What Melissa Harris-Perry Learned From Maya Angelou About Mentorship

The politics professor and former TV-show host talks about creating a dynamic that combines empathy, vulnerability, and fun.

Harris-Perry hugs one of her mentees. (Courtesy of Melissa Harris-Perry)

As a professor at Wake Forest University and an editor at large at Elle, Melissa Harris-Perry is constantly on the lookout for new students to mentor. When she teaches a class, she gravitates towards those who aren’t afraid to challenge her. She knows these students will be the ones most willing to relax around her—to go out for a drink, debate about Kendrick Lamar, or let loose on the dance floor. The ability to have fun, she says, is key to a good mentoring relationship.

Mankaprr Conteh, who graduated from Wake Forest in May, is one of those students. When Harris-Perry created the Elle.com Scholars, a program that gives Wake Forest students the opportunity to write for Elle’s website, Conteh was the first participant.

As part of The Atlantic’s project, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke to Harris-Perry and Conteh about mentorship, vulnerability, and how Beyoncé brought them together. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Kitchener: Was there a point when you felt like you started to stand out to Professor Harris-Perry as more than just another student in class?

Mankaprr Conteh: Well, there was the Beyoncé argument.

Melissa Harris-Perry: I need to give you some background information here—there is no person who knows anything about me who doesn’t know that I am obsessed with Beyoncé. I have been for years and years, openly and actively. And not in a surface kind of way. I am the platinum member of the Beyoncé club. You have to begin with that foundational understanding.

Now you go ahead, Mankaprr. I just wanted to make sure we had that down.

Conteh: It was right after Beyoncé performed at the Super Bowl. MHP is lit—like really, really lit—about “Formation.” And I’m like, but Beyoncé is still talking about money getting us free. I say, “This song doesn’t necessarily feel as liberating to me as it does to you.” Inside, I am literally shaking as we are going back and forth because Professor Harris-Perry is clearly incensed.

At that point, we hadn’t really had any conversations outside of class. A few days later, [this historian and author] Barbara Ransby comes to speak at Wake Forest. Somebody asked her about Beyoncé, and she said exactly what I’d been trying to articulate. Professor Harris-Perry sits up in her seat and looks at me, and I look at her.

Harris-Perry: We had this completely fun sister-girl moment in the middle of the lecture.

Kitchener: So after that, did you talk to her outside of class?

Conteh: One of my friends told me that Professor Harris-Perry was at dinner talking about how much of a badass I was. And I was like, “Oh, cool. Let me just send her an email and tell her how much I admire her and really want to be her.” And then a couple of days after I contacted her, she whisked me off to the BET Honors with her to network. There I met all these incredible writers and artists and musicians and thinkers and politicians.

Kitchener: How do you decide who you’re going to have that sort of relationship with?

Harris-Perry: In all of my interactions with students, I am always looking for a few things that stand out. Almost every student I interact with is smart. So being smart is usually not that distinguishing a characteristic. I look for people who are willing to stand their ground. I look for a kind of intellectual courage. I saw that courage when Mankaprr openly challenged me in class. When I pushed back against her, she pushed right back. She was willing to be vulnerable and courageous, but also fully human. That is necessary for a mentoring relationship to work. If you’re going to revere somebody, it can’t work, because you can’t be human. You can’t have fun.

Kitchener: Is fun an important part of a mentoring relationship?

Conteh: It creates space for vulnerability. If I can go get a drink with Professor Harris-Perry, and let my guard down, I feel like I can go to her for help with almost anything. There is an age difference; there is a life-experience difference. That can be very intimidating, but if you have fun together, you break those differences down. I don’t think we’ve ever done something serious without going out and turning up a little after.

Harris-Perry: To me, fun also creates space for creativity. Fun is the root of creativity. I tease all of the students pretty mercilessly about how young they are. When I recognize the intergenerational divide on music and culture, I figure out what I need to spend more time exploring.

Conteh: Yeah, and I think that can only happen if your mentor lets you into their personal space. I’ve been to Professor Harris-Perry’s house a bunch of times. That’s where I found out that her husband, James, thinks he knows more about hip-hop than everybody else. That’s where the conversations about Kendrick Lamar happen.

Kitchener: What was it like to go over to Professor Harris-Perry’s house for the first time? Did that immediately feel natural to you?

Conteh: It did. Sometimes when a speaker comes to school, Professor Harris-Perry will have a dinner at her house. We’re all sitting at little tables, so it feels very intimate. There are baby toys in the corner—things like that really help to humanize the person who owns the home.

Harris-Perry: I host dinners at my house because of my mentor, Dr. Maya Angelou. She always taught classes and entertained her students in her home. Although her home was always fabulously decorated, you never had the sense that somebody had just cleaned up. I loved that.

Kitchener: I think people often see a mentor as someone they need to impress, but it doesn’t seem like you see Professor Harris-Perry that way. What’s it like to be vulnerable with someone you look up to so much?

Conteh: With Professor Harris-Perry, it feels totally natural to talk about really hard personal things. It feels natural to be broken. All I can see on her face is genuine empathy. When someone is like that with you, it’s not hard to open up to them.

Kitchener: When did you first go to Professor Harris-Perry for help with something personal?

Conteh: I had tried to resign from my position as a communications intern at the research center that Professor Harris-Perry leads on campus. I didn’t really give a good reason—I just sent an e-mail, saying that I was going through a lot. Immediately, Professor Harris-Perry got in touch with me, saying, “I can tell there is something wrong, but we’re not going to let you quit. This isn’t a job, this is a family.” That was a turning point for me. When you work for someone—especially if you see that person as a mentor—you do, at some level, want to impress them. But you’re not always capable of doing that. From this point on, I knew that if there was ever a burden I couldn’t carry, I could bring it to Professor Harris-Perry’s house, and she could help me.

Harris-Perry: Dr. Angelou became my mentor on the day that I dropped her class. I try to always remember that she should have been offended—that would have been the appropriate response to me dropping a class of someone of her stature. Instead, Dr. Angelou was deeply concerned because she knew that I was a scholarship student—and if I was dropping classes, I was likely not going to finish college. Her first response wasn’t, “What in the world is wrong with you? Don’t you know I am Maya Angelou?” Instead her question was, “Wait a minute, if you’re dropping my class and all your other classes this semester, how are you going to finish on time?” Ultimately she said, “Come see me.” I try to respond similarly.

Kitchener: How has Professor Harris-Perry, as your mentor, been able to offer personal support that is different from support you might get from a parent or a friend?

Conteh: The opportunities that she presented to me never came with any kind of pressure. She would just constantly put me in rooms. She would go to some event and bring me along. For example, she’d say, “I’m going to this Essence panel, and I’m speaking with Ava DuVernay. Why don’t you come along?” Just being in those spaces, around those kinds of incredible people, I would think to myself, “We’re all here. There must be something similar about us.”

Kitchener: Do you think that personal identity—gender identity, racial identity, religious identity—should play a role in who mentors whom?

Conteh: Personally I think that, since white men hold all the power in our society, they should be mentoring everybody.

Harris-Perry: Mhmm.

Conteh: Of course there are all these beautiful familial aspects to my relationship with Professor Harris-Perry. But one of the things that you look to a mentor for is opportunity. And so the people who have all of the opportunity really need to be mentoring everybody else.

Harris-Perry: I totally agree. I thank God for my graduate mentors in the Ph.D. program who were powerful white men, who took an interest in me, and brought me and my dissertation along. If not for them walking me through the battleground of political science, I don’t know where I would be. It is white men who hold the keys to the academy.

Kitchener: Would you say you mentor a diverse group of students?

Harris-Perry: Absolutely. I’ve mentored white women, black men, and many, many queer students of all kinds. I’m quite cis and femme and straight, so those aren’t identity matches, and yet I feel like our work together has been valuable. At the same time, I think it’s important that those students have mentors who play other roles in their lives. I can’t mentor my queer students in all of their spaces. If they have queer mentors who are helping them to navigate the world in different ways, I think that’s also important.

Kitchener: Do you ever look at a particular mentee and think to yourself, “Well, they’ve made it—I’m done mentoring?”

Harris-Perry: No. Never. I have students who are tenured professors who I still send potential opportunities. I don’t think there is ever a time when that stops. When you are rooting for the success of another person, I don’t know when you ever stop opening doors.