On Friday, the news broke of MSNBC’s silencing of Melissa Harris-Perry’s show and the dismantling of her editorial control. In her courageous letter to staff, she wrote why she was not willing to read the news and “provide cover” for MSNBC this weekend: “Our show was taken—without comment or discussion or notice—in the midst of an election season…I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head…I love our show. I want it back.” MSNBC executives later in the weekend called Harris-Perry “brilliant, intelligent, but challenging and unpredictable” and confirmed they were “parting ways.”
Since the news began to break, social media has filled with outrage and tributes from an incredibly wide cast of people on how unusual and important the show was—and how Harris-Perry was the first (and in many cases) their only national exposure to a broad range of issues. Damon Young’s moving piece, “Why You Need to Care About What’s Happening to Melissa Harris-Perry,” captured what it meant on a personal level that she lifted up so many of us and our work into public light and what a deep public loss the end of her show is for those of us who prefer a smart, informed, diverse conversation over punditry.
Young’s gratitude was also mine. The first time I appeared on the show—to talk about my biography of Rosa Parks—I must have looked so nervous that the first thing she said was, “Jeanne, we’re just having a conversation.” Right, I thought. A conversation. On national television. About Rosa Parks, the lifelong freedom fighter. But then we did, ranging across Rosa Parks’ life of activism from her childhood resolve to her attendance at Highlander Folk School; from her half century of political work in Detroit to her immense admiration for Malcolm X (and his for Parks). MHP insisted this full history of Rosa Parks had to be seen and made space at her table to do so. I’ve been invited back since—including this fall when three Republican presidential contenders (Trump, Rubio, and Cruz) chose Rosa Parks as their pick for the new $10 bill. Now we could have used the minutes to make fun of Mrs. Parks’ three newest fanboys. But instead, we talked about Rosa Parks’ lifetime of work on criminal justice issues and her love and appreciation of the militancy of young people and how Rosa Parks today would be standing with Black Lives Matter. In other words, MHP wanted substance, rather than snark.
MHP brought a whole new set of experts to the public. She transformed the table by constantly demonstrating that you can’t talk about immigration or mass incarceration or the election and not talk to human rights lawyers and Dreamers, hiphop feminists and Black studies scholars, teachers and LGBT advocates and Black Lives Matter activists and musicians and abortion providers. She changed the very idea of the Sunday morning show—making it simultaneously more grounded in history, more relevant, more diverse, more intergenerational and more cosmopolitan.
Most people I know (professors and students, human rights advocates and activists) rarely watch the Sunday morning shows because the conversations are so narrow, so filled with spin and punditry, so absent from what these issues look like on the ground, so white and male—that watching seems more like an unnecessary visit to the dentist than an occasion to think anew about the issues facing our country. MHP and the producers of her show modeled what an informed national conversation could actually look like. They demonstrated what it means to take seriously the perspectives and issues young people are raising. Despite the popular wisdom that Americans are anti-intellectual, they proved you could create a show with a syllabus and people of all ages would flock to it. They said Black history and culture are intrinsic issues, not occasional, just-to-be-talked-about-in-February concerns—and wove varied analyses of race in politics, economics, culture, and society throughout the shows.
On a personal level, she modeled what a feminist public intellectual looks like—one who does not apologize for her whip-smartness, who made being a nerd so very cool, who constantly shared her table and lifted up the voices and brilliance of others, who could be alternately outraged, silly, angry, accountable, wonky, tearful, hard-hitting, and spiritual in public.
She didn’t just get in the door, she changed the room. Insisting this space can be so much bigger, she continued to think about who is not at the table and the variety of perspectives that needed to be heard in our national debates. She insisted we can be better as a nation, and by creating a forum that centered young people rather than talking at them, revealed how stunted our political debates are.
Much of what I celebrate here may be why MSNBC, which has moved to the political center and shed many of its Black hosts, jettisoned her show. The show raised uncomfortable, needed questions about American politics and enduring sites of injustice. It insisted that actual experts and a diverse array of them be at the table. It said history was important, that human rights were essential, that we couldn’t have an informed conversation where the majority of those speaking were white men. Fundamentally, it said we’re going to have to hear things we’re not used to hearing and imagined that we have a responsibility to young people to listen and to change.
With or without MSNBC, Professor Harris-Perry will continue to make her mark. Since the fall, she’s been building a nationwide Collaborative to Advance Equity for Women and Girls of Color through the Anna Julia Cooper Center she founded. But the loss to our national conversation of a substantive, diverse, deeply grounded conversation about the issues of day is immense.
About the Author
Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. She and Melissa Harris-Perry are co-editors of a new series at Beacon Press, “Stride Toward Justice: Confronting Race, Gender & Class in the United States.”