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Melissa Harris-Perry on Obamacare and the ‘Year of the Vagina’

Melissa Harris-Perry (MSNBC)

If you’re a Parlourista, you know that we’re big Melissa Harris-Perry fans. I watch the two-hour program, which debuted in February, most weekends and when I can’t get to my television, I hit record. For me, Harris-Perry, the first MSNBC black female host with her own show, is like Oprah for housewives, sans all of that sometimes dangerous self-help. I eat up the Tulane professor’s smart segments on political issues like race, gender, class and America’s upcoming presidential election. I dreamt of profiling her on Parlour, because she, as a smart black woman who thinks critically, embodies so much of what we strive to represent here on the site. Well, guess what?

During Essence Music Festival earlier this month, I chatted with Mrs. Harris-Perry backstage about the ‘Year of the Vagina,’ Obama as a possible one-term president and being MSNBC’s new black woman role model.

Parlour: You talked about your book Sister Citizen during Essence Music Festival, what’s it about?
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Sister Citizen is about the way stereotypes continue to influence how African American women feel about themselves. The idea of the jezebel, mammy, angry black woman and strong black woman as constraints on our sense of self is a core theme but when we try to address that, we take individual psychological routes to feel better about ourselves. I’m really interested in citizenship, the fight against those stereotypes and our making claims about our rights to be full citizens and engaging politically.

How are black women are fighting for citizenship?
The book was released long before I knew 2012 would be the ‘Year of the Vagina’ and we would continue talking about things I thought were settled. In the context of the book, I was talking specifically about how citizens feel no shame making demands on the state. Rich white men say ‘Give me a tax break, I’m a job creator.’ But our needs, for example, reasonable affordable childcare, sufficient food subsidies or decent affordable housing and healthcare, somehow it’s shameful for us to demand those things. It’s both an issue of our citizenship within the American landscape as Americans, but also our citizenship within blackness. For black women, I see it as two-prong, meaning we’re not meant to ask for anything from the black political agenda so we’re told to make our issues secondary to that of the endangered black man. We’ll talk about, for example, the ‘No Snitching’ policy, but we’ll only talk about how that impacts a 20-year-old urban man who’s caught up in prison. But we don’t talk about how the silence impacts girls who are ‘ride or die’ and end up in prison for doing nothing.

On your show, you’ve said that American imperialism is the burden and pleasure of African Americans, what do you mean?
It’s really easy as a Black American to forget that we are actively benefiting from the continued oppression of working people around the world. As poor as poorest black Americans are, we are still wearing goods and participating in services that come from children who are basically in slavery in other parts of the world. Because we have our own history of oppression, a lot of times we think that frees us from our own social responsibility but it doesn’t. We shouldn’t all feel shamed, but as Americans we’re part of that [history and present]. We both have all the dis-privileges of our blackness but we also have all of the privileges of our Americaness, especially middle class black folks. We have to be very careful about recognition of how our own economic, social and political privileges are still built on those who have less in this country and certainly always internationally.

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