Melissa Harris-Perry and the Fall of the “Negro Whisperers”
Political writer and founder of BreakingBrown.com Yvette Carnell joined us to discuss the phenomenon she has dubbed the, “Negro Whisperer” and the end of its run.
JARED BALL, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
Over the weekend it was learned that Melissa Harris-Perry, the popular weekend host of Nerdland on MSNBC, had lost her show, or rather, in her words, our show was taken without comment or discussion or notice in the midst of an election season. In an open email to her colleagues, Harris-Perry went on to say:
“I have stayed in the same hotels where MSNBC has been broadcasting in Iowa, in New Hampshire, and in South Carolina, yet I have been shut out from the coverage. I have a Ph.D. in political science and have taught American voting and elections in some of the nation’s top universities for nearly two decades, yet I have been deemed less worthy to weigh in than relative novices and certified liars. I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobblehead. I am not owned by MSNBC. I love our show. I want it back.”
To look at this and a bit more is our next guest, Yvette Carnell, who writes about politics, international and cultural issues, for Your Black World, and is the founder of BreakingBrown.com. Welcome back to the Real News, Yvette Carnell.
YVETTE CARNELL: Thank you for having me.
BALL: So, Yvette, here we see Harris-Perry go to the issue of race, and many of her supporters have, as well. But few seem to even want to consider how race played a role in her presence there in the first place. You talk about the day of the “Negro Whisperer” coming to an end. Could you explain what that phrase means and why its time is running out, and how that has impacted specifically this issue with Melissa Harris-Perry?
CARNELL: Well, the “Negro Whisperer” is what we saw with the advent of Obama. When Obama got elected what we saw was a series, a gang, a gaggle of black people who were put, basically put on news networks to kind of explain the first black president. Let’s explain Obama, and what Obama means to white people. Let’s explain what Obama is trying to say to white people. Can Obama be an angry man, can he be an angry black man, or is that perceived in a certain way?
You know, we have this thing where we believe that black people need interpreters, as if we’re somehow aliens and don’t speak English. We have to be interpreted. And so that gives a black person the, the ability to play like this, this broker or this explainer, or like I said, this whisperer, to white people.
And so that’s what happened here. You saw Melissa Harris-Perry, I mean, you saw, you saw a gang of people [inaud.] on the network. You saw Karen Finney on the network. You saw for a while Joanne Reid had a show on the network. This was, this was all a way to kind of explain blackness to white people, so they were like the “Negro Whisperers”. And they were there because Obama was there. They weren’t there when Obama came. They were there because Obama was there. And what Melissa Harris-Perry and the rest of them didn’t quite understand is that you were brought in because of Obama, and you will leave when Obama leaves.
And they’re going to be bringing in new people now. They’re going to–if Trump gets elected you’re going to see more white men. You’re going to see more conservatives. And that’s the, that’s the demographic shift. So what she didn’t seem to understand is that your, your cart was carried, was carried on the horse of Obama. Obama was that horse, like, you were tied to him. And now that he’s going out, you’re going out, too. And I don’t think that really resonated with her.
BALL: You know, we were also talking a little bit about–I mean, because there is this point about Melissa Harris-Perry, as you point out, being a “Negro Whisperer”, playing that role. But there is also this question of how well she played the role or what that role really means in terms of what did her presence mean, as you would assess it, for the black community, or the broader political understanding in the country? In other words, what value did she bring to being there? What was, how would you define her politics, or how they were carried out there?
You know, famously, of course, in her beef with Cornel West over the politics of Barack Obama, he called her a traitor in the pages of Diverse Issues magazine, which for even, you know, some of us left critics seems a little harsh. But how would you define her place in this, or her role, or assess her role as a “Negro Whisperer”?
CARNELL: Well, the first thing I think about, the first thing that comes to mind for me, in terms of the role Harris-Perry played, is that before Harris-Perry for years we’ve been talking about having more black people on Sunday shows. We don’t see black academics, we don’t see black pundits, we don’t see black people who have been involved in politics. So the first role she played is one of validation, of us seeing our own experts and some academics on these Sunday morning shows.
But when people try to sort of paint her as much more of a radical figure on, on MSNBC or radical figure in terms of news, the first thing I point out is that she was the first person to–the way she made a name for herself was when she put a dagger in Cornel West and Tavis Smiley in the pages of the Nation, and caricatured them as the Soul Patrol.
Now, I, I can criticize Tavis Smiley. I can criticize Cornel West. But the way they were caricatured, you have this one man who’s been a commentator in black media for a long time, Tavis Smiley, and you have Cornel West, who is an academic in his own right, and you have her basically taking them out in favor of Obama, all to protect Obama. And she has played the role throughout Obama’s presidency as someone who basically gave him cover, so that when he was doing things that–when he was implementing policy that didn’t help black people, and talking about one wave, or whatever, lifts all ships and all that nonsense, it was people like Harris-Perry who were saying, you know, he is doing stuff. Calm down, he is doing stuff for us. He is, he is helping us. You just don’t understand how this game works.
So she–you know, to me she’s to blame for a lot of the reason why black people didn’t wake up sooner in terms of understanding how detrimental Obama was to, to not only just black people but the working poor in general. So I don’t have, I don’t have, really, much love lost for her, because I understand her role as being a damaging role, in terms of what she did and what she represented in media.
BALL: Well, Yvette Carnell, thank you very much again for joining us here at the Real News and helping us better understand this phenomenon of the “Negro Whisperer”.
CARNELL: Thank you for having me.
BALL: And thank you all for joining us, wherever you are. For all involved, again, I’m Jared Ball in Baltimore saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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