Black women who speak out about politics and social issues are especially at risk when it comes to facing detractors. Scholar and television host Melissa Harris-Perry, who has weathered many vicious attacks over the years, recently had a close call in Iowa.
Harris-Perry, who is also a professor at Wake Forest University, had taken a group of students to Iowa to experience the caucus. She was waiting in a hotel lobby, when a man approached her and began interrogating her about her career.
Monday night I was sitting in a hotel lobby in downtown Des Moines with my back to a wall of windows, my eyes fixed on the TV, my attention wholly focused on early caucus results. I didn’t notice until he was standing right next to me, much closer than is ordinary or comfortable. When he started he speaking it was like he was picking up in the middle of sentence, finishing a conversation we had begun earlier, but I couldn’t remember ever meeting him.
“…So what is it that you teach?”
“I am a professor of political science.”
“My wife is a professor of communications.”
“Does she teach here in Iowa?”
“What I want to know is how you got credentialed to be on MSNBC.”
I am not sure if it is how he spat the word credentialed, or if it is how he took another half step toward me, or if it is how he didn’t respond to my question, but the hairs on my arm stood on end. I ignored it. Told myself everything was ok.
“Well. It is not exactly a credential…” I began.
“But why you? Why would they pick you?”
Now I know something is wrong. Now his voice is angry. Now a few other people have stopped talking and started staring. Now he is so close I can feel his breath. Before I can answer his unanswerable question of why they picked me, he begins to tell me why he has picked me.
As the interaction became increasingly hostile, Harris-Perry realized that she was likely in danger,
I freeze. He speaks. And moves closer. Is there a knife under the coat? A gun? Worse? And I can’t hear all the words. But I catch “Nazi Germany” and I catch “rise to power.” But I can’t move. I am lulled by a familiar powerlessness, muteness, that comes powerfully and unexpectedly. It grips me. Everything is falling away. Until in my peripheral vision I catch sight of a ponytail, the movement of an arm, the sound of familiar young voices and I remember… my students.
She admitted to feeling frozen, a common reaction from victims of trauma. But quickly sprung into action when she realized that her students were nearby.
It was seeing my students out of the corner of my eye that broke the trance of survivor submission into which I’d slipped earlier. As he’d invaded my space with angry, incoherent cruelty, I heard a voice in my head roar, “Not in front of my students!” I did not think, “No! Get away from me!” I thought, “Not in front of my students!”
Ridiculous though it may be, my dominant fear was that if this man maimed or killed me my students would fail to achieve the learning outcome of the Wake the Vote program, which is charged with helping them hone tools of democratic deliberation, perspective-taking, conflict resolution, and civic engagement in diverse settings. It was the fear of a ruined lesson plan that propelled me out of my seat and away from the potential attacker.
It is not an exaggeration to say my students may have saved my life.
Like many supporters of Melissa Harris-Perry I’m glad to hear that she’s ok, but her situation is a stark reminder of the violence that she and many women like her are regularly faced with.