Writer, political commentator speaks on race relations

Jessica Voorhees

The aisles of Van Meter Hall buzzed and swelled Thursday night as students arrived to engage in a dialogue on the interconnections among race, inequality and the physical black body with speaker Melissa Harris-Perry. 
Harris-Perry, esteemed novelist, columnist, professor and MSNBC political commentator, spoke as part of the Cultural Enhancement Series.
Harris-Perry said she was excited to appear as part of the series and joked about its title. 
“I don’t know if I’ve ever enhanced someone’s culture before,” Harris-Perry said. 
A charged and attentive audience composed equally of students and Bowling Green community members filled the orchestra section of the auditorium.
Harris-Perry presented “We Can’t Breathe: The Continuing Consequences of Inequality.”
She sustained audience attention through a politically-charged discourse on structural inequality and modern culture, fused with quips about Beyoncé and raising her 13 year-old daughter. 
The speech garnered bursts of enthusiastic applause throughout, as well as standing ovations upon entrance and conclusion.
Harris-Perry said she was pleased to appear in accordance with Black History Month, though she felt uneasy about the practice of referencing accomplished black people to show pride in the community.
“Role models matter and it’s really nice to have people who look like you accomplishing the things that you hope to do, but it also reifies and reinforces the idea that race is real and it’s just not,” she said. 
Bowling Green resident and attendee Brandon Render said he was critical of Harris-Perry’s statement that race does not exist. 
“Even if it only exists as an idea it exists,” he said. “If you say that race isn’t real you’re also saying that racism isn’t real. You could say that racism is just a form of hatred, but it is still a form of hatred that is based on something that exists.”
Harris-Perry explained race is not a biological reality, but rather a modern social construction. 
She said that although Black History Month is important, people should be “careful” that they celebrate it in a way that does not bolster the idea of race. 
“Anything that a human being has done you are capable of doing,” Harris-Perry said. 
Harris-Perry paired famous historical photographs that highlight racism with various abstract American ideals, such as freedom and citizenship, to show how the action for racial justice engages physical bodies. 
She showed how the ideal of citizenship correlated with a photograph of the lynching of two black men. 
“I want you to think of those men as two American citizens who are experiencing an act of domestic terrorism,” she said.
Harris-Perry presented how the social media slogans associated with the recent murders of black men by law enforcement incorporate both abstract American ideals and physical bodies.
“Justice for Trayvon” and “Black Lives Matter” both draw upon the classic American values of justice and equality, while “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “We Can’t Breathe” refer back to the physicality of inequality and racism. 
Harris-Perry displayed statistics on racial segregation in cities and the growing wealth-gap between races, as well as higher black unemployment, incarceration and infant mortality as a result of racism.
“We actually can’t breathe in our bodies,” she said.
Omega Buckner, a recent graduate from Louisville, said she enjoyed Harris-Perry’s section on “the systematic injustices that occur in African-American communities.”
“It really resonated because I was in a class where we had to report on different topics and in my book all these topics were present but the book really portrayed it in a negative way,” she said. “It didn’t really go into … why these occur in the African-American community, so I loved that she took the time and broke that down.”
Harris-Perry concluded the speech with a reference to Martin Luther King’s 1967 novel “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” and posed several questions of her own. 
“Does a marching black body still bring change?” she said. “Does a broken innocent black body still provoke moral outrage?”
Harris-Perry proposed a route to change through creative maladjustment. She said the artist “respects no arbitrary boundary” and “refuses to be invisible,” and can, therefore, enact effective impact.
“What must black bodies do to catch our breath?” Harris-Perry said. 
She concluded the lecture with a question and answer session curated by Saundra Ardrey, professor of Political Science, in which she professed her admiration for Beyoncé and disapproval of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. 
The next event in the Cultural Enhancement Series, Mummenschanz, will take place on Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. in Van Meter Hall. ​