Melissa V. Harris-Perry reflects on American culture and politics while discussing her new book, “Sister Citizen.”

Kam Williams | 10/26/2011, 9:39 a.m.


Melissa V. Harris-Perry reflects on American culture and politics while discussing her new book, “Sister Citizen.”

Born in Seattle, Wash., on Oct. 2, 1973, but raised in Charlottesville and Chester, Va., Melissa V. Harris-Perry is a professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is the founding director of the project on gender, race and politics in the South. Her previous book, “Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought,” won the 2005 W. E. B. Du Bois Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and the 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

Besides being a columnist for The Nation Magazine, Dr. Harris-Perry frequently appears as a guest or fill-in host on MSNBC’s “The Thomas Roberts Show,” “Up with Chris Hayes,” “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.”

Melissa lives in New Orleans with her husband, James Perry, and her daughter, Parker.

What interested you in writing “Sister Citizen”?

I had started the project before Hurricane Katrina, but the real turning point for me was the race and gender politics that emerged on the national stage after the levee failure.

That was, for me, a consolidating moment in my attempt to understand the experience of contemporary black women trying to be American citizens.

What message do you hope readers will take away from the book?

I suspect different audiences will take away different things from the book. For instance, my editor at Yale University Press, who is a white male, felt that he’d been introduced to some black women’s literature he’d never read and to some stereotypes and ideas that he’d previously never engaged with.

By contrast, some black women I’ve talked to about the book weren’t surprised by what they read. They found that it resonated with their experiences and perhaps contributed to their vocabulary and gave them some new ways of thinking about the political meaning of those experiences.  

What was the most important lesson you learned from this project?

I learned two lessons: one from the research, one from the writing. From the research, this idea that you just have to be strong if you’re a black woman. And in the process of writing, I learned that you can’t write a book in the margins of your life.

I’d forgotten how much uninterrupted time it takes to write chapters, and how you have to push everything else aside and really focus. 

Why the negative response to “The Help”?

I could go on in considerable depth about it, but let me address the two most dishonest aspects.

The first is the fact that although the author tried to illustrate the tension between white women and their maids, she ignores the black women’s relationships with two other very important groups in the household: the white men and the white children.

She refuses to imagine that they could have felt anything other than pure love, attachment, affection and fidelity toward the kids they were hired to care for. It is such a bizarre, romantic notion that they didn’t have mixed feelings about spending so much time caring for children of privilege while their own offspring went neglected because they were in these white households.