By Grace Hebron
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Melissa Harris-Perry addressed Towson University students and faculty at SECU Arena Tuesday with two claims: “college matters” and “women of color matter.”
“College matters in part because people are willing to sacrifice to obtain it,” Harris-Perry said. “Some of the aspects of why it matters can’t be graphed but they are in the very sense the communities that are willing to sacrifice for them.”
During her talk, “Intersections of Campus and Community: How and Why Women of Color Matter,” the longtime professor at Wake Forest University and Elle.com’s editor-at-large told Towson the story of twin brothers.
Harris-Perry said her father and uncle, Bill and Wes Harris, respectively, were dubbed by Ebony Magazine “The Genius Twins of Richmond,” in a 1960 article. The twins attended Jim Crow segregated public schools and both went on to have careers in higher education, Bill becoming University of Virginia’s first Dean of African-American Affairs.
Their mother cleaned floors for a living.
“When you read this story, one of the most stunning parts of the whole article isn’t what geniuses Bill and Wes are, although they are,” Harris-Perry said. The former MSNBC host insists that sacrifice is what makes the story of the Harris brothers truly striking. Their mother, Rosa Harris, went without heat so her sons could pursue education during Summers.
And she was a genius in her own right.
“She could make a wedding dress without a pattern,” said Harris-Perry, who then asked the audience: “Do you think she could have been engineer?”
Harris-Perry, who holds the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University, imparted some of Dr. Angelou’s philosophy in explaining why women of color matter.
“Dr. Angelou was insistent on epistemological catholicism with a little c,” she told students and faculty. “The things that we need to know are broad and wide and often the smartest person in the room is the person being paid the least.”
And, she said, women of color are being paid the least compared to their white counterparts.
“That wage gap is particularly bad for black and brown women and going to college does not make it better,” she said.
Harris-Perry stressed that the wealth return for black and brown college-educated women is miniscule compared to that of white women. Worse than this, she said, is that “for African American and Hispanic students, wealth with a college education still does not measure up to white Americans without a college education.”
Harris-Perry knows that even under their school sweatshirts and behind student IDs that minorities are nonconforming bodies in higher-education settings, which is why she says society needs to seek knowledge from all sides, not “just the top.”
“What we need are the ways that black and brown women know things,” she said, noting that African American women in particular were not shocked when Trump talked of pussy-grabbing. Nor was Harris-Perry when families were separated at the border. It stems from slavery, she said.
“The whole damn system is based on grabbing black women’s pussies,” she told the audience. “These facts are pre-Trump.”
The college experience could be improved, she said, if voice were given to the genius and insight of women of color.
As a slideshow above her projected images of Anita Hill and Sojourner Truth, Dr. Harris Perry asked the audience, “What if we had believed them?”