Dec 19, 201209:42 AM
Dispatches from a New Orleans Newcomer
An Interview with Melissa Harris-Perry
It's almost Christmas (just six days!!!!), but I decided to take a break from the holiday blogging and share a recent interview with you. I had the opportunity to interview Melissa Harris-Perry, a New Orleans resident and host of the show "Melissa Harris-Perry" on MSNBC. She's also a political science professor at Tulane and she's a columnist for The Nation. She has also written a few books AND she's a mom and wife. She does all this while spending part of the week in New Orleans and part of the week in New York. Just hearing about her schedule made me exhausted.
Melissa is clearly an interesting person and a famous New Orleanian, so when I received an email telling me she would be available for interviews while filming segments for MSNBC's promotional Lean Forward campaign, I decided I really wanted to talk to her. Not only is Melissa a successful woman, but she is also one of New Orleans' biggest fans and she has brought a lot of awareness to the city and its rebuilding.
I met Melissa and her crew yesterday, Dec. 18, in Jackson Square to see some behind-the-scenes action of her Lean Forward shoot. When Melissa and the crew had a break, we all wandered over to Café Du Monde where she and I talked about New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina and her thoughts following the events in Newtown, Conn.
Nola Newbie: I heard that you picked the spot in Jackson Square for your Lean Forward promo, so why did you choose Jackson Square?
Melissa Harris Perry: My only requirement was it had to be in New Orleans. I cannot "lean forward" in New York. It has to be in New Orleans. We looked at a lot of different places. We looked on campus at Tulane, we looked at some of the neighborhoods because I live in a shotgun house and I love the iconic neighborhood shots. But we ultimately decided on Jackson Square I think because, as much as the neighborhoods are iconic, when you see that, you know that it is New Orleans. So part of it is as people are flipping through, we want them to see that this is New Orleans. We have something to say from this place. When I first got the show, one of my major commitments was that we would not say all politics happen between D.C. and New York. There’s always this assumption that something either happens in D.C. or happens in New York. To me, Southern politics are the most interesting.
So why do you say that? Because of your background?
Well part of it is because I’m a Southerner. But the other thing is, part of the way to think about it is this is the part of the country that lost the war. This part of the country very seriously considered at one point not being part of the plot. [The South] generates not only a different history, but a different set of assumptions about government and about people. It’s also an incredibly racially diverse part of the country. Even though, like people in the North are always like “Oh those Southern racists,” but we’re the ones actually figuring race out. We’re the ones actually working on it. We’re the ones actually dealing with all the complicated effects.
And the other thing is Southern poverty is so different than like... There’s like this 1990s version of “urban poverty” is Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia. But our poverty is different. When we talk about poverty, and when we talk about Southern poverty, it’s really important.
You bought a house to restore, but it was destroyed in Hurricane Isaac. I just heard you talking about turning it into a garden?
Yeah, that’s the plan. We just got the fence up. It’s a huge lot.
[We stop for a second while Melissa orders beignets and a café au lait.]
And so we bought this property in the first place because we were very worried about crime and blight in our neighborhood. So as soon it came down, we had to clear it, we had to get the fence up, so the property looks nice and well maintained and taken care of and all of that.
But then, you know, yes it would be great to build a big old house there, but one, we don’t have time, and two, we don’t have money, and three, it’s not clear to me that that’s the best… It’s one thing to restore something that already exists. It’s another thing to build from the ground up. So for now, we’re trying to figure out a way that it contributes to our neighborhood. At the moment, our neighborhood needs green space.
You live in the Seventh Ward, right?
We live in the Seventh Ward. And there are beautiful houses, but it’s not like Uptown where there are big oak trees. We were just thinking, “What can we do to create some green space?” and a community garden seemed like a good way to go.
So why do you think it’s so important to restore New Orleans? You always talk about rebuilding New Orleans. Why is it so important to you to be an advocate and put a spotlight on the city?
Part of it is I just love it. Some of it's irrational. In fact, I think a lot of the love of New Orleans is irrational, you can't really complain. [laughs] You can make up things, but they're not real. It's because you love it and you value it.
But I think the other thing is we’re a place where what is old and traditional still matters, and I feel like, in this country, a lot of times we think “Just the newest. Give me the newest thing.” And the way people live here, yes there are people who live in those mansions on St. Charles, but a lot of people live in very modest homes. They have a front porch that the people still sit out in front of and talk to their neighbors. We still have second lines that come down our block. There’s a way of life here that if we lost it, it would be a loss not just for us, but it would be a loss for the country.
Some of my friends and family from out of town are shocked when I tell them that many buildings are still not fixed from Hurricane Katrina. What do you tell people who might not see the effects of Hurricane Katrina every day?
Our former mayor, Ray Nagin, did this extremely inelegantly when he said “you guys still have a hole in the ground” in New York, but he wasn’t wrong... He just... I don’t think people understand the vastness of what was lost here. Not just the 80 percent of the houses being affected, not just every single resident in the city being evacuated, not just all of our systems being down. But just the emotional hugeness of what happened. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t even count the first year. The whole first year was basically just post-traumatic stress, people just in absolute crisis mode. Then, you know, you have not a great second Ray Nagin term that didn’t get a lot of resources on the ground...half of our population lost...losing a member of the House of Representatives in terms of the reapportionment… To me, the story of our recovery is, in one part just it takes a long time to recover from something that big.
But the other thing is, of course, the inequalities in our recovery. My mom lives Uptown. There’s just a way that if you only saw that part of New Orleans or this part, you wouldn’t know that a storm happened. But five more blocks and you could not forget that a storm happened. So those inequities, that unevenness is part of also what constantly feels painful. You might drive to work in a part of New Orleans that looks fine, but you go home through New Orleans in a part that still looks so ravaged by the storm.
On a different topic, I was watching your show on Saturday when you were talking about the events in Newtown, Conn.—
That was a tough one.
You were talking about shootings happening, not just there, but in Chicago and here in New Orleans. How do you hope the conversation about gun control is going to change? Do you think this is the moment that is going to make people take action?
So this is my worry. What I’ve noticed is it’s already shifted to a conversation about mental illness. So people are going to talk about gun control, but let’s keep crazy people from having guns. But that is not what is killing... I think you could make a claim that everybody involved in urban violence is mentally ill, but the point is if all you’re trying to do is stop mass shootings, there probably are a bunch of things you could put into place to stop mass shootings, but that will not fade the vast majority of American lives being lost to guns. The fact that on Sunday we had three shootings, three murders here in this city, none of that makes the national news. If you had rules in place that kept the mentally ill from getting guns, all the guns that did those three murders would still be on the streets. My only worry is on one hand, I hope that it opens up conversation, but if we just are having a conversation about mass killings, we’re not going to affect the more mundane levels.
If you want to check out Melissa's show, catch it on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. CT on MSNBC.