On Thursday morning, Tulane Professor of Political Science Melissa Harris-Perry, best known for her self-titled show on MSNBC, captivated the audience of the MainStage of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance with her speech “What Difference Does it Make? Politics, Activism and Scholarship.” Harris-Perry was the keynote speaker of Claiming Williams Day, and her speech was the final event of the Class of ’71 Public Affairs Forum.
In addition to hosting a show on MSNBC, and being a professor, Harris-Perry also serves as the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics. She is also an accomplished author, with two critically acclaimed novels and a monthly column for The Nation magazine to her name.
President Falk opened for Harris-Perry, welcoming the community to Claiming Williams 2013. Falk then turned the microphone over to Assistant Professor of Political Science Candis Watts Smith, who introduced Harris-Perry to the audience. Smith referenced Harris-Perry as a pioneer who opened the door for women of color such as herself to enter the field of political science.
Harris-Perry began her speech by thanking her personal mentor for encouraging her to stick with the field of political science. While pursuing her Ph.D at Duke University, Harris-Perry began to doubt whether she would fit into the academic discipline, but her advisor John Aldrich, an esteemed political scientist in his own right, encouraged her by saying, “You’re really good at this. I am interested to know where your career leads.”
Harris-Perry spoke about her years as an undergraduate at Wake Forest University, and how she learned to balance extracurricular activities and schoolwork. Describing herself as “smart but not a whiz,” she chose to give up hobbies such as playing the cello to spend more time concentrating on academic work. At first, quitting these activities felt like failure, but she learned to measure herself differently.
After a meeting with the university chaplain, Harris-Perry took home a book containing Frederick Buechner’s sermon “Message in the Stars.” In his sermon, Buechner tells a story that explores what would happen if God decided to prove his existence. Harris-Perry recalled that story’s explanation of several different reactions to this scenario, but it concluded with the perspective of “a garden-variety child” turning to God and saying, “So what? What difference does it make?”
Harris-Perry suggested that these are the questions that we should ask ourselves in everything that we do. As an example, she described a society where a king used divine right to justify his actions across his expansive empire, which worked effectively until a 33-year-old redhead from Virginia asked, “So what? What difference does it make that the king claims to have divine rule?” This, Harris-Perry elaborated, is how Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers decided to declare their independence from Great Britain almost 250 years ago.
However, Harris-Perry later made clear that questioning monumental achievements doesn’t diminish their significance, but instead helps point to the next step. Harris-Perry uses her graduation from college as an example, calling it the “best day of her life.” But she also observed that all her degree represents is a level of knowledge. Only by asking the question of the “garden-variety child” could she determine her future.
Following her speech, Harris-Perry conducted a short question and answer session. One question prompted Harris-Perry to consider how her personal philosophy echoes the trend of constant social progress popular with the millennial generation.
Harris-Perry also explained how her show is different from others because even though she is not trained as a journalist, she “can formulate an opinion in 52 seconds” based on information in the news. This skill is essential since her show has fewer staff members total than the number of writers alone working on either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.
Harris-Perry concluded her remarks by mentioning institutional changes that can help open the field of political science to women. She mentioned how a rule prohibiting faculty meetings after 4:30 p.m. and another provision subsidizing up to 30 hours of discounted emergency childcare helped her during her time as a professor at Princeton. After her public statements, Harris-Perry sat down with a select group of students for a more intimate conversation over lunch.