Even serious journalists covered Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday earlier this month People–style, writing about the first lady’s hair, her trip to Hawaii, and her latest thoughts about Botox. By contrast, on her MSNBC weekend show, Melissa Harris-Perry turned the birthday into an opportunity to give a lesson on civil rights from an African-American perspective. Talking directly to the camera for a full five minutes, she delivered what felt very much like a freshman history lecture, starting with the 1963 March on Washington and connecting every important event to a milestone in Michelle Obama’s life.
How did such a brainiac land her own cable news show? Harris-Perry doesn’t just get away with saying the word “intersectionality” on TV, using #nerdland as her show’s hashtag, and publishing an online “syllabus” with each episode—she’s beloved for it. When MSNBC gave Harris-Perry her own show in 2012, progressives reacted a little like they did when Obama first won election: Can this really be happening? At that point she was already a tenured professor in African-American studies and politics at Tulane, a columnist at The Nation and a frequent guest and sometime sub on the Rachel Maddow Show. What stood out about Harris-Perry was not just her liberal views, or that she was an African-American woman—MSNBC has other black female anchors—but her ability to talk about “the complexities at the intersections of race, gender and politics,” as Anna Holmes put it. The broad hope was that she would elevate the level of blather on cable news. And maybe you could even read into that hope a subconscious desire to redirect the unrequited love for Obama, because she too is a politically progressive professor who grew up in a biracial family, only she never lets you down.
Of course, you can’t be a television personality and not occasionally screw up. Harris-Perry’s low point came in late December when she aired a segment showing a photo of the extended Romney clan with Mitt in the center holding his adopted grandson Kieran, who is black, on his knee. One of the guests began to sing the Sesame Street ditty, “One of these things is not like the other,” and hilarity ensued. A few days later, Harris-Perry issued a sincere, tearful apology on the air and pointed out on Twitter that as a black child born into an extended white Mormon family she should have known better. At the time, Ta-Nehisi Coates defended her in the Atlantic, calling Harris-Perry—the only tenured professor with her own talk show, according to a New York Times profile—“America’s foremost public intellectual”:
There may well be intellectuals with more insight. And there are surely public figures with a greater audience. But there is no one who communicates the work of thinking to more people with more rigor and effect than Harris-Perry. Her show brings a broad audience into a classroom without using dead academic language and tortured abstractions. And she does this while awarding humanity on a national stage to a group unaccustomed to such luxury—black women.
It’s precisely Coates’ assessment of what makes her so successful as a public intellectual that made for a rocky start in the Ivy League. In 2006, Harris-Perry was recruited from the University of Chicago to Princeton at the urging of Cornel West, among others, in the African-American studies department. She had recently published her first book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, a combination of ethnography and political analysis, aimed at proving that a lot of black political thought got formed in communal gathering places such as churches and barbershops that were off the official map. It was praised by her colleagues and won a couple of awards. At Princeton, Harris-Perry had a joint appointment with African-American studies and political science and soon became a popular teacher who was known for incorporating current events such as Katrina into her teaching. She got invited on a few TV shows, and soon became a regular guest on MSNBC.
In 2012, just as Harris-Perry was leaving Princeton after being denied a full professorship, West gave a pretty unhinged interview in Diverse magazine, saying about her, “She’s become the momentary darling of liberals, but I pray for her because she’s in over her head. … She’s a fake and a fraud. I was so surprised how treacherous the sister was.”* He went on to say, “I have a love for the sister but she is a liar and I hate lying.” West, who himself is out of control in so many ways, called her second book, Sister Citizen “wild and out of control” and added, “there’s not a lot of academic stuff with her just a lot of twittering.”
Harris-Perry told Diverse magazine she was proud of the book and she wrote me an email saying she did not want to revisit that era. And people I spoke to from her Princeton days did not want to be quoted about it. But from a dozen interviews with her colleagues at the time, a fairly consistent picture emerged. The consensus among her fellow professors was that Sister Citizen, which is about stereotypes used to describe black women, was not sufficiently scholarly by Princeton standards. Her colleagues considered it a work of popular sociology that synthesized concepts that were already well known in African-American feminist thought. Beyond that was an unease that Harris-Perry was somehow rewriting the rules of what it means to be a public intellectual. West and, say, Bell Hooks, count as public intellectuals because they are scholars first, and emerge from academia once in a while to make pronouncements (West more than Hooks). But, to her Ivy League colleagues, Harris-Perry was some other breed (one dismissed her as a “pundit intellectual”), someone they felt was using academic credentials but playing to a different audience. But whether you see it as a betrayal of academia or an embrace of public discourse, playing to a different audience—a wider audience—is exactly what Harris-Perry is good at. (Her former colleagues agree. More than one told me that she is where she should be, though I could never tell if that was meant as a swipe or a compliment.)
At Princeton, the more Harris-Perry went on TV the more she became estranged from her colleagues. They described arguments over hires, over teaching loads, and over actual politics. Harris-Perry identified strongly with the rise of Obama but more radical members of the African-American studies department remained skeptical that he would stay true to the cause. When in 2011 she came up for a vote for full professorship, the African-American studies department voted unanimously against her. (At the political science department, the majority abstained from voting.) Harris-Perry told Diverse that leaving Princeton was the “best thing to happen to me in a decade,” and she is probably right. She got a job at Tulane University, where she was elevated to full professor of political science with no strife, and where she could be closer to her husband who already lived in New Orleans. Sister Citizen was a rare academic book to land on the Colbert Report, and if her old colleagues want to see her now, they have to turn on the TV.
At Princeton, they may have felt that Harris-Perry was lowering the bar, but no one would accuse her of dumbing down TV. MSNBC has positioned itself as the left alternative to FOX News, and MSNBC President Phil Griffin has said publicly that he wants to focus on a niche audience that “thrives on being smart.” Like fellow MSNBC-er Chris Hayes, who calls himself the Harry Potter to Harris-Perry’s Hermione, Harris-Perry fits into that mold. Although she’s always charismatic and lively, she can often come across more like a documentary narrator than a journalist. Sometimes on her show she seems to forget that her audience is not made up of eager freshmen, such as when she put on tampon earrings to protest the Texas abortion law. Mostly she seems to do what she wants, inviting on guests that aren’t often on the roundtable roster, like CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who was incarcerated in a men’s prison, and Nikki Giovanni, who performed her poem “Ego Tripping” (I sowed diamonds in my back yard/ My bowels deliver uranium) on air. Sometimes the combination of form and content can be jarring, such as in this gauzy ad for her show in which she talks about “collective parenting,” an idea that’s only really viable in the women’s studies center.
We’ve always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours, and your responsibility. … We haven’t had a very collective notion of “These are our children.” So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that “kids belong to their parents” or “kids belong to their families,” and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.
“I’m not sure how I ended up with a television show,” Harris-Perry said in this conversation with Bell Hooks, which could be read as false modesty or playing to her audience (Bell Hooks being not the person who makes you proud to be on TV). But then she launched into a pretty convincing modern black history/timeline of herself, in which Barack Obama opens the way for a queer woman, Rachel Maddow, who opens the way for Melissa Harris-Perry, whose greatest accomplishment is having been born in the 1970s, after the civil rights era and before white flight—a lucky combination of geography, race, history, and talent. A product, in other words, of fortuitous intersectionality.
Correction, Jan. 29 2014: This article originally stated that Melissa Harris-Perry had been denied tenure at Princeton. She had tenure but had been denied a full professorship. (Return.)