Harris-Perry adjusts to New Orleans, Tulane, spotlight
15th April 2013 · 0 Comments
By Sam Tabachnik
Professor Melissa Harris-Perry and her African American Politics and Religion class are engaging in an in-depth discussion on Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam when suddenly the conversation breaks out into a passionate debate. The argument is not over the Five Pillars of Islam or the assassination of a major Black political figure but rather which rap artist is the best lyricist of this generation. Harris-Perry claims that nobody can touch Hollygrove’s own Lil’ Wayne, while the class counters with Kanye West and Jay Z. Fed up with the perceived ignorance of her students, Harris-Perry shakes her head and declares, “Jay’s lyrics are whack.”
As founding director of Tulane University’s Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South, national authority on Black politics and religion and the host of the self-titled “Melissa Harris-Perry Show” on MSNBC, Harris-Perry spends her weekdays teaching political science courses at Tulane, and every Friday flies to New York for her show.
“I’ve always been a little bit of an An electric smile that can ease a room and braided hair that garners excessive media hype — “People are always talking about Black women and their hair,” she laments with a laugh — Harris-Perry has a flair for blending biscuit jokes with southern Baptist religious theory. She has the unique ability to deftly cross over from academic jargon to comedic Black stereotypes—often in the same sentence.
In the field of academia, she makes it routine to conquer the stereotypes of her profession. She listens to hip-hop. She watches “SportsCenter.” And yet she also has a Ph.D. from Duke University and became the youngest scholar to deliver the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University.
Although Harris-Perry hosts a popular weekend show on a major cable news network, she says that teaching has always been her first love.
“I would never do full-time in New York,” she says, referring to a permanent life as television host. “I think all the time about quitting the show and doing full-time here in New Orleans.”
As glamorous as her life is in New York, the gregarious professor who burst onto the political scene as a regular on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” simply longs for a free weekend in the Big Easy. “There are so many things on the weekends here that I would love to be doing, that I just don’t get a chance to do,” Harris-Perry says. “I still haven’t had a chance to just be a Tulane professor.”
While she may long for free weekends in the city and a chance to live the life of a full-time professor, one element she finds challenging at Tulane is the noticeable lack of a vibrant Black presence in a city that is majority African-American. This includes, she says, the lack of space for African-American intellectual discussion as well as the sheer number of faculty people of color.
“Tulane is probably the least integrated campus that I’ve ever taught at,” Harris-Perry said.
In a year in which the university marks its 50th anniversary of African American integration, Harris-Perry notes the bizarre and surprising lack of diversity — both in student composition and in the faculty. According to the student profile available on the university registrar’s office website, 11,787 students enrolled in 2012 but only 1,105 of those students were African American; that number accounts for less than 10 percent of the total student population.
Harry-Perry also notes that although the school is located in the New Orleans,, the students who attend are mostly from elsewhere.
“They’re not southerners,” Harris-Perry says. “It’s not a southern campus, even though it’s in the south. And that lack of southernness is also part of the lack of integration.”
When she first began teaching at Tulane, she found that Black students, and particularly Black males, were conspicuously absent from her class demographics.
“I was trying to figure out what’s going on,” Harris-Perry says. “I realized that I almost always teach afternoon classes, and because so many of the black males are varsity athletes—which varsity athletes can take this class?
“They take morning classes because they have workout and practice in the afternoon.”
Just as striking, Harris-Perry explains, is the noticeable dearth of Black faculty. This, she says, is due to two factors: lack of resources and lack of collective space.
“If you want to generate a lively American studies program and attract black faculty,” Harris-Perry says, “they have to be coming to a campus that has spaces, physical spaces for them.”
Harris-Perry explains that at Princeton University, where she served as an associate professor of politics and African-American studies from 2006 to 2010, the Center for African American Studies sits in the center of campus and is a collective space for Black students and faculty, and provides classroom space for learning.
The professor pauses for a moment and leans back against the white leather couch, taking in the hustle and bustle of the Hillel Center for Jewish Life.
“This space is amazing,” she says, pointing towards the organic kitchen where students munch on freshly prepared Kosher food. To her right stands a large chalkboard advertising Yoga Tuesdays and Torah Study Wednesdays where a group of girls chat excitedly.
“I teach over here because this, for me, is the most aspirational space that any group has on campus. A space that is beautiful, that encourages students, where different kinds of activities can happen.”
A space for intellectual and communal life is crucial for encouraging Black faculty to come teach at a university like Tulane.
“If I walk into a building like this and it’s the African-American studies center and there are people grouped here meeting, and there’s a seminar of faculty of color once a month,” she says. “If there’s a research project and even if they were going to pay me $50,000 a year, they would make sure that I was connected to this intellectual life.
“But if I come and you take me to my department and I’m going to be the only faculty member of color and the students I’m going to teach are primarily not going to be students of color…” she says, her voice trailing off.
Harris-Perry says that dedication of resources is key to fostering a diverse faculty and student body, but Tulane has not made this possible. The fight for minority faculty is extremely spirited, she says, and often takes aggressive recruitment.
“For the most part, I have not seen any investment of resources in the diversification of campus,” she says. “Ph.D. programs, especially top Ph.D. programs, still don’t produce many Black and brown faculty. Getting Black and brown faculty is a matter of extreme competition. I didn’t end up at Tulane because of anything they did to get me. I pretty much called and said, ‘Can I come?’
“There is no aggressive attempt to recruit.”
But despite the rigor of weekly travel to and from New York, and the lack of a large Black community on campus, Harris-Perry is pleased with her decision to relocate to Louisiana, mainly because of her husband, New Orleans native James Perry – as well as having been captured by the irresistibility that is the mark of this cultural hub.
“I have a real commitment to the thing that is this city and to the set of struggles that this city faces,” she says.
“You eventually have to come back here.”
This article originally published in the April 15, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.