February 16, 2017

Wake Forest University Maya Angelou Presidential Chair Speaks at Annual OBS Event

Wake Forest University Maya Angelou Presidential Chair Melissa Harris-Perry spoke Monday night to a sizable crowd in Mandel Hall as the George E. Kent Lecture guest for the Organization of Black Students (OBS). In a lecture titled, “What Happened? What Happens Next?: Race, Gender, and Making America Great,” Harris-Perry, who taught at the University for seven years, discussed President Donald Trump’s rise to power from a historical perspective. She spoke on a broad range of issues, prompting vocal affirmation, laughter, and the occasional outburst from the audience.

The evening began with introductions by OBS President Atrician Lumumba and OBS Political Chair Kennedy Green. Following the lecture, Green, who organized the event, moderated a Q&A with questions from the audience.

Harris-Perry, who is a former MSNBC host and also an editor-at-large at Elle, structured her lecture around four hypotheses about Trump’s victory. She also discussed the role that activism can play, particularly on college campuses, during the new administration. She stressed the need to understand his victory.

“In a democracy, you don’t have to shut up because you lose,” she said.

The first hypothesis, according to Harris-Perry, is that the victory was predictable based on modern race and gender voting patterns. Harris-Perry illustrated her point with data from previous election years, which revealed that a majority of white women voters have always voted for Republican candidates throughout recent history.

Harris-Perry’s second hypothesis was that the perceptions of Trump supporters masked historical patterns of similar behavior. She discussed historical instances of “pussy grabbing” and reproductive injustice, specifically those against women of color.

“Trump supporters may be deplorable, but they are not uniquely deplorable,” Harris-Perry said. As an example, she presented information on the man widely regarded as the father of modern gynecology, who conducted his experiments on female African-American slaves.

Another hypothesis was that Trump’s victory was grounded in American political histories. Harris-Perry commented on the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery but also provided for a slave class in U.S. prisons. She argued that throughout history, there has been a systemic effort to disenfranchise people of color that continues to this day.  

Harris-Perry’s final hypothesis touched on the issue of campus climates. She argued that American institutions of higher education could be testing grounds for new ideas and more equitable societies, but that colleges and universities were poorly equipped to take on this role. She argued that they are too white, wealthy, and privileged to be successful social equalizers, but that they had potential to be breeding grounds for dialogue.

During the question and answer session, Harris-Perry voiced her support for on-campus protests. “Democracy, like college, is supposed to be hard. If you’ve never been to a protest, find something to protest. Surely something needs burning down,” she said wryly, garnering laughs from the audience.

Harris-Perry also voiced her opinions on trigger warnings in response to a question about the University’s stance. She asserted that while the classroom is the place to have very difficult conversations, those conversations should be rooted in academic texts, not trigger warnings. She also noted that as a survivor of sexual assault, her triggers are very specific. As a professor, she does not feel comfortable notifying students of potential triggers, because she does not know what their triggers are.

“I am distressed by the extent to which we are having the most important conversations in co-curricular spaces as opposed to curricular. What I want is…text to work from in these moments as opposed to our feelings. Not that feelings aren’t important, but I wish they were contextualized with texts,” she said.

She stressed the importance of hearing viewpoints different than her own, particularly when it comes to understanding those in power.

Harris-Perry’s college advisor was Maya Angelou. Harris-Perry said that Angelou would often quote a Greek playwright, saying “I am human, therefore nothing human is alien to me.” This mantra fuels her desire to understand the perspective and history of those in power.

“I don’t want to be an apologist for power, but I want to understand it,” Harris-Perry said.

Harris-Perry was also vocal about her sudden departure from MSNBC last year. An academic by profession, she knew that her stint on MSNBC would be temporary, but did not anticipate that it would end so abruptly. She left following disagreements with the network about programming during her slot and a letter to her staff was leaked.

“Cable news is rotten and evil,” said Harris-Perry, responding to an audience question. “I walked away with the only thing I ever had, which was my sense of self, which I feel great about.”

She cited the media’s obsession with covering Trump during the primaries as one of her grievances with cable news, explaining that Trump still receives too much media attention and manipulates the media.

Harris-Perry concluded the lecture with advice for college students hoping to make an impact. “Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t remake the wheel. Don’t jump every single day. There’s lots of work to do.”