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MLK Day Speaker Melissa Harris-Perry Offers Perspective on the Absence Of the Narratives of People of Color in the United States

The Academy Chorus and Gospel Choir joined together to sing the hearty refrain of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during the opening celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at All-School Meeting (ASM) last Monday.

The keynote speaker this year was Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor at Wake Forest University, political commentator, activist, and award-winning author. In addition to hosting her own award-winning show on MSNBC, Harris-Perry is currently an editor-at-large at ELLE.com.

LaShawn Springer, Director of Community and Multicultural Development and an organizer of the day’s speakers and events, wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “[Harris-Perry] has been on our shortlist for quite some time because of her work on the intersection of race and gender. In the midst of a highly contentious presidential campaign, now really seemed like the right time to get her to campus… As a political and social commentator, writer and professor, she’s in the business of keeping us honest.”

After remarks from Springer and Linda Griffith, Assistant Head of School for Equity and Inclusion, Auguste White ’17 and Isabel Jauregui ’17 relayed their personal experiences with Harris-Perry’s work before welcoming her to the stage.

“I’ve only seen [Harris-Perry] behind my television screen. She has been an active [presence] since I was 12-years old. She narrated critical, political and social moments and movements for me, [including] the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the natural hair movement, and transgender issues… She’s had a profound impact on me and my family, as a lot of her stories are about black women told in a black woman’s voice,” said White at ASM.

T.Rynne/The Phillipian

Harris-Perry focused her keynote presentation on the power of storytelling and understanding narratives from the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the need for black women leaders today.

Citing King’s usage of the press and television to successfully publicize nationwide movements, she said that social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter can be used to raise awareness and incite action for African-American activists today.

She also stressed the importance of choosing which stories to tell and conveying all aspects of those narratives. For instance, Harris-Perry objected to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., because it fails to acknowledge King’s community.

“Now that [memorial is] just wrong, it reinforces the great big man… who came from nothingness. No, King came out of a community. He came out of a movement, a church, a family, and a bunch of other people doing work. It’s exactly that kind of revision that, for me, is so distressing. In addition to making King still and immobile and disconnected… now, we tell [a different] story of King. It’s a story of [how King], who is a great disruptor of the American story, [is] now part of the perfecting of the American narrative,” said Harris-Perry.

Harris-Perry also discussed the need for the emergence of black girl leaders. She said that there was a need to dismiss patriarchy and encourage “blackness” to be an obstruction of inequality. According to Harris-Perry, asking about the missing stories of black women in history helps foster a more complete picture of the Civil Rights movement and American history.

T.Rynne/The Phillipian

“[It’s] important to get different stories… out there because the black woman voice is so often unheard,” said Amadi Lasenberry ’17. “[Harris-Perry’s] point of view [and speech] wasn’t only geared towards a group of black women on campus, it was for the whole school, which is cool.”

Jack Curtin ’19 said that he gained a new perspective on King and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement through Harris-Perry’s presentation.

“MLK fought for equality, but [Harris-Perry] talked a lot about how he wasn’t widely accepted in his time, but we have to fight these assumptions about him and fit it in our daily lives right now,” said Curtin.

During his closing remarks, Head of School John Palfrey acknowledged the significance of Harris-Perry’s message in the classroom and encouraged students to challenge and advocate for a more inclusive community.

“As a teacher of U.S. history, [Harris-Perry has] given us a counter narrative to one that is taught in so many schools across this country and, I think, our own school… You have given us a lot to think about and reflect on exactly what we are doing in this project of education,” said Palfrey. “[MLK Day] is a day of work… and activism.”

Jan 20, 2017