Harris-Perry, a well-known political analyst, is also a political science professor at Tulane University, columnist for The Nation, and regular contributor to Rev. Al Sharpton’s “PoliticsNation,” “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Last Word.” She is the author of “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.”
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ESSENCE.com spoke with Harris-Perry about her new show, book, and how Black woman can use their voices as powerful vehicle in politics.
ESSENCE.com: What are some topics that you hope to delve into right away on your new show?
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: The show is still very much in development and creation. I have a vision for it, but one aspect is that it will be collaborative. It will be a political show whose primary interest is disseminating smart information about the political world. When I say political world I don’t mean New York and Washington D.C. We will certainly talk about those places, but my vision is to broaden our political world so that we are thinking about arts and culture and we are thinking about people living west of the Mississippi River and South of the Mason Dixon line. I see politics in barber shops and I see politics in novels written by smart Haitian women, and I see politics in Beyonce videos. All of that is going to be part of this show.
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ESSENCE.com: You’ve also recently written a book called “Sister Citizen,” which talks about the harmful stereotypes of African-American women that influence our participation in politics. How do you think we can empower ourselves to become more active in the political arena so that our voices are heard?
HARRIS-PERRY: I try to emphasize in the book that the negative, nasty, ugly stereotypes of Black women persist no matter what we do. The mammy stereotype doesn’t exist because we are a bunch of mammies, it exists because it’s a useful tool to reinforce racial and gender inequality. We don’t make the stereotypes go away by being better and smarter. We already are smart and beautiful. The issue is how do we prove to ourselves that we aren’t those stereotypes? That are authentic self is good enough? That requires both a lot of personal work and a tremendous amount of political work; proving to ourselves that we are worthy ends up being a huge part of our journey as citizens.
ESSENCE.com: When did you first become interested in politics?
HARRIS-PERRY: Oh gosh. 3 or 4. My mother worked for non-profit organizations, including domestic violence shelters and early childhood education for poor children, rural health centers, and just a ton of different types of nonprofit organizations. My dad was a college professor of urban planning and he sat on the city planning commission. When I was a kid I would often accompany my parents to their meetings. I sat in on planning meetings that were deciding on land use and community development, and listened in on board meetings at daycare centers that were trying to figure out how to serve poor communities. I cannot remember an election when my parents didn’t vote.
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ESSENCE.com: What do you believe is one of the most important topics for candidates to address this election year?
HARRIS-PERRY: The economic circumstances of the country are appalling, and we labor with a collective naiveté that a president can create jobs. The fact is that presidents have only marginal impact on the economy, especially when you look at the fact that we’re in a global economy. No one can just come in and raise a liberal or conservative wand and make everything ok. But, what governments can do, is articulate a vision and generate policies for how we should protect each other when the economy does turn down. Our founding in the notion of inalienable rights means that we owe it to each other to invest more in human capital through education and reproductive freedom so that we come out a stronger and more egalitarian country. So the question becomes, do we get greedier, or do we get more equal?
ESSENCE.com: As a professor, what is one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned for your students?
HARRIS-PERRY: In every place that I’ve taught, I’ve learned I always start with stereotypes and assumptions about who the students in my class are. Every single time, my students have really challenged me and proved me wrong about those assumptions.
Harris-Perry’s still untitled new show, debuts February 4, and will air Saturdays and Sundays from 10a-noon EST.