KAMALA AS VEEP: BLACKNESS AT THE TABLE
The nation’s first woman and first Black vice president is uniquely positioned to uplift the race simply by being.
By SONYA ROSS
WASHINGTON _ Once upon a time, in an America that now seems so long ago, Toni Morrison mused about just how much Blackness America could tolerate in its presidents.
Then-President Bill Clinton, Morrison posited, carried a figurative Blackness about him that got him dogged and persecuted in a way that Black men, especially, know all too well. “… White skin notwithstanding, this is our first Black President. Blacker than any actual Black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime,” Morrison wrote.
Of course, that was in the year of our Lord 1998 B.B. — before Barack. A decade later, when Barack Obama actually became the first Black president, bringing America’s first Black first lady Michelle Obama with him, the pressure was even higher for both of them to keep their Blackness in check. “Post-racial” was the order of the day. So even though Obama indulged his Blackness in myriad ways — singing a little soulful Al Green here and there, popping in on Omega Psi Phi’s centennial convention, singing Amazing Grace from the pulpit of Mother Emanuel AME Church [in Charleston, S.C.] at the funeral for its church’s murdered pastor — he also worked hard not to be a racial line-stepper, down to the details of his personal life. Burned so severely during his first campaign by controversy over the fiery sermons of his pastor back in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama never did choose a church home in D.C.
Twelve years and two Obama terms later, here comes Kamala Harris, Democratic senator from California and now the country’s vice president-elect. The first woman VP, first Black VP, first VP of Asian descent, bringing a lot of diversity through the door.
While those firsts attached to Kamala Harris count, they don’t fully capture her true value. She also brings a rack of Black bona fides to the table: her college, her sorority, her civic ties, her roots in Black Oakland, the hot sauce she adds to her collard greens. In the twilight of Donald Trump’s presidency with all its racist overtones, Harris’ lived experiences put the best possible GPS at President-elect Joe Biden’s right hand as he steers the nation past the stewpot of bigotry that Trump stirred up. This type of Blackness in the halls of power is the natural evolution that, for many, has been too long in coming. Through Kamala Harris, America will get to know on a more intimate level the Black world that made her — a world that is more than ready to be seen.
Kamala Devi Harris was born in Oakland in the mid-1960s. Her mother and father, born in India and Jamaica, respectively, were civil rights activists steeped in academia. They divorced when she was 7. After graduating from high school, Kamala enrolled at Howard University, known as the “Mecca” of historically Black colleges, and let her Blackness blossom. There, she chaired the Economic Society, joined the debate team and pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., a storied sisterhood that itself broke barriers as the first Greek-letter sorority for Black women.
All along her rise to the vice presidency, Harris did what she’s done every time she’s broken a barrier in her political career: centered her Blackness, often alongside memories of her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who raised her to embrace it as well as her South Asian heritage.
"So, I am thinking about her and about the generations of women — Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women who throughout our nation’s history, have paved the way for this moment tonight," Harris said in claiming her election victory on Nov. 7. “Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality and liberty and justice for all, including the Black women who are often, too often overlooked, but so often proved that they are the backbone of our democracy.”
"Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision to see what can be, unburdened by what has been," Harris continued. "And I stand on their shoulders."
In accepting the vice presidential nomination during the virtual Democratic National Convention in August, Harris cited by name and gave proper credit to Black women who continued the fight for equality long after the 19th Amendment extended voting rights to white women. Describing them as family, Harris also gave a shout out to “my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha, our Divine Nine and my HBCU brothers and sisters.” (Harris’ mention of the Divine Nine refers to the nine Black Greek-lettered sorority and fraternities.)
“Reporters were Googling ‘Divine Nine.’ They hadn’t heard her talk about (that),” laughed Glynda Carr, president of Higher Heights for America, a political action committee dedicated to helping Black women candidates get elected at the local, state and federal levels. That one mention, Carr said, opened a national conversation “about where Black leadership can come from, different places than mainstream society believes it can come from.”
“Little girls like my god baby, will say, ‘I want to be an AKA and go to an HBCU,” said Carr, who, like Harris, is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. “The Howard students and alumni stood a little taller that day. The entire ecosystem of HBCUs stood a little taller,” she added. “I hope people will step up financially and support these institutions. That’s what I think her legacy is going to be in this moment.”
After graduating from Howard in 1986, Harris earned a law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1989. Then she went to work as a deputy district attorney in her native Oakland. She became district attorney in 2004. Upon winning election as California’s first woman and first Black attorney general in 2010, Harris identified herself as “a literal daughter of Brown v. Board of Education,” harking back to the day she joined the second class to integrate public schools in Berkeley.
It is significant, says Howard University President Wayne Frederick, for this country to have, after Barack Obama’s historic presidency, a vice president “in his likeness” whose sensibilities and breadth of experience are virtually unmatched both politically and from a Black cultural standpoint.
“What you also have added on is a relatability, as it were, to that Black experience in a very wholesome fashion,” Frederick said. “It gives the electorate, especially the Black electorate, … a prism to see her through that they can relate to.”
Frederick invited Harris to be the commencement speaker at her alma mater in 2017, months into her Senate term. She “was able to really speak, as they say on my campus, truth to power,” he said.
In that speech, Harris cited both her internship in the U.S. Senate and her participation in student protests against apartheid in South Africa as examples of how to reject false choices and conventional wisdom in the quest for social reform.
“Sometimes to make change, you’ve got to change how change is made,” Harris told the graduates. “So, do not be constrained by tradition. Do not listen when they say it can’t be done. And do not be burdened by what has been when you can create what should be.”
The earliest moves by the Biden-Harris team appear to reflect that philosophy. Racial equity is one of four pillars in the incoming administration's action plan. The review teams being dispatched to evaluate operations across all federal agencies are quite diverse. More than half are women, and roughly 40 percent are from groups that have been underrepresented in federal government — people of color, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ+.
"It’s still Black, it’s just a different kind of Black,” said Fredrick C. Harris, dean of social sciences at Columbia University and director of the university’s Center on African American Politics and Society. “And it’s not a triumph, necessarily, against whiteness. It’s also a triumph over a particular type of Black elitism,” he added. “… It pushes back on this idea that, in order to be a part of, or to make a contribution in public life on that level, you must be a Black person who comes from white institutions."
As vice president, Kamala Harris will have to manage expectations among Black people that she will deliver quickly on an array of wish list items, particularly when it comes to the needs of HBCUs, said Dr. W. Franklin Evans, president of Voorhees College in South Carolina.
"There was this expectation from Black people that President Obama was going to do all these amazing things that nobody else had done,” Evans said. “They had these expectations that President Obama was going to walk on water for HBCUs, and that did not occur. … People were upset.
“Sen. Harris, on the other hand, she is a product of an HBCU,” he continued. “… So, when America sees Howard, it also sees Morehouse. It also sees Philander Smith, Tougaloo. She knows firsthand the struggles of our institutions. She’s a wonderful spokesperson for us."