The Feministing Five: Melissa Harris-Lacewell

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is a professor, an author, a mother, a prolific Tweeter, and the possible future First Lady of the great city of New Orleans. Harris-Lacewell, an Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University, majored in English, which explains why she was the only interview subject I’ve spoken to who was immediately able to answer question number two in the Feministing Five. She didn’t stay on long on the English track, however, and got her Ph.D in political science at Duke University and an honorary doctorate from Meadville Theological Seminary.

Fans of The Rachel Maddow Show will recognize Harris-Lacewell, who frequently appears on Maddow’s show as well as on Countdown with Keith Olbermann (in fact, Harris-Lacewell had to cut her Feministing interview a bit short, as she was scheduled to appear on Maddow that very night). A very impressive woman, this year Harris-Lacewell was the youngest person ever to deliver the prestigious W.E.B. DuBois lectures at Harvard, and is the author of the acclaimed book Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. Her upcoming book is called Sister Citizen: A Text For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn’t Enough. We can only hope that Tyler Perry doesn’t direct the movie version of that, too.
I was grateful to get a few minutes to talk to Harris-Lacewell, or as her students call her, MHL, as she’s a busy woman; she spent most of the summer campaigning with her partner, James Perry, a candidate in the 2010 New Orleans mayoral race. So, without further ado, here is this week’s Feministing Five, with Melissa Harris-Lacewell.

Chloe: What led you to your work at the intersection of feminism and African American culture and politics?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell:
My work as a political scientist originally was in a much less narrowly-defined field, which was Black politics. It was in African American politics and political thought. And part of that was thinking about gendered politics and particularly feminism, within the context of a Black intellectual political tradition. I didn’t have a specific intellectual attachment to feminism; I had a personal one, a political one, but I didn’t think of myself as someone who studied feminism. And certainly that was true during my doctoral study, and when I went to my first job as a Junior Professor at the University of Chicago.

And then I encountered Cathy Cohen. And Cathy Cohen is the most tremendous and intense colleague that a junior political scientist could want to have. She’s an African American woman, a feminist, an out lesbian. Her work is about AIDS in the Black community and the failure of traditional Civil Rights organizations to address it, because of the culture of respectability they aspired to. It’s also about gender, queerness, women, drug use, those sorts of things. So my feminism was really all about my spending six years on faculty with Cathy Cohen, and having her daily challenge my basic assumptions about race, having her ensure that at every point, I was engaging a feminist critique and analysis. And then coming back to the work that I was doing with Cathy and also with a really terrific group of peers, my work shifted. Not only my politics, but my scholarship, shifted.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?

MHL: “Favorite” is really a hard word. There are people I connect with in certain ways. Toni Morrison is important to me, so certainly, Sethe, in Beloved, is critically important. But she’s not a favorite, because she commits infanticide, so it’s not like I want to be Sethe. But I have such an understanding of her, and the more I read the book, the more I understand her, and I can encounter her in new ways every time. I also love Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie, because she has a quest that is both political and personal.

CA: Who are your heroines in real life?

MHL: Obviously Cathy Cohen, who I just gushed about and who I adore. And my own mom, who is a Second Wave white feminist, who was part of that whole generation of women in the late sixties and early seventies that broke down barriers in graduate education. I grew up with her stories of taking over the Sociology department at the University of Washington until they appointed a woman faculty member. And that Second Wave identity feminism was why it was kind of difficult for me to have that fight with Gloria Steinem, because I was raised with a Gloria Steinem kind of woman – except that my mom understands intersectionality.

And I am constantly taking a great deal of pride and hope from Third Wave feminists who are younger than me. So I don’t know if that makes them Fourth Wave or what. But particularly post-colonial, Third World feminists who are breaking out of most of the identity boxes and assumptions, and particularly breaking out of the parochialism that is indicative of our mothers’ form of feminism, and mine. They’re less concerned with national boundaries or jingoistic identities, and are much more concerned with broad-based critiques, sometimes around issues of gender, but oftentimes not. And I’ve seen that in students from high school to graduate school, and I find them deeply, deeply inspiring.

CA: What recent news story or article made you want to scream?

MHL: Oh my God, that’s every day! So if you ask me today, it’s different than tomorrow and the next day. Yesterday it was Joe Wilson screaming “You lie!” – that madness. It was just such a microcosm of the healthcare debate so far this summer. And of course, it produced my new screen saver, which is that image of the President and Vice President and Speaker of the House, all with their heads turned looking at him.

The one that’s made me almost irrationally irritated was the resignation of Van Jones. And I can’t tell exactly what happened, which is kind of what pisses me off about it. I’m not sure exactly who’s making these decisions, but it appears to me that Van left as a choice and of his own volition, and that he did it because he didn’t want to take the hate mail. And I gotta say, if that’s as tough as we are on the left, if that’s the limit of our moral courage, I’m really worried about us. And, I also want to say that as much as I love Van, and I really do, I always wanted a woman in that position, particularly Majora Carter. And Majora is tough as shit. I feel like you could have written her hate mail all day, and she wouldn’t have quit. So I had a little bit of an “insufficiently strong man, buck up,” kinda moment.

I get a tonne of hate mail, both in my inbox and in my blog comments, and they even send it to me, like, they bother to put a stamp on it. And there is no doubt that it is painful, and sometimes scary. I know that Van has a young son, and I have a young daughter, and I’ve had them say specific things about my daughter. You know, they’ll go right to the things that are most important: they’ll call me fat and stupid and say I’m a bad mom. Every woman worries about being fat and stupid and a bad mom. So I get how painful it is, but I have a little mantra, which is, “It’s gotta be worse for Michelle.” Whatever they’re sending to me, they’ve gotta be sending to Barack and Michelle, and twelve times as bad. And they shot King. As far as I know, no one’s going to shoot me, but this is part of it. This is part of the deal with public life.

CA: In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing feminism today?

ML: The lack of a left in US discourse and electoral politics. It’s the same challenge that’s facing labor organizing and progressive issues on a bigger scale. Our entire political spectrum has moved so far to the right that most of what the left does is spend its time defending centrist positions that are really quite right of where we would like to be, but which are really the only tenable possibilities given the public discourse.
For example, last night, I loved Barack’s speech, it was great, but did he really have to spend that time saying that he would ensure that there would be no federal money spent for the provision of the termination of pregnancies? That’s preposterous. It’s stupid, and it’s also bad environmental policy and bad global policy.

The State has an interest in poor women being able to have full access to the best medical care and reproductive options that are legal and available to them. And it’s always only poor women: wealthy women have always been able to seek out secure termination services from private physicians, always. So this is always a question about women without that kind of access. But there was no space for us, as feminists, to say “What the fuck?!” because what we have to do is nod, and keep moving, to at least get coverage so we can go get our colds and our cancer taken care of. But meanwhile, these fundamental issues of reproductive rights are still used in the batting cage of partisan politics.

CA: You’re going to a desert island and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you choose?

MHL: The only person on the planet I could be on a desert island with is my partner, James Perry, so thank God he’s a feminist. I’m definitely going with James. If I can only take one drink and I’m going with James, we’re taking New Orleans Hand Grenades with us. And if there’s only one food, I’m definitely picking that. And it’s going to have to be my homemade almond pound cake, which is basically the best food ever created.

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5 Comments

  1. LalaReina
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I totally adore Melissa and have the deepest admiration and respect for her. I used to love being able to converse with her on TKT. She made “feminist” an okay word with me.

  2. Miriam
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I love Melissa, follow her writing and her tweets. Watching that debate with Gloria Steinem was one of the first introductions I had to her.
    I have to say, after hearing Gloria speak at Omega last night, she was a different feminist talking.
    Who knows what happened with that op-ed that Melissa references (and subsequent fight), but Gloria seems to get intersectionality these days (maybe we can thank Melissa for that).
    Thanks for a great interview Chloe!

  3. Comrade Kevin
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Harris-Lacewell points out the shift in thinking that I think is crucial to reframing the dialogue.
    In short, IMHO, we need to shift more from a postmodern construct to a structuralist-functionalist paradigm.
    As for that rightward drift in politics, I agree that it puts us on the defensive instantly and we rarely get an opportunity to force conservatives to defend their positions. Part of that is due to our reliance on postmodern theory, which whether by design or by accident merely divides us into increasingly smaller identity groups when communal unity would be a strategy much better employed. And it is possible for us to shed that mentality, but only if we can find commonality and seek the threads of common humanity that bring us together. I do see the shift happening, largely as a result of activists even younger than myself.

  4. LalaReina
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, her debate with Gloria came at time when I deeply resented what was being put forth as “the feminist position” during the election and she showed me there where voices I could relate to.

  5. LalaReina
    Posted September 12, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    BTW Chole I heard Tyler Perry talking about Colored Girls yesterday. Every time I think about it a part of me just dies inside.

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