Melissa Harris-Perry and a Lesson on Saying “No”

Last Friday, the media world was shaken by news that Melissa Harris-Perry would not be returning to host her dynamic MSNBC show, The MHP Show. Jamil Smith, a friend of Dr. Harris-Perry and a former colleague, published a letter on her behalf to his Medium.com account later that day. Though her presence on TV will certainly be missed, her decision to refuse compromise is cause for celebration as well.

As news of the show’s limbo status and Dr. Harris-Perry’s letter spread, people began voicing their frustration with MSNBC’s noticeable lack of support for diverse media voices, while offering tweets of support to The MHP Show’s trailblazing host, and the rest of her #Nerdland staff. From being one of the first media spaces to allow activists in St. Louis and beyond to tell their own story and help shape the movement’s narrative in the early months after August 2014, to making a point to host more female guests than any other MSNBC show, to deliberately bringing trans people on the show to talk about trans issues–Dr. Harris-Perry and the #Nerdland staff pushed against normative narratives with nearly every episode.

The MHP Show embodied what “politically educated” and “politically engaged” could look and sound like for Black women, in a contemporary sense. Dr. Harris-Perry isn’t the sole example, nor is hers the only model of “politically educated” and “politically engaged”–but for thousands of Black women across the country, watching her on TV represented a kind of first. Before that point, I had considered politics a realm that upwardly-mobile straight white boys occupied to toss around political lingo that left me feeling isolated and uninformed. The MHP Show challenged that notion, and offered a starting point to ease into a political landscape has always been hostile to voices speaking, acting and living at the margins.

Despite the clear need for all the nuance and storytelling The MHP Show presented its audience with every weekend, it became clear within days that MSNBC would be cutting ties, officially, with Melissa Harris-Perry. Yesterday, Dr. Harris-Perry posted a string of eye-opening tweets that detailed more of her warranted frustration with her ex-network, MSNBC.

The series of posts began with Dr. Harris-Perry apologizing to past MSNBC hosts whose shows, presumably, had been canceled under similar circumstances, citing a “culture of fear at #MSNBC.” She then hints at some targeted frustration in two tweets, before moving on to tweet about how much she loved working with the #Nerdland staff. She followed this by posting several pretty remarkable graphs detailing just how pioneering of a media platform The MHP Show actually was, and then closed with, “So #MSNBC y’all keep making cable great again. I’ll be staying challenging and unpredictable. #NerdlandForever”–accompanied by everyone’s favorite Angela Basset gif from Waiting to Exhale

It was a flawless mic-drop, to be sure. I was having Mortal Kombat FINISH HIM feels six tweets in. By the time I saw Angela, I was undone. Watching The MHP Show was an empowering experience in some way nearly every weekend. And seeing Melissa Harris-Perry assert her own worth, stand in that truth and refuse to let her platform be co-opted or compromised, was maybe the most empowering of all. So I celebrate her sharp response and her principled resolve–especially as a woman, especially as a Black woman–in a world where the demand to make ourselves smaller or distort our sense of self comes from all directions.

To be clear, not all of us live or work in a context where saying “No” is a realistic option. Not all of us have other sources of income or social capital that would offer such public love and support. But it matters a lot to see someone like Melissa Harris-Perry take that stance. I appreciate her vulnerability, particularly in the midst of a media landscape where everyone is clawing for space and visibility. There’s value in being able to witness bravery that encourages you to step into your own. There’s value in seeing a Black woman say “No” even if you, in the midst of your own circumstances and your own personal resistance, can’t say it–yet.

But still, what does this mean for the future of our stories in the media? If there’s anything we’ve learned from the livestreams and live-tweeting of protests in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago and elsewhere, it’s that narrative matters, and the media isn’t always as focused on getting the story right as they are on getting the story out first. Certainly The MHP Show isn’t the only major media space where diverse voices are deliberately uplifted (…right?), but as those diverse media voices get pushed out of or simply leave major media networks, we need to consider how already marginalized stories are further marginalized by the lack of or blatantly dishonest mainstream media coverage. What other avenues do we have at our disposal? Which self-proclaimed allies will take it upon themselves to do that work or make room for marginalized folks to do it ourselves? It’s okay if we don’t have the answers yet, but it’s imperative that we start collectively working towards them.

Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work is focused on historical and contemporary iterations of black, brown and indigenous resistance. She is also a Callaloo Fellow, and author of "When the Ghosts Come Ashore," published through Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press.

Jacqui Germain is a published poet and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

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