Column: Kamala Harris and the fearless Black women who paved the way
I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
— “Mississippi Goddam”
Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem, released in 1964, was shocking at the time for its truth-telling. In the 2015 documentary about her life as a musician and civil rights activist, Dick Gregory said, “If you look at all the suffering that Black folks went through, not one Black man would dare say Mississippi goddam….We all wanted to say it. She said it. Mississippi goddam.”
It’s an incredible moment in the film when you consider that Gregory was a contemporary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and yet he felt comfortable saying that no Black man, himself included, was willing to say what Simone was willing to sing — honestly, passionately, unapologetically.
If his remark had a dash of hyperbole, the heart of it rings true: The power of Black women was forged in an America that would not accept her vulnerability yet labels her as angry for showing strength. It came out of her willingness to speak in a country where she was both indispensable and isolated.
Kamala Harris’ rise to the vice presidency is a great step forward, but it is also an indictment of this country’s caste system. Many nations around the world have already had women in the highest office. Yet here in our shining city on a hill, we have witnessed an insurrection at the Capitol with domestic terrorists trying to overturn the election that includes our first female Black vice president. So forgive me if my optimism is tempered a bit.
Nevertheless, there is pride in seeing someone who looks like my mother, my sisters, Simone taking on the reins of government. This breakthrough was so desperately needed because Lord knows this country has worked tirelessly to break Black women. From hundreds of years of enslavement in which their children were taken and sold into slavery to Jim Crow to decades of state-run eugenics programs that carried out thousands of involuntary sterilizations.
My mother is from a generation that witnessed trees that grew strange fruit and the denial of treatment for Black men with syphilis as part of a federal medical experiment. My mother wasn’t convinced the COVID-19 vaccine was OK to take until she learned that Black women were involved in its development — a fear rooted in understanding that this country has not been on your side.
Imagine forging a sisterhood with white women during the suffrage movement only to be abandoned once the 19th Amendment was ratified, voiceless at the polls for nearly an additional 50 years.
Imagine being referred to as the backbone of the Democratic Party only to have some leaders view your inclusion on the national ticket as radical.
Imagine cultural images portraying Black women as subservient and inferior, as mammies nurturing a false narrative that Aunt Jemima must be happy because she was always smiling in the picture. The film historian Donald Bogle said in 2020 that “of all the stereotypes, the mammy figure is the one that America cherishes the most.”
The radio host Don Imus, who died in 2019, leaned on this time and time again to the delight of his large, unbothered audience. He went so far as to call the acclaimed journalist Gwen Ifill “the cleaning lady” when she was covering the White House for the New York Times. White America largely shrugged its collective shoulders.
We were told to ignore him because he’s a “shock jock.” Today, the apologists like to claim that the reaction of Trump’s supporters to his suggestion that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib should go back to where they came from stems from “economic anxiety.”
I wonder what phrase apologists will come up with next to sanitize racism.
During the campaign, when Harris took the stage to Mary J. Blige’s “Work That,” she wasn’t just playing a song that meant something to her. She was reminding women — and especially women of color — to put on their armor and guard their hearts.
Let ‘em get mad
They gonna hate anyway
Don’t you get that?
Doesn’t matter if you’re going on with their plan
They’ll never be happy
Cause they’re not happy with themselves
Black women such as Rep. Maxine Waters, the journalist Jemele Hill, and the political activist Stacey Abrams have been demonized during the Trump era for doing exactly what Simone did when America’s ugliness viciously slapped her in the face — fight back by fearlessly speaking the truth. That fearless cry is part of America’s history, despite all attempts to silence it. It echoes today, from judges in courtrooms to WNBA players on the basketball court.
Covering Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris’ inauguration is cause for celebration. But we need to resist the urge to hop on the express train, past all the brutal chapters of history, in talking about this day. To fully appreciate what this moment means, we have to take the local. Make every stop, pick up every passenger, listen to every story.
Only then — by acknowledging the long and arduous climb for women who look like her — can we avoid cheapening this achievement by reducing it to a feel-good moment for something that should have been possible a long time ago.
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