08/02/2011 04:16 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

Failure 101: A Lesson From MSNBC Contributor Melissa Harris-Perry on American Politics, the Presidency, Princeton, and Personal Failures


Photo credit: Chris Granger

Last month I spoke with MSNBC contributor, Columnist for The Nation, and Tulane Professor Melissa Harris-Perry for the project Failure, Inc. -- a series of interviews that explore the failures of some of the most extraordinary people in politics, business, literature, fashion, music, and film. We talked about how failure is a significant narrative in every great success story... even the American story.

As the country faces difficult times economically, politically, and socially, her comments served as a welcomed reminder that although moments of failure are inevitable, the obstacles they present are not impenetrable... and most importantly, that our response to failure can often be a catalyst for future achievement.

Here are excerpts from my conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry, who is hosting the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC this week while Maddow is on vacation.

On the notion of success and the Civil Rights Movement:

I think we far too often tell stories about American political successes as though they were completely stories of success. And I think the most common or obvious example of that is the Civil Rights Movement. We tend to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement as though it started in 1954 with Brown and peaked with the end of 1965 -- the Voting Rights Act. And so when you tell the story that way, it sounds like it takes approximately 11 years to defeat America's institutional racism through law.

And if we tell the story the way that it really happened, it actually starts back at about 1865. There were literally decades of failure. Hundreds of thousands of people organizing, doing community work, writing, giving their lives, contributing their money and just failing and failing and failing and failing and getting whooped and beat and lynched. It's extraordinary how much failure there is from 1865 to 1964. There were 90 years of failure and then a decade of success.

On why she finds the failures of the Civil Rights Movement empowering:

To me I actually found that very empowering. And I find it empowering because it helps me remember that even if the part of history that I find myself in ends up being the failing part... I know that I am just one part of a longer struggle. I don't have to be alive during the success part. It might be that I'm alive during the failing part.

On her failures while teaching at Princeton University:

Certainly one failure that was very painful and very recent is not being promoted to the position of full professor at Princeton University. I basically had a joint appointment. One of the departments which I had a joint appointment promoted me to full professor. The other department did not promote me. And the way that works is that if you are not promoted by both, then you are not promoted to full professor.

You know, I already had tenure. I achieved one of the major goals that you have as a young academic. But I did not get to have the kind of final peace of being a full professor. There wasn't anything about this that meant my family couldn't eat. I could have kept my job at Princeton forever. But it certainly felt like failure. Anytime you submit yourself before judgement and your colleagues say, "no, I pass"... you know, that was certainly a failure in that I wanted to achieve it and I didn't.

I am thrilled with what my outcome ended up being, and I quite likely would have left Princeton anyway for personal reasons because I wanted to be in New Orleans. But that failure will always be there. That I tried for something and I failed to get it. And that is happening at a time in my life when I have a ton of other successes, lots of great things going on. But even in the midst of all those big things, it shows that it is not an easy path and there are still failures along the way.

On the failures of George W. Bush:

It is hard to know because I think we have to separate out the human being -- the person that is George W. Bush from his administration. You have to separate him from the Presidency of Bush. And so I am just not qualified to speak on the personal question. And I am simply not predisposed to demonize him. I am very predisposed to demonize the policy choices and their outcomes, however. But the fact is that whatever he is learning personally, time will tell. You know some ex-presidents turned out to be very self-reflective in their post-presidential selves. Even Nixon ended up being relatively more interesting as a former president with the space to self reflect. And certainly Carter is probably the best post-president ever. So who knows who George W. Bush may end up being within his own sense of redemption.

On the failures of the country during the George W. Bush Administration:

What I would like to hopefully think that we learned as a country was that -- if there was a failure at all -- it was that we gave away so much of our hard-earned collectivity, our social safety net, and civil liberties. We gave them away because we were afraid. And if there is a failure of that administration I think that failure in part belongs to all of us. The Democratic law makers and the Republican administration for the Patriot Act and for the ways that we willingly went into Iraq and committed our forces for a decade. Those situations were not just Bush's. Those were situations that we all allowed. And I see us repeating that same failure. This time not out of fear of terrorism, but this time out of fear of economic hardship.

On the "American Experiment":

And I just really love the American experiment. And I don't think we are done with it. And I think that we haven't yet fulfilled all of what the Constitution and Declaration of Independence might be. But I do know that we can easily take it apart with our own hands out of fear. We can decide that we are not interested in building a multiracial, gender equitable, fair society that reduces class divisions, and creates mobility and opportunity... All of the things that are just rhetoric, but also so much more than rhetoric. But when we are afraid either economically or internationally, to me the failure is when we give away that ideological possibility of a more equal society simply because we are afraid.

On whether failure always leads to success:

None of us are impervious. All of us are failing even as we are succeeding. So, I always think that there can't be enough reminders both politically and personally about failure. And again not just because failure will ultimately lead to success. Because sometimes failure is just failure. But it is part of the human experience and we can't pretend it doesn't exist.

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