Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks (51131)
Credit: Spencer Kohn photo

In an age when millions of people tune in to “reality” TV shows to watch Black women throw things at each other, fight each other and debase one another for childish men, it was such a pleasure to see a line curled around the block at the New School for an event featuring Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks titled “Black Female Voices: Who is Listening” on Nov. 8.

Harris-Perry, who has become an MSNBC superstar (#nerdland) with her self-titled weekend show, was joined on stage by hooks, a lauded feminist scholar with over 30 published books. Both ladies touched on a number of important topics in the packed auditorium, including the portrayal of Black women in film, public shaming and working toward freedom.

Content before Ego

During the discussion, hooks said that part of the reason she does not capitalize her first and last name is because she always wanted her books to be about the content, not her ego or her as a person. That resonated with Harris-Perry.

“It was very painful for me when MSNBC named the show ‘Melissa Harris-Perry.’ I fought it. I thought what we were supposed to be doing was not saying, ‘Hey, watch me!’ but instead putting a spotlight on the content,” said Harris-Perry.

But hooks assuaged Harris-Perry’s guilt by noting that the whole lowercase decision didn’t work out as planned.

“People became obsessed with lowercased bell hooks. For me, it was not just a political, but a spiritual decision about who I am and where I place myself. But people just fetishized the lowercase letters, so that just made me realize how much power we don’t have over how our representations are perceived,” said hooks.

The Black woman and Black child in film

Harris-Perry and hooks agreed on a number of issues, but one that they did not agree on at all was “12 Years a Slave.” The critically acclaimed film, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a winner in Harris-Perry’s book, but hooks did not like the film.

“It was sentimental clap trap. It negated the Black female voice. She was given a voice only in so much as she gave expression to Black male emotional feeling,” said hooks.

Harris-Perry felt the issue hooks spoke on was more a function of the fact that the film is based on a man’s memoir; hooks still did not agree. But the women did both agree on “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” They didn’t like it.

“I can’t take another image of an abused Black child being represented as entertaining. We can’t get past the construction of Black children as mini-adults whose innocence we don’t have to protect,” said hooks.

Shaming the poor single mother

One of the more touching moments from the event was during the question–and–answer period with the audience. A young woman named Tanya Fields, who has appeared on the “Melissa Harris-Perry” show before, stepped to the microphone. Fields, who is a Bronx-based food justice activist, said that she is a single mother with four kids by three fathers. She is pregnant with a fifth child by a man who has already abandoned her.

“The pushback that I am often feeling is not from the white folks in the community. It is from the other sisters who tear me down, tell me that the reason I am low-income is because I didn’t have the insight to choose good men, that I should’ve kept my hand out and mouth closed and my legs closed,” said Fields. “How do you wake up every morning and … I consider myself a Black feminist, but some days, it’s just so hard to get out of the bed and face other Black people.”

Harris-Perry became a single mother herself years ago after her marriage ended in divorce, but she was a college-educated homeowner who was gainfully employed, and she pointed out the real cause of the finger-pointing aimed at Fields.

“The ones who are most vulnerable to being in your exact position are the most likely to shame you. It’s not really about being a single parent; the thing you’re supposed to be ashamed of is being poor,” said Harris-Perry after she walked off the stage to hug Fields and privately console her for a few minutes. Applause and tears erupted as the two women hugged.

It was an epic and necessary public discourse, which ended with hooks urging those who wish to work for freedom to move away from binary thinking.