When did you become conscious of race?
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: When did you become conscious of race?
Harris-Lacewell: My father graduated in 1962 from Howard University, so a historically Black college. And he was college roommates with Stokely Carmichael, which tells you a lot sort of about who my dad is. He’s a very serious, you know, Black community, Black power sort of advocate of the ‘60s. My mother at the same time graduated in 1964 from Brigham Young University, grew up in the West, and is, or was, a White Mormon. So when they met in the early ‘70s, it was this kind of this Black nationalist dad and this White Mormon mom who met in Seattle, Washington, which is where I was born when they were in grad school. So although I was raised in the South, it wasn’t in a typical Southern family. It was in a very unique, kind of interracial, interesting family. (Chuckles) So my father, before he met my mother, had three children with an African-American woman. So my three oldest siblings are Black in terms of both of their parents being Black. My mother had been previously married to a White man and had one daughter who was White. So in my household there were three siblings who both of their parents were Black; one sibling who both of her parents were White; and then me who had one Black and one White parent. So that means that from very early on there were . . . I mean from immediately, even sort of in my household, there were different racial identities; people thinking and understanding themselves within different identities, but of course all being brother and sisters; which was, I don’t know, I suspect relatively unique. Maybe Barack Obama also had that. But just sort of me and Barack. That’s . . . (Chuckles) We’re the ones who had that story. So I would say very early on, but it didn’t have a negative connotation for me. It just had an awareness. Sort of like if you grew up with a bunch of boys and girls in your family, you learn a lot about boys and girls. Well I grew up with Black and White people in my family, so I had an early on sense of Black and White.
Lacewell's father is an advocate in the Black community, and her mother was a White Mormon.
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