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What Melissa Harris-Perry Has Taught Us About Black Women and Silence

This week, in honor of Women’s History month, we re-post this essay by Trimiko Melancon, author of Unbought and Unbossed, published in Ms. Magazine

Anyone who knows anything about the politics of black womanhood is familiar with how silence operates in relation to black women. And the past few weeks have provided us with an opportunity to consider black women and silence, or the lack thereof, thanks to TV show host Melissa Harris-Perry and her explosive fallout with MSNBC.Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Professor at Wake Forest University, hosted the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC until recently. She is hands-down a brilliant scholar, political scientist and intellectual—both on and off camera. I’ve had the distinct privilege of witnessing this firsthand while working with her when I was the inaugural fellow at the Anna Julia Cooper Project, of which she is the founding director, and when she wrote the dynamic foreword to my book, Black Female Sexualities. Her assessments and analyses—whether conventional, controversial or provocative—have been sharp and welcome on myriad topics. She has invariably provided visibility, voice and a platform for those who—and that which—would have otherwise been neglected.

Unbought_smSo when MSNBC preempted the MHP show and attempted to “disappear” her, as she says, Harris-Perry was not having it. She did not stand by silently or “go gentle into that good night,” as poet Dylan Thomas writes—and her reaction didn’t come as a surprise. Why might we expect otherwise? The truth is Harris-Perry has never, ever been silent: not about who or what matters or about issues that warrant attention. She has spoken boldly about Trayvon Martin, embraced Black Girl Magic and worn tampon earrings on her show to protest anti-abortion legislation. This is, in part, not only the signature beauty and essence of her work, but precisely why she has an incredible following. She has provided one of the few platforms for people to speak, be acknowledged and not be silent or silenced. Harris-Perry’s refusal to be silent as MSNBC preempted her show for election coverage, and her refusal to accept the network’s anti-disparagement clause, perfectly fit her pattern of pushing back.

What, then, are some black feminist lessons we might learn—during Women’s History Month and generally—from MHP and MSNBC regarding black women and silence?

1. “Our Silence Will Not Protect Us”

That’s right. As Audre Lorde noted so eloquently, it simply will not. So all the flimsy criticisms of Harris-Perry’s refusal to be silent have just got to go, as does loaded language about her as “a brilliant, intelligent but challenging and unpredictable personality,” as an MSNBC executive asserted. Such language insults Harris-Perry (and us all) and reduces her to someone who just “went off” (or does not know how to “act right”). And that’s not only simplistic—it’s downright unfair. What Harris-Perry demonstrated in speaking out against MSNBC is called complexity and being a full-fledged human being with the capacity for, and right to, free expression. And women, especially black women, generally aren’t allowed to embody those qualities without facing castigation and gendered stereotypes.

2. “I Am Not Wrong: Wrong Is Not My Name”

Let’s be clear: This situation calls attention to the ways black women must constantly prove their own inherent worth, brilliance, value and #BlackGirlGenius within a white system. There’s no single monolithic way for black women (or anyone, for that matter) to react in circumstances, inevitable or not. Harris-Perry was not wrong in her reaction—she simply has dimension, and so do other black women. Folks need to listen to black women without unwarranted questioning, incredulity or disbelief regarding the authenticity of our words or actions—or expect that we must consistently submit or be dignified in our responses. MHP has the right—and an actual freedom of speech—to not be silent when, how and if she chooses, as do we all. As we know by now, acting right will not save us our jobs or, for that matter, our lives.

3, “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House”

Networks like MSNBC need to act right. Yes, of course they must meet ratings demands. But far too often these kinds of entities capitalize on the labor and talent of folks like Harris-Perry, then quickly dispose of them when their views no longer line up with the network’s. Ask Keith Olbermann, Martin Bashir, Al Sharpton, Alex Wagner, Karen Finney, Joy Reid or others. Kudos to Melissa Harris-Perry and respect to her for fighting the good fight, refusing to be silent and knowing not only her worth, but that “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.”

Trimiko Melancon, a professor of English, African American studies and women’s studies at Loyola University New Orleans, is the author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and editor of Black Female Sexualities. Connect with her at trimikomelancon.com or on Twitter @trimikomelancon.

Celebrating National Archives Month

This week in North Philly Notes, Margery Sly, Director of the Special Collections Research Center at Temple University Libraries helps usher in October as National Archives Month

ArchiveFeverWhere do the authors, historians, and scholars who write the books get their material?  Where do they find the raw material of history? Archivists would say ‘in archives, of course.’ And during the month of October, archivists celebrate American Archives Month, which is designed to give us the “opportunity to tell (or remind) people that items that are important to them are being preserved, cataloged, cared for, and made accessible by archivists.”

Long before our role and terminology was hijacked and bastardized by techies (‘archive’ never used to be a verb), Word’s spellcheck (which doesn’t recognize ‘archives’ as single noun), and the general public, archivists have been collecting, preserving, and sharing the content of every kind of information-bearing form and medium the world has produced. From papyrus and cuneiform tablets, to legal documents in Latin with great wax seals, to onion skin and thermo-fax, to born digital material, we work to ensure that the record and its content survives and is available to the widest possible number of users. Archivists and the materials we preserve are in it for the long haul.

Perhaps long ago when archivists documented only the work of governments and ‘great white men,’ archives could legitimately have been described by the still popular adjectives ‘dry and dusty.’  Instead, for decades, we’ve been working hard to document diversity.

Historians will acknowledge the work of historian and archivist Mary Ritter Beard, who founded the World Center for Women’s Archives (WCWA) in 1935. While that initial project was not a success, it led to the creation of two national women’s history collections in 1940: the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College and what became the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe College. Beard’s path-breaking book, Woman As Force In History: A Study in Traditions and Realities (1946) reiterated her belief that women are the co-creators of history and excoriated male historians for their disregard of that reality.

BeardIn 1967, the History Department at Temple University conceived of the idea of building an Urban Archives, documenting the social, economic, political, and physical development of the greater Philadelphia region throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. These archives reflect the history of our urban region through a wide variety of organization records, including those that served or were established by immigrant and minority populations. Collections range from the Nationalities Service Center  founded in the 1920s to serve new immigrants to the Friends Neighborhood Guild  founded in 1879 and still serving the residents of East Poplar. The addition of the Philadelphia Jewish Archives collections in 2009 added even more content to the rich holdings at Temple.

A few years later, in 1969 at a time of social, Temple library staff created what became the Contemporary Culture Collection—documenting counter culture movements throughout the United States by gathering underground, fugitive, and non-traditional materials  Archives of organizations such as the Liberation News Service and the Safe Energy Communication Council  help us document social, political, economic and cultural history as it pertains to minority groups, the counterculture, and the fringe.

Both these focuses, now a part of Temple University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, continue to grow in depth. And often we acquire new collections that cross the urban and counterculture boundaries. One was the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force records. More recently, we became the archives for Occupy Philadelphia. That collection is both rich and deeply hybrid in format: flyers, posters, minutes, clippings, e-mail, born digital, ephemera, newsletters, photographs, sound and video recordings. This is the reality of archives—and the sources for this and future generations’ research.

To borrow a quote from the Society of American Archivists: “The relevance of archives to society and the completeness of the documentary record hinge on the profession’s success in ensuring that its members, the holdings that they collect and manage, and the users that they serve reflect the diversity of society as a whole.”

So Yesterday

In this blog entry, Allan Johnson, author of The Gender Knot and The Forest and the Trees writes about how things have changed—or have not—since the last editions of his classic Temple University Press books.

Awhile back I received an email from a college teacher using one of my books, The Gender Knot, in her class. She mentioned a disagreement among her students about whether my account of male privilege still holds true. One of the students settled the argument by flipping to the front of the book where the copyright date is found and pointing out that, well, there it is, the thing is eight years old.

That was easy.

Gender Knot 3e_smApparently, there is a ‘believe until’ date on descriptions of reality, or at least ones we’d like to see go away. And social systems can change almost as fast as Apple puts out a new iPhone, except, unlike Apple, no one has to actually do anything to make it happen. I don’t know exactly how many years it takes for a book to lose its credibility, but for some readers it is shorter than the average length of time that people own a car.

Sometimes I hear from a student who wants me to know that however bad things may have been for my generation, things are different now. That was then and the new generation has left all that behind.

There is of course change, and there is good research showing that most of it happens between generations, but the idea that we can go from up-to-your-necks to past-all-that in the space of a few decades, not to mention years, is something else.

What might account for such sudden and dramatic change they do not say, as if it somehow explains itself. It’s not that I don’t get it. When I think back to being nineteen or so, I don’t think it occurred to me that my generation might have been a continuation of anything remotely connected to that of our parents. We didn’t have to do anything to be unlike them, to break from the past, to start all over, because something new is what we were in spite of all those years of going to school and reading books and watching tv and everything else that goes with being socialized to fit the world into which we are born.

And don’t adults give graduation speeches exhorting young people to go out and be the hope of the future by being different from them?

It speaks to the power of both individualism and wishful thinking that we can sustain what amounts to a myth of self-invention by which each generation starts out fresh and decides who they are without having to deal with any historical or emotional baggage that they didn’t pack themselves. If everything is all about my experience and I don’t experience the thing myself, then it must not be there. “I have never been discriminated against as a woman,” she says. “I don’t see color,” says he. “If I can do what I want then so can anyone else.”

The myth of self-invention is connected, in turn, to the idea that everyone is different from everyone else. I’ve never really known what that means, or, more precisely, why it matters so much. Why should we care that no one out there is an exact match for us when the thing that makes our lives possible is all the ways in which we are alike—presenting ourselves and behaving in ways that other people will understand and accept as familiar. So what if there are dead ringers for me somewhere in the world?

And if everyone is supposedly unique, then it follows that everyone must have their own opinions and perceptions. I suppose that’s true in the sense that everyone has their own underwear, but, again, what does that mean when those same opinions and perceptions (not to mention underwear) show up in millions of other people, there being only so many possibilities?

And yet, we persist in the idea that our experience and what we know are somehow both unique to us and independent of the world through which we come into being and exist. I think, therefore I am—not I belong, connect, relate, share, participate, or continue some form of what came before.

Which brings me back to expiration dates on reality and how easily unpleasant things get relegated to a ‘past’ where they no longer apply, as if we can give them up as we would a habit or a fashion. And if problems like race or gender or poverty persist, it must be because there are individuals who, for whatever reason, have decided to be different from the rest of ‘us.’

The thing is, though, that social systems, and systems of privilege in particular, do not continue from force of habit, inertia, or individual choice. They are more than a collection of self-conscious attitudes or beliefs or styles that come and go on their own or through individual self-improvement.

Systems continue because of powerful forces exerted across generations, including adaptations to new circumstances so as to preserve the underlying structure and effect while seeming to have changed. “Power does not yield except by demand,” wrote Frederick Douglass more than 100 years ago, and as far as I can tell, recent history records precious little of that.

Layout 1The illusion of change is on my mind because a new edition of The Gender Knot, along with another of my books, The Forest and the Trees, has just been published. I spent months digging into the latest data, reviewing what’s been published in books and journals. And has anything changed? Well, of course. We have a black president, for one, and same-sex marriage is gaining support, and words like ‘transgender’ have entered our vocabulary.

But the evidence is also overwhelming that the basic structures of male privilege and white privilege and class privilege and even heterosexual privilege remain solidly intact. The epidemic of rape everywhere from the military to college campuses, the almost complete lack of progress toward gender equity for more than 20 years, the devastation of people of color in the most recent economic collapse, racial segregation and discrimination in hiring and the criminal justice system, the dramatic surge of economic inequality, the almost complete dominance of state and national politics by corporations and the wealthy, the patriarchal capitalist juggernaut that continues its systematic destruction of the Earth . . . you get the idea.

This is not to say that we don’t have the potential to reinvent ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. After all, that is what my work, both public and private, is all about. But such invention comes only from our active engagement with the reality of what has been and how it continues into the present, however much it may shape-shift into forms that give the appearance of change. And however much we might wish it otherwise.

“The past,” wrote William Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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