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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[…]

A Southern girl from a family of academics.

Question: Who are you?

Harris-Lacewell: I’m Melissa Harris-Lacewell.  And I’m an Associate Professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University.Well that may be a tough question.   I mean I grew up in Virginia.  My father was a professor at the University of Virginia for 25 years, so I grew up in a small town – Charlottesville.  And then when I was an adolescent, we moved to Chesterfield, Virginia, which is just outside of Richmond.  So I grew up in the South, went to college and graduate school in North Carolina, so I’m very much kind of a Southeastern girl.  But although that’s true, my parents are from very disparate places.

Question: What did you think you’d be doing professionally when you were young?

Harris-Lacewell: Oh gosh.  Who knows?  I don’t know if I thought about a profession.  I suspected I always planned to work.  It never occurred to me that I would be anything other than someone working.  My father is a college professor.  His twin brother is a college professor.  My mother met my dad while working on her PhD, and her brother is a college professor.  So I suspect that it’s probably the most . . . single most common profession in my family, is being a college professor.  But it’s not as though I sort of thought from childhood, “Oh yes, this is what I’ll go on and do.”  I can remember being in the eighth grade and wanting to be an archeologist.  I can remember being in high school and wanting to be a novelist.  But I guess I got good at being in school and thought it was a good idea never to leave.

Question: Who was your biggest influence?

Harris-Lacewell: Well certainly within my household my mother is a huge, towing figure – a little tiny woman, but a towering figure.  And if there was one thing sort of intellectually I learned most from my mom it was reading.  So even now my mother is a voracious reader – three of four books a week, always, all the time.  Even while working full time.  Even when she was a single parent in raising us, she always read three or four books a week.  So there was certainly that.

I had amazing teachers at various points, so I remember very well my eighth grade English teacher who taught us “The Hobbit,” and I got very engaged in English at that point.  I also had an amazing tenth grade English teacher who helped me to make the decision to go off to college early.  So I’m officially a high school dropout.  I don’t have a high school diploma.  I just left after my junior year and went off to college.  And then once I was in college, probably the two most important influences . . . so my main advisor, Maya Angelou, who was a professor at Wake Forest University while I was there.  And I learned not even so much sort of the classroom from Dr. Angelou, but I watched a lot how she moved through the world; how she comported herself towards her students, towards the people who worked for her.  I throw the same kind of Thanksgiving dinner every year that Maya Angelou used to throw; a much smaller scale, but she was a person who would bring together everyone from her hairdresser and her driver to Oprah Winfrey all around this huge Thanksgiving dinner table.  And so I learned a lot from her just about sort of the notions that we can learn something from everyone in our lives, not just the famous, and important, and smart, and degreed people.