Even serious journalists covered Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday earlier this month People–style, writing about the first lady’s hair, her trip to Hawaii, and her latest thoughts about Botox. By contrast, on her MSNBC weekend show, Melissa Harris-Perry turned the birthday into an opportunity to give a lesson on civil rights from an African-American perspective. Talking directly to the camera for a full five minutes, she delivered what felt very much like a freshman history lecture, starting with the 1963 March on Washington and connecting every important event to a milestone in Michelle Obama’s life.
How did such a brainiac land her own cable news show? Harris-Perry doesn’t just get away with saying the word “intersectionality” on TV, using #nerdland as her show’s hashtag, and publishing an online “syllabus” with each episode—she’s beloved for it. When MSNBC gave Harris-Perry her own show in 2012, progressives reacted a little like they did when Obama first won election: Can this really be happening? At that point she was already a tenured professor in African-American studies and politics at Tulane, a columnist at The Nation and a frequent guest and sometime sub on the Rachel Maddow Show. What stood out about Harris-Perry was not just her liberal views, or that she was an African-American woman—MSNBC has other Black female anchors—but her ability to talk about “the complexities at the intersections of race, gender and politics,” as Anna Holmes put it.
The broad hope was that she would elevate the level of blather on cable news. And maybe you could even read into that hope a subconscious desire to redirect the unrequited love for Obama, because she too is a politically progressive professor who grew up in a biracial family, only she never lets you down. Of course, you can’t be a television personality and not occasionally screw up.
Harris Perry’s low point came in late December when she aired a segment showing a photo of the extended Romney clan with Mitt in the center holding his adopted grandson Kieran, who is Black, on his knee. One of the guests began to sing the Sesame Street ditty, “One of these things is not like the other,” and hilarity ensued. A few days later, Harris-Perry issued a sincere, tearful apology on the air and pointed out on Twitter that as a Black child born into an extended White Mormon family she should have known better.
At the time, Ta-Nehisi Coates defended her in the Atlantic, calling Harris-Perry—the only tenured professor with her own talk show, according to a New York Times profile—“America’s foremost public intellectual.”