Being a public figure can be difficult, but when you’re a Black woman who continuously tackles issues like the intersection of race, class, and sex for a national audience, being visible can be dangerous. On Monday, MSNBC host and Wake Forest University professor Melissa Harris-Perry learned this lesson all too well.
Harris-Perry had taken a group of students to Iowa to experience the caucuses and was waiting in a hotel lobby when she was approached by a man. Almost immediately, the professor’s gut told her something was wrong.
Harris-Perry detailed the incident on the Wake Forest website:
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.
The man continued to harass Harris-Perry, attempting to explain why he was so upset with her.
“I just want you to know why I am doing this.”
Oh – there is a this. He is going to do a this. To me. And he is going to tell me why.
I freeze. Not even me – the girl in me. The one who was held down by an adult neighbor and as he raped her. The one who listened as he explained why he was doing this. She freezes.
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.
Thankfully, Harris-Perry was jolted into action by remembering that her students were nearby and quickly moved away from the man. A friend, another woman, also got involved and began yelling at the man to leave Harris-Perry alone. The man ran away, but not before Harris-Perry was reminded of a valuable lesson.
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.
We’re just glad she’s okay.