The Smartest Nerd in the Room

Why Melissa Harris-Perry is America's "Smartest Nerd"

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates on why Harris-Perry's unique background makes her voice so important

by The Atlantic, January 07, 2014

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The Smartest Nerd in the Room

The Smartest Nerd in the Room

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There is a sense that Romney's grandchild should be off-limits to mockery. That strikes me as fair. It also doesn't strike me that mocking was what Harris-Perry was doing. The problem was making any kind of light of a fraught subject—a Black child being reared by a family whose essential beliefs were directly shaped by White supremacy, whose patriarch sought to lead a movement which derives most its energy from White supremacy. That's a weighty subtext. But there is no one more worthy, and more capable, of holding that conversation than America's most foremost public intellectual—Melissa Harris-Perry.

There may well be intellectuals with more insight. And there are surely public figures with a greater audience. But there is no one who communicates the work of thinking to more people with more rigor and effect than Harris-Perry. Her show brings a broad audience into a classroom without using dead academic language and tortured abstractions. And she does this while awarding humanity on a national stage to a group unaccustomed to such luxury—Black women.

Specifically in this instance, Harris-Perry is a Black woman with a White mother. Through her mother, Harris-Perry has a Mormon ancestry that extends back through generations. This is not a fact recently produced to inoculate her against criticism, but a theme that she returns to regularly (h/t Mediaite):

My American story is both the story of enslaved ancestors, sold on the street corner of Richmond, Virginia, on my father’s side, and of a persecuted religious minority in the American West on my mother’s side..

Weighing in on Anthony Weiner, she once noted:

I am descended from Mormon ancestors. And I had Mormon ancestors who were imprisoned for consensual bigamy. And, you know, I‘ve always had a lot of anxiety about that because—you know, my sense is if people are adults making a choice to be in complicated marriages, you know, what does the state have to say about that?

Harris-Perry is uniquely qualified to speak on racism, Mormonism, and history. It's true that what she offered was a humor segment, not a deep analysis. But I strongly suspect that the humor originated in her own feeling of comfort with the subject matter, justified by her biography.

There's a temptation to pile Harris-Perry, and this episode, into the gaffe-parade that is cable news. When you devote 24 hours to mostly unscripted talking, thoughtlessness happens. But no show on cable has higher thoughtfulness-per-hour ratio than Harris-Perry's. MSNBC, recovering from the very real problems of comments by Martin Bashir and Alec Baldwin, may not see this right now. That's a shame. Melissa Harris-Perry makes America smarter. And she does so in a way that we have not seen before and will not soon see again.

Read it at The Atlantic.

 
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