Uncommon Interview – Melissa Harris-Lacewell

By Jen Glickel

As February is Black History Month, the Maroon thought it relevant to interview a professor focusing on African-American studies for this issue’s Uncommon Interview. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an assistant professor of political science here at the University, approaches African-American studies from a political perspective.

Chicago Maroon: What is your area of study? In what department do you teach? What classes do you teach?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I am a political scientist, but I am also affiliated with the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture; the Center for Gender Studies, and the Program in Social Psychology. My primary research interests are in the subfield of African-American political attitudes. In general, I am really interested in the ways that ordinary American citizens approach and make sense out of the complex political world. I am fascinated by variation in political ideas and I am interested in learning about the origins of that variation. I have taught courses in political psychology, American government, African-American women’s politics, and I teach statistics at the graduate level.

CM: How did you come to be an associate professor at the University of Chicago? For how long have you been teaching here?

MHL: I have been an assistant professor of political science at the U of C since the fall of 1999. I completed my bachelor’s in English at Wake Forest University in 1994 and then received my doctorate in political science from Duke University in 1999. I taught briefly at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina while I was completing my dissertation. I was thrilled to come to the University of Chicago. I have wonderful students, brilliant colleagues, and a supportive administration.

CM: I understand that you recently wrote a book about the formation of African-American political ideologies entitled Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. In more detail, what was this book about? What inspired you to write it?

MHL: This book began as my dissertation research at Duke. Using statistical, experimental, and ethnographic methods, Barbershops, Bibles, and B.E.T. offers a new perspective on the way public opinion and ideologies are formed at the grassroots level. I believe that the book makes an important contribution to our understanding of black politics by shifting the focus from the influence of national elites in opinion formation to the influence of local elites and people in daily interaction with each other. The book argues that African Americans use community dialogue to jointly develop understandings of their collective political interests. I identify four political ideologies that constitute the framework of contemporary black political thought: Black Nationalism, Black Feminism, Black Conservatism, and Liberal Integrationism. These ideologies, the book posits, help African-Americans to understand persistent social and economic inequality, to identify the significance of race in that inequality, and to devise strategies for overcoming it.

Two things “inspired” me to write it. First, it is my primary job as a professor at a major research institution to research and write books. So the desire to keep my job was a major source of inspiration. But I was also inspired by personal experiences throughout my adulthood that reinforced the realities that black people learn a lot about politics from the conversations that they have with one another. For example, when I was in college I lived in a house with 14 other African-American women. The interactions we shared during those four years were extremely influential in shaping my political world view.

CM: What are you working on currently? A new book?

MHL: I am currently working on a new book entitled For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn’t Enough. This book uses the concept of the strong black woman as a point of departure and investigates issues of shame, sadness, and strength as they manifest in African-American communities and with black women in particular. The book uses both theoretical and empirical work to trace how these psychological constructs impact black politics in America.

CM: What are your thoughts on February, Black History Month? Do you feel that having a month-long focus on African-American history is beneficial, or do you think it’s a somewhat trite concept and marginalizes African Americans by emphasizing the need for recognition?

MHL: I really love Black History Month. I believe that it is very important to set aside time to honor the lives and works of African Americans. Ideally, this sort of recognition would be woven into the fabric of educational and cultural life. But it is not. February provokes television networks to produce special pieces about black experiences in America. It encourages schools to set aside time for learning about African-American contributions. I do not see it as a solution to racial inequality nor do I think that it has the kind of substantive impact on black lives that real policy initiative like reducing poverty would have. But it is a special time of cultural recognition that I believe has its own value. Just as I support the acknowledgement of the life and work of Dr. King in January.