Q&A with Mellissa Harris-Perry, the new face on MSNBC

Amity Paye AmNews Web Manager | 11/1/2012, 11:53 a.m.
This weekend, there will be a new woman on the block-or at least you'll get...
Q&A with Mellissa Harris-Perry, the new face on MSNBC

This weekend, there will be a new woman on the block-or at least you'll get to see her a whole lot more. On Feb. 4, MSNBC announced in a press release: "MSNBC contributor Melissa Harris-Perry is the latest addition to MSNBC's expanding weekend lineup...Harris-Perry's new program will continue MSNBC's trend of bringing intelligent, informed voices to the cable channel's weekend programming."

Harris-Perry is a columnist for The Nation magazine, a professor of political science at Tulane University, the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane's Newcomb College Institute and a celebrated author whose new book, "Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America," examines the effects of persistent harmful stereotypes on Black women's politics.

In 2009, Harris-Perry became the youngest scholar to deliver the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University, as well as the youngest woman ever to deliver the prestigious Ware Lecture.

On Saturday, Feb. 18, her self-titled show will debut at 10 a.m. on MSNBC. Harris-Perry spoke with the Amsterdam News to talk about her new show, juggling her many projects and being a Black woman on TV.

Amsterdam News: How is planning for the new show going? Are you all set to air?

Melissa Harris-Perry: It will always be live, but we are having rehearsals every Saturday and Sunday as though we were on air. We're putting the shows together just like the comedy shows do; we're booking guests, writing scripts, writing questions all as though we're on air, although we're not. It feels like we are in the second week of our show already.

AmNews: What's the main focus of the show? Mostly political or mostly racial?

MHP: It's definitely going to be a political show. It will be driven by the news that will have happened over the course of the week. The nice thing about the weekend show is that we're not driven by the daily news cycle-it means we can breathe, we have some power to decide what's important, we don't have to report every single story that happens. We can take our time to cover three or four topics in depth instead of needing to do about seven.

Although it's not a show about race-look, I'm a professor of African-American politics, so we're going to be talking about race. I'm a feminist, so we're going to be talking about gender. I'm a parent, so we're going to be talking about kids and young people. I live in the South, so we're going to talk about politics beyond the D.C.-to-New-York corridor. It's a political show but it definitely has a point of view.

AmNews: Do you have full editorial control over the content?

MHP: There is certainly no MSNBC person standing over us. I hired a fantastic staff whose own interests and research and writing I greatly respect, so I listen to all of them, from my executive producers down to my production assistant. Everybody is pitching ideas and everybody is engaged in figuring things out. We just had a conversation about the president's announcement about the housing settlement, and everyone in the world is thinking about how covering it. Everyone is going to be part of this.

AmNews: Do you know what the subject of the first show will be?

MHP: I don't know, in part because it will happen as a result of the news cycle. There are a few things on the board that are placeholders, but if Syria goes crazy over the next two weeks, if Rick Santorum says something crazy-all kinds of things could happen-if the president decides to go back on his birth control decision, any of those things could end up being the lead story for us.

AmNews: Is there anything you're more excited about covering? I'm sure the elections are going to be big for you, but is there anything else?

MHP: I've got to tell you, part of the reason I said yes to never having another Saturday morning where I can just hang out and ride bikes, part of the reason I said yes to a job that makes it impossible for me to attend my church-while it's a huge opportunity, on the other hand there are certain kinds of personal sacrifices associated with it-the reason I said yes is because I consider it truly an enormous, enormous honor to have the chance to be a part of the public conversation when we are either going to re-elect the first African-American president or not re-elect the first African-American president and have the first Black president be a one-term president. That, for me, is a fascinating, historic political moment.

I felt during 2008 like one of the luckiest people in the world to have the chance to weigh in these little two- or three-minute segments about the election, when we had women running first for the presidential nomination and then for vice president, when we had a Black man running. We were really changing what was possible in the electoral system.

The idea now that I have a show is we're going to talk about the role of religion in politics, we're going to talk about whether or not abortion is going to stay safe and legal, we're going to discuss whether or not we're going to have marriage equality and move forward in expanding civil rights or whether we're going to restrict them. In the next year or two, we're going to determine whether or not the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is going to stand or whether it's going to be abolished in its current form.

When I think about the idea of having the ability to host a show where we can have smart conversations about all that and engage the American public, I'm a little overwhelmed by it-but it's also really exciting.

AmNews: Do you see yourself as a different type of role model on TV or as a contrast to the Black women who portray some more stereotypical roles on TV?

MHP: I am not a prude about the things we like to watch on TV. On the one hand, obviously, "Sister Citizen" is in part about these negative stereotypes that exist about Black women, but I want to be careful. I don't think TV produces them. Quite the opposite; I think they are very old, I think they go way back. In fact, if they didn't exist, if those negative stereotypes weren't part of our social discourse, then "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" actually wouldn't be a problem, it would be just entertaining and wouldn't have an impact on the lives of Black women. We would have problems but they wouldn't be political, racial and gender-based.

I take very seriously that I will be a Black women sitting at the anchor desk. I take very seriously the fact that those young men and women will be looking up to me looking for role modeling. I take very seriously that that means some people will dismiss me out of hand because of my body and not because of my words. But taking that seriously doesn't mean I can or am interested in being anything other than quirky self.

I will undoubtedly do things that some people will see as bad role modeling. I will undoubtedly talk about a topic that people will say a Black woman shouldn't be talking about. I will take a take on a topic that [will make] people say, "You have young Black women watching, you shouldn't have taken that take," or I'm going to play Jay-Z in my intro and people will say, "You shouldn't bring Jay-Z into this."

What I'm hoping-when I look at first lady Obama, she is very aware of her position but it always seems to me like she is trying to be her authentic self. She will kind of do what she wants and when she does those things I think it helps us not necessarily say, "I want to be like that," or do that thing she is doing, but we say, "I want to be like that," we say, "I want to become comfortable in my own skin." I hope that sitting at that anchor desk I will become comfortable so that little Black girls who want to be in control of stuff will be able to be in control of stuff.

AmNews: Do you think there is a danger of becoming what people call the stereotype of a Black woman on the news?

MHP: What is the stereotype of a Black woman on the news? If people are like, "She's just like she's like Gwen Ifill," that's great! I hope someone does say that. If people say, "She's just like Soledad O'Brien," that's OK. For the most part, when it comes to women like Gwen Ifill or Soledad or any of the women that have blazed this trail long before I thought about it, I would feel nothing but complimented.

But even beyond those national figures, there are Black women sitting at anchor desks in local communities all around the country, women for whom I have a great deal of respect and women whom I'm often looking toward for fashion advice, at a minimum-that's good, I should try that next time I'm on air.

I figure that the time will come, and I don't know how early or late that time will come, when I will become passionate and I will be labeled as angry. There is going to be a time when I'm going to be a little offhand and sarcastic and I will be labeled as emasculating and whatever else they say about Black women who are fantastic. Or maybe I'm going to make an inappropriate sex joke-that could totally happen; I'm going to try to not let that happen, but it could happen-and then I could be defined as whoreish and sexual because those are all things that are very easy to say about Black women.

I am going to have to try to not take it personal when it happens and hopefully just recall and remember that sometimes I'm going to just have to take a breath when I say something. I think we're watching that with my friend and colleague Roland Martin right now; I think if he had taken 35 seconds before he sent those Tweets, he would have felt differently about them. It's the danger of becoming from a relatively private person into a much more public person. Many of the freedoms I have I will have to think differently about, not because of race and gender but because when you're in the public, your little offhand Tweet can be taken as a political statement that can harm other people.

AmNews: How are you planning on juggling all of this?

MHP: I am going continue to teach and tweet. Indeed, I can't give up. I can't give up my life in New Orleans. Its so precious to me and it's something I made such a conscious decision about, to be in New Orleans and to pursue my life here-both my career as a professor and the Julia Cooper Project that I'm building here, as well as literally just my students. I love them. I learn so much every time I'm in the classroom.

Right now, the schedule will be Mondays through Thursdays in New Orleans, Fridays through Sundays in New York. Ill be leaving Thursday night going up to New York spending all day Friday prepping with my staff, Saturday and Sunday on the show. My daughter and husband will fly up on Friday night so we'll only miss Thursday nights together. Other than that, we'll be together every night of the week. That's our plan for making family and everything else work.

AmNews: Are you going to continue writing your column and elsewhere?

MHP: Hopefully this is going to lead to a little bit more public writing. Ill have the column for The National, and every Friday the show will have its own blog on the MSNBC site, and every Friday I'll write a long blog called Office Hours with Melissa that will be my take on the week's news and maybe a little preview of the week's show. Maybe we'll even end up putting a little video blogging on that site. I think The Nation is also going to crosspost the Office posts, so all my various writing will be together.

AmNews: What people are you dying to have on your show?

MHP: So many people. I think the obvious one is Michelle Obama. I would give my little left toe-not my right toe, but I would give my little left toe to have the first lady on my show, really any time she wants. Part of that is because I'm teaching a class on the first ladies, we're reading about first ladies from Abigail Adams all the way forward, and the idea that I can read about all these first ladies and then talk to the current first lady, that really wakes me up and excites me.

Maybe people who are a little more surprising; I would love to have Condoleeza Rice on the show. She is an African-American woman, a political science college professor. Before she was head of state, that's who she was-I would be really interested in talking with her on questions of how we take academic theory about how politics work and apply them well or poorly to the real world and how political science education, particularly internationally, could be improved so out of our colleges we are producing young people who can come out of college and go into the State Department and really make a difference in the quality of foreign policy. I don't see that as a partisan conversation, I see it as a conversation about the health of American democracy. She is someone who I would really like to have that conversation with.

I'd actually really like to talk to Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey. I was there when Christie was elected, and I would really like to talk to him about how he sees the decisions he has made around improving the equality of education in New Jersey.

My sense is that he did not improve the quality of education in New Jersey. I think he made a lot of decisions that reduced the quality of education in what I thought was one of the best education systems in the country. I would like to challenge him on that and hear his response and find out if I'm wrong. And have an in-depth conversation about unions and school choice and teaching-I'd like to have it with this Republican because I think there is something I could learn there.

And then there's Beyonce. There's no point in having a TV show if Beyonce won't eventually come on. She can bring the baby; I'm a mother, it's all good. Blue Ivy is totally invited onto the show.

AmNews: Who have been your mentors on this project?

MHP: I feel legitimately sad because I wish Manning Marable were still with us. We lost Manning last year. My parents are both living, so it's exciting that they both get to see this moment and be part of it. My mentor, Michael Dawson at the University of Chicago, he's here and he's around, but the one mentor I had who really gave me the faith it was possible to be an academic and have a public voice and make a difference to people was Manning and he's gone. I feel that loss very strongly. I would have had him on the show and I would have asked him a million questions on how to do this.

I feel strongly about some of my favorite people in television. Other people I have include Bill Moyers, who I not only ask for advice, I literally also ask who to hire.

I'm also very lucky because I've got people right in the building with me-Rachel [Maddow], Reverend Al [Sharpton], Lawrence O'Donnell, Chris Hayes. I can't even explain how supportive they have all been. If you had asked me, "Do you think when you get a television show, other hosts on the network will be supportive?" I would have said no. I thought it would be competitive or rude. Its not like that at all, I've got a hundred emails asking what they can do to help, if I need anything, they let me steal some of their staff. I'm extremely lucky.

AmNews: Are you planning any partnerships?

MHP: I certainly want each and every one of them to be on my show, but I'll probably have the closest relationship with Chris Hayes, just because Chris is 8-10 and I'm 10-noon and we will definitely end up coordinating, because we don't want to have four hours of the same content. We also share office space.

I'm going to turn to Al Sharpton a hundred thousand times and ask for his advice, because people are going to say mean things and people are going to say nice things and Reverend Al extends through literally decades now of people saying things about him and he always ends up coming out on the other side with his sense of integrity intact. I don't know how our shows will be doing together, but I will definitely be going to him as a model for how to live with your own decisions and choices.

As we go into election season, MSNBC will undoubtedly ask all of us to do specials or sit at the anchor desk on Election Night-if I they give me just five minutes on Election Night, I'm going to be happy. That's it. I am a nerd, so just to sit at a desk on Election Night [is enough to make me happy].

Chris and I sometimes joke about the primetime makers, Monday through Friday at 10 a.m.; that's the A team. They are definitely the A team, me and Chris are the weekend point of view, and hopefully they will give us a place on Election Night.