What a shame and an embarrassment for Cornell it was to feature MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry as the speaker at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Lecture on Feb. 23.
The event, titled “We Can’t Breathe: The Continuing Consequences of Inequality,” was ostensibly meant to serve as a thought-provoking reflection on contemporary race relations and the role the teachings of Dr. King should play today in light of recent elevation of racial tensions due to the cases involving Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice.
Instead, Harris-Perry delivered an hour-long comedy routine lightly mixed in, here and there, with some serious thought. Though she did reference Dr. King on numerous occasions, Harris-Perry clearly established from the very beginning that this event was really just about Harris-Perry, and not Dr. King, one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. After a humbling introduction delivered by Dean of Students Kent Hubbell, which referenced Dr. King’s 1960 speech at Cornell and also honored Cornellians slain in the Civil Rights Movement, Harris-Perry started off by taking a “selfie” with the audience behind her.
The event took place in Sage Chapel, with an audience of about 250 packed into the pews. Despite the sanctity of the setting, Harris-Perry could not resist herself in peppering curse words throughout her speech, some of which were obviously planned and not spur of the moment. At one point, she referred to her vision of democracy–that “democracy is for losers”– as “hot shit” and later exclaimed she hoped Trayvon Martin “whooped the shit out of George Zimmerman.”
What would Dr. King, a pacifist, think of those who champion violence in his commemoration?
It actually does not matter what he would think, argued Harris-Perry, because there is now way of knowing. True, but then the MSNBC spin-doctor went on to claim Dr. King is a “social construction” anyways, so what the actual Dr. King said and did is of little relevance and consequence to the modern-day conception of Dr. King.
In one of her many bids to come off as quirky, Harris-Perry also equated Dr. King, an icon of peace who changed the nation and the world for the better, with Beyoncé, a pop singer who does not even write her own lyrics.
“We think of King as the one great voice, like Beyoncé,” said Harris-Perry.
Though the audience laughed along with Harris-Perry when she joked about the Tea Party, George W. Bush, Beyoncé, Southern black culture, and Ithaca’s weather, most in attendance were hesitant to cajole along with her when she boasted about her honorarium no fewer than three times. At one point the MSNBC host even quipping she would “be down with lower taxes” because of all the money she makes from her speaking circuit.
The cornerstone of her presentation–aside from the cringe-worthy spectacle she was making of herself–was the idea that the country must “break bodies [in order] to perfect the union.” During the presentation, the word “bodies” was used no fewer than 100 times in line with the emergent phraseology of leftist activism that places an undue emphasis on physicality rather than on actual thought. It is through “bodies” and “motion” and “spaces” that these modern-day leftist protesters and activists seek to effect change, not through “minds” and “thinking” and “ideas.” Harris-Perry went on to explain to the audience the struggle of “black bodies” throughout American history, showing slides on her accompanying PowerPoint depicting images of “bodies that have moved,” “bodies that would not be moved,” “bodies that sat,” “bodies that rose,” etc.
“We break bodies in order to… get to where we need to go,” she explained.
The importance of using the word “bodies” over, say, the word “people” is because bodies, being purely physical, cannot think, whereas people–the union of body and mind–can. The problem for body-obsessed activists is that those who can think for themselves clearly do not drink their Kool-Aid.
The MLK commemorator went on to discuss how fraught the past decade was for black bodies, citing the response to victims of Hurricane Katrina as well as the arrest of Harvard University professor Skip Gates in 2009. Referring to the Harvard professor, Harris-Perry said, “Your respectability cannot and will not save you…they went into his house and got him.”
The last segment of the presentation concerned art. Earlier in the speech Harris-Perry did lament how the movie ‘Selma’ only won one Academy Award, but in this drawn-out closing segment she spoke about the need for “black bodies” to become artists. Indeed, given the turmoil facing the country after a string of highly controversial white-on-black and black-on-white crime cases, Harris-Perry’s solution for blacks and non-blacks alike it to become artists–singers, drawers, actors.
Once again, the new rhetoric of the activism class showed in Harris-Perry’s speech supposedly delivered in commemoration of Dr. King. Here on display was the infantilization, the self-parodying of the gravity of topic of discussion–race in America–by minimizing the proper role of rationality and introspection to make room for galvanizing buzzwords and catchphrases.
Let us only hope Cornell will select a more refined, serious speaker next year. On campus, comedians should perform their skits in Bailey Hall, not in Sage Chapel in commemoration of Dr. King.