In Black intellectual circles, The Melissa Harris-Perry Show was the mountaintop. In no other space in cable news would we hear discussions on the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, politics and pop culture. Harris-Perry's show was a relief from the agonizing, trite and predictable 24-hour sound bites on other programs. The Melissa Harris-Perry Show is where you not only got the news, but you were pushed to see beyond your lens regardless of your background. Sadly, after four years, #Nerdland has come to an end. In a country where we are supposedly more diverse than ever, where African-Americans and Latinos are the major voting blocs for elections, there is now a serious void in cable news for people of color.
I have appeared on nearly every major news network, but one of the goals in my career was to be a guest on The Melissa Harris-Perry Show. On September 20, 2015, I was finally a guest, joining a conversation about diversity in Hollywood, which focused on Matt Damon's now infamous comments, "when we're talking about diversity you do it in the casting of the movie, not the casting of the show." Before our segment began I said, "Matt Damon ruined Jason Bourne for me!" The table laughed and once we returned from commercial break, Harris-Perry turned to me and said, "We were just saying it ruined Jason Bourne for us." Her setup was organic, a rarity for the rigidness or often staged drama of cable news.
Although some claim Melissa's show suffered from low ratings, I had never experienced such a surge of social media traffic as I did when I appeared on The Melissa-Harris Perry Show — even more than The O'Reilly Factor, which is supposedly the number-one cable news show in the world. What was most interesting is two out of three guest commentators were LGBT-identified: Danielle Moodie-Mills and myself. However, we weren't talking queer politics. Melissa Harris-Perry and her team did not limit us in the box of our identities, which is true for many minority journalists. Often, you are only asked to discuss issues that match your identity. I was in #Nerdland heaven.
I returned to the Melissa Harris-Perry Show on November 1, for the release of my BET.com documentary, Holler If You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church. I approached several outlets to promote the film but it was Melissa Harris-Perry's team that said yes without hesitation. Before my segment started she said to me with sincere enthusiasm, "I loved your film!" Harris-Perry was the first person, outside of people who worked on the documentary, to give me any feedback and her affirmation profoundly humbled me. She added, "I loved it because while we have the end of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and the win of same-sex marriage, there is still so much work to do. Your doc made that clear." Melissa and I engaged in a layered conversation about Black queer folks in churches, the gift of Black Christianity and pushing the narrative beyond the stereotypical, homophobic preacher. Harris-Perry was the first stop in the awesome journey of my documentary, which has taken me all the way to the White House.
The Melissa Harris-Perry Show shed light on topics we wouldn't otherwise hear on mainstream news networks. It tackled the issues of sex workers, Black Lives Matter beyond headlines, politicizing Scandal and thoughtful (and respectful) critiques of President Barack Obama. One of Harris-Perry's greatest achievements was her discussion of Black feminism, which was nothing new for Black feminists but groundbreaking for cable news. After decades of the face of feminism being limited to white women, Harris-Perry reintroduced a definition of feminism that insisted everyone exist in their own space of authenticity, whether it is Bell Hooks, Laverne Cox or Beyoncé.
Know this: My story about the support from Melissa Harris-Perry and her team is not unique. The Melissa Harris-Perry Show gave many journalists and activists some of their big breaks on television. There was suddenly agency from people who didn't have a voice in cable news like Cherno Biko, Brittney Cooper, teenage activists and Twitter personalities. Where else would we hear these diverse voices? Melissa didn't tear a door down, she held it open and said, "Come on in, I am here, so you should be here as well." In addition, she never failed to own her privilege as a cisgender woman with a weekly television show — and welcomed critiques from her audience. She was clearly aware of the space she held on television.
While columnists are battling out think-pieces about the wonders and whys of her departure, I will deeply miss The Melissa Harris-Perry Show, especially in these times of epic change. Obviously, this is not the end for Melissa, she will continue in other capacities. But that said, who knows when there will be another show on cable news featuring a brilliantly critical, seriously engaging, and unapologetically Black woman.
Thank you, Melissa Harris-Perry. Long live #Nerdland.
Watch Dr. Harris-Perry talk about her inspiration and influences at the 2011 Women's Conference, below:
(Photo: video screenshot via msnbc.com)
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