Someone You Should Know: Author, Educator, Scholar/Activist Dr. Ravi Perry

Photo Credit: Lamont Baldwin

Dr. Ravi Perry is the Chair and Professor of the Department of Political Science at Howard University. To date he has written three books on the subjects of race, politics and desegregation. “I consider myself a scholar/activist. I think I have the privilege of having been raised in a family of educators who also happened to be my parents, whose parents, were also educators, and so on and so forth. So, I’ve had the privilege of having, in many ways, access to information and to the societal conditions of my familial upbringing,” he said.  The professor, activist and plant daddy chatted with us just as he was about to unwind to enjoy a relaxing game of tennis. He talks about his background, Kappa Alpha Psi affiliation and ultimate goals.

PrideIndex (PI): You’re a native of Toledo, Ohio, and now you’re in DC. What was the story? How did that move happen?

Dr. Ravi: (DR) Yes, I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, Northwest Ohio, about an hour south of Detroit, Michigan. I have educator parents who had been active in Black Studies, ethnic studies, arts and culture, English literature, theatre and so many other community activities that basically really got me interested because of the community involvement and local politics. That took me to University of Michigan, where I majored in Political Science. From there transitioned to graduate school at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; spent a year at the University of Rochester while I was writing my dissertation in Rochester, New York.

I took my first job for Postgraduate School to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I lived for three years as elected NAACP president. In my time there, I did other very important community work with many co-leaders. The state was only 7%, black, but had a Black Governor at the time, Deval Patrick. After three years, I moved to Starkville, Mississippi, where I received tenure in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Mississippi State University. I then transitioned to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, in the height of the “Battle of the Confederacy” was still going on with the monuments on a main avenue, a major thoroughfare, which connects through VCU. I was employed there and was very active in those efforts as well as the endeavor to start the first ever Virginia statewide black LGBTQ awards called Black & Bold Awards, which continue to this day. The awards are presented annually every February by Diversity Richmond, which is the central Virginia LGBTQ community organization.

After four years in Richmond, I saw an opportunity at Howard that I could not pass up. My main advisor, professor and mentor at University of Michigan, who is now also a frat brother of mine, I’m a Kappa, he has since passed away several years ago. But he of course, got me very interested in black politics. He was the first graduate of Howard’s Political Science Program with a PhD in 1967. So having a chance to come here and lead this department, which has such a historic legacy, of course, being founded by Ralph Bunche, the first black person to get a PhD in Political Science in the United States. Diplomats, international leaders, and continuing through the era of Ronald Walters, and so many others that have sat in this important seat. I am the first openly gay department chair of the Political Science Department here at Howard and that’s what brought me to DC. I’ve now been here a little over two years now.

PI: You had a couple of things in there that sort of stuck out for me. One, you mentioned your nupe {Kappa Alpha Psi} affiliation. I recall seeing an article when you got married to your husband in Ebony Magazine. Tell me about that.

DR: It was Jet magazine that did a story.  They used to do those wedding sections and they had before that featured two lesbians in the 70s whom had a commitment ceremony, but they had never featured two men. My ex-husband and I were both featured there and it was such an honor for us to be recognized.

Also, we were not the first married couple to be featured. Ours was a follow up in some ways, in terms of the media at the time, to do a story of a former couple who have since divorced as well. One half of the couple was a frat brother of mine. They received a lot of news coverage for their wedding, which was held in Kentucky. There was of course, the significance of homophobia and certainly stigma as it was pervasive then and it still is to some extent now.

In 2012, as a member of a historically Black Greek letter fraternity, to be openly LGBTQ or openly gay, in my case and in the case of another fraternity brother of mine, and his prior marriage, we were the introductions that many people in the Black community had to at least two different marriages that haven’t gotten significant attention, for whatever reason. We forget that it really wasn’t that long ago, you could almost count the number of marriages of same gender loving people of color on one hand.

It has exploded a lot in the last decade in terms of the love that we have seen, witnessed and experienced in this way as we participate in this social institution, we call marriage in this country. So there’s obviously been a whirlwind of change in laws since 2015, wherein, Marriage Equality was made legal by the Supreme Court in 2013. Now, we’re seeing an increasing number of people of color, who are LGBTQ+ getting married. This institution that had barred us for so long is finally opening its arms. We’re still fighting that fight though. There are still some denominations like my own. I’m a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church that have still not opened up fully to allowing pastors to marry same sex couples. So, we still have some progress to make, but we’re making it. And I think it’s important to point out that love has manifested in a lot of ways for many people and many marriages which also created new kinds of connections as well as opportunities for divorce. I think is important for us to also highlight that love is more than an institution and always has been.

PI: You’ve touched on two things there. And one was, how has your fraternity responded to you, specifically some of your line brothers? What has their response been that you were openly gay and also that you were married to a man at one point?

DR: It doesn’t really come up. I actually crossed on my own in the alumni chapter in northern Ohio, in my hometown, so I did not have any line brothers. Of course, you know, members of the greatest fraternity on the planet, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., are everywhere and of all stripes and colors all over the world. Certainly, I have found nothing but respect and support and embrace from my fraternity brothers that I’ve interacted with and that’s what being a Kappa man is all about anyway.

PI: Why is activism so important to you?

DR:  To me, I consider myself a scholar/activist. I think I have the privilege of having been raised in a family of educators who also happened to be my parents, whose parents, were also educators, and so on and so forth. So, I’ve had the privilege of having, in many ways, access to information and to the societal conditions of my familial upbringing in backgrounds that provide for the luxury of thinking and processing. With those opportunities, I think you have an obligation to then hone those skills, ideally to improve the lives and conditions of marginalized communities everywhere, but particularly those with which I, myself identify. What I’ve tried to do is use the access and the privilege I’ve been given as both a man and a person who is light skinned, whatever that means. For some people who’ve gotten PhDs, those types for whom those trappings “mean things.” For me, all that means is that I’ve been given opportunity and I have a responsibility to use what I’ve learned to help improve my community, your community and our community.

PI: I’ve read a little bit about you, and correct me if I’m wrong, you’ve written three books. Is there a fourth one on the way?

DR: Correct. Yes. Those projects have been a labor of love. My fourth book on Black LGBTQ candidates and elected officials in the United States from 1980 to 2020, is certainly a very exciting project. And I myself can’t wait until it is finished. Being a department chair has slowed some of that down. Transitioning institutions can create challenges as well. Beyond that the work is on the precipice of being finished and I can’t wait to share it with the world next year.

PI: Okay, where are you? Where did you find the time to actually write a book in between all of the things that you do?

Well, to me, writing is something that you do in multiple ways. It’s not something that I just sit down and commit to doing. It’s a process of thinking, reading, researching and ultimately it becomes my life. It’s like brushing my teeth. I use technological devices, so when I have a thought or an idea that comes into my head or a citation to recall, I can record it immediately. I can then transcribe it onto my computer, when I can get back to it. There is also making the time necessary to write lengthy prose in the midst of a busy career, otherwise, I just try to take weekly solitude vacations where I can unplug and do the work. And I think we are often our best when we are in tune with ourselves and listen to ourselves in those private quiet moments or what my grandparents used to call a prayer closet.

PI: Okay, you literally just touched on my next question. What do you do to unwind?

DR: I’m about to play tennis now. It is certainly one thing I do to unwind. My ex-husband taught me how to play and I’ve fallen in love with the sport ever since. And so that’s been something that I have continued to do. When I can, I swim and go to the gym. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time for leisurely reading. I do love traveling. COVID has cut some of that out as well. I try to spend my time with family when I have time because I do have some family here in DC. Actually, I just spent some time with some cousins just now for lunch. And so I try to maximize my time that way. I’m a new plant Daddy. I don’t have any pets. I’m trying to relive my youth. I grew up in a home where my mother was a planter for sure with a home full of well-maintained plants for decades. And I’m trying to re-live the responsibility of my youth.

PI: Right. And so my final two questions, I have before I let you get on to your tennis session.   Are you currently dating? Or is that just something just on the back burner?

DR: I am currently dating. I’m not so sure I’m the best at it or I am giving the most time as I should. But I certainly am blessed and grateful to be able to be dating now. My hope springs eternal that all of us have opportunity to find love, a close partnership in an intimate, supportive capacity that is mutually endearing. I think that’s something that as long as God is at the center of things, we all hopefully have the opportunity to embrace. So, I don’t take it for granted. You know, it’s hard out here and like anything goes in the world, there’s a lot of competition. But I’ve been blessed to certainly have had lifelong very close friendships. I’m still friends with all of my former partners, and I’m working on finding a final partner.

PI: What is your ultimate goal?

DR: Wow. Well, my ultimate goal is to be able to stand at those pearly gates and be told that I did a job well done by a good and faithful servant. That is the end goal, ultimately, to spend my time on this planet as God would have me to do. To build up the lives of others in that experience. None of us have knowledge of whether or not we will live to see tomorrow. I think it’s important that we all act accordingly in our interactions with other human beings and how we treat people. Because we don’t know when we will be called on to glory, or in the other direction. And let’s just hope that the achievements that I have had an opportunity to engage in so far in this life are just a testament to the grace and mercy God has given me along with the love and support my family and friends have provided for me. But ultimately, I am someone who believes and hopes my work speaks for itself. I hope people can see a little bit of God inside of me on my best days. And I hope that whatever work that I’m doing with everyone else is work that we all agree is as my father would say is, “work from cradle to grave. No matter where we may live and or how old we may be, there is always something we can do to improve the lives of somebody else.” Then I will feel “successful in life.” If I could be able to say that I’ve helped all the people that I could, the best that I could while honoring my family and friends and giving honor and glory to God, I would feel pretty good about that.