New Orleans — On the day that Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry resigned from Princeton University, she took to her Twitter account to let the whole world know.
“Today I submitted my resignation to Princeton effective July 1,” she wrote. “I’m joining the faculty of Tulane this fall!”
It’s no surprise that Harris-Perry, one of the nation’s most visible Black intellectuals, would Tweet about her new job. For the past few years, she has used social networking outlets — Twitter, blogs, Facebook — and television punditry to bring her lectures and message to an audience that extends far beyond the -privileged circle of the Princeton campus.
“My base is the San Francisco airport,” the Black studies scholar and political scientist says with a laugh.
Since making her debut on the national scene in 2006, the scholar has become a towering and trusted figure among progressives and liberals who appreciate her regular commentary on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show and her columns in The Nation.
She is a rising star in the academy, having been mentored by established scholars like Drs. Cathy Cohen and Maya Angelou.
“Melissa is a talented scholar who is committed to her scholarship,” says Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science and the deputy provost for graduate education at the University of Chicago. She notes that Harris-Perry’s decision to leave Princeton is evidence that good scholarship can take place anywhere.
But there are detractors, too.
For weeks she received scathing hate mail after a four-minute television segment on MSNBC in which she attempted to provide historical context for Michael Vick’s mistreatment of dogs, the severity of his punishment and her belief that Vick deserved a second chance.
Even Harris-Perry believes she fumbled that interview.
“People went crazy about those damn dogs,” she says. “My goal was not to defend Vick nor to condemn him, but to try to understand our very different national reactions to him” that surfaced along racial lines.
While some academicians have a difficult time distilling complex theories into quick sound bites, Harris-Perry is a pro, says Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of education at Columbia University.
“I think Melissa is one of the most significant public intellectuals of our generation,” says Hill, who is also a regular commentator on cable news shows and considers Perry a friend. “Melissa has demonstrated that being an intellectual is more than just being a pundit. She engages in cutting edge academic scholarship with a very strong media presence.”
Scholars say that Harris-Perry’s biggest contribution to the field is explaining how Black people negotiate the dueling identities of being both minorities and Americans in a country where racism is very much a part of the dominant culture. Her research on Black women trains a spotlight on a group that is often marginalized because of racism and patriarchy.
While teaching at the University of Chicago in the early 2000s, Harris-Perry had a courtside seat to witness the political ascension of President Barack Obama. His dramatic rise to national prominence brought about her own, as she was often asked to appear on local Chicago television as an expert on his 2004 run for the U.S. Senate.
She has become an ardent defender of Obama, placing her squarely at odds with other Black intellectuals like Princeton’s Dr. Cornel West, who has questioned Obama’s policies toward the poor and the Black community. She dismisses charges that Obama’s support in the African-American community is beginning to wane.
“It’s profoundly overstated to say that Black people are disappointed with Obama,” she says.
Problems at Princeton
At Tulane, Harris-Perry has been tasked with creating a new center focused on the study of race, gender and politics in the American South. It’s a job that was specifically created with her in mind.
And the offer came at the right time.
After five years at Princeton, she says that she was starting to feel isolated from the very people she writes about.
“I’m an empiricist. I study Black communities, but I lived in Princeton,” says Harris-Perry, who relocated to New Orleans last November and has been commuting to the Princeton campus ever since. She started venturing to The Crescent City to conduct research in the years following Hurricane Katrina. She fell in love with the city and the people and eventually met her husband, James Perry, a lawyer and community activist who waged an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2010.
When Harris-Perry graduated from Duke University with a Ph.D. in political science in 1999, she had six job offers. She spent seven years at the University of Chicago before Princeton came calling. In 2006, she was offered a tenured joint appointment in political science and African-American studies at the ripe age of 31. Her first book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, published in 2005, won the 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 Ethnicity Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.
When she landed at Princeton, West lauded her decision to join the Ivy League institution, praising her as “one of the most talented intellectuals of her generation.”
“She brings sophisticated quantitative skills, a sense of history and a synthetic imagination. That’s rare among social scientists, and that’s why I’m so thoroughly excited and inspired that she’s here,” he said at the time.
But relations between Princeton and Harris-Perry hit an impasse last year after she was denied promotion from associate to full-professor. Harris-Perry says she received support for her promotion from the political science department, but noted that several faculty members in the African-American studies department were ultimately responsible for blocking her advancement. It was then that Harris-Perry came to the realization that Princeton, with all of its prestige and benefits, was not a good fit for her.
“Princeton is a good gig,” she says, sipping coffee in the restaurant of the W Hotel in downtown New Orleans, seemingly comfortable in her newly adopted city. “Black folks work hard for a gig like that. But I suppose that part of why I feel free is that I no longer have anything to prove.”
Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr., the chair of the African-American studies department, declined to comment on Harris-Perry’s promotion, saying it was a personnel matter.
“I believe Professor Harris-Perry is brilliant, and I wish her the best,” said Glaude.
Seeking Untold Stories
It wasn’t just the denial of a promotion that readied Harris-Perry’s exit from Princeton, but a chance to do ground-breaking research in a city that is being rebuilt.
“I see New Orleans as ground zero for social justice,” she says. “Having grown up in the South, one of my pet peeves is the belief that all progressive politics is in D.C. and New York. Progressive politics is harder in the South. Gender politics is harder in the South. Interracial politics is harder in the South, but the South is highly underappreciated.”
At Tulane, Harris-Perry will bring her celebrity status and credibility to an institution that has experienced rapid growth after Hurricane Katrina. The university received nearly 44,000 applications for 1,630 freshman slots, and it is bursting at the seams as officials struggle to accommodate the renewed interest. “We can’t handle any more students,” says Dr. Michael Bernstein, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Tulane. “The quality of our students is going way up and we’re very proud of that.”
Bernstein says Harris-Perry’s presence will likely draw additional interest to Tulane.
“Melissa is so visible in her own right, she will bring a lot of visibility to the university,” he says. “She is well-respected and highly regarded, and we see her as a welcome addition to our community.”
Harris-Perry’s center will be housed in the Newcomb College Institute, an interdisciplinary academic clearinghouse designed to enrich the educational experience of women at Tulane. Initially, she will be responsible for raising money and laying a foundation for the center’s work.
“I really want to build an institution that is bigger than me,” says Harris-Perry, who says the center is still in the planning stages. “My vision is not so much a focus on elite scholarship but to learn about the lives, struggles and efforts of the most ordinary women — Southern women of color. I want to hear from that 55-year-old Black woman who is a school leader fighting for charter schools. She has something to say but no platform to say it.”
As an outsider, Harris-Perry knows that she has much to learn about New Orleans and its people.
“I’m not a New Orleanian,” she says. “I’m not founding this center with the hope of giving people the answer. The best empirical research takes place when the researcher shuts up.”
Harris-Perry, who gives dozens of speeches each year, isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. She has just finished work on her second book: Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn’t Enough, which is scheduled to be published later this year by Yale University Press. Several years ago, she enrolled as a Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but is unsure if she will finish the program because of the relocation. “If anything I am a better student than anything else,” she says, adding that she enrolled at Union because she wanted to better understand the role of the Black church in political movements.
There is one thing, however, that she will likely miss about teaching at an Ivy League school. “The thing I probably will miss the most is sitting next to some old White guy on the plane who asks, ‘What do you do?’ and seeing his reaction when I say, ‘I’m a Princeton University professor.”