From AAUW Fellow to MSNBC HostFebruary 09, 2012
For Melissa Harris-Perry, receiving her AAUW American Fellowship in 2001 made all the difference. She received notification of her fellowship award just two weeks after finding out that that she was pregnant.
Initially, she was anxious about her status — an untenured, junior faculty member at the University of Chicago — but more than 10 years later, she looks back on what a truly life-changing year it was. By the end of her fellowship, Harris-Perry had “written pretty furiously,” sent her first book off to press, given birth to a daughter, and collected data for a second book project. That book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, was published in 2011 and received a 2012 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Award nomination in literature. The book examines the effects of persistent, harmful stereotypes on black women’s politics. Her first book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, won the 2005 W.E.B. DuBois Book Award and the 2005 Best Book Award from the American Political Science Association.
Harris-Perry credits her AAUW fellowship-year accomplishments with helping her ultimately earn tenure. “It’s pretty extraordinary how many things [the fellowship] made possible for me,” she says. Harris-Perry recalls with a chuckle “driving all over the greater Chicago area [visiting AAUW branches], big and pregnant.” She credits her fellowship for “providing money at just the right time,” allowing her to focus her work on two projects, and giving her the priceless gift of spending time with her newborn daughter. “When I think about the number of things the fellowship meant to me, it’s really hard to express what it meant — what a difference one year can make in the life of a junior faculty woman. I don’t think it’s possible that the rest of my career could have happened without that time,” she says.
Harris-Perry’s career in academia has certainly been distinguished, but it was not unexpected. “For many African Americans and women, the idea of being a professor is strange or foreign, but for me it was kind of like a family business,” she says. Both her father and his twin brother are professors, and her mother was working on her doctorate when her parents met.
These days, after having held faculty positions at the University of Chicago and Princeton University, Harris-Perry is a professor of political science at Tulane University and is the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She also writes a monthly column for The Nation and is a longtime political analyst on MSNBC, where she regularly contributes to Politics Nation, The Last Word, and the Rachel Maddow Show.
We’ll get to see and hear from Harris-Perry more often since she will host her own weekend program on MSNBC beginning February 18. When we spoke, the enthusiasm in her voice was evident, despite what may be a challenging commute from New Orleans to New York while teaching and making time for her family. Harris-Perry is excited about the show, which will address politics and questions of popular culture. “I am not a journalist, and they didn’t hire me because I am ‘TV-ready,’” she says. “What they see is my research, my background as a scholar, and the kinds of questions I ask as an academic.”
Harris-Perry encourages women not to be afraid to make mistakes, because “we tend to think that failures are definitive.” She says, “There’s no guarantee that if you have a lot of failures that you’ll have great success, but there is a guarantee that you cannot have great success without mistakes along the way.”