Special Series

Mother’s Day Special: Melissa Harris-Perry

By May 4, 2011 5 Comments

Starting today, we will run a five day special series on Mother’s Day (May 8th). We have asked former interviewees to share with us stories about their mothers, grandmothers, and other influential women in their lives. First up: professor and author Melissa Harris-Perry.

Melissa Harris-Perry

My mother is the fourth of five children born into a working class family at the end of WWII. She is descended from Mormon pioneers who pushed handcarts across the American west. A white woman in a Mormon family, my mom was raised in the racially homogenous enclave of Spokane, Washington and in 1960 went off to college at Brigham Young University. People are typically incredulous when I share this part of my mother’s biography. After all, if they know me as an outspoken, progressive, feminist, black woman, it might be hard to believe that I am the daughter of someone with these beginnings.

But my mother, Diana Gray, possesses an unmatched commitment to fairness, an unflagging belief in hard work, and more than a casual relationship with profound personal transformations.

Mom left the Mormon Church after a failed first marriage left her a single mother and sole breadwinner. Mom moved to a city, enrolled in graduate school in sociology, and eventually met and fell in love with my dad, a black man who grew up in Jim Crow Virginia. My mother came to understand racism and sexism is deeply personal and highly professional ways as she became the mother of a black child and an advocate for troubled teens in the early 1970s. Mom spent her career working in non-profit organizations. She never earned much money but her work helped build day care centers for poor kids, provide health care to rural communities, create access to reproductive care for women, and offer alternatives to incarceration for troubled young people. She spent her final working years as an administrator at a prestigious university, but even there her focus was on advocacy for students. As a “retired” worker mom continues to volunteer for social justice organizations and to serve as my daughter’s main care provider, setting an extraordinary example for another generation of young women in our family.

I know my mom as a voracious reader, a rescuer of stray cats, a singer of silly songs, and a neat-as-a-pin housekeeper. In various ways I have picked up these traits from her. I hope that I also inherited her strength of character and willingness to take on seemingly impossible challenges with optimistic determination. She is the original source of my progressive political views, the initial motivator of my academic career, and the constant model for my own mothering. Mom is a talker who has never had the microphone she deserved. She is a thinker who never had a job that gave her the room to write a book. When I speak or write I do so as expression of the legacy she gave me.

– Melissa Harris-Perry

Revisit Melissa’s interview on No Country for Young Women

Melissa’s official website: melissaharrisperry.com

Follow Melissa on Twitter

– Interview by Eve Richer

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  • Suma4720

    I am a huge fan of yours and I am sure your Mom is extremely proud of you.

  • Sala

    Beautifully written. I feel like I’ve met your mother. You are a testiment to her hard work, love and care.

  • Hi Professor Perry. I have enjoyed your comments on Keith Olberman and other MSNBC interviews. I have a question. Keep in mind I’m a 65 yo white guy who grew up in Canada. I have been teaching in academic medicine in the US since 1970 and am a specialist in addiction medicine. Many of those years running inner-city drug and alcohol rehab programs. Growing up in Canada I attended boarding schools in the British tradition. For 2 years I had a roommate who was a black teenager from Bermuda. I remember in 1959 when returning to boarding school after summer break my parents being called into the head master’s office and told my roomy was this black kid and did they mind? Even at that young age I didn’t understand the issue. Freddy remained a friend until his death 5 years ago. I consider myself a liberal progressive but still anxious to be made aware of my inculcated biases so I can grow as a person.

    My question; why as a mixed race person do you choose to refer to yourself as black rather than white or mixed race? Please don’t judge me on the ignorance of the question!


    Robert F. (Bob) Hickey, Ph.D.

    P.S.: Congrats on your full professorship appointment!

  • Ora52

    Thanks for sharing  your thoughts about your mom.  

  • Bobby Pritchett

    That’s so inspiring.  As a black man it’s always nice to hear a positive life experience from a family perspective.  Your mother is truly a blessing to every person and aspect of life she touched.  If everyone has a little of your mother’s compassion, the world would truly be a better place to live.  You are blessed to have such in your life.  Good luck on your new MSNBC show, I will be tuning in come February.