What Maya Angelou Taught Melissa Harris-Perry About Courage


Auburn Seminary is honoring Melissa Harris-Perry along with her husband James Perry at The Lives of Commitment Gala on April 20, 2016. RSVP here. Professor Melissa Harris-Perry has dedicated her life to making room at the table for voices that have too often gone unheard – whether that’s in the classroom, on her groundbreaking television show, or in her national organizing. A master teacher, Melissa lifts up a vision of a truly inclusive America and inspires her students to go deep into the religious and political questions of our time. Melissa spoke with the Rev. Dr. Katharine R. Henderson about moral courage, fear of failure, and life after MSNBC.

Katharine R. Henderson: Auburn’s Lives of Commitment breakfast is focusing this year on democratizing moral courage with the belief that moral courage is something everybody can exercise. In light of recent events with your experience (with MSNBC), how do you understand moral courage?

Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the fundamental lessons that I learned from my undergraduate advisor Maya Angelou was that courage is the most important virtue because without it, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. So you can be honest but you can’t be consistently honest, you can be kind but you can’t be consistently kind. You can be generous but not consistently generous.

Any of the things that we think of as virtues eventually will go up against some space, some moment, when practicing that virtue will require some level of courage. So in that sense, courage becomes the most important virtue. A lesson I often pass on to my students when they can’t figure out what they should do is to ask “Well, what is the scariest of these choices?” I tend to fear is failure. So the scariest option is almost always the option that’s going to push me where success is not clear. So, if what you’re looking for is opportunities for growth, then you ought to take the scariest of the options, right?

KRH: Yes, absolutely. Somebody I was talking to recently was saying that there’s no moral courage without vulnerability and the threat of failure.

MHP: The truth is that we’re always vulnerable and particularly vulnerable to failure. We just don’t always fully acknowledge it, so we only acknowledge it enough to be afraid of it. In the context of leaving of MSNBC, it wasn’t as though that was something new. At every point along the way from the day that the show launched until the last day that it aired and it all blew up publicly, my goals were very clear. It wasn’t about just more time on air. It was always about wanting to do something substantive. I don’t know that it takes that much courage to say, “Oh, I came here to paint a blue picture and you’re telling me I can stand here and paint a yellow picture, but I actually totally did not come here to paint a yellow picture. So thanks, I’m good.”

KRH: None of us likes to deal with conflict. In fact, we try to often avoid it, and certainly not this kind of public conflict. How do you face into it and not run away from it?

MHP: It depended a lot on what the nature of the conflict. If I felt like I was in the wrong, that I had done something that created it, then it was painful. I wasn’t mad, I would typically feel pretty guilty about having a big platform and having made a mistake. Even though it was just a mistake, still, it’s some sort of guilt and hurt, right?

KRH: Yes.

MHP: So that, for me, gets processed in a very different way than if I think I’m basically right and being attacked by people who are just coming after me. Then it’s less hurt and it’s more anger. So when I’m managing hurt, I need time alone. I try to exit and I spend a lot of time in my garden.

KRH: Wow. Good!

MHP: A lot – and I run. When I’m managing anger, when I feel I’m being unfairly attacked, then I’m more strategic and my goal is to try to figure out not necessarily how to beat the other party, but more how to get something good to come out of it.

KRH: The phrase that comes to my mind is, “They meant it for evil but God meant it for good.” I don’t know if you know that but…

MHP: Oh, yes.

KRH: …it keeps to the point of something good or something redemptive coming out of a very difficult situation. So what’s the good that’s going to come out of this?

MHP: Maybe there will be two or three new shows that show up either at MSNBC or other places that somebody else is hosting that contribute to the public space in this way. That would be amazing.

KRH: You mentioned your garden and running sustained you. Were there any other spiritual practices with God anywhere?

MHP: Oh, everywhere in interesting different kinds of ways. So there’s always been a lot of people, even on the show, who were praying for me.

KRH: We count ourselves among them.

MHP: I have one particular prayer where my big sister engages and it eases how I feel, but also being alone in the garden. I’m not good if I’m alone and still. Alone and still leaves me very sad but if I’m alone and very, very engaged like in something physical, then my brain and my spirit, all of that can be at work.

KRH: Is there anything else on resilience or moral courage that you want to add?

MHP: I would just say two other important things for me because James and I are being honored at Lives of Commitment together.

One is that all of it is possible because I have not only a husband, but a partner, who in the moment was like, “I’m with you.” His response was not, “Oh no. How will our mortgage be paid?” — although that certainly would be a fine response. His response was, “Well, we’ll figure it out, but I never expect you to compromise in that way.” Whatever else happened I knew that James was on my team, in my corner and he was the only person who was like, “No. Me and Melissa came here together, we’re leaving together, and this is how we’re leaving, and goodbye.”

The other thing I’ll say is in that the number one person from whom I have learned lessons of courage in the workplace is James: in spaces of advocacy and in his political career. If you run for office somebody is going to come and offer you big money to do something that you find morally repugnant. Both times James ran for office with very little money and there were these opportunities to make choices that would have provided the campaign with a lot of resources and he very easily walked away.

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