Melissa Harris-Perry: Winnovating the Contemporary Study of Gender, Race and Politics in the South
This past Saturday (2/1) marked the official start of Black History Month 2014. Also known as African American History Month, Black History Month in the United States traces its historical roots to the efforts of Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History Week that began in the 1920s. Since 1976, every US President has designated February as Black History Month. History.com defines Black History Month as “an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time to recognize the central role of African Americans in US history”. While this definition may seem straightforward enough, a few questions come to mind:
- Whose achievements are being celebrated?
- Who gets to decide whose achievements are celebrated?
- Why don’t we celebrate these achievements year-round if they played a central role in US history?
I remember Black History month in elementary, middle and high school vividly. For an entire month, my school would be concerned with telling the simplified tales of iconic Civil Rights leaders (mostly Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and, if my teacher was especially daring or close to retirement, Malcolm X) through romanticized stories and rhetoric that was apparently deemed unnecessary the other 11 months I spent in the
classroom. As I got older and began to pursue my own education outside of school, I began to read more about Black Americans who played critical local and national roles in American history who I had never heard mentioned in the classroom. Many of these unsung heroes were Black Women who excelled alongside their male counterparts in the struggle for Black liberation in the US, but were not credited for their work in mainstream history books. Luckily, our Black foremothers were not seeking historical recognition when they set forth in their efforts; they were simply trying to create safer and more equal spaces for themselves and their posterity. They were the Ida B. Wells’, the Shirley Chilsoms, the Dorothy Heights’…they were the Anna Julia Coopers.
Anna Julia Cooper was born in North Carolina in 1858 to an enslaved woman by the name of Hannah Stanley Haywood, and her white slaveholder. Attending Oberlin college, Cooper received her BA in 1884, and a MA in Mathematics in 1887 before moving to Washington DC to work on what she described as “the education of neglected people”. As a community educator and leader, she focused on education as a means of social mobility, especially for Black Women’s advancement through the attainment of higher education (read a full biography of Cooper here). An advocate
of creating space for Black Women, Cooper founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington and helped open the first YWCA for black women who were denied membership in the original organization. In her later years, Cooper served as President of Frelinghuysen University, a school that provided courses for residents of DC who did not have access to higher education. She notably penned a book, A Voice From the South, which broke down the complexity of black women’s lives in the context of their intersecting identities that were targeted by oppression. For those who know of her, she is remembered as an author, educator, speaker and one of the top African-American scholars in US history, comparable to respected and recognized Black male American scholars such as W.E.B. Dubois.
Up until my sophomore year of college, I had never seen or heard the name Anna Julia Cooper in an academic setting. In 2011 however, I was walking on campus and saw a flyer for a lecture on Black Womanhood that was hosted by the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South. Curious about the topic and finding out what the Cooper Project was (the talk was given was entitled “When Race Matters: Private Bodies, Public Texts or: Why Henrietta Lack Did Not Need ‘The Help’” by Dr. Karla Holloway of Duke University), I attended the lecture and followed up afterwards with the Cooper Project, discovering along the way that the project was just as powerful and necessary to the continued exploration of Blackness in America as it’s name sake.
The Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South is a New Orleans based LLC that focuses on supporting programs, courses and research at the intersections of gender, race, and politics in the South. In 2011, Director Melissa Harris-Perry (best known for her MSNBC show of the same name ) founded the Cooper Project with seven focus areas in its
multifaceted mission. Each of these focus areas centers on the importance of recognizing intersectionality in Southern contexts, and empowering individuals and communities to explore the meaning and implications of these intersections in their everyday lives. Harris-Perry has been living with her husband and 12-year-old daughter in New Orleans for the past 3 years working as a Political Science Professor at Tulane University, a host on MSNBC, and most recently, as the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project.
I had the pleasure of sitting down to interview Melissa Harris-Perry about her Winnovative work with the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South recently:
Tell us about the Anna Julia Cooper Project
Harris-Perry: I am the founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South. Though it is very young, it has already undergone a big change since we launched it. Initially, we launched the Cooper Project as an academic project under the auspices of Tulane University, and in a lot of ways, it was inspired by my own academic experiences on the tenure track at the University of Chicago. Michael Dawson had founded the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at UChicago, but then he left to Harvard, so [the remaining] faculty-of-color had to decide what to do. Not only did we decide to save the center, but we decided we wanted to expand it. The seven years I spent in Chicago both establishing the center and working with my colleagues were the most important years I’ve had as an intellectual learning what interdisciplinary work is.
The other part of my experience (both at UChicago then Princeton for five years) was the recognition that the premier institutions in the nation are in the Midwest, the East Coast, and the West – and although there are great southern schools like Duke, they haven’t quite established the same framework for really big think tank projects. [The Cooper Project] is starved of resources, especially since when we moved out from under Tulane, but the vision is to be both a physical space and an intellectual space that links together issues of race, gender and politics but with a very specific eye in the South. We’ve interacted mostly with 501©3 organizations in New Orleans and undergraduate students in on campus, and we’ve gotten extremely positive responses both in terms of enthusiasm and in terms of the students who have formed the core of the project with the work they do.
Why Anna Julia Cooper?
Harris-Perry: Anna Julia Cooper is the embodiment of all the things I talk about. The premier center for the study of African American life, culture, history, research etc. at an academic institution is the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard. While we don’t want to remake it exactly, especially in terms of civic engagement, that’s the intellectual vision of how good the Cooper Project could be. Du Bois though, was the ultimate male patriarch, ‘talented tenth’, northern, Massachusetts, liberal integrationist. Anna was his intellectual peer, his interlocutor, his critic, his friend and she was also a woman in the south. The only reason we know Du Bois and not Cooper is because she was operating
not only as a woman, but as a woman with community – she was teaching in high schools, dealing with young people and the community. So because she was in the less rarified space and she was a woman, we don’t know her name. Cooper is Du Bois…she is the way that Du Bois operates in a woman’s body at the turn of the century.
What is Winnovative about the Cooper Project?
Harris-Perry: We are very different from a lot of the other Winnovators on your site because we are small and we are mostly thinking as opposed to doing at this moment. We are Winnovative in the same way others you’ve profiled are in that I am willing to do this a little on a wing and prayer right now believing that if we put it out there, the need is great enough and goals are important enough that we will find the resources to make it happen. This work is important…even if we don’t have all of the resources for it.
So if you had all the resources you needed, what would the Cooper Project look like?
Harris-Perry: We’d be contributing on three different levels, the first being research which would happen in two ways. We would be providing a space, an intellectual environment for scholars doing independent work around these [intersectional] questions who need a place that supports that work. The other piece would be generating our own empirical research. I’m a social scientist so a lot of the work we support through the Cooper Project is literary or historical, which is fine, but I think there’s a ton left to be done in terms of the empirical analysis of the lives of women of color – particularly undocumented immigrant women and African American women in the US South, and ultimately, the Global South. The second level would be the curricular component of teaching classes, which is something we are doing now. Beyond that, we would have a curricular component that called for the same kind of inter-institutional commitments between Tulane students and other local universities in the manner that our faculties interact. The third piece would be what I think of as civic engagement or engaged scholarship. I don’t like the idea of ‘public service’; it’s not about launching Cooper fellows out into the world to paint houses. Rather, [we want them] to engage in scholarship that would be long term commitments in the city.
When asked to name a Winnovator (Woman Innovator), who comes to mind?
Harris-Perry: I’ve got three, two of which are alive. One is Cathy Cohen who was my direct mentor
at UChicago. She was the leader of the group of people who saved and extended the race center there and she is the principle investigator for the Black Youth Project. She is the person who taught me a different way to be an academic, she [W]innovated a particular way to be a professor. The other person is Rachel Maddow. If Cathy was the person who helped me think about how I could be a professor differently, then Rachel is the person who developed a model for how to be a different kind of cable talk show host. [She showed us] that you could actually bring about thoughtful research and not just have a strange person yelling at you during a cable talk show.
The one who is no longer alive is Ida B Wells. She was the person who brought journalism and social science together around social justice issues. If there’s anything I want to do, it’s to bring journalism and social science together under social justice issues and I think she’s the key.
What are you currently reading and/or what is the last book you finished reading?
Harris-Perry: I just finished reading Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories. I also just got back from Puerto Rico where I was reading Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward on the way there and back.
What would you create if you had no boundaries or obstacles?
Harris-Perry: …Probably The Cooper Project, more specifically the Anna Julia Cooper Center to provide that intellectual space.
What is the biggest obstacle you have overcome and how did you overcome it?
Harris-Perry: My biggest obstacles have been failures, the ways I’ve failed personally, such as my divorce, or professionally, like not being promoted to full professor at Princeton. I think the academy is full of rhythmic failure and rejection and you have to figure out that it’s part of the process and decide how to respond to it and how to not become too brittle in the face of it.
If you could write a comic book, who would the hero be?
Harris-Perry: Oh that’s easy, Parker, my kid. She strikes me as a comic book hero already…she’s bigger than life, intense, deeply emotional and dresses funny.
What is your favorite quote?
“Talent is helpful in writing but guts are absolutely essential” Jessamyn West
I love the idea that talent by itself is fine, but really what it takes to be a writer or any creative type of person is having the courage to create.
What fictional character do you most identify with? Why?
Harris-Perry: There are two who I identify with in different ways at different times. One is Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story and the other is Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. They are two sides of the same thing, which is a lack of self-awareness. Wilbur always thinks he is less powerful than he actually is and it requires his friends to teach him that he is actually a leader. Buzz on the other hand, thinks he is much more than he actually is and requires his friends to show him that even though he’s great, he’s still just a toy. I think I bounce between Wilbur and Buzz, but both make me realize that the ability to have intimate friends around you to help you accurately see yourself is very important.
What innovation could not live without?
Harris-Perry: At the moment, the airplane. Presumably I could be fine without it, but at this point I feel like third of my life is lived on airplanes just because of the commute between New Orleans [where I teach] and New York [for the show]. I am in New Orleans Monday through Thursday and in New York Friday through Sunday and without an airplane, that is just impossible.
If you could bring back one person from the dead, who would it be and why? (Don’t worry they would be fully functioning and not a zombie!!)
Harris-Perry: Anna obviously! I’d want her to come hang out and talk to me and figure it out and tell me what to do with the Center.
If you would like to stay updated on the Cooper Project’s events, please visit their website.
Latest posts by Mwende Katwiwa (see all)
- Octavia Butler: Winnovating Science Fiction - May 20, 2015
- Cleo Kentaro: Winnovating TransActivism in East Africa - February 2, 2015
- Lauren Chief Elk: Winnovating Visibility for Indigenous Women - January 13, 2015
- L’lerrét Jazelle Ailith: Winnovating Transgender Youth Activism - November 17, 2014
- Loretta Ross: Winnovating Reproductive Justice - September 30, 2014