Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, (Princeton 2004). And she is currently at work on a new book: Sister Citizen: A Text For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn't Enough. Her academic research is inspired by a desire to investigate the challenges facing contemporary black Americans and to better understand the multiple, creative ways that African Americans respond to these challenges.
Her academic research has been published in scholarly journals and edited volumes and her interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. Professor Harris-Lacewell's creative and dynamic teaching is also motivated by the practical political and racial issues of our time. For example, her course entitled Disaster, Race and American Politics explored the multiple political meanings of Hurricane Katrina. Professor Harris-Lacewell has taught students from grade school to graduate school and has been recognized for her commitment to the classroom as a site of democratic deliberation on race.
Question: What inspired you to pursue political science
Harris-Lacewell: And then I also had a teacher who taught this amazing course called Leadership in a Democratic Society. It was a course I sort of took on a whim. I was an English major, but I took this politics course. And that class, Leadership in a Democratic Society, really changed sort of the course of becoming not an English teacher, but instead for me a political science professor. I think it was the first time that I’d really considered the idea of what democracy is and what democracy requires from us. I think before that I just took the notion of democracy for granted. Well we live in a democracy. We vote, that’s just kind of true, and we can move on. I . . . It had never occurred to me as, I guess, I don’t know, an 18 year old that there were debates within the notion of democracy that there wasn’t just one way to be a democratic society; and that within the American context some of the tools that we use for propagating democracy – some of the things we think of as central to the America project – actually have a huge effect of silencing people who have fewer resources and less access to privilege. And this was really the first time that someone had made explicit to me that the electoral college; that one man, one vote; that the Senate even, were things that impacted how Americans could have a voice; and particularly how poor Americans, less privileged Americans, Black Americans could or could not have a voice in our . . . in our political system.