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MSNBC Show Host Discusses “Blackness” at Clark University

Friday, February 17, 2012


Clark University is hosting a series of events to honor black culture, and one future MSNBC star took the time to address students just days before her show hits the air.

Melissa Harris-Perry, an award-winning author and host of her own MSNBC show to premier this Saturday, spoke Monday night in Clark’s Atwood Hall to answer a simple question: What does it mean to be black? The speech, entitled “Black Is… Complicated,” is a part of Clark University’s African American Intellectual Culture series that aims to encourage students to dig deeper than simply celebrating black culture.

“During black history month, we just celebrate blackness,” Harris-Perry said to a packed assembly hall. “Which is fine, it needs to be celebrated every once in a while because a lot of bad things are said about it. But this felt like an opportunity to actually think about blackness.”

To think about blackness, Harris-Perry asserted, you must also understand that to be black has many meanings. She repeatedly referenced Toni Morrison’s description of Bill Clinton as America’s first black president as an example of political blackness, and later stressed that a person’s racial identity is constantly interacting with their gender and sexual identity.


Author and political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry addresses students and faculty at Clark University.

Before Harris-Perry took the stage, Professor Ravi Perry, the night’s master of ceremonies, took his stab at addressing the issue of “blackness.” But, instead of giving a definition, Perry told the crowd that defining blackness is a fluid exercise.

We are talking about blackness

“When talking about blackness, it really merits further explanation,” Perry said. “What is, in fact, blackness, has been defined and re-defined over and over.”

Harris-Perry addressed the issue of the constantly changing definition of blackness, but was more concerned with how being black is still viewed in American culture. She showed the crowd a graphic picture of a group lynching, and asked them what they noticed about “the American citizens standing below the hanging American citizens.” The answer that she was looking for was that you could see their faces. These were not the hooded “Klansmen” we had read about, these people did not hide from their acts of violence. In fact, they all looked at the camera as the picture was being taken.

Clark Concert Choir

The Clark University Concert Choir performed moments before Harris-Perry took the stage.

Bush and Race

“I remember when George W. Bush said the worst thing that happened during his presidency was Kanye West calling his a racist,” Harris-Perry said. “At first I was like, ‘You do know September 11th happened during your presidency…’ But what that made me realize was that he was ashamed of being called a racist. The first step to ending racism is when people look away from the camera.”

 The next event in Clark’s series will take place April 12th when graphic novel artist John Jennings comes to speak about his work and how it relates to the African American cultural experience. For more information, visit Clark University’s calendar here.


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