Column: Why Kamala Harris could become an unapologetically Black vice president
For the first time in American history, we will have a vice president who looks like me — Black like me and a woman like me.
It’s strange to even be able to type that after enduring four, long years of ruthless attacks on everything having to do with my race and my gender, led by our lame duck, sorry excuse for a president, Donald Trump. But here we are, celebrating with impromptu marches and cowbell ringing, horn honking, pot clanging and fist raising.
“We did it, Joe,” an emotional Vice President-elect Kamala Harris told President-elect Joe Biden on Saturday morning. “You’re going to be the next president of the United States,” she added, laughing and raking a hand through her hair.
For millions of Americans, what is most meaningful is that she did it.
As Joel Goldstein, law professor emeritus at St. Louis University and an expert on the vice presidency, told my colleague Melanie Mason this could be “the first time in American history that the election of the vice president would be more historic than the election of the president.”
Harris went from being the first Black woman to serve as California’s attorney general, to being the second Black woman to serve as a U.S. senator, to being the first Black person, the first South Asian American and the first woman to serve as vice president. Talk about smashing glass ceilings.
But if you think you know what’s coming next based on eight years of watching the Obamas shatter ceilings, trust me when I say that you don’t know the half of it.
When Harris takes the oath of office in January, expect it to be unapologetically Black. I’m talking about Black Lives Matter flags and T-shirts up and down the National Mall, assuming we get a break in the pandemic long enough to have an inauguration along the lines of what we’ve had in the past.
Alumni from historically Black colleges and universities will be out in force. You might spot a marching band or two.
And pink and green — expect to see so many Black women in pink and green, the colors of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the historically Black sorority that Harris joined while attending Howard University.
Don’t be alarmed when most of these women, her sorors, start screaming “skee wee.” It’s the way AKAs greet each other, and it will reverberate so loudly and at such a high pitch that you’ll swear it will shatter whatever glass ceiling Harris has left untouched. Already, there have been impromptu step shows in the streets by AKAs and other historically Black fraternities and sororities.
On Saturday evening, several alumni gathered on the Yard at Howard, taking turns snapping pictures by an AKA tree and a Biden-Harris yard sign.
”It’s been a day full of pride,” Angelia Garner, an AKA and a lawyer who went to undergrad at Howard, told my colleague Brian Contreras. “Pride in AKA, pride in Howard, pride in HBCUs, pride in Black Greek life, pride in people of color.”
The reason for all of this is because this is 2020, not 2008.
When Barack Obama was elected president that year, he had an impossibly fine line to walk simply because he was the first. He was forced to fit into a box to succeed, a Faustian bargain if ever there was one. Ta-Nehisi Coates put it best his 2012 essay, “Fear of a Black President,” in the Atlantic.
“Part of Obama’s genius,” he wrote, “is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed.”
Early in his presidency, Obama took heat from all sides, including from Black people. He was too detached, too cerebral, too calm in the face of blatant racism, too intent on avoiding the angry Black man stereotype at all costs.
Meanwhile, every fist bump with his wife, Michelle, and every rapper invited to the White House drew headlines. And don’t even get me started on the backlash he received after saying that Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager shot to death in Florida, “could have been my son.”
It took until nearly the end of his presidency for him to seem comfortable enough to be the Black man that we see more of today. The one not only sinking three-pointers in dress slacks while on the campaign trail for Biden and Harris, but openly gloating about it.
We call her sister, and now the nation calls her Madam Vice President!— Alpha Kappa Alpha (@akasorority1908) November 7, 2020
Congratulations to America's first female, first Black, and first South Asian vice president-elect Kamala Harris. You represent the new face of political power and continue to be a barrier-breaker. #OurMadamVP pic.twitter.com/joIGK6LZoM
Of course, Harris has had to walk this fine line, too, particularly during her debate with Vice President Mike Pence, in which she had to navigate the Trump campaign’s petty attempts to paint her as an angry Black woman.
But what’s different for Harris in 2020 than for Obama in 2008 is that Americans are just more used to seeing Black people be unapologetically Black.
It’s the logical byproduct of years of constant trolling by Trump, and a series of existential crises that have pushed Black Americans to the brink. Gone are the niceties when demanding the reform of police departments that continue to kill Black people disproportionately or when demanding help for a pandemic that also is disproportionately killing Black people.
As we’ve fought back, public support for Black Lives Matter has soared. We aren’t as restrained in public as we used to be, which, in turn, has created space for Harris to be her full self in public, to embody all of her identities and feel less of a need to code switch.
The question is whether she will choose to do that, and let her guard down in a way that she often didn’t while serving in office in California.
But with every new ceiling that gets shattered, being Black and proud means something different. In the highest rungs of government, Obama got to define the last chapter. Harris will get to define the next one.
“I’m Black, and I’m proud of being Black,” Harris said last year on “The Breakfast Club.” “I was born Black. I will die Black, and I’m not going to make excuses for anybody because they don’t understand.”
This is what progress looks like.
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