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01/29/2014 09:49 am ET

MSNBC's Scholar-In-Residence

Larry Busacca via Getty Images

Even serious journalists covered Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday earlier this month People–style, writing about the first lady’s hair, her trip to Hawaii, and her latest thoughts about Botox. By contrast, on her MSNBC weekend show, Melissa Harris-Perry turned the birthday into an opportunity to give a lesson on civil rights from an African-American perspective. Talking directly to the camera for a full five minutes, she delivered what felt very much like a freshman history lecture, starting with the 1963 March on Washington and connecting every important event to a milestone in Michelle Obama’s life.

How did such a brainiac land her own cable news show? Harris-Perry doesn’t just get away with saying the word “intersectionality” on TV, using #nerdland as her show’s hashtag, and publishing an online “syllabus” with each episode—she’s beloved for it. When MSNBC gave Harris-Perry her own show in 2012, progressives reacted a little like they did when Obama first won election: Can this really be happening? At that point she was already a tenured professor in African-American studies and politics at Tulane, a columnist at The Nation and a frequent guest and sometime sub on the Rachel Maddow Show. What stood out about Harris-Perry was not just her liberal views, or that she was an African-American woman—MSNBC has other black female anchors—but her ability to talk about “the complexities at the intersections of race, gender and politics,” as Anna Holmes put it. The broad hope was that she would elevate the level of blather on cable news. And maybe you could even read into that hope a subconscious desire to redirect the unrequited love for Obama, because she too is a politically progressive professor who grew up in a biracial family, only she never lets you down.

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