Educator, author and television political commentator, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry was “welcomed home,” in her words, by the students, faculty and guests of Spelman College Thursday evening for a special lecture.
Harris-Perry spoke at Spelman’s Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Auditorium as part of the institution’s Ida B. Wells-Barnett Distinguished Lecture Series. This year marked the beginning of the series, which is sponsored by the Spelman College Teaching Resource and Research Center. The series is dedicated to exploring topics that impact women, especially social issues and politics.
The theme for the college’s 2012-2013 academic school year is “More than a Vote: Women’s Struggle for Full Citizenship.” The faculty has stressed the motto this year so much that they have implemented Perry’s most recent book, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America” as a required part of the curriculum for the current freshman class.
“With Dr. Perry, I think we couldn’t have had a better choice,” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D. and President of Spelman College. “Not only because so many students have read her book but because her interdisciplinary analysis is very much in line with what we try to accomplish here academically at Spelman, in terms of getting our students multiple lenses in which to analyze the world around us.”
Throughout the lecture, Harris-Perry discussed stereotypes of Black women and how these stereotypes contribute to their negative portrayal in the media and impact their lack of involvement in politics. The theme of the lecture was “More Than a Vote: Women’s Struggle for Full Citizenship.”
The crowd included women, men, Spelman alumnae and notable Atlanta figures. Dr. Perry’s father, Dr. William M. Harris, Sr., an Adjunct Professor at Georgia Regents University, even drove 3 hours from Augusta to attend his daughter’s Spelman lecture.
“I watch her show every week and I was just in awe to be in her presence,” said Malinda Logan, a class of 1964 graduate of Spelman College. “She was very forthright and casual but delivered a powerful message.”
The professor of Political Science at Tulane University was fresh off accepting the Ally for Equality Award Saturday from the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization working towards equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered (LGBT) before coming to the all-women’s campus to speak.
Written as a follow to the 2008 election of President Obama, “Sister Citizen” addresses the political and emotional responses of black women to the negative race and gender images that they are faced with on a daily basis in today’s society.
Harris-Perry broke her book into five different sections for her audience: Black Women’s Interior Lives as a Site of Citizenship, Role Models, Fictive Kinship, Crooked Room, Shame and American Racism/Sexism Shame.
“Black women have not been normalized,” Harris-Perry said. “This causes us to be shamed and there is an undesirability of blackness.” The lack of positive images of black women cause many to become discouraged and shy away from participating in politics.
“Black women are constantly being fed these crooked images of who they are in the eyes of the general public as opposed to their true perception of themselves,” Perry added.
Some of the young women in the audience also found themselves facing some of the issues addressed in Perry’s speech, such as the “crooked image.”
“Definitely, either self-consciously or involuntarily, a lot of times you don’t even place yourself in the situation but society always does,” Spelman senior Aspen Clemons said. “She (Perry) is very relatable, she makes the subject matter applicable to our real life social and political experiences as Black women in America.”
Harris-Perry’s first book, 2005’s “Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought,” details the development of political ideas through ordinary discussions in places like barbershops, churches and general culture. That tome won the 2005 W.E.B. Du Bois Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.
Harris-Perry spends the lion’s share of her time in New Orleans teaching at Tulane, but commutes to New York City on the weekends to host her eponymously named MSNBC show that airs Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon EST. The show focuses on current affairs while emphasizing pop culture to expand the ideals of political commentary.
Perry also writes a monthly column, “Sister Citizen,” that appears in The Nation magazine.
“This is what the Spelman experience is about,” said Spelman alumnus Joy Brunsen of the lecture. “Bringing women who may not have gone here but still know our story we can still call relate to each.”
(Photo: Spelman students present Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry with gifts from their senior class after Thursday’s talk.)