Dr. Boyce Spotlight: Duchess Harris – Mother, Wife, Attorney, Extraordinary Scholar

dutchess

The role of Super Woman in black America can be readily applied to a woman who can balance the relentless pursuit of academic achievement, professional success, and outstanding motherhood, all at the same time. Miriam Harris (a.k.a. Duchess) is a textbook example of what we all want our daughters to become. She is a mother of three, and has both a PhD and a law degree. The Ivy League-educated supermom is not only “about her business,” she is deeply committed to the business of using her vast intellect to make the world a better place for both women and people of color. In other words, she’s not just a Black PhD, she is actually a “Ph-Do.” AOL Black Voices was able to catch up with Professor Harris for the Dr. Boyce Watkins Spotlight:

What is your name and what do you do for a living? 
My name is Duchess Harris and I am an Associate Professor of American Studies at Macalester College.

What is your area of expertise and what made you pursue this particular area of study? 
When I was fourteen, I won an academic scholarship to become a boarding student at the Canterbury School in New Milford, CT. At Canterbury, I was quite a stranger to the wealth of my classmates. The first year that I was there a student asked me, “Where do you summer?” I didn’t understand the question until I realized that “summer” was being used as a verb — my classmates had summer homes.

Unable to relate to their class privilege, I also felt isolated from the other five black students at the school — I was the only one not from the inner city. Instead, I grew up in a Connecticut suburb, where my father worked as an air traffic controller and my mother took care of the home. Socially marooned at boarding school, I focused on academics.

My commitment to academic excellence eventually paid off, and I gained admission to the University of Pennsylvania. While at Penn, I won a Fellowship from the Mellon Foundation, was inducted into the Mortar Board National Senior Honor Society and the Onyx Senior Honor Society. On graduation I won the Alice Paul Award, Raymond Pace Alexander Award, and the Althea K. Hottel Award, which is the highest senior honor award given in a class of 2,500.

Much of my recognition came because I was elected student body president. As the first black woman to lead an Ivy League student government, I spearheaded an initiative to remove from university housing a fraternity with members who had been convicted of a sexual assault; this made a prime location available to a community service organization. My activism in college has been written about in Wayne Glasker’s, ‘Black Students in the Ivory Tower: African American Student Activism at the University of Pennsylvania, 1967-1990′ (p 168).

My experience of being the first black woman to lead a student government in the Ivy League, while simultaneously being mentored by Mary Frances Berry, inspired me to wonder how the stories of black women’s activism are told.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, I enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where I earned my PhD in American Studies, writing my dissertation on black women’s organizing in response to Black Power and the Second Wave of Feminism. At the completion of my PhD, I was one of two graduates in a class of sixteen to be nominated for the American Studies Association National Dissertation Prize. I graduated in May 1997, and in December was named one of Thirty Young Leaders of the Future under the age of thirty by Ebony Magazine. I spent the next years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School, which was directed by john a. powell at the time.

I joined the faculty at Macalester College in 1998. During the Spring 2003 semester at Macalester, several colleagues and I developed a proposal to create a new “Department of American Studies,” which would house the formerly independent but closely connected African American Studies and Comparative North American Studies programs. Collectively, we viewed American Studies as a rubric that should inspire collaboration and healthy debate about the borders and boundaries of citizenship, responsibility, and intellectual work. After finalizing the new program, I was proud to serve as the department’s first chairperson for the next two years. Under my leadership, we attracted twenty majors to the department, which placed us in the top third.

I was awarded tenure in 2004. In 2007 I decided that attending law school would allow me to expand my teaching possibilities further. I was admitted to William Mitchell College as a “William Mitchell Fellow” (1 of 21 in an entering class of 336). I started taking courses in the part-time evening program, so that I could continue teaching at Macalester.

You have both a law degree and a PhD, in addition to raising three children. How do you manage it all and what pushed you to achieve so much? 
On January 15th, I will graduate from William Mitchell College of Law. When I started law school all three of my kids were in diapers, and I worked full time the first two years. Despite numerous obstacles, I have walked this long and winding road and reached my goal. I have very few regrets because I know that I did the best that I could with what I had. Law school wasn’t what I expected, but I surprised myself with how many times I got up after being knocked down. I only missed one day of class after my pulmonary embolism, and I returned to law school more determined than ever.

The rigor of law school enhanced my discipline; and in turn I contributed with anonline race and the law journal. In Contracts [class at law school] they call that a bargain for exchange. I am humble enough to realize that I took more than I gave in the course of my education; but I am proud to have launched the first online, interactive scholarly publication dedicated to the complex issues surrounding race and the law in return. As Ruthie Wilson Gilmore said in her presidential address to the American Studies Association, “Infiltrate what exists, innovate what doesn’t.” I hope my small innovation with this journal will contribute to a re-examination of where our legal system doesn’t provide equal protection under the laws.
Tell us about your experience with the school to prison pipeline. What are some of the major problems and what are some suggested solutions? 

Working with William Mitchell’s ReEntry Clinic has taught me in the most immediate way that the law and legal proceedings can be a powerful, effective form of intervention and assistance in the lives of people who have been disenfranchised, abused, and dispossessed. On April 3, 2010 The Huffington Post published my reflections on this experience. 

When I launched my blog a year ago today I wrote: “My goal is to provide legal assistance to disenfranchised women and their families. This will benefit women who are leaving prison, and their children; it will also benefit me, the law student, who is learning how to advocate for them.” Women who have been incarcerated need advocates and I know what it’s like to advocate for someone who doesn’t have a voice. My experience as a parent, an academic, and as a law student will help me to bring these women’s stories to a wider audience. The stories of these mothers have the potential to inspire law schools across the nation to open clinics similar to the one that I will participate in. Just as you have listened to my story, I can listen to their stories, and let you hear their voices. God gave Noah the rainbow sign — my name is Duch, I’m ready this time.

I thought I was ready, but I don’t know if anyone is ready for the work I’ve done this year. Films like ‘Precious’ present the stories of the poor and there is almost always transformation, realization, redemption, accompanied by moving theme music. Lives are changed in the span of two hours, usually through the intervention of a teacher, a social worker, one person who believes they can make a difference. I wanted to be that person. But reality is a much grimmer affair. There’s no easy solution for the crushing blows that come with poverty; drug abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, ignorance and mental illness. Not even Oprah, with all her billions, can wave a magic wand and fix it. Here are just a few of the daunting statistics about women in prison:

-57% have a history of physical or sexual abuse.
-63% are non-white or minorities.
-64% have not finished high school.
-74% used drugs regularly before their incarceration.
-Most women in prison are incarcerated for non-violent crimes.
-Women frequently engage in criminal activities with their romantic partners.

In the fall I met “Star,” a 44-year-old Black woman incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee who could check all of the above. Her older sister’s husband molested “Star” when she was 13. She had a baby when she was 19, another child at 21, married that child’s father, and then had her third child at 28.

Her husband used to beat her and she had a restraining order against him. He eventually crossed state lines and committed several bank robberies, and is incarcerated in a penitentiary in Virginia. She shared that this was a huge relief, because he was violent and HIV positive. Her incarceration was for aiding and abetting her husband.

She arrived at Shakopee in December 2006. At the time, her youngest child was 12. She sent her daughter to live with the same brother-in-law who molested her. Her daughter was molested and eventually removed from their home. He was not prosecuted. Star was set to be released four days before Christmas, and at that point she’d regain custody of her 9th grader daughter who hadn’t seen her in three years. There would be much work to do, to break the cycle of violence and poverty.

But that’s where I came in. As a certified student attorney from William Mitchell College of Law, Star asked me to help her obtain a dissolution of marriage from her husband, who would not be eligible for parole until 2033. That was my legal assignment. When she was released, I was also responsible for helping her re-unite with her daughter, obtain housing, and find employment. She had a history of drug abuse and claimed to have been clean for four years. But that didn’t add up, because she also admitted that she missed her mother’s 2006 funeral because she was strung out. I was to help Star with rehab as well.

She was the poor drug addict and sexual abuse survivor. I was the privileged professor/law student who was there to make the difference, to help her turn her life around. There was no theme music. There was no happy ending.

I worked on Star’s divorce from September to December. I went to visit her a week before her release and assured her that I’d do everything in my power to help her re-enter society. When I called after the holiday to tell her that the divorce papers were drafted, I discovered that she and her daughter had left the state to return to her sister’s home, to live with her and the brother in law that had molested Star and Star’s daughter.

In real life, it isn’t precious.

As I alluded to earlier, there is a significant divide between the ivory tower and “real life” problems. Sometimes theories that seem rational and reasonable in an institutional setting don’t work in the practical applications of day-to-day living. A multitude of social theories have failed to result in the development of interventions to solve the problems of poverty and crime, and as the number of women who are incarcerated increases exponentially, the effect on their families, children, and communities, puts the fabric of our society at risk. My experiences with the legal clinic have provided a template for bridging the divide between theory and practice, providing an example of the way that I can use existing institutions and their services and resources to the benefit of my clients.

Because the clinic was not for me, I returned to scholarship.

Tell us about your book. Why should people read it? 
My first book, ‘Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton,‘ was released in July 2009. It was a journey that started with questions.

Why was Dr. Joycelyn Elders forced to leave her post? Why didn’t any of the women in the Congressional Black Caucus who voted against Clarence Thomas dare to speak on behalf of Anita Hill? Why was Congresswoman Barbara Lee alone in her opposition to the Iraq war resolution?

Since the sixties, black women have tried to gain centrality by their participation in presidential commissions, black feminist organizations, theatrical productions, film adaptations of literature, beauty pageants, electoral politics, and presidential appointments. But looking at the years between 1961 and 200, were black women able to gain real political power?

‘Black Feminist Politics’ was released the same month that former U.S. representative Cynthia McKinney was taken into custody by Israeli military officials, while she was on a humanitarian mission to provide aid to the ravaged Palestinian citizens in Gaza.

It was released the same month that President Barack Obama nominated my husband’s colleague, Dr. Regina Benjamin, to be Surgeon General, 15 years after President Bill Clinton fired Dr. Joycelyn Elders.

July 2009 was a time that we got to witness a woman of color participating in a Senate confirmation hearing for an actual seat on the Supreme Court, as opposed to being judged by 98 male senators during someone else’s confirmation.

The second edition of the book, ‘Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Obama,’ will be released in May 2011. In a new final chapter I discuss President Obama’s report card as it relates to black women. You can view a snap shot of this at The Scholar and Feminist Online. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our AOL Black Voices audience? 
In July 2009 my family was featured in Essence Magazine as a two career couple raising three children, including one who thrives with autism. I enjoy corresponding with parents of special needs children.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the bookBlack American Money To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. To suggest a subject for a Dr. Boyce Watkins Spotlight, please click here.

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