The conversation between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks at the New School last week was one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look for yourself. It was worth the hour of standing in line in the cold to get in, and then some.
These two intellectual icons ran the gamut, discussing black women finding their voice, critiquing the recent hit film 12 Years a Slave, dissecting the dissection of First Lady Michelle Obama, distinguishing between masculinity and patriarchy, and so, so, so much more. They needed way more than the 90 minutes allotted, and I hope this isn’t the last time these two will be in dialogue.
There were many highlights, not least of which was the moment where Harris-Perry left the stage to hug Tanya Fields, a single mother of four who had previously appeared on the former’s MSNBC show, as the discussion turned to shaming black women for essentially not being “respectable.” One of the most powerful moments, for me at least, occurred just before the Q&A portion, when hooks and Harris-Perry were talking about the radical self-invention that happens with black women that may not be available to black men because as men they can be seduced by the power of patriarchy. Harris-Perry said:
“Because I’m light-skinned, and cis, and straight, and have a white parent, and have access to all kinds of privileges from birth, my bet is that I have been seduced by power….my bet is that my proximity to whiteness has allowed me over and over again a level of racial naivete and a willingness to believe that if I could just get the right white folks to give me cover, that it will be OK.”
It was an incredibly brave moment. The two of them could have spent the entire evening deconstructing the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal power system and it would have been phenomenal. But right here, Harris-Perry turned the lens of critique on herself, and in such a way that was absolutely stunning.
The easy part of being a cultural critic/social commentator/public intellectual (though, it’s far from easy) is to look outward and say what’s wrong with the rest of the world. The far more difficult and courageous practice is identify where you yourself have been complicit in creating and/or aiding inequality/oppression. The amount of courage Harris-Perry demonstrated in critiquing herself on stage, in front of an immediate audience of hundreds, possibly thousands more watching the livestream, and bell freakin’ hooks, is not only admirable, but the model for how public intellectualism should work.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.