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?!
Love you Melissa what I love so much about you is that you are sooo intelligent and you have such a great command of communicating your thoughts and ideas…you continue to be an inspiration to those of us who love to learn and hear different ideas and view points Keep it up. I love learning from people like you as well as others.
I love watching her on the Rachel Maddow show!!! Awesome that MSNBC gave her her own show, will DVR. Sister Citizen also looks like a must-read. Thanks for the interview!
Congrats Melissa! I love this positive profile on professional African American Women. I have found goal setting to be key to helping me be successful. Get Crystal Clear About My Goals has made all the difference.
Curly Locs MA ECON, and in Fall '12, will start my MA in Training & Development. Been loc's since ''91. Wow, great interview! I can't wait for MHP to wear her natural hair loose!!!
Awesome article. Ditto on what MHP said on different pathways for everyone. It is so true….what I started out doing in college has lead me down and up so many roads. I glad for the failures because they taught me how to rise.
Fabulous curly in DC here working on my Master's in Higher Education Administration at George Washington University! Proudly been natural since December 23, 2010!
Thank you Nikki! because I wondered about this interview natural hair is growing each and everyday more models are representing and being hired yay! Hope this never ends.
I am new to the curly world and I am loving my natural hair!! I am graduate student at Spring Arbor University. 10 more months to go and I will have my Master of Arts in Counseling. By this time next year I will have my LLPC (Limited License of Professional Counseling)!!!
Curly Headed Doc Student majoring in Educational Leadership! Transitioned for nine months been rocking my natural for one year!
I'm a curly graduate student and teaching assistant, will finish my Master of Fine Arts in Painting and Printmaking May 2013 from Purdue University! Boiler UP!!!
Soon to be Curly Dr.!!!! Getting ready to start my dissertation and plan to graduate May 2013!!
Curly Mohawk-wearing clinical psychologist and adjunct professor! Love MHP's show! Try not to miss it on the weekends!
Loving it…all my smart natural sistas!
Curly starting esthetics school Summer 2012 and grad school majoring in Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling starting Spring 2013. Who knows what I'll be up to after then. God blessed me with many talents. 🙂
excellent interview Nikki!
Cosmo school for me….Cosmotology School that is!!! curlywife checking in!!
Great Interview. Curly grad student here. MBA 2013.
Curly professional / Admin ( BA in Govt Politics / MA in Public Admin)in the house. I have been watching Melissa Harris-Perry for a long time. Love her knowledge. So glad she finally has her own show.
not a curly grad…but curly undergrad…woop woop!
Hi Curly Nikki community, I am a first year graduate student in the Master of Public Policy (MPP) program at Duke. I really enjoyed this interview, as I eventually plan to return to school one day to begin my doctorate. I am one of four African American women in the first year MPP class and three out of four of us are natural. I've noticed though that the vast majority of Black women in business and law schools at Duke have relaxed hair. It has made me wonder if hair choices directly relate to career pursuits.
I am working on a PhD in Business, so super conservative there. I've had some interesting conversations with other black business Phd Students at schools like Harvard, some of whom wear their hair in a more natural look and others who wear their hair straight. It's funny because some other women I know in business PhD programs told me two years ago that I should wear my hair straigh, just as they were doing ! I didn't capitulate, but now it's funny to see that these people are wearing their hair natural as well.
When I first started my PhD , I wore a sew in to my interview and for the first 5 months or so of my program. After that, for the past 2 ears I have worn my hair natural. My program is somewhat unique in that when I started, there were two other women there with natural hair- one wears a twa and the other wears locs! Going forward, I think I will wear a curly fro wig , and save some time for article writing !
Hi Curly Nikki community! Great post! I was reading it while watching The Melissa Harris-Perry Show. I am a graduate student in public policy at the University of Chicago, Dr. Harris-Perry's stumping ground, and thoroughly enjoying it! I am also a writer.
soon to be curly doctoral student! starting in Sept!
Love Melissa Harris-Perry!! Great interview Nikki 🙂 Watching her show now as I type lol
I am a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration. I am in my fourth month of transitioning out of my perm.
Curly medical student checking in. Dr Harris-Perry is such an inspiration and an excellent woman to interview!!!
(technically) curly MPA graduating May 4th. I am a native and current North Carolinian and the humidity is NO JOKE. I press and curl once weekly, but looking forward to wearing more of my natural curls this summer. Also cheering on Melissa and her show
Social work supervisor by day, adjunct criminal justice professor by night checking in!
She's on MSNBC right now!
Locked law student here. I'm a new fan of MHP, but I'm liking what I hear. Can't wait to catch up on her work…
Lawyer litigator by day, adjunct professor by night. Natural for 12 years. I saw Professor Harris-Perry on the weekend Today show 2 weeks ago. Wish her a successful tenure on MSNBC.
Curly law professor here. I have been natural for almost 14 years. I DID NOT lose my battle with fibroids. Beware of doctors telling you to get a hysterectomy. There are other options to become completely cured. Be informed. Going natural (hair and body) is essential. Be well my academic curlies : )
Very intelligent, Beautiful Woman. I could listen to her speak all day. Love the hair!
^Grad student that just started watching MHP last weekend
Curly doctoral student checking in. I've always admired Dr. Harris-Perry. Great discussion & interview.
Curly M.A. grad student– oh yes, I'm graduating in May!!!!!
I heart MHP. She's awesome!
Melissa, I absolutely love you. I don't get to watch your show on the weekend but I've been blown away by your classy style and in depth knowledge on MSNBC. You're also very beautiful 🙂
Natural PhD student at Harvard checking in. It's funny how we think about our hair plans in relation to our career/personal life. I've been strategic with my hair as well. LOL. Great interview!
Great interview! I have followed her for years and was awed by her poignant take on the film 'The Help' a few months ago. I also love her perspective as a curly late bloomer in the public eye and wish her continued health and success! MBA 2013!
Natural and curly ABD (Ed.D.) who much appreciated this interview. Her twists are quite becoming.
curly MPH checking in!!!
Awesome interview Nik this definetely motivates me to keep chasing my dreams
Transitioning MHA grad student! Loved this interview!
Twist-wearing-soon-to-be-PhD here!! I enjoyed reading this interview. Her twists look like they are done with extensions. The interview mentions that she is growing her hair out. I have the same style now, it's easy to maintain and the frizz does not show up as much. Sometimes I use Suave anti-frizz serum on mine after I wash to keep the flyaways at bay. Interesting that she mentions needing 3 days to take the braids down and redo them. I'm the same way too, schedule it on a calendar!
it's so awesome to see that you've interviewed Dr.Harris Perry. I am a huge fan of hers- it's always intriguing to hear her points of view on Rachel Maddow, the Ed Show, Lawrence O'Donnell and now her very own show.
We are very proud of you
"Sister Citizen" was on my to-read list!
I love Melissa Harris Perry. She's so smart, beautiful and authentic
Love this! Curly soon to be PhD (June) checking in from Philadelphia!
I love, love, LOVE Melissa Harris-Perry and not JUST because she is teaching at my undergrad alma mater (Tulane), mostly because she is fierce—-brains and beauty! Love her.
curly PhD student @ Howard checking in.
Proud to be a CURLY Grad student. Just gave two presentations with all my curly goodness on display. Rockin it proud!! Loved the interview. Very inspirational. Will definitely check out MHP's show.
Curly postdoc (PhD) at Duke checking in! Great interview! I figured she was wearing twists to transition, but didn't know about her battle with fibroids.
Curly M. Div student over here! Great interview!
Im at curly grad student too : )I think I found a new she-ro! : ) I love her twists, she makes them look classy and fabulous
Curly MAcc (Accounting) right here! Great article!
Curly MSc! Appreciating this interview! Definitely going to have to catch her show
Loved this article!
Curly MPH Candidate checking in…May 5th 2012 where are you?? 🙂
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You know, that is the most useful advice on success that I've ever heard. Thank you for that very insightful message, and thank you Nikki for posting this 🙂
Curly grad…May its over!!!
Amazing!!! I luv this story!!! Shout out to the Curly Grads!!! Im thinking on going back to school soon!! Curly Soon to be Grad Student!!
Melissa was a high school classmate of mine. I am extremeley proud of her accomplishments thus far. Way to go!!!
Wow, I just saw her on TV for the first time about an hour ago on CNN talking about recent state voter law changes. Guess I'll be tuning into the show now! Great interview Nikki!
Future curly grad student checking in!! Will start in Summer 2012!!
Love this interview Nik!
Curly Doctoral Student and Professor reppin' HARD. I love every minute of it! Once, one of my students came up to me and said "You've given me the courage to wear my TWA"…..I was so humbled….like "WOW".
Congrats to all of the phenomenal women on here!
Curly grad student! MHP is awesome, and her book 'Sister Citizen' is amazing. I truly recommend everyone read it! She is actually an inspiration for me to pursue a doctoral degree in political science. 🙂
Curly grad student here!!
Wow, she is possibly the best interviewee yet.
More articles featuring phenomenal women like Dr. MHP, please
Wow, she gave a great interview!!! Kept it totally real and was honest, funny and thoughtful, just like when I met her at Duke. What she said about not being afraid to fail…even in public and knowing that even your haters are telling you some truths about yourself is what I always say to myself and to my wife…nikki.
If you get a chance grab her old book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought (its 11$ bucks on Amazon).
So, this are her twists strictly with her hair (no extensions)? I try really hard to do those twists but it seems that after a couple of days, they're looking all frizzy. My hair is really fine and really "soft." Anyone have suggestions on how to pull off Melissa Harris Perry's hair do?
I am a curly doctoral student!! Loving every minute.
I love her show and recent book, Sister Citizen! #nerdland all day baby! I'll be a curly law student in the fall!!!!
Heeeey Grad School Curly here! I'm so jealous you got this interview I would give an arm to pick her brain.
Curly grad here!!
Haven't watched her show yet but I will! She expresses herself in such a natural and thoughtful way. Good 'wearing twists' story. I loved my twists too.
Curly wife, mom, and PhD Candidate here! I love MHP!
Curly Grad Student here! WOOT WOOT! Too bad my hair is too fine for protective styling 🙁 Wash-n-Go's are about all I can do.
Curly Grad Student checking in!
Curly professor here! Love Melissa's show. I've been watching her growth and have always been intrigued by what she has to offer. That girl makes you think! Considering doing twists for a while as well. I could use the break especially going into the hectic pace that comes with graduation, advising, and finals.
Love MHP! She is all around AWESOME!
*rasies hand* Right here, right here. #GradLife.
I agree with Erin, she is DOPE! Very inspiring.
Curly grad student right here! I love her twists!
This chick is so dope. Love her new MSNBC show…