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Duchess Harris is a Professor of American Studies at Macalester College.  She is also an affiliated member of the Political Science Department and co-directs the Congress to Campus Program with Professor Andrew Latham.


Harris was a Mellon Mays Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated with a degree in American History. In 1990, she was elected Student Body President, making her the first Black woman to serve in this role at an Ivy League institution. Harris earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. Twenty-five years after earning her degree, she was asked to deliver the prestigious David Noble Lecture at her alma mater. While in graduate school, she worked for the late U.S. Senator Paul D. Wellstone and attended Yale’s First Summer Campaign School in 1994.  She completed a policy fellowship at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Minnesota Law School and the University of Georgia. She earned a J.D. from Mitchell Hamline College of Law and is now a trustee. Harris has advocated on the national level at the Congressional Black Caucus. Locally, she was appointed as a Minneapolis Civil Rights Commissioner by Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, appointed to the Governor’s Council on Black Minnesotans by Governor Jesse Ventura, appointed to co-chair the Statewide Martin Luther King Holiday (twice) by Governor Mark Dayton, and appointed to the Board of Public Defense by Governor Tim Walz. She served on the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission during the Obama Administration and is currently a member of the Kamala Harris Project. 


Her research has been published in the London School of Economics and Political Science Review of Books, American Quarterly, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy, Litigation News, and the Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal. Her academic books include Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity with Bruce D. Baum (2009 Duke University Press), Three editions of Black Feminist Politics, 2009, 2011, 2018 (Palgrave Macmillan), and Black Girl Magic Beyond the Hashtag: Twenty-First Century Acts of Self-Definition with Julia Jordan Zachary (2019 University of Arizona Press). She is also the proud curator of the Duchess Harris Collection, (ABDO Publishing), which has 120 books written for 4-12 graders. 


Her awards and recognitions in the last eight years include the 2023 Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal - 200 Black Leaders in the Twin Cities region, the Macalester College 2022 Trustee Award, the 2022 Canterbury School Thomas J. Sheehy III Distinguished Alumni Award, the 2022 Minneapolis YWCA Woman of Power Award, and the 2021 Thomas Jefferson Award (Macalester’s Highest Honor). She received the 2020 AARP Minnesota & Pollen 50 over 50 Honor as a “Disruptor” and “Narrative Shaper,” 2017 recognition from the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity at the NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas for her book Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA, the 2017 University of Pennsylvania “Distinguished Service Award” for outstanding contributions to “foment an educated, engaged and informed citizenry,” a 2016 Citation for Outstanding Service from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, and she won the 2015 Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, “Profiles in Courage” Award. She has studied or lectured at: Ibadan, Oxford, Lund, Universidad de Seville, Miyagi, University of Auckland, Universite Nacional de Education a Distancia, Madrid, University of Queensland, Brisbane, American University, Beirut and the Sorbonne.


Fun Fact: She threw out the first pitch at the July 20, 2019, Minnesota Twins game against the Oakland A’s. 



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About: Duchess


In 2007, three years after I’d been granted tenure at Macalester College, I made an unusual decision: I postponed my sabbatical and enrolled in William Mitchell College of Law. 


Law schools routinely ask their students to engage with the world beyond their campus, and William Mitchell College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline College of Law), where I spent three years earning a JD, was no exception. As a result, I not only learned the law, I arrived at a theory and practice about how to have the classroom learning experience matter to my students back at Macalester. Now, not only do we study incarceration as one of the most critical ways the state engages with Black communities, we engage the carceral society in all its complexities. 


Let me explain. In my third year of law school, I became a student attorney certified by the Minnesota State Supreme Court. This meant that I provided civil legal services and other assistance to inmates leaving the Women’s Correctional Facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, for women preparing to reenter society. This experience inspired me to develop several courses that involved students traveling with me to places where they would learn history in situ. Our discussions about the realities and limitations of rehabilitation were informed by my connections in the penal system and by my desire to teach students how to situate their learning beyond the classroom.


These courses were also very much in keeping with how American studies, as a field, has evolved as an engaged, activist field. For example, I designed the American studies seminar “Race and the Law” around visits to the Dakota County Jail and Lino Lakes Prison. There, students saw firsthand the difference between jail (typically for lesser offenses and shorter sentences) and prison (for more serious offenses and longer sentences). 


Students expected to sympathize only with the incarcerated. Yet I pushed them to consider the perspectives of prison employees too, often also people of color. My students saw themselves in “Emily,” a young AmeriCorps VISTA worker at Dakota County Jail, who admitted she had tried to do everything she could to help all inmates at first but understood that she could only help a smaller number. 


Learning outside of the classroom is not just about physically moving students beyond campus, or into places where they aspire to help others. It is also about teaching them to look for complex stories, and people, that have yet to be canonized in undergraduate curricula because of how history has been written. Sometimes those unheard stories present themselves unexpectedly. On August 9, 2014, I woke up to the news that Michael Brown had been killed in Ferguson, Missouri. I was slated to teach “Introduction to African American studies” and “Race and the Law” just three weeks later, and I was terrified to think of the anger, confusion, pain, and ignorance I might face at the start of the new semester. How would students be expected to respond critically to horrific events in real time if they lacked the critical context and analytical training to do so? 


I hurt for Michael Brown, for his family, and for my students, but teaching was my job. Merging my legal training and my expertise in political science and American studies, I switched gears to create a course that introduced students to the long history of African Americans and the law. From learning about the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which established that the Black man had no rights the white man was bound to respect, to twentieth-century sentencing discrepancies between crack and powder cocaine, students moved beyond media-driven narratives.


This course allowed me to continue my commitment to be a scholar and an activist, producing a book, written alongside Sue Bradford Edwards, about the Black Lives Matter movement. As importantly, it moved my focus as a scholar and a teacher back to the communities most directly impacted by racialized events like the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Students who were not well-versed in race and policing can use my book to extrapolate Black historical and structural inequality without being overwhelmed with academic jargon. 


Black faculty generally do not just teach Black students: like white faculty, we teach everyone who shows up. Thus my classroom is an opportunity for students with different perspectives, backgrounds, experiences, affinities, and biases to grow into a learning community. Being part of such a community serves them well once they leave college. And they need to know how to keep learning when I am no longer around to teach them. Beyond integrating legal components of my scholarship and teaching, I pass on law school’s final lesson to me: invest in, and commit to, your own education. 


This isn’t easy: students arrive on campus, and particularly at selective colleges, mostly driven by tests and the desire to succeed on other people’s terms. Often, they perceive their most important thoughts as too personal to be significant in the classroom. To get students to “invest” in a text, I ask them to connect to it by writing an intellectual autobiography, keeping in mind that the term “intellectual” should have a flexible definition. How have significant experiences, challenges, events, and people influenced their own sense of racial identity? These questions have helped me connect my “Race and the Law” class to subsequent crises, such as the trial of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd, as well as Texas banning four of my own books in November, 2021.


Why did I become a student again when I could have more easily turned my attention only to the research and writing that would have advanced my chosen academic career? The answer is simple: I felt it was time to apply my political and theoretical beliefs to action-oriented work that expanded rights, opportunities, and privileges for marginalized people, especially women and people of color. As a result, my teaching now combines the methods that ground my practice as a Black feminist scholar with crafting highly contextualized learning experiences for my students outside the classroom. That teaching has, in turn, driven my writing.


And the more my students see me grow, and change, the more they will learn how to meet the challenges of their century on their own.

About: Teaching philosophy




2021-present Region’s Hospital Foundation Board


2019-present Friends of St. Paul Libraries, “Chair of the MN Book Awards”


2016-2018 The Arc

Watch a clip from a fundraiser Harris led to benefit The Arc

2013-Present Brownbody


2011–Friendship Ventures


2006-08 Penumbra Theater, Board of Directors


2000-06 Minnesota Women’s Foundation, Board of Directors and Chair of Governance


1996-99 Genesis II for Women, Inc. Board of Directors Vice President


1994-99 Model Cities

A Minnesota based organization whose mission is to promote the physical, mental, spiritual, social, and economic wellbeing of individuals, families and communities who are under served.

Public Policy

2017 Black History Month: Rep. Becker-Finn honors the women of NASA and Dr. Duchess Harris

2010-2011 Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission


The Commission conducts research, consults with the Executive Branch and members of Congress, convenes public forums and issues periodic Report Cards to grade presidential administrations as it relates to Black issues, and offer policy recommendations for advancing Black interests.

About: Publicy Policy
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