What Kamala Harris means
By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
All of the women in my circle—Black, Jamaican, Indian, Asian, Latina, Indigenous, Jewish, and white women—cried when Vice President-Elect Kamala Devi Harris joyfully emerged on the presidential stage Saturday night. For a few moments our world stopped as we paused to bear witness to our ancestors’ wildest dreams.
The tears were not only in celebration of Harris’s achievement, but for the generations of women who made the moment possible. Harris honored her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and the “women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality and liberty and justice for all, including Black women who are often, too often, overlooked but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.”
Dressed in suffrage white, Harris acknowledged “all the women who have worked to secure and protect the right to vote for over a century, 100 years ago with the 19th Amendment; 55 years ago with the voting rights act; and now in 2020 with a new generation of women in our country who cast their ballots and continued the fight for their fundamental right to vote and be heard.”
The tears from my sister friends flowed in memory of the Black sorority women who were pushed to the back of the women’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. in 1913 and for whom the vote would not be forthcoming 100 years ago. The tears honored civil rights women such as Fannie Lou Hamer, who were the backbone of the movement but rarely have received the credit they deserve, and Shirley Chisholm, another Caribbean American woman (her father was from Guyana, her mother from Barbados) who ran for president nearly 50 years ago.
The moment also acknowledged not only women like Stacey Abrams, who led a massive voter registration effort in Georgia, but Black women in cities across the country who signed up voters, got people to the polls, fought voter suppression. Some wept for “what might have been” with a Hillary Clinton presidency in 2016.
The celebration of Harris is the culmination of historic efforts by women to be seen—and heard. This is a moment of recognition for the army of Black sorority women including the nation’s oldest, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, of which Harris and six members of Congress are members, and the largest, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, which includes seven members of Congress. These are the women called upon by Harris in her shoutout to the “Divine Nine” Black fraternities and sororities when Joe Biden named her his running mate. These women laced up their Converse Chuck Taylors, put on their pearls, and strolled to the polls. Harris’s rise also focuses attention on HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), not just her alma mater Howard University or Abrams’s venerable Spelman College, but the 104 institutions that have educated Black Americans for more than 150 years.
Harris walked onto the grand stage to the tune of Mary J Blige’s Work That and opened her remarks with a quote from Congressman John Lewis, who died in July. Her election to the U.S. vice presidency is the capstone of the racial reckoning of 2020. Early studies show a spike in voter registration, particularly among young voters, during this summer’s racial justice protests.
Saturday’s tears were a collective expression of joy after years of holding our breath while praying for the best, but expecting the worst. Peggy Noonan, a highly regarded journalist, recently criticized Harris’s joyfulness, saying her dancing and laughter came off as “insubstantial, frivolous.” The columnist failed to acknowledge the hate, threats, and extreme racism Harris experienced on the campaign trail.
God forbid a Black woman walk through the world filled with joy. Saturday’s historic moment was vindication, not that we needed it, as well as an affirmation that we will move through the world on our own terms. There was recognition—and great hope—that our daughters will have a smoother path, and that, as Harris notes, “while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
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