An Open Letter to Melissa Harris-Perry From a Grateful Student

Your Take: From former student to talk show guest, Tracey Ross is deeply indebted to the former MSNBC host for the forum she provided to marginalized communities and issues.

Former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry on the set of her program 
Former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry on the set of her program  YouTube screenshot

Dear Professor Harris-Perry:

When the news broke that you would no longer be appearing on MSNBC, it signaled the end of a very important era for me. I was in graduate school at Princeton University when President Barack Obama was sworn into office as our first black president, a time when we could only speculate what his administration might mean for race in America. Shortly afterward, I enrolled in your course.

For me as a black woman from a working-class family, stepping onto Princeton University’s campus was a culture shock in many ways. The amount of money and proximity to power that students possessed made it seem impossible for a daughter of a grocery clerk to compete. As much as I ultimately enjoyed my program, some days were more frustrating than others: students questioning my intelligence, making comments about the way I look; even a professor stereotyping my hometown of Oakland, Calif., a place I’m proud to be from.

Fortunately, your course came to my attention just when I needed it. I needed a venue to discuss race in meaningful ways. I needed to see someone who looked like me.

The class was “African American Political Thought.” Each Wednesday evening, for three hours, we sat around a small table and discussed everything from black nationalism to environmental justice to black conservatism to religion. You had us debate political theory, veer off into discussions of politics and pop culture, and share our personal narratives—all anchored in the writings before us. The way you danced between cracking jokes, quoting scholars and offering your unique insights kept me engrossed. It was the most intellectually stimulating class I have ever taken. But most important, it spoke to who I am.

You exposed me to the seminal works of black feminism, enabling me to articulate views I’d always held, and helped me recognize a movement that lay dormant inside me. That I could be a black woman in America and never be taught to speak my own language only underscores how much we need courses like yours. And for my development as a policymaker, your course provided a much-needed lens through which I could examine my other colorblind courses, where race was simply a footnote.

This is what you did for me. And this is what your show did for so many of your viewers. Your show was an exercise in democratizing higher education. You brought seminar-style discussions into people’s homes. You provided a space for meaningful discussions on topics not covered by other programs or networks. You gave people a lens on race, gender and sexual orientation through which they could view all other issues. You expertly illustrated the important links between pop culture and politics. And you gave so many viewers a chance to see guests who not only looked like them but also spoke to their lived experiences.

Six years after I completed my presentation on environmental justice for your course, it was the highlight of my career to sit on the set of your program as an expert in the subject matter. You shared your spotlight with a diverse set of guests—from people living in poverty to activists on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement—directly challenging long-held beliefs on who an “expert” is and who is the right messenger for a story. For many of us, myself included, that will be the largest and most meaningful platform we will ever have to discuss the issues that we care about most deeply.

This is why I was not surprised by how firmly you stood to protect the integrity of your program. Compromising your show format would have been tantamount to allowing a university to ban the books on your syllabus. The end of your show is a huge loss to those of us who are hungry to learn, working for progressive change, or are increasingly disappointed by the media landscape, and cable and network news in particular. While I don’t know if this void can ever be filled, I know that your contributions will continue to be invaluable when it comes to issues that are too often ignored.

Thank you for the opportunity to be your student all these years.

#NerdlandForever,

Tracey

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Tracey Ross is an associate director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress and co-host of TalkPoverty Radio.

Comments