Interview by Jennifer Roach
Melissa Harris-Perry, host of MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show, professor of political science at Tulane University, and acclaimed author, will deliver the University's 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address on Thursday, Jan. 17. The free talk begins at 6 p.m. in Strong Auditorium on the River Campus.
I worry about what we think the legacy of King is, and I'm concerned about the way that even as we honor the work and the struggle and the intellect of King, that we have a tendency to flatten him in our historical memory. We see him as uncomplicated. We see him as morally and ethically unassailable. We see him as sort of perfection. For me, the value of King is his humanity. It's how imperfect he was and how much he struggled and how many political compromises he made. And yet, despite all those things, was a clarion leader for identifying and pursing equality in this country. I guess I worry that we don't celebrate how complicated his legacy is. But the complication of his legacy, I think, is the thing I most appreciate about him. Because it's a possibility that all the rest of us, who are also imperfect, might nonetheless be able to make great contributions.
The academic work is probably more of a journey. I guess I've been a professor for 15 years now, I think that's about right, and initially my work was focused around race and local communities. And it continues to be focused on questions of race and of local communities but increasingly has a gender focus. The more that I pursue the political questions I had about the world the more that the complicated aspects of race emerged. Race is not just one thing. It's different to live in a black woman's body than a black man's. If you're gay, that changes your experience of blackness. If you're disabled, that changes your experience of blackness. So, it's really trying to have a clear understanding of that. If there's inspiration or a driving force it's just that I'm inherently curious about African-American communities. I find that to be creative in the centuries in the centuries of struggle that we have engaged in in this country. I guess what I find curious about it is how much patriotism and love there is among black Americans for America at the same time that there is very clear critique of the country's shortcomings—the great love and attachment for the country and yet critique of and disappointment is fascinating to me.
Part of what I'm always hoping to do is to pique curiosity. I teach 15-week courses when I have a topic that I care about and we read thousands of pages of different authors and we talk about it for hours. This is very different. This is coming in giving a talk for maybe an hour and a half. You don't do much teaching. You hope to motivate people to learn more. I hope more than anything that my audience takes away questions rather than answers—that they walk away saying, "Really? Is that true? I don't know. I'm not sure if I believe that about King. I wonder if that's right." And then they go and use it as an opportunity to learn about the legacy of King.