregation and racial terror.
Mammy was a central figure in this
mythmaking and she was perfect for the role.
The Mammy myth allowed Americans in the
North and South to ignore the brutality of
slavery by claiming that black women were
tied to white families through genuine bonds
* * *
* * * *
Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The
Permanence of Racism
grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black
former Harvard law professor who made
headlines recently for his one-man protest
against the school's hiring policies,
hammers home his controversial theme that
white racism is a permanent, indestructible
component of our society. Bell's fantasies
are often dire and apocalyptic: a new
Atlantis rises from the ocean depths,
sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white
resistance to affirmative action softens
following an explosion that kills Harvard's
president and all of the school's black
professors; intergalactic space invaders
promise the U.S. President that they will
clean up the environment and deliver tons of
gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens
take all African Americans back to their
planet. Other pieces deal with black-white
romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job
Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine
And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back
in some of these ominous allegories, which
speak from the depths of anger and despair.
Bell now teaches at New York University Law
* * *
Sonata Mulattica: Poems
By Rita Dove
This 12th collection from the former
U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize
recipient is her third book-length
narrative poem: it follows the real
career of the violin prodigy George
Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower
(1780–1860), a former pupil of Haydn, as
well as the grandson/ of an African
prince, or so his promoters and teachers
in England said. Moving to Vienna during
the Napoleonic Wars, the violinist met
and befriended the famously moody
Beethoven, who was prepared to dedicate
his famously difficult Kreutzer Sonata
to Bridgetower until a rivalry for the
same woman drove them apart. Dove tells
Bridgetower's story, and some of
Beethoven's and Haydn's, in a
heterogenous profusion of short poems,
some almost prosy, some glittering in
their technique. In quatrains, a double
villanelle, what looks like found text,
short lines splayed all over a page and
attractive description, Dove renders
Bridgetower's frustrated genius: Music
played for the soul is sheer pleasure;/
to play merely for pleasure is nothing/
but work. Dove does not always achieve
such subtleties—those who loved her
early work may think this book too long:
few, though, will doubt the seriousness
of her effort, her interest at once in
the history of classical music and the
changing meanings of race.—Publishers
* * * * *
Season of Adventure
published in 1960, Season of Adventure details
the story of Fola, a light-skinned middle-class
girl who has been tipped out of her easy hammock
of social privilege into the complex political
and cultural world of her recently independent
homeland, the Caribbean island of San Cristobal.
After attending a ceremony of the souls to raise
the dead, she is carried off by the unrelenting
accompaniment of steel drums onto a mysterious
journey in search of her past and of her
identity. Gradually, she is caught in the
crossfire of a struggle between people who have
"pawned their future to possessions" and those
"condemned by lack of learning to a deeper
truth." The music of the drums sounds throughout
the novel, "loud as gospel to a believer's
ears," and at the end stands alone as witness to
the tradition which is slowly being destroyed in
the name of European values. Whether through
literary production or public pronouncements,
George Lamming has explored the phenomena of
colonialism and imperialism and their impact on
the psyche of Caribbean people.
* * *
The Price of Civilization
Reawakening American Virtue and
Jeffrey D. Sachs
The Price of Civilization is a
book that is essential reading for every
American. In a forceful, impassioned,
and personal voice, he offers not only a
searing and incisive diagnosis of our
country’s economic ills but also an
urgent call for Americans to restore the
virtues of fairness, honesty, and
foresight as the foundations of national
prosperity. Sachs finds that both
political parties—and many leading
economists—have missed the big picture,
offering shortsighted solutions such as
stimulus spending or tax cuts to address
complex economic problems that require
deeper solutions. Sachs argues that we
have profoundly underestimated
globalization’s long-term effects on our
country, which create deep and largely
unmet challenges with regard to jobs,
incomes, poverty, and the environment.
America’s single biggest economic
failure, Sachs argues, is its inability
to come to grips with the new global
economic realities. Sachs describes a
political system that has lost its
ethical moorings, in which ever-rising
campaign contributions and lobbying
outlays overpower the voice of the
citizenry. . . .
Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around.
He argues persuasively that the problem is not America’s abiding
values, which remain generous and pragmatic, but the ease with
which political spin and consumerism run circles around those
values. He bids the reader to reclaim the virtues of good
citizenship and mindfulness toward the economy and one another.
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * * *
The Last Holiday: A Memoir
By Gil Scott Heron
Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered.
Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant
parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary
on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting
—Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio) / Gil Scott-Heron
& His Music Gil Scott
Heron Blue Collar
Remember Gil Scott- Heron
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * * * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
posted 19 October 2011