I am an unabashed Melissa Harris-Perry fan. I think she’s smart, unafraid to wear braids on television, and an objectively “cool” kind of public intellectual in the tradition of a long line of black feminism, but also just good writers pondering worthwhile topics to move public discourse forward.
(Side note: How does one get the job of public intellectual? It sounds so invigorating and also like even though I would assume it would be all chats with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Perry over espressos at indie coffee shops that it would be a lot more getting doctoral degrees and struggling in the ever-present pulling of yourself in many different directions of interest).
As an unabashed fan, I have watched her speeches, I have nodded along to her show, I have kicked myself for not somehow going to Tulane University. But while in Portland on a business trip, I stumbled across her book in Powell’s and decided to really solidify my fandom.
And boy am I not disappointed.
Sister Citizen makes the case that the inner life of a black woman and her struggles grappling with, succeeding in, and feeling undermined by her community is in and of itself a political act. That sociology, literature, cognitive psychology, and of course, political science, can all be blended into a master work of what it means to be someone like Perry or myself in modern America.
This is hinged on the idea of a crooked room, where although there are some people who independently can find their orientation, in the face of a room set crooked by 10, 20, or 30 degrees, people will tilt themselves to meet what their senses are perceiving as correct. She applies this cognitive research to the onslaught of messaging from literature, television, friends, colleagues, ill-advised New York Times pieces, etc., and how that can both change the perceptions of how others see you but also of how you see yourself and your truth. She legitimizes and strings along this point in one seminal exploration of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the political implications of Hurricane Katrina, media coverage of the black bodies involved in his national tragedy often treated like refugees, and the cognitive crooked room research to posit that all of these disparate pieces come out to make a whole in which existence in a certain type of body is a struggle that has vast implications politically. It’s a fascinating deconstruction that happens to hit on so many different subject areas that I like to explore: minority literature, gender politics, anthropological and sociological overtones to current debates, media criticism, language choices and their implications on perception, and the list goes on.
What thrills me most of all about this, however, is that it opens up a dialogue for every single type of person to consider that maybe they aren’t crooked, but the room is – and muse on what they can do to change it.
A friend and I were talking about our exasperation with certain things in our chosen career fields and when I said, “What can you do about it though?” she thoughtfully replied, “Want for change and try to become it?”
I won’t end this too cliché-ly on a “Be the change you wish to see in the world” kind of note, but it does dovetail with a different quote that keeps popping up in my mind and really made me feel quite differently as soon as I heard it: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
You can notice the crooked room, analyze and lament it, and even try to change it, but never forget that everyone’s life is composed of struggle, and a great way to grapple with that is realizing that the only person you are in competition with is yourself. Be better than you yesterday and hope tomorrow you are better than you are today.