Duchess Harris is on sabbatical. But that doesn’t mean she’s taking a break.
The last time the Macalester College American Studies professor took leave from the classroom, she unearthed documents in NASA’s archives showing her grandmother’s role as one of the “hidden human computers” working at Langley Research Center.
This time around, Harris is working on a series of books to teach elementary schoolkids about lesser known moments in black history. She’s also: celebrating the recent release of two other books, one academic and one for school libraries; flying to Washington, D.C., to talk about black feminism on PBS’ “To the Contrary”; and crisscrossing the country giving keynote addresses at academic conferences, community celebrations and library conventions.
And she’s thinking about MeToo. A lot.
“When you are talking about MeToo, young people need to know that this is a 400-year project,” said Harris, whose book for high schoolers, “The Silence Breakers and the #MeToo Movement,” is being released next month.
“People are like, ‘What happened in Hollywood?’ And I’m like, no, this started with the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. I think that’s hard for people to navigate.”
In clear, straightforward prose, Harris’ book describes how women initially defined the concept of sexual harassment in the 1970s, and worked to draw attention to it.
She tells the story of Carmita Wood, the Cornell University administrative assistant who left her job after being sexually harassed by her physicist boss. Wood was supported by three researchers in the university’s Human Affairs Program, which coined the term “sexual harassment.”
In Harris’ book, she also returns to a moment that affected her like no other — the 1991 Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, which happened during Harris’ first year of graduate school at the University of Minnesota. The hearings also are part of her Macalester curriculum.
“One of the things I explain to them is the long history of black women speaking first,” she said. “We’re still a nation where it’s difficult for us to hear [MeToo founder] Tarana Burke. That’s the thing, it goes right back to Anita Hill. We are speaking. Are you listening?”
In a 2010 essay called “I Was Anita Hill,” published by the Huffington Post, Harris revealed that she, too, faced sexual harassment in her first years of teaching, on a research trip. After an investigation, the college moved Harris’ office, she said, but her department chair (now retired, and unnamed in her essay) faced no repercussions at the time.
That was 18 years ago. She has gained tenure, added a law degree to her Ph.D. and is a star professor, one of eight selected by Macalester President Brian Rosenberg to speak when he hosts live interviews before alumni around the country.
“The work that Duchess does on issues of race and gender is important and relevant, and she is skilled at speaking with clarity and passion to a broad audience,” Rosenberg said. “When it comes to the MeToo movement, she reminds us that it isn’t monolithic, and that issues of race and class shape how different women experience issues of sexual harassment, abuse and assault.”
A family affair
Harris’ 2014 research about her grandmother became material for a digital archive at Macalester and for her book for teen readers, “Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA,” written with Sue Bradford Edwards.
Harris grew up in Windsor, Conn., knowing that her maternal grandma, Miriam Daniel Mann, had worked for NASA. But it wasn’t until Harris was at the University of Pennsylvania that she realized how remarkable it was that Mann, who was hired in 1943, was able to do the work she did in a segregated America.
The long obscured story of NASA’s black female mathematicians came to the forefront in 2017, when the movie “Hidden Figures” was released. The Oscar-nominated film, inspired by Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, picks up the story decades after Mann started working at NASA.
Next April, Harris’ book will come to life through a play by Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins. Called “Hidden Heroes: The Black Women of NASA,” it’s geared for ages 7 and up and focuses on the mathematicians’ girlhoods.
Harris likes to write in a comfy chair in her bedroom in the Vadnais Heights home she shares with her physician husband, three kids and a British shorthair cat named Skittles and a standard poodle named Mocha. Photos of her kids cover her foyer wall, along with a small sign that reads, “We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.”
Her oldest son, now 19, “thrives with autism,” and is nonverbal. In 2009, Essence magazine featured Harris in its “How she does it” column, where she described how she balances her oldest’s special needs with caring for the rest of the family and herself. In parenting and teaching, Harris strives to make young people realize the different strengths they bring to the family or classroom, she told the magazine. “Children want to be heard,” she said. “So I just listen.”
Telling the stories
Harris’ book on the MeToo movement isn’t her first that aims to explain a controversial topic to a young audience. Her initial foray into publishing for kids came when Minnesota-based publisher ABDO asked her to take part in a book about the Black Lives Matter movement.
The book, which Harris co-authored with Edwards, relates the shootings and protests and puts them in historical context. Her efforts garnered her a “Profiles in Courage” award from the Minnesota Black Lawyers Association and led ABDO to ask Harris to curate an entire collection of books for young adults, including one series about being female in America and another about protest movements.
“Duchess brings to us a level of credibility and a level of study on these topics that we don’t often get,” said ABDO Vice President Monte Kuehl. “These are topics worth discussing. And that’s what our books aim to do.”
She’s also working on a series of books for an even younger audience — grades three to six — that look at lesser known moments and figures in black history. One book focuses on Arkansas civil rights activist Daisy Bates, who mentored the Little Rock Nine (the black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School) and became the only woman to speak at the March on Washington.
“I’m just excited. I’m telling all of these stories that if you were in the field you would know, but that you would never learn in elementary school,” she said. “My hope is that people start learning these stories sometime before they finish high school, so that by the time they get to my class, that I will have someone say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of that before.’ Because that’s my challenge in the classroom, that no one’s ever heard of what I’m teaching. And so that gets us off to a slow start.”
While she’s trying to avoid the Macalester campus during her year off, Harris will be back in December to meet Burke and introduce her for a talk with students.
“It will be the one thing I come off of sabbatical for,” she said.