For Melissa Harris-Perry, Joy-Ann Reid and Janet Mock
By Cherno Biko
I wasn’t going to spill any of this tea because of fear and respectability politics. As a viewer of MSNBC, I was in shock when Jamil Smith publicized MHP’s letter to her devoted staff. As I processed her words, I started to cry; it was clear that this was the end of an era and I began to experience the beginning emotional stages of loss. But I knew that I would have to speak up eventually despite my recent achievements.
Last month, I was honored as one of the NBC BLK 28 for my contributions to arts, culture, activism and politics. Honestly, I didn’t want to jeopardize my career or end up on the blacklist. But what’s blacker than being a poor fat disabled trans femme?
Earlier this week, NBC officially disappeared our beloved Nerdland prompting MHP to unleash the meaning of CLAPBACK 2016 in an epic series of tweets. As I watched her recounting the laborious meeting in which she refused to sign a gag order for her severance pay, the one tweet that touched me most was her apology for not standing in solidarity with her black co-workers at MSNBC. I remembered Audre’s warning that “our silence will not protect us” and threw caution to the wind. I truly believe that we don’t have anything to lose but our chains… so #GetInFormation.
I was scheduled to spend my Valentine’s Day on #Nerdland to discuss what was officially pitched as “art and activism,” to my understanding, though I was also being brought in to discuss the impact of Beyonce’s Superbowl performance and the counter protest I helped to organize at NFL Headquarters. In hindsight, I’m almost certain the producers were trying to find ways to circumvent the policing of MSNBC executives Andy Lack and Phil Griffin.
Nevertheless, I received an email a day before the show informing me that the segment had been cancelled. Little did I know then, the whole show had been hijacked under the premise of focusing on the election. The network tapped national correspondent Joy-Ann Reid to host the final episode of #Nerdland. Reid’s show The Reid Report was cancelled exactly a year ago.
“When she said wanted to discuss Beyoncé’s new video, ‘Formation,’ and how it addresses race, she said she was encouraged to focus on the election instead. She wound up discussing the video anyway but as she did, footage of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie rallies in New Hampshire appeared in a box, an indication that the network’s priorities were shifting.” –NYTimes
Nearly a year ago, I relocated to New York to serve as the interim CFO of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. I soon discovered the non profit industrial complex to be as destructive as any other institution fueled by white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. Instead of the development and support I was promised, I was excommunicated. Fired. Terminated. Can we talk about how violent this language and practice is? It’s a vicious cycle that black women are too often forced to survive.
The sad part is, I was great at my job. Within 3 months of moving I surpassed our fundraising goals, secured corporate sponsors and even filmed a movie. But that still wasn’t enough. To them, women like me have been and will always be expendable.
The first time I appeared on #Nerdland was in the aftermath of Caitlyn Jenner’s reveal on the cover of Vanity Fair. I wasn’t initially invited but my sister/friend Cherrel Brown knew of my work with #BlackTransLivesMatter. She slid in my DMs and offered to connect me with a producer named Victoria Asbury. I remain in deep gratitude to them for believing in me and our collective black girl magic.
In the first segment, I confessed to MHP that I was one of the people who read her on twitter for exclusively featuring white trans folks in her award winning Trans In America editorial. She replied with “HELL YEA! That’s what Nerdland is all about, thank you.”
A week later the story of Rachel Dolezal story went viral and I went back to Nerdland to weigh in on the question: If Caitlyn can be a woman, can Rachel be black?
As a trained media activist I have been featured on FOX, MTV, VH1, CNN and BET but it was The Melissa Harris-Perry Show, that gave me my first chance and I was determined not to disappoint. Of everything I’ve been able to accomplish in my professional career, the thing that makes my mother most proud is when she can turn on her television and see me speak truth to power.
However, I was quite aware of the sensationalism being perpetuated by mainstream media towards trans visibility. A year earlier I called out Piers Morgan and CNN for misgendering Janet Mock. I noted the stark contrast between the tone of that interview and Janet’s appearance on Nerdland where she was presented in full as an author and advocate without having to prove her womanhood. I felt safe with MHP because, unlike most people, she actually listens to critiques and actively works to improve. A few months after Trans In America aired, Janet Mock began appearing on Nerdland regularly. Which led to her making history as the first openly trans television personality to produce and host her own talk show.
I believe that the true mark of a great person is one who empowers others to achieve their full potential. Despite the many barriers put in place by the network, MHP and her staff were able to produce the most racially diverse and gender expansive show in cable news history. Nevertheless, MHP’s criticism of MSNBC has raised questions about the network’s erasure of black girls . The systemic silencing of black girls at MSNBC follows a formula which some insiders are dubbing as disappearances. In addition to MHP, Joy-Ann Reid and Janet Mock have both seen their shows effectively canceled within the last year.
Janet Mock’s groundbreaking show So POPular!, is the darling of MSNBC’s online platform Shift and has been missing for weeks with no explanation. As the newest member of her Smart Ass Pop Culture Feminist Clique, I feel deeply invested. In the same way that Oprah and MHP have embraced Janet, she in turn has mentored me and so many other girls navigating media activism. There isn’t an opportunity I accept without her advice and coaching. While Janet has enthusiastically shown support for MHP in her time of need, she has been silent regarding the fate of her own show. She posted this photo to Instagram with the caption:
Melissa Harris-Perry extended her platform to me, cleared the path at the network for me and supported me as I made my way as a TV host on #SoPOPular — even letting me host her show four times with her incomparable #nerdland team. Grateful to you and awed by your brilliance and resistance.
I remember vividly the day this photo was taken because it was the first time Janet was able to shine on television without leading with her trans identity. She brilliantly utilized her years of professional experience working for People Magazine to discuss the television show Scandal and pop culture’s effect on our society. Which doesn’t mean that she neglected her politics or the community.
During what was to become the deadliest year on record for folks like us, having Janet Mock use her platform as the guest host of Nerdland to speak the names of our sisters who were lynched was a critical intervention. Janet effortlessly bridges the gap between what we pretend we’re too smart to like and contextualizes it with the nuance and complexity our stories deserve. And that’s exactly what she’s been doing for the past year on her show So POPular!, despite it not being given the resources that her talents and skills deserve. Tragically, I suspect that even with the blessing of MHP, she has experienced or is experiencing the same level of expendability or worse.
I have hosted a weekly program on this network for four years and contributed to election coverage on this network for nearly eight years, but no one on the third floor has even returned an email, called me, or initiated or responded to any communication of any kind from me for nearly a month. -MHP
I was honored to be present at the White House to witness MHP, as the Director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University, announce a 20 million dollar research initiative for girls of color. Unfortunately, I was the only trans woman present, but if it had not been for MHP there would have been none. She insisted that I join her panel discussion about media representation and encouraged me to speak openly about the deadly effects of shows like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich.
The hashtag we used that day was #YesSheCan. I have no doubt that MHP will be alright, that Janet Mock will continue to rise and that Beyonce will continue to reign, but I am still grieving for all the black girls who get thrown away.
The saddest part about the whitewashing of MSNBC is that they didn’t just cancel MHP, the cancelled all of the diverse voices and perspectives MHP brought along. MHP introduced the world to some of the dopest black feminists of our generation: Laverne Cox, Cece McDonald, Angelica Ross, Charlene Carruthers, Dr. Brittney Cooper, Monica Dennis, Deon Haywood, Alicia Garza and my sisters from the Young Women’s Advisory Council for the City of New York.
Hopefully, one day soon I’ll let go of my bitterness to reach the final emotional stages of healing and acceptance. But for right now I’m just fine being angry. Sometimes I consider my platform as both a blessing and a curse. Too often the black women who name the violence we face are reprimanded for speaking up. We are stripped of our livelihoods without so much as a second thought for our survival or the ones in our care. I’m reminded that visibility does not equal power or safety.
For these reasons I am humbly returning the honor of being named to the NBC BLK 28. In the words of MHP I refuse to be your “token, mammy or brown bobble head.” I will no longer allow these oppressive systems to use my face, my trauma, my labor to diversify their image. As MHP proved this past week, we have the power to tell our own stories through social media. We must continue to highlight the issues and celebrate the achievements on our own terms.
Cherno Biko is a Brooklyn based award-winning media activist and human rights advocate.