or me, Melissa Harris-Perry, the first MSNBC black female host with her own show, is like Oprah for housewives, sans all of that sometimes dangerous self-help. I eat up the Tulane professor’s smart segments on political issues like race, gender, class and America’s upcoming presidential election. I dreamt of profiling her on Parlour, because she, as a smart black woman who thinks critically, embodies so much of what we strive to represent here on the site. Well, guess what?
During Essence Music Festival earlier this month, I chatted with Mrs. Harris-Perry backstage about the ‘Year of the Vagina,’ Obama as a possible one-term president and being MSNBC’s new black woman role model.
Parlour: You talked about your book Sister Citizen during Essence Music Festival, what’s it about?
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Sister Citizen is about the way stereotypes continue to influence how African American women feel about themselves. The idea of the jezebel, mammy, angry black woman and strong black woman as constraints on our sense of self is a core theme but when we try to address that, we take individual psychological routes to feel better about ourselves. I’m really interested in citizenship, the fight against those stereotypes and our making claims about our rights to be full citizens and engaging politically.
How are black women are fighting for citizenship?
The book was released long before I knew 2012 would be the ‘Year of the Vagina’ and we would continue talking about things I thought were settled. In the context of the book, I was talking specifically about how citizens feel no shame making demands on the state. Rich white men say ‘Give me a tax break, I’m a job creator.’ But our needs, for example, reasonable affordable childcare, sufficient food subsidies or decent affordable housing and healthcare, somehow it’s shameful for us to demand those things. It’s both an issue of our citizenship within the American landscape as Americans, but also our citizenship within blackness. For black women, I see it as two-prong, meaning we’re not meant to ask for anything from the black political agenda so we’re told to make our issues secondary to that of the endangered black man. We’ll talk about, for example, the ‘No Snitching’ policy, but we’ll only talk about how that impacts a 20-year-old urban man who’s caught up in prison. But we don’t talk about how the silence impacts girls who are ‘ride or die’ and end up in prison for doing nothing.
On your show, you’ve said that American imperialism is the burden and pleasure of African Americans, what do you mean?
It’s really easy as a Black American to forget that we are actively benefiting from the continued oppression of working people around the world. As poor as poorest black Americans are, we are still wearing goods and participating in services that come from children who are basically in slavery in other parts of the world. Because we have our own history of oppression, a lot of times we think that frees us from our own social responsibility but it doesn’t. We shouldn’t all feel shamed, but as Americans we’re part of that [history and present]. We both have all the dis-privileges of our blackness but we also have all of the privileges of our Americaness, especially middle class black folks. We have to be very careful about recognition of how our own economic, social and political privileges are still built on those who have less in this country and certainly always internationally.
With the new Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, passed by the Supreme Court, many are saying Barack Obama may be a one-term president, but at least he set us on the path towards free healthcare. Any truth to those statements?
A little bit, which is to say President Obama and Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi are not in the position that President Lyndon B. Johnson was with massive Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. They are not in the position that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in, three terms of presidency and massive majorities and a friendly Supreme Court. Obama and Pelosi understood very clearly they had a 5-4 court, a filibustered Senate and to still push the Affordable Care Act through was a courageous, non-political decision. I don’t know if we’re moving toward universal healthcare because the European nations who have it are themselves [are in troubled times]. The austerity measures in Europe have demonstrated how fragile the notion of a social safety net is especially when those societies become more diverse. The European Union is freaking out because there’s all of these non-Western European countries that are a part of it now so it has to manage a much broader notion of what it means to be European. Former imperial nations like Great Britain and France are coping with North African and Asian immigrants, the colonies coming to the home. But I do think that we are within five years of full coverage for American citizens. Now the problem is, America also has millions of people who are not citizens and we’ve passed such a restrictive healthcare mandate that we have not addressed the reality that we must also provide healthcare for non-citizens.
Switching gears, I heard your husband took you to South Africa for a date?
James and I went to Capetown for our fourth date, we [didn’t live in the same city and] had just started dating. The most surprising experience was a conversation with a waiter and his wife while out one night. They lived in a township and were talking about their lives. He was feeling the post-apartheid reality of Capetown which is not as a free spirited as Johannesburg. But when he found out I was from New Orleans, this man who lives in post-apartheid South Africa in a township says to us, ‘I’m sorry your government hates you’ and I was like, ‘Oh shit.’
What are your favorite travel spots?
Barcelona, it is the only place that’s ever made me think I could live outside of New Orleans. I fell in love with Paris, even though we went in the winter and it was extremely cold but the food was ridiculous! InItaly, we spent most of our time in Venice and only spent two days in Rome. I regret that. [When we got to the city] I thought, ‘Why didn’t I know about Rome?’
What are your favorite songs right now?
Anything by Beyoncé, I have a Beyoncé problem. Even if she wasn’t nice, I sort of wish she was a horrible, awful bitch because she would still be fabulous! My 10-year-old kid loves Rihanna to a problematic extent and likes singing her songs. We went to an MSNBC staff bonding karaoke night and my daughter sang a Rihanna song and my staff was like, ‘Is this okay?’ My husband plays Jill Scott’s “Blessed” a lot and I loveFrankie Beverly and Maze’s “Southern Girl.”
Do you ever say ‘Wow, I’m the first black woman with an MSNBC show about smart black people things and they pay me for it’?
No! But I was attacked by [Fox News pundit] Bill O’Reilly the other day, and thought, ‘Bill O’Reilly’s pissed, that’s hot!’ The rest of it feels like work. I don’t watch the show, I can’t stand the sound of my voice, but the idea that Bill O’Reilly was pissed felt great!