INTERVIEW: MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry On Her Favorite TV Characters and ’12 Years a Slave’s’ Value

by | February 13, 2014 at 11:21 AM | Black Entertainment, Black Entertainment Originals, General, TV News

MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry (Photo: MSNBC/ Heidi Gutman)

Editor’s Note: To help celebrate Black History Month XFINITY has scheduled a series of celebrity guest editors who will discuss a variety of topics related to black culture and entertainment news. They also will curate TV and movie collections and answer your questions.

Not many people would call themselves a nerd but Melissa Harris-Perry seems to thrive off it. And she has several other black nerds, aka blerds, gladly embracing the moniker, joining her in “nerdland.”

“I am a nerd. I have far too much formal education to be practical. I cultivate esoteric knowledge. As for the nerdland reference, it was something I said in an offhand reference to a New York Times reporter just before the show launched and it stuck,” says Harris-Perry, who hosts her self-titled MSNBC show, “Melissa Harris-Perry. ”Last week we said ‘intersectionality’ 10 times in one hour of live television broadcast. We are nerds.”

Harris-Perry, who celebrates the two-year anniversary of her TV show on Tuesday, splits her time between New York, where “Melissa Harris-Perry” is based, and New Orleans, where she’s a political science professor at Tulane University. The 40-year-old married mother has authored two books: “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America” and “Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought.”  She previously served on the faculties of the University of Chicago and Princeton University.

XFINITY caught up with the busy lady who was traveling extensively and lecturing  as part of Black History Month celebrations for various colleges and universities. She opens up about her favorite TV shows, the value she believes “12 Years a Slave” has and talks more on why she calls herself a nerd.

“Melissa Harris-Perry” airs at 10 a.m. EST on Saturdays and Sundays on MSNBC. 

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I spoke with one of your fellow Black History Month guest editor, Wayne Brady, about blackness and how perceptions of it. How do you define blackness? And can it and should it be defined?

Wait a minute! My fellow guest editor is Wayne Brady? Really! What did he say about blackness? Dayum, Wayne Brady, you know he is gangsta right? I am being a bit silly, but it cracks me up to think of Wayne Brady and me offering definitions of blackness for African American history month when each of us has had our own racial authenticity publicly critiqued and questioned.

So I will offer this: blackness is home. I can’t explain how I know I am black or why it matters to me, that is like asking why I love the sound of my mother’s voice or the smell of my father’s pipe. It is home. The door to my home is unlocked. I don’t have any need to throw people out of blackness or carefully police its boundaries. Blackness is complicated, permeable, changing, and yet rooted. It is home. It is familiar, but surprising. It is constraining and liberating. It is all consuming and utterly meaningless. And because it is my home, I tend to defend the hell out of it.

Why did you decide to share your hair experiences in the book “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.”? A lot more black women are embracing hair styles more reflective of their natural textures. 

The editors of “Hair Story” approached me to do an interview and then they transformed the interview into a foreword. I answered the questions I was asked. I am utterly shocked that anyone thinks what is on my head is that interesting! I don’t think my story is particularly unique. Many of us spend years trying to seduce our hair into responding to our desires rather than allowing ourselves to simply follow its lead. I am still very much a work in progress when it comes to my hair. Ever since ‘Yonce released her new album, I have had to physically restrain myself from getting a razor cut short blond bob. I would look ridiculous, but it is so sexy on her I can barely resist mimicking it. As for black women, I don’t honestly know where we will go next, but I know that we won’t all go there together or all at once.

“12 Years a Slave” is a movie you enjoyed. I’ve heard some of the reasons why you like it. 

The primary value in the film is that “12 Years a Slave” is based on an autobiographical account rather than a fictional narrative. There is little taste in Hollywood for grappling with black Americans’ self-reported accounts of suffering, sorrow, joy, pleasure, and life, and such an appetite for spectacular fictionalized imaginings about our existence. This film is not a story- it is an account. That makes it powerful and valuable.

Your TV show is popular and there are plenty of people who make sure to watch every airing. Which TV shows are must-see for you? 

I am obsessed with “House of Cards.” I love “Scandal.” “Parks and Rec” makes me ridiculously, nerdishly happy. I recently discovered “Shark Tank,” which fascinates me. I watched all of the “Breaking Bad” episodes in one month flat from the first to the last. I sort of missed that cultural phenomenon when it was happening, but then I caught up…fast! I have a decade long obsession with HGTV. I can tell you median cost per square foot in pretty much any market where “House Hunters” has ever filmed an episode.

There are more great female TV characters popping up including Nicole Beharie as Lt. Abbie Mills on “Sleepy Hollow” and everyone’s favorite, “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope. Which TV characters do you enjoy?

I like Olivia Pope for being fierce, brilliant, unflappable, vulnerable, powerful and a complete mess. Leslie Knope, for being eternally optimistic about the power of local government, the constancy of friendship, the power of love, and the value of junk food. Clair Huxtable, for being everything. Twenty five years later in reruns, she is still bad as hell.

You discuss a variety of topics on your show, “Melissa Harris-Perry.” Which type of news stories often catch your attention?  

I tend to find most anything that Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes report to be fascinating and worthy of attention. On “Melissa Harris-Perry” show I always like segments and topics if I get to learn something new, if I feel like there are implications for the lives of ordinary people, and if I have a chance to talk to key players who are part of the story. I tend to be bored with political scandal stories and insider horse race analysis.

Could you further explain why you refer to yourself nerd? 

I am socially awkward. I tend to be at least six months to six years behind on popular culture references. I am easily seduced by intellect. And I can argue passionately about very narrow points of analysis. I have a few great friends, but I am not now and never have been particularly popular. I prefer reading a book to going to a party. I get ridiculously tipsy off one glass of wine. I have been a full time college professor more than 15 years for goodness sake. I am a nerd by any definition. I just have good lighting and professional make-up artists on television, so it can be hard to tell at first glance.

During the symposium with bell hooks at The New School, you said you’re not sure how you ended up with a TV show. How has it benefited you? What are the drawbacks? Anything you’d do differently?

That is true. I have no idea how I ended up on this path. I never had any interest in having a television show until it was offered to me. I still see it as my second job and one that will only be a temporary part of my life. But while I have the privilege of having this platform I am trying hard to be worthy of it. I don’t think anyone wants to hear some lady with a television show complain about the exhaustion, stress, or scrutiny that accompany production. Yes, those things exist, but having a national platform is an extraordinary opportunity, so I am just going to put my complaints in my back pocket and sit on them.

What is something that people don’t know about you that you don’t mind sharing?

I can’t sing, at all. I can’t carry a tune even a little. I am the worst singer anyone could ever have the misfortune to encounter. It is sad. But I sing all day long.

What can we expect from you and your show this year? 

In my personal life there is a little surprise on the way and a big move happening, but I am not telling any details yet. As for the show, we turn two in February. I just hope we get another two years to keep making the weird and wonderful brand of television we try to make each week.

Thoughts on Joy-Ann Reid’s new show? Anything you can share about it?
Joy-Ann Reid is one of the smartest, sharpest, hardest working people I know. It is always a pleasure to watch and listen to Joy. She combines journalistic integrity, deep experiential knowledge, and sister-girl familiarity in a way that is utterly compelling to watch. I have no doubt that she will revolutionize MSNBC with her daily presence. I can’t wait! I have a crush on her brain.

Read XFINITY’s interview with Guest Editor Wayne Brady, host of “Let’s Make a Deal” on CBS and the 2014 BET Honors airing Feb. 24 on BET, here.