What Melissa Harris-Perry Learned from Maya Angelou About Mentorship

By Caroline Kitchener

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 …read more

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