Melissa Harris-Perry Q&A: Political pundit making waves

Cornel West, Skip Gates, Michael Eric Dyson. Those are the guys you think of when the discussion turns to African-American intellectuals who’ve gone public, burning up the airwaves and blogosphere as pundits and, we imagine, making a decent coin doing it.

But on their heels comes Melissa Harris-Perry, a political science professor, formerly of Princeton University, now at Tulane University. Listen to her riff on the free-speech rights of Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and first lady Michelle Obama, or take aim at the summer’s hit movie “The Help,” and it’s apparent that this woman has plans to break up the men’s club.

She has become a staple on MSNBC, filling in regularly for prime-time news talk-show hosts Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. There has been plenty of speculation on whether Harris-Perry will make the leap to host her own show. Should it happen, it would make her the lone African-American female host of a nightly cable news show.

Her new book, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America” ($28, Yale University Press), was just released. It’s an ambitious attempt to examine the anemic political power of black women, through cultural archetypes often associated with black women: Mammy, the caretaker; Jezebel, the harlot; Sapphire, the overbearing, angry shrew. Harris-Perry also uses work from author Zora Neale Hurston to poet Elizabeth Alexander as a framework to make her case about the political influence of contemporary black women, from survivors of Hurricane Katrina to the current first lady.

Here she talks about role models, stereotypes and curbing anger.

Q: We see black male public intellectuals on prime-time programs often. Why do we see just you when it comes to African-American women?

A: A couple of reasons. We hear about how undergraduate women are out- performing undergraduate men. At the graduate level, that’s not true. As Ph.D.s, black women are still underrepresented, dramatically so. For example, in the field of political science, where I’m coming through, which might be a natural feeder for public intellectuals on politics, black women receiving Ph.D.s, are fewer than one half of one percent. I was very lucky.

Q: You say that it was a risky choice to use literature, even song, as a backdrop for this book. Why do that when you had plenty of actual research data to pull from to make your case?

A: I was an English major in college, so I have a preference for hearing arguments made through literature. And then already having tenure when I wrote this book and getting a chance to do what I wanted. [Laughs]. But I wanted to talk about our lives beyond the numbers. I didn’t want to rely on my autobiography because I know that it’s quirky and it may not resonate. But these readings, like “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” I can remember a whole generation of us discovering it. So I was trying to rely on those collective stories we share.

Q: What is so quirky about your background?

A: The key one is that in my household growing up, the black women role models were my older sisters, not my mom. My mom is a white woman. Two of my big sisters, both of their parents are black. They are my dad’s children from his first marriage. The other thing is, if you’re a tenured professor at an Ivy League university, it doesn’t matter where you came from in terms of economics, you are a person of privilege and you have to acknowledge how that can impact what you’re seeing on a daily basis.

Q: Why did you settle on the archetypes of Jezebel, Mammy and Sapphire for the book?

A: The reason I went with those three is that the research itself started with the strong black woman. The initial focus groups I did with African-American women were trying to get at these ideas of strength. It was actually the women in the focus groups, they’re the ones that identified those three stereotypes most often.

Q: What stereotype do you struggle not to convey when you’re guest hosting?

A: I work very hard to present a media-based persona that does not include the angry black woman. In my personal life, my friends, my family, they absolutely see shouting, throwing things at the television over politics. But I am 100 percent clear that when I enter into the public sphere, anytime I enter with an angry voice I will not be heard.

Q: That happened recently when you gave commentary about the movie “The Help.”

A: When I allowed myself to be snarky, and irritated, and to really go for the throat, people immediately could not hear me. It hurts so bad to see that film. For me, it really is a reproduction of the magical mammy. The black woman who can solve everybody’s problems despite the fact that she doesn’t have resources of her own. The amount of mail I’ve gotten on “The Help” is crazy. I’ve said a million words on television since I said those words [about the movie], but I tell you it will not die.

Q: Have you had to pull any punches in pursuit of this public career?

A: I really haven’t. It’s the interesting question that I face about whether I’ll go any further on the public side.

Q: As in will you get your own show?

A: At this point I’m a college professor, who for my summer vacation, hosts TV.