Melissa Harris-Perry wears many hats. She’s a wife, mother, professor, author and political commentator. She graduated from Duke University (the same department as Hubby!) and taught at Princeton and the University of Chicago before moving on to Tulane University, where she is currently a professor of Political Science. Several weeks back, she landed her own show on MSNBC! The icing on this magnificent cake is that she’s doing all of this in twists! Enjoy!
CN: What sparked your decision to go into academia?
Certainly the fact that my mom got her PhD. She didn’t go into the academy, but she was always sort of an academic in very many ways. Her older brother was a college professor, my dad was a college professor and his twin brother was a college professor. And although it’s not like people sat around and talked about being college professors per se, it was certainly in the family that way. I did one year at a Masters of Public Policy program and that was enough to convince me that I wanted to be an academic. It was a great and I learned a lot, but I really wanted the time and space to ask the good questions. I didn’t want the pressure of putting it all in a spreadsheet and finding ‘an answer’. There isn’t one answer to those problems… there are lots of answers and they’re all complicated! I had a lot of great college professors and parents who were good models of being able to make a life in academia and then obviously also, my own desire.
CN: Tell me about your natural hair journey.
For years, I wore my hair permed for 6 months out of the year, basically during the academic year. And then, around April or May, when the semester was over, I’d put it in braids for the entire summer up until September. I found it easier to travel, easier to swim and easier to manage the heat and humidity in the South and then I’d go back to the perm in the Fall. So I was always on a 6 months on, 6 months off schedule. As a matter of fact, if you look at those early years of me on TV, you’ll see that sometimes my hair was in braids and other times it was in a perm. And then in 2008, I lost my battle with fibroids. I had been battling with fibroids for years and finally had a hysterectomy in the summer of 2008. After I had that hysterectomy, my body changed in a thousand different ways. One of the things was that my hair went gray. I think it brought on some aspects of premature aging. I thought, ‘oh, no big deal, I’ll just color it’. So if anybody was watching, they’d see that in about 2009 or so, I was wearing my hair permed, but a lot shorter. I was coloring it and perming it, and you know what the next part of that story is [laughter]!
In 2009, my now husband started running for office so I decided not to braid it that summer, in part because sometimes people have a lot of notions about braids, so I lost my 6 months off rest period and by the end of 2009, the start of 2010, my hair was absolutely terrible… I had never seen my hair like this. It was brittle, dry and breaking everyday. It was bad. I felt bad about how I looked… I felt terrible about the shape that my hair was in. And so at that point, I made a decision going into 2010, that I was going to get my health back from all the things that had happened with the hysterectomy, all the stress of my husband’s campaign. So I said, ‘this is my year to get healthy’. So I started running, I started watching what I ate, not so much limiting what I ate, but really eating more fruits and veggies. I was really being careful about the quality of food I was eating and a part of that journey was the decision that I wanted to go completely natural.
Being that I’m on television, I’m in the unfortunate position of not being able to just go though the awkward phases that you have to go through. So I started twisting it and have been in twists now almost two years. I cut the perm completely out and probably have 6 or 7 inches of natural hair. I plan to continue to wear it in twists for another two years until I get it at a length and volume that I can manage, and probably do the big reveal at that point [laughter]… maybe my show won’t even be on the air anymore! It’s been a real consideration for me to figure out how to make that transition to natural hair, while at the same time needing to maintain the consistency of being on television. So the solution has been to wear the twists.
CN: How do you maintain your scalp health? What do you do for your real hair in between sets of twists?
It’s very funny actually. I just had to revisit this. Typically what I would do is take a week off between twist sets. But now with the show and my teaching schedule, it’s difficult to find 3 days anywhere. I can’t exactly explain this to the white folks I work for… that I need 3 days to take my hair down… a day of rest and then put them back in. But seriously, I’m like, this has to happen, I have to be able to have that time. That’s actually what I do, sit down and look at the calendar.
Typically what I would do is take them out for a week and give my hair and scalp a rest. Even when I’m in the twists, since I’m running, I get a lot of build up, so once a week I wash it with a tea tree oil shampoo or something else that is specifically meant to treat scalp build up. I use a lot of Carol’s Daughter products. I use the Hair Honey and the revitalizing/penetrating spray. When I use them, they’re great, they make the twists look great, but after 4 days I’ll realize that I have some build up and need to wash.
CN: Advice for success and achieving your goals?
Well, I’m always so reluctant to give advice because the single most important thing about success is that everybody’s pathway is so different. I hate the idea that everybody has to march in line for that one thing… that there is only one way to get there. It feels inauthentic. If I had to give one piece of advice, it’s that you have to be really comfortable with failing. Because the only possibility of reaching whatever success means for you, will require taking risks. Sometimes those risks are going to pay off and be great, and other times they are going to be really spectacularly painful, and sometimes public failures. And also sometimes, you’ll have to deal with lots of criticism from people that you care about. It can be hard to take those really, really tough hits. You can’t always take it as, ‘oh, they’re just haters and I don’t even care’, you have to actually take them and listen to them. ‘Cause sometimes, even when somebody is hating, they’re right. It’s completely plausible that they’re hating and 50% of what they’re saying is absolutely accurate. So you have to learn to be comfortable with your own imperfections and try to figure out how to take the useful criticisms even out of the things that seem like they’re hateful.
CN: Tell me about your new show and airtimes.
We are on MSNBC, Saturdays and Sundays 10am to noon eastern time. And this is my fourth weekend coming up. The name of the show is ‘Melissa Harris Perry’, which cracks me up. I was like, couldn’t we call it ‘The Melissa Harris Perry Show’? It’s completely nuts but it’s very easy to remember. I’m not sure whether or not people are going to like what we’re doing. For me, the joy of what we’re doing is that I find it exciting… the opportunity to take so many issues, the topics I care about and bring it to a wider audience. I think it’s yet to see if the wider audience cares about what I care about! [laughter] We’re learning and figuring that out. But I have an absolutely, incredibly brilliant staff. They are very committed and very hard working and really helping me to walk through this whole process.
Keep up with Melissa on her website- http://melissaharrisperry.com/
Where are my curlies in grad and professional school?
Where my curly professors at?!