History in the Making: Madam Vice President Kamala Harris

No matter your party affiliation or whether you agree with all of her political moves, there’s no denying the magnitude of this moment, for our people and for our country.

Kamala Harris
Art by Phillip Simpson

A strange thing happened the night Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were finally declared victors and Harris walked out to Mary J. Blige and took the stage in Delaware. As Harris began to talk, I started to cry. I’ve always been a sensitive, empathetic spirit, but sentimental? Hardly ever.

It’s like I’d understood the significance of what was happening in a matter-of-fact way, but, in that moment, I actually felt it in a way I hadn’t expected. I, like all of us, had been wrapped up in the mail-in ballot, too-close-to-call drama, waking up dazed and terrified in the wee hours to check for updates. 

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But as Harris addressed the nation, adorned in suffragette white, I was able to pause, take a breath and soak in the incredible moment. The then-vice president-elect spoke of the action of democracy, the soul of America, and of the women before her who came and conquered. She spoke to the Black women, “who are too often overlooked, but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.”

The lump in my throat formed again when she took to the Capitol steps on Jan. 20 to be sworn in as vice president. I knew that Harris would raise her right hand and swear to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, but to watch her gestures and hear her speak those words, the ones only ever spoken in that capacity by white men, her hair flowing against her brown skin, was something entirely different.

The Backbone 

If Black women making things happen was a person, it’d be Stacey Abrams. The Yale-educated lawyer, voting rights activist and romance novelist’s name first started peppering national conversation when she challenged Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

Abrams had served in the Georgia House of Representatives and was the first Black woman to earn a major party’s nomination for governor of Georgia. The race was hotly contested with Abrams, of course, fending sexist and racist attacks along the way.

She lost that election by nearly 55,000 votes, but many, including Abrams, accused Kemp – who was then secretary of state – of voter suppression and stealing the election. The U.S. House of Representatives oversight committee opened an investigation, and, in February 2020, wrote that they’d found “new, concerning information,” but, ultimately, not enough evidence to say definitively that Abrams was cheated. No matter. She took it on the chin, registering something like 800,000 new voters in Georgia in the months before the November election though her organizations Fair Fight and New Georgia Project

We all remember the nail-biter that was Georgia, right? As those CNN and MSNBC interactive maps illuminated, as votes from majority Black counties were counted, the Trump lead started to dwindle until Biden and Harris were up and pulling away. After a recount by hand, The Peach State went to Biden by less than 12,000 votes, flipping the historically red state blue and helping to secure the win.

Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock also picked up senate seats in January in a run-off election. Abrams did that. We did that. Here at home, Trump was leading early in Michigan – until Detroit stepped into the ring.

After he got the Democratic nomination, Biden committed early to choosing a woman as his running mate, and some opined that it needed to be a Black woman. Our dear Stacey Abrams was mentioned, along with former national security advisor Susan Rice, California congresswoman Karen Bass and Florida congresswoman Val Demings. And an honorable mention for our very own Gretchen Whitmer, who, of course, isn’t Black, but is invited to the cookout all the same.  

Representation in the spaces that matter most, especially in light of last year’s uprising, was key, but let’s also be frank: If Biden was going to win this election he needed to enthuse Black women, who were less than giddy in 2016 when Hillary Clinton ran. The overall Black voter turnout dropped in 2016 for the first time in 20 years from 66.6% in 2012 to 59.6%, according to the Pew Research Center.

And while the turnout rate for white women increased from 2012 to 2016, it decreased among Black women from 70.7% in 2012 to 64.1% in 2016. We can’t underestimate the Obama effect – but still. Whether we showed in 2020 would be crucial, and, as is the nature of a Black woman, we would make sure our men and sons followed suit. 

Sojourner Truth asked, “Ain’t I a Woman?” … “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

From Truth fighting against slavery and segregation to the Black women fighting for the vote in the early part of the 20th century – shadowed as they may have been by white feminism – to the sisters patching wounds during the civil rights movement to the modern-day changemakers, we’ve never abandoned our post. 

But Black women are bonded by more than just atrocity. We organize in the name of joy and sisterhood, too. Along with a blue wave – sort of – we witnessed a river of pink and green. Vice President Harris is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the oldest Black sorority in America, founded in 1908 on the campus of Howard University in Washington D.C., Harris’ alma mater. So, for the organization’s nearly 300,000 members, her appointment is just that much skee wee-ter. 

“The energy is still at an all-time high, and it’s building,” says Carrie Clark, AKA’s Great Lakes regional director. We speak post-election, pre-inauguration. It’s the 113th anniversary of the sorority’s founding, coincidentally. “It just feels like it’s full circle.”

Clark reminds that the org is nonpartisan and doesn’t endorse any political party; “However, any member that achieves anything – even if it’s a small significance – it’s a win for all. We’re still celebrating, and we’re very proud of her.” 

AKA member and Farmington Hills resident Rebekah Sharpe was on the campus of the University of Michigan when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. In fact, she successfully spearheaded a campaign to invite the former president to speak during her class commencement ceremony.

When Obama was elected, Sharpe says, “Our campus just erupted in celebration, and there was just this overzealous spirit. We all were just so excited that we finally had representation in a greater way in the highest level of government.” Her Beta Eta chapter got busy creating programs to educate students on the ins and outs of government and the role citizens play in affecting change. 

Cut to 2020 and Sharpe is in Pittsburgh when it’s announced that Harris has been chosen as Biden’s running mate. “I remember it just feeling so overwhelming and really similar to how it felt with President Barack Obama, but it became so much more personal to me,” she says.

“First of all, well, she’s a woman. And, secondly, she’s my sorority sister, and that is something she’s talked about very publicly. It’s not like, oh yeah, this is a kind of back-of-my-mind affiliation. She has really given AKAs an entirely new platform.”

Both Clark and Sharpe say the excitement within the organization has been palpable, starting back when Harris announced her own bid for the presidency, and then resuscitated with the news that she’d be vying for the White House again with Biden in the first chair.

Sharpe says, “Obviously, all of the group chats of the sorors are erupting and everybody’s trying to find ways now to serve in the campaign. How do we fundraise? How do we grassroots organize? It just gave a revitalization. We were in such a dark time, and there was a lot of division and vitriol happening in our nation, and when she got that nomination I just saw a dawn of a new day, even before we knew what the outcome would be. It just gave women – my sorority sisters, in particular – something to be hopeful about again.”

Also noticeable was what Harris seemed to do for the conversation around historically Black colleges and universities. As aforementioned, as an undergraduate, Harris attended Howard University, a storied HBCU founded in 1867. She attended the University of California for law school.

From talks of funding to sports to the significance of a culturally considerate education, many in the community have been strategically nudging HBCUs toward the spotlight as of late, especially. More broadly, we’ve been reminded of where a great, full-bodied education can lead, particularly if you’re Black – especially if you’re a Black woman. 

“Credentials really do matter,” says Glenda Price, Ph.D. Price has dedicated most of her adult life to education. She was president of Marygrove College from 1998 to 2006, also serving as president of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation from 2012 until she retired in 2016.

“We haven’t gotten to the point in our society where we can simply say, ‘Oh, that person is really smart, they’re really bright, they have potential they have capability.’ All that may be true, but without the credential, you really have a very, very difficult time proving your abilities.”

Price was born in 1939, and so she’s lived through the resistance that defined the second half of the 20th century: the civil rights movement, Stonewall and LGBTQ rights, the fight for women’s liberation. And she remembers what life was like before.

“We were growing up in an environment of not only racial disparities but gender disparities, as well. The women of my generation are the ones who fought hard, but we fought differently. When I was growing up, the notion was that you really needed to prove that you were not only equal to, but better than those individuals with whom you were competing, particularly the white women in our environments,” Price says.

“So, when you look at the election of Kamala Harris today, you see that all of the efforts to bring about that change has resulted in the change that we knew had to happen.”

Clark has to choke back tears when she talks of her grandmother, who she says couldn’t have imagined seeing a Black president and then a Black woman vice president take office. Surely her grandmother would’ve recalled the work of Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Shirley Chisholm, Audre Lorde and all the other bad-behaving women getting into good trouble.

Call to Action 

It hasn’t been all jubilance and well wishes for Harris. When she was one of the sea of candidates wrestling for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, especially, she was criticized fairly harshly for her perceived privilege and record as district attorney of San Francisco and, later, attorney general of California.

It was suggested that she was an ice queen who had it out for Black men, in particular, locking them up in gaggles on petty weed charges and the like. In reality, where she landed on the progressive scale is much more nuanced and harder to pin down. 

As NPR highlighted in an October 2020 Q&A with Bay Area reporter Jamilah King, who has written on Harris’ early career, her ideologies seemed to be all over the place – still not great. She refused to pursue the death penalty when an officer was killed in San Francisco as district attorney, but supported the state’s use of it as attorney general. She supported gay marriage and a “Back on Track” program in lieu of jail time, but was slower to back the legalization of marijuana.

More recently, as senator, Harris co-authored the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, along with Black Caucus Chair Rep. Karen Bass, Sen. Cory Booker and House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerrold Nadler. Most notably, the bill, if signed into law, would lower the criminal intent standard, limit qualified immunity and authorize the Department of Justice to issue subpoenas to police departments to determine patterns of discrimination.  

Conversations around temperature and policy are warranted and rightful, and should continue even more fervently now that Harris and Biden are in control – but more unusual was that her identity as a Black woman has also been questioned. Harris is the child of immigrant parents, her late mother from Chennai, India, her father from Jamaica.

“She’s not even Black!” inevitably shows up in the comment section of any social media or web post that mentions Harris being “the first Black …”. It feels uncomfortably close to the war so-called birthers raged against Obama during his campaign and after being elected president – except this time, it’s mostly coming from within.

It’s true that, as far as we know, she’s not a descendant of American slavery, which does make for a unique trauma bond to this nation that one could argue is important when creating policy that could affect said descendants. But Harris absolutely exists in a white world as a brown-skinned woman of the African diaspora – and that’s a badge that deserves honor. 

Then, on Jan. 6, while the Senate was certifying the Electoral College votes to officially certify Biden as the next president of the United States of America, a mob of Trump supporters, aroused by the former president, stormed the Capitol. Windows were smashed, tear gas was unleashed, and, in the end, five people died.

On its surface, the attack on the Capitol as a whole wasn’t overtly racist. But we see it, don’t we? The desperate reaction to the prospect that whiteness may no longer reign supreme and that the people in positions of power may actually start to reflect our America? The conversation during and after the insurrection was around how things would’ve been handled differently had the mob been Black.

They would’ve been gunned down before their soles touched the first steps, some said. Objectively, we can’t know whether that’s true, but what we do know is that white privilege is real and measurable, and that Black bodies are often met with fear and a presumption of evil intent.  

And that’s why we’re here, resolved to go to work. Turnout may have slumped in 2016, but, in 2020, Black voters handed Biden and Harris the White House on a silver platter. A debt is owed. But, for right now, let us bask in the magnificence of it all.

Price says, “Harris’ election says loud and clear: Anything is possible. Women particularly, but young people of color, both genders, need to see that as an indication that there are no absolute barriers to their success.” 

Poet laureate Amanda Gorman delivered the inauguration poem, the youngest to ever do it at just 22. Gorman captured our attention first with her stunning beauty – the type that seems to radiate from within – but held us in her grasp with her poignant words: “We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. … Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but, simply, unfinished.”

“… Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it. … While democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated. … If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright. … For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Eugene Goodman, the Black Capitol officer crowned a hero for leading the mob away from the Senate chamber, escorted Harris to the swearing-in ceremony. As it’s been said, Harris standing on the Capitol dressed in purple and pearls, her left hand on the Bible, taking the oath of office to become the vice president of the United States of America is a manifestation of our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

For the brown-skinned little girls who sat cross-legged in front of their TVs watching her be sworn in, their dreams feel less fantastical now. Poised in front of the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, as Michelle Obama looked on, Harris unfuzzied an abstraction and turned a dream touchable. 

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