Rising cable news star Melissa Harris-Perry returned to her alma mater Monday.
Harris-Perry, whose eponymous show airs on MSNBC’s Saturday and Sunday morning lineups, spoke to Wake Forest University freshmen in Wait Chapel.
Her address, “Only Youthful Folly Can Make Democracy Real,” came 22 years after she arrived on the campus as a 16 year-old freshman.
“Being back here is quite extraordinary,” Harris-Perry said, surveying the crowd of students and faculty members who packed the chapel. “I have called a lot of universities home … but no place feels more like home to me than Wake Forest University.”
Harris-Perry’s talk, presented by a collaborative of on-campus departments, served as the culmination of a summer academic project on civic engagement for first-year students.
Dr. Katy Harriger, chair of the university’s Department of Politics and International Affairs – introduced her former student. Harriger said Harris-Perry’s potential was evident even back then.
“It’s so gratifying to see all of that potential realized,” she declared.
Harris-Perry, a noted author and political science professor at Tulane University, broke tradition when she dropped out of high school and accepted early admission to Wake. Much of her remarks were inspired by Frederick Buechner’s book, “The Magnificent Defeat,” which was given to her as a freshman by then-Chaplain Ed Christman. Piggybacking off the book’s themes, she encouraged the students to look for meaning in their individual achievements and in the accomplishments of the nation as a whole.
“Asking the question does not denigrate the accomplishment, it pushes America forward,” she said. “…The accomplishment itself is nothing more than the declaration that it starts.”
Harris-Perry likened voting to brushing your teeth for the audience, saying it is the most basic level of civic engagement.
“There are people for whom it is hard to vote,” she declared. “For you, not voting is the equivalent of not brushing your teeth, and basically you are appalling and you should do better.”
Harris-Perry, an unabashed supporter of President Barack Obama, encouraged the students to get actively involved in the political process.
“Democracy is messy…The only way it gets better is when everybody is in,” she said. “…The only danger in democracy is when we opt out.”
Harris-Perry told the audience not to be afraid to question the status quo or to come up with their own solutions to the problems the nation faces.
“You are not being trained here to be a cog in the wheel,” she said. “You are being trained really to do only one thing, and that is to ask questions.”
Students took Harris-Perry’s advice to heart, challenging the stance she took during a controversial speech at the Take Back The American Dream conference in Washington D.C. in June, during which she railed against post-9/11 violence against Arab-Americans, saying “Americans, in part, identify who we are and who deserves what through our notion of whiteness and who are our racial enemies that are the non-whites.”
“In my eyes, categorizing people only re-edifies that same racial gap,” declared one student, a freshman who identified himself as Iranian.
“When you say it is an American need to have a racial target … does that mean that I’m a racist?” questioned a Caucasian student.
Harris-Perry, who is bi-racial, said that all nations struggle with divisions, due to real or imagined differences such as class or religion.
“In America, I think that reads as race, but it is not in any way an indictment of every white American,” she said.
Roughly a dozen students peppered Harris-Perry with questions on a variety of topics before the close of the program. Harris-Perry said that she enjoyed the intellectual discourse.
“One thing has not changed at Wake Forest … the students are brilliant, tough, and fair,” she tweeted later that evening. “It was a great experience to address them tonight.”
Harris-Perry also visited Professor Kathy Smith’s American Governments class and signed copies of her new book, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America,” during her visit.