Nailah Harper-Malveaux is a student at Yale University who will graduate in June with a double major in American Studies and Theater. The daughter of U.S. representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council Keith Harper and civil rights attorney Suzette Malveaux, Nailah, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is forging her future as an artist and activist. She spoke with ICTMN about her work.
How did you become an activist?
Both my parents are lawyers doing public interest law. My dad practiced Native American law and worked for the Native American Rights Fund and and my mom does civil rights law. I was always exposed to social justice issues, but I think my activism really came from my interest in race, not as a social justice issue, but as it pertained to me personally.
From a very early age, I knew that I had many different heritages. My mom is Creole, which is a mixture of black, French and Spanish in the Louisiana area. My dad is Cherokee and Macanese. [Macau is an island off China.]
I knew I had all these heritages in me, and I was very proud of all of them. But I don’t necessarily look like any one [race], so I got questions growing up. That made me think, what is this thing, race and identity? Why is it so essential to me? Why is it who am I?
I started to read and learn about race relations in this country and how it really is such a huge part of the fabric of America. In high school, I worked on political campaigns, I interned over one summer at the National Congress of American Indians and I worked on the Native Vote project, so I was pretty politically active. When I got to college I was learning in my classes about social justice and race and gender. That’s sort of how I got my start in social justice activism.
But I really see myself as an artist and an activist. I haven’t done tons of organizing—I really speak through my art. That’s my way of incorporating my values and representing voices that aren’t usually told in the mainstream narrative. That’s how I feel that I can make a difference.
Could you talk about your work in the theater?
When I came to Yale, my team was selected to put up The Laramie Project as the freshmen show. The play is about the killing of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 and the aftermath of that incident. The killing was basically because Matthew Shepard was gay. It was a huge news story and then they made a play about it using actual testimony of people in the town. I thought that was amazing work. I also thought it was a really important play to put on right before the first marriage case—the one that struck down DOMA—was going to the Supreme Court.
I think there’s this amazing empathy that we can provide through theater and through storytelling. You can tell someone’s life story and have this complete, amazing empathy for what they go through and really come to a deep understanding about their lives and about the whole American [society].
I have directed other shows at Yale. My last one that I’m very proud of is For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.
Why is that show so important to you?
For Colored Girls is a very important piece of work for women of color. I used kind of a Third World feminism perspective on it when I was directing it. It is really an amazing work for black women, Spanish women, Native women. This piece is really what I want my Yale career to be about. I think it went really well.
How does American Studies fit into your interest in theater?
American Studies is an interdisciplinary major that covers a lot. It’s very much about understanding the sociopolitical, cultural, economic history of America. I chose American Studies because I felt that it provided me with the “why do I do art?” component. It was where I had all my classes about race and gender and sexuality and inequality in America. I also took American Indian history classes. It was a way for me to learn more than just theater. By my junior year I had so many American Studies credits, I decided it was my major.
How did the protests last semester about race relations at Yale impact your work?
Race was generally not talked about at Yale before then. After the incidents here people kind of came out of the woodwork and began talking about it, and groups started talking about it and making initiatives. I think that’s great. I think that’s what protests and activism can do. But I also think that it was a long time coming.
The protests were during the same time period that I directed For Colored Girls. We were obviously planning the show before the protests. It didn’t happen because of the protests, but it was about the very same thing, really recognizing women of color telling their story. I was so amazed by how during this time the indigenous, black, and Latina women—and also the men of those groups—were so involved in making those protests. Seeing people come together was empowering.
And then when my show was performed that weekend, it was not only a piece of activism but also a piece of healing. I think that’s what theater can do. It not only makes you think about issues and maybe even live your life differently, but also allows you to see yourself. That’s what I’m trying to do, really put a mirror up to people who aren’t usually seen in theater or on TV and say you are represented here as a complex person.
What’s next for you, after Yale?
I want to keep my options open, but I am looking forward to continuing to tell stories and continuing to be an actress. So I’m looking into jobs within the film and TV industry as well as jobs in New York doing theater.
What would you say to younger people, high school students, for example, who are really interested in the arts? How would you encourage them to move forward?
Really practice your art, whether it’s the simplest thing of drawing on a piece of paper or painting something, or in my case getting a group of friends together and reading a play together. And try to figure out why you love what you do. Because if you have a purpose in whatever your craft is [it will help you] get past a lot of the hardships that many artists go through. And try to go to school. School provides a space for you to create art. And it’s really nice to learn from people that are smarter than you.