Melissa Harris-Perry offers new perspective to importance of voice, language in ‘Beyond the Dream’ keynote

Vaughn Cockayne and Vaughn Cockayne

BGSU welcomed Melissa Harris-Perry as one of four guests in the “Power of the Word” speaker series on Wednesday. 

President Rodney Rodgers set the tone for the night by discussing the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words. 

“Fifty years after his death, his commitments and accomplishments continue to inspire all of us. Not just here in our community but throughout the world,” he said.  

A diverse, crowded ballroom listened intently to what Harris-Perry had to say throughout the evening. She began her speech with the question, “Do voice and language matter in struggles for justice?” 

The audience responded in one collective, “yes.” Although she was passionate about these subjects, Harris-Perry told the audience she was not there to provide a single answer but to help people reflect, analyze and deepen how these questions are answered. 

Harris-Perry first invited everyone to use a few “shared analytic tools,” one being “#blackgirlskepticism.” This she described as being a way to view current events and racial politics from a conscious perspective; one that does not always accept the given narrative. 

The other tool: to just breathe. These tools gave the audience a way to deal with some of the topics she spoke about, as they may have evoked strong emotions. Counselors were also available if an audience member needed to speak with them privately. 

Harris-Perry emphasized the storytelling skills and influence of Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement but hit on the point that there are always other stories that are not told as often. 

“Throughout this movement, voice was about more than simply speaking,” she said. 

Harris-Perry mentioned there were many members in the struggle for civil rights in America that were not African American and how understanding and learning the history of those who are not remembered for their speech but for their actions is important. 

One of the final aspects of Harris-Perry’s speech was the vulnerability of speaking out. She brought up the point that speaking up is not always empowering because it can feel terrifying to be vulnerable. Harris-Perry made her case by pointing to rape accusations that, when women spoke up, they were shouted down and made to feel vulnerable. 

“I’m a survivor of sexual assault … as a survivor, the main thing I’ve spent time doing is learning that it wasn’t on me. You couldn’t have put yourself in my shoes for one moment. Voice and language matter,” she said. 

Harris-Perry’s perspective on how we use language in our struggle against injustice sparked reaction from some members of the audience.

“She opened my mind to hear different perspectives. I grew up in the Midwest, and I lived in a lot of different places. These issues are still important, and I have to remember never silence my own voice,” Assistant Director for Diversity Education Toni Gordon said. 

People were also enthusiastic about the program that brings speakers like Harris-Perry to campus. 

“It brings fantastic people to campus and is my favorite part of the academic year. It brings so many diverse voices, which we really could use a lot more of on this campus. She is a seamless orator, brilliant,” professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies, Riddhima Sharma said.

Harris-Perry received a standing ovation, and Rogers was optimistic about what happens after the audience members go home. 

“This event engages discussion of others and other points of view. It also elevates the dialogue. I hope that there are hundreds of conversations sparked about what she said tonight as people leave,” Rogers said.