Photos by Kayla Steinberg
It would be easy to say from interviewing Duchess Harris that her wisdom comes from her nearly 30 years as a scholar and professor, teaching about the mechanics and dynamics of how race and racism works, particularly on how they infuse the laws that govern the nation, this state and our lives.
Easy, yes—but not quite correct.
Harris knows what she knows because she occupies an uneasier position: activist-scholar. She’s that professor who believes what she and her colleagues posit, preach and produce in peer-reviewed journals, conferences and books needs to be available to the rest of us outside of academia.
Her teaching and her civic involvement in local politics is how she helps bend the arc toward justice. That’s what motivated her to consult, and eventually co-author the book “Black Lives Matter,” which not only gives young people a timeline on the movement’s genesis and current status, but also steeps it in historical Black liberation struggles in the United States.
Not all activists in the movement, particularly on-the-ground activists, see the activist-scholar approach like Harris’ as the same caliber of work as the work of those who march and organize protests. With this comes complex tensions among people who are working toward the same change.
Harris and her book have received criticism from local activist Rashad Turner and Larry Elder, Fox News’ Ben Carson — only Elder is not running for president. As Harris says, “Last year was a challenge.”
Harris and I sat down and had a long talk about the book, the national controversies and the relative silence from the local media, reasons behind Minnesota’s racism and the need for intergenerational respect when it comes to social justice.
Andrea Plaid: How did this book come about?
Duchess Harris: Abdo Publishing reached out to me originally to be a content consultant. Originally, Sue Bradford Edwards was the single author. Once I saw the manuscript. I ended up changing quite a bit, [such as] providing a historical framing. Before I knew it, I was the co-author.
AP: Who’s the targeted audience for your book?
DH: It’s written at an 8th-grade level, and its targeted audience is 6th – 12th graders.
AP: And why do you feel that particular demographic needs this particular book?
DH: It’s a part of a series that deals with contemporary issues that are often in the news that young people need a walking-through. For instance, another book in the series is about Ebola. It’s things that come up in current affairs that young people might be concerned about, [and] these kinds of books might provide some background.
AP: I know that your book has received quite a bit of press, both accolades and quite a bit of criticism. Let’s talk about the accolades – who liked the book?
DH: The only person who said that is the person who actually read it. Beth Hawkins, who is a journalist at the Minnesota Post asked me for a copy after she saw Larry Elder’s rant, who hadn’t read it. So, I sent her a copy, and she read the whole thing. In her commentary, she referred to it as “remarkable.” Later that day, I heard from the head of the school board for the state, Kevin Donovan, and we have met since then because he was interested in meeting me and reading the book. I sent him a copy, and he said that he learned a lot.
AP: Speak on the Larry Elder controversy. What happened?
DH: What’s interesting is that I was working with a publicist who let people know that I’d been on TPT’s Almanac; we did a 7-minute segment. My publicist announced that it was out there. Some of the right-wing press saw that and took it upon themselves to say that I was “indoctrinating white schoolchildren.” That’s what the accusation was from Larry Elder, and what was interesting is that, at the time, the only people who had electronic versions were myself, my co-author and the editor at the press. [The] book is still at the gallies; I don’t have a print copy of the book. For everyone who criticized it, no one has read a word of it.
AP: Now, what I’ve noticed is there’s been a relative silence in the local press around the book, even as it’s received national attention. What do you think that’s about?
DH: You know, I’m not sure. The Minnesota Post was the only media that contacted me. Then, Kevin Donovan contacted me. Now I’m in conversations with the Minneapolis Superintendent of School’s office. The St. Paul [Public Schools] wants to meet with me. It’s more educational organizations. Actually, there’s a guy running for the school board in St. Paul – Keith Hardy – who wants me to do a book signing as part of his campaign. There’s that. Then, I recently found out that the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers is giving me a Profiles in Courage Award, which will be an event attended by 450 people. But, yeah, it’s definitely quieter on a local level.
AP: But then that brings up the point on how Black Lives Matter is being discussed locally. It seems to me said that the media coverage happens only when there’s a protest. And the coverage seems to carry a tone of “they” are interrupting “our” Minnesota-ness.
DH: Definitely. Definitely.
AP: Having read the book myself, though, it does a really good job of laying out everything – the facts, the controversies, etc. – in a way that’s non-judgmental.
DH: My co-author is a journalist – that was how she was originally approached. She’s from Florissant, Missouri, and she covered Ferguson for the local papers. She’s a white woman who’s never written [about race before that]. Her last book was about Pearl Harbor. [She and I] have very different backgrounds, but that straightforward balanced [tone] comes from her writing for newspapers.
I think [the one of the coverage and the general reaction ] is tied to our segregated housing patterns. The reason why I say that is police brutality would not occur to you if you lived five miles outside of certain neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s geographically located here differently than a place like Philadelphia, where people go into Philadelphia to work – they might live on the main line – and they see things all day every day. Even though it’s not in their own backyard, they’re a witness to it. If you work for 3M, which is located in Woodbury, and you live in Woodbury, you could live in Minnesota for decades and not see what you might see in another urban space. Part of the confusion is, “What are ‘they’ angry about? Things are good here.”
AP: Which feeds into the idea of that liberalism, into the idea that “they” are not being “nice.”
DH: Yes, it’s seen as not participating in democracy.
AP: Even though it is.
DH: Exactly, but that’s how it’s interpreted. And that’s very concerning to people. It’s seen that way even by people who celebrate Democratic Farmer Labor. Think about what the name of our Democratic Party. You have to consider there are different kinds of Democrats, in that you can come from a small town in Minnesota to the State Fair and it could be unimaginable to you that anybody would disrupt something as sacred to you as 4H, where you showcase your animals and large pumpkins you worked hard to raise. [Going to and participating in the State Fair] is a family tradition; it’s been going on ever since anyone who’s alive can remember. [Black Lives Matter protests] would be offensive to you.
AP: But again, you’d think it wouldn’t be offensive because, again, Minnesotans are very proud of their liberal tradition and attitude.
DH: But the liberal attitude comes from a segregated Democratic Party – which was segregated as recently as 1964, which is only 51 years ago – and, as much as we don’t like to think about it, it was our beloved [Walter] Mondale who was concerned about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party being there. In today’s context, we might have a slightly altered Mondale with someone like me considered as a Fannie Lou Hamer, who, at the time, was highly agitative. My written work would be considered agitating.
AP: Though it is not.
DH: I don’t think it is at all. It’s a book for middle school and high school students to be literate and to be able to have a historical context and express a current phenomenon that, unfortunately, probably isn’t going to shift for a long time. I just think it’s relevant.
AP: I think the book is relevant but, as we talked about, it flies in the face of passed-down ideas around race, in the sense of white Minnesotans feel like they’re not Indiana or Ohio – and certainly not the South – so they can’t imagine themselves as saying and behaving in racist ways. The most basic way this comes out is in the keyboard raging in social media about Black Lives Matter while pointing to interracial relationships and families.
DH: But there’s a misunderstanding of how the criminal justice system works. In Minnesota, the prevailing assumption is that it only happens to the “bad” Black people who are deserving of such treatment. We really don’t have a framework for innocence, and we don’t have a framework for Black innocence. I think you can have a Black police chief in St. Paul because he is visible – people know who he is, he eats at the Downtowner all the time and they save a booth for him and all that – then that’s a good symbol of equity and justice. But what’s interesting, though, is that operates very much like President Obama. Angela Davis would say a Black man in the White House doesn’t make up for millions of Black men in the Big House. You can have a Black chief of police, have some Black prosecutors, have Black public defenders, have Black judges – and that’s all fantastic and, in full disclosure, I happen to know all of them personally – but that doesn’t deal with the systemic and structural.
In Minnesota, everything is seen as individual – and I say this from my knowledge base of teaching Race and Law at the William Mitchell College of Law in the summer of 2011. I taught second-year and third-year law students. The fact that racism wasn’t an intentional act by one person upon another person at was, at the beginning of the semester, incomprehensible. They never thought through racism through structural inequality – and these were people who not only had bachelor’s degrees, but have been admitted into law school and survived the first year, and you have to put it in the context that 80 percent of Americans don’t have bachelor’s degrees. The most educated class of white people think racism means that they called me a name or they harmed my body – which has nothing to do with hiring practices, banking and loaning practices, neighborhood design, public education. Those things are invisible to them. Because of the fact that the population of Black people with influence in Minnesota is so small compared to some other major cities – [and Minnesotans] haven’t been in those major cities because a lot of Minnesotans haven’t lived in other places – they don’t have the point of comparison. They don’t know like I know that there are, for example, places in Atlanta where Black people own and run everything. We don’t have that here.
We do have places where Black people are in trouble, so it’s very easy for people to say, “If they were arrested, more than likely they committed a crime and are guilty – and we all want to be ‘safe.’” Which is something else in liberalism that we’ve prided ourselves on being: “safe.”
Last year was a challenge [for me]. The second most compelling incident was having a colleague refer to Black Lives Matter as “explosive.” What was more compelling was watching who agreed, and noting their job titles.
This reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King’s observation:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”
One of the most frequent critiques of Black Lives Matter is that they are not addressing “black-on black crime.” That is not true. Black ministers have been preaching about “black-on-black crime” before Ronald Reagan created the “war on drugs.” People would know this if we worshipped together. The only time that I see white moderates concerned about the safety of Black people is when Black people are upset about police brutality.
The most poignant example of this was the Twin Cities Marathon. My husband ran in the marathon. I was able to hold two ideas in my head at the same time, “It is great that a 52-year-old Black man is healthy enough to run the marathon in 3 hours and 45 minutes, and I hope he doesn’t get pulled over by the cops tomorrow.” A lot of people can’t reconcile these very real truths.
AP: How do you see your book moving the conversation along as far as Minnesota and race?
DH: I think there needs to be conversations that [counters the notion that] “racism is about everyone else but me.” I’ve been a part of a lot of conversations in this town – I’ve been here for 24 years. People talk about racism here as something that other people do. Until we consider the role many of us – and that includes people of color – participate in perpetuating and maintaining the status quo, there will be no movement. I’m hoping the value that my book can bring is this new generation has a different way of thinking about [race and racism] that, when they assume leadership, they have a different way of behaving around it.
AP: Has anyone for Black Lives Matter Minneapolis reached out to you about your book?
DH: No. I want to go on record to say I think there was one person in [a post on] Huffington Post Black Voices that said that I haven’t been on the front lines of the movement and they didn’t know who I spoke to, so how does my book have merit. [Editor’s note: I reached out to Rashad Turner, the person who made the statement for a response. As of this publication, he hasn’t replied.]
I want to clarify a couple of things. First of all, I’ve been a scholar for more than 20 years; my first publication came out in 1993. I can write about this without having been arrested at the Mall of America, even though I’m friends with many of the people who were arrested at the Mall of America. Just because I wasn’t there doesn’t mean I can’t write about that event. To me, this is very similar to when I wrote a piece about Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson. Now, I’ve never been enslaved, but I did the best that I could to give a perspective on where Sally Hemmings might be coming from.
AP: And I’ve heard elders in African American communities say that there has been a certain level of dismissal from some of the people in the local Black lives Matter groups.
DH: I’m 46 years old. In another part in my life, I’ve been a more active activist. I have been there – just not on that day in December 2014. I’ve been there, and in my early 20s, I lived there. I have the utmost respect for the people who are there and are there all the time. I consider Nekima Levy-Pounds a friend; she and I did the Martin Luther King event at Gustavus Adolphus College together in 2012. As much as anyone can say that, the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, who’s giving me the Profiles of Courage Award, gave it to Nekima last year. They see my contribution as different but as valuable. They’ve given it to Congressman Keith Ellison, who wrote the introduction to my book! People understand that people play a different role: I’m a writer, so I wrote about the movement. And I teach about it in my Racism and Law class.
AP: I think you make a good point on how activists get bogged down in believing there’s only one kind of activism that has merit and it’s the one kind that is validated.
DH: Everyone plays a role. Ellison gets to go to DC and actually gets to bring things to Congress; he’s started the [Progressive Caucus] in Congress that hadn’t even existed until he was elected. Nekima teaches about this, but teaches it to law students consistently. I teach this to undergrads. Everyone has a place. I don’t know where the [local] movement would be without one of us, and I don’t think anyone else would say their role is more important. How can we build this without Keith or Nekima? I humbly submit that this book will be used at the Laura Jeffrey Academy; so where [would the movement be] if children didn’t understand it?
[Editor’s note: Andrea Plaid and Duchess Harris have collaborated and worked together for three years prior to this interview.]