Kamala Harris and the Army of Black Women

When Malcolm X made his fiery speech in a Los Angeles mosque on May 5, 1961, he probably did not think it would take 58 years before a Black woman would become vice president of the United States. The funeral of Ronald Stokes, a Nation of Islam activist, became the pretext for a feminist speech.

“The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman,” the African American leader said.

These were not easy times. It would take another three years before the Civil Rights Act was signed, exacting, at least on paper, equal rights for Black Americans. Social Security still denied financial aid to African American women because, unlike white women in similar circumstances, they were expected to have jobs anyway.

Access to education and well paid jobs for an average African American was even harder than for a Black man. Subversive Black Panther warriors like Angela Davis or Assata Shakur* would become famous a few years later, while Rosa Parks and Ella Baker, with their demands for radical and participatory democracy in the face of systematic oppression, appeared unduly polite in the longer run. On big and small screens, Black women were cast in supporting or degrading roles, and Dorothy Dandridge, a shining star at the time, was rather an exception to the rule.

When Kamala Harris gave her speech on Nov. 7 on election night in Wilmington, Delaware, she knew to whom she mainly owed her victory: “ … Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the Black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy,” she said. “[E]very little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities,” she added.

A few days later on Twitter, Harris singled out African American women and thanked them for their support in the election. With Jamaican and Indian roots, she will be the first woman in the history of the United States to hold the vice presidency. According to exit polls for ABC, 91% of Black American women voted for the Democratic ticket of Biden and Harris, the largest racial minority group of supporters.

Charismatic and spirited, Harris joined Biden in August and seems to ideally complement a nearly 78-year-old politician. Ambitious like Hillary Clinton, she entered the presidential race herself before dropping out a year ago. Prior to that, she was the first woman to serve as California attorney general and the second Black female senator. She is firm about women’s rights and LGBTQ rights like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, but not as brash. She was involved in the issues faced by African Americans for years and fits in perfectly with white mainstream celebrities — just like Barack Obama. Some say that if she is successful in her new role, she should smoothly transition from vice president to president, just like Biden has.

Harris seems to symbolize a new dream. A dream of internationalism for liberals, a post-racist America for millennials and equal opportunity for feminists. Despite his defeat, the final years of Trump’s first term and his strong showing in this year’s election (winning approximately 70 million votes) suggest that at least the first two aspirations that Harris’ election appear to symbolize are more of a pipe dream. Redneck mentality, emboldened by populism, transitioned from its comfort zone within former Confederate states to the public arena and into the street a long time ago.

Fifty-eight years ago, there was not much African American women could do. Today they are the best educated ethnic group in the United States. Still, they earn on average 38% less than white men in the same positions, and 21% less than white women doing the same job.

On the other hand, judging by how they are represented, they have no reason to complain. Oprah Winfrey has been on Forbes’ list of billionaires for years, Rihanna is considered a pop queen and streaming platforms are teeming with TV series starring Black women. Still, inequities in the job market, racial discrimination and police brutality (the most recent example is the shooting of Breonna Taylor) are still well-entrenched, and the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which became popular a few years back, is still relevant, especially when it comes to Black actresses.

Harris is well educated (she earned a degree in political science and economics from Howard University and a law degree from the University of California) and comes from an immigrant background and a scientific tradition. She has succeeded in accomplishing what Charlotta Bass, first African American woman to run for vice president, failed to do in 1952. There is a chance that in four years, Harris will achieve what Shirley Chisholm, a Democrat and the first Black American woman to run for president, sought to accomplish. In fact, Harris dedicated her presidential campaign campaign to Chisholm.

Harris may inspire liberals and feminists, but Harris is writing history for American women of color. For many of them, she symbolizes the social advancement and limitless opportunities that she spoke of in her acceptance speech. As vice president, she will have to be careful when speaking to avoid becoming fodder for the racist stereotype of an angry Black woman, seen as domineering, somewhat uncouth and moody. This is the problem that former first lady Michelle Obama had to face.

Harris is accompanied by a small army of Black women: from Maxine Waters and Stacey Abrams to Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Cori Bush. Their success is a sign of the times and proof that Americans want change. The online meme obsession with counting votes is over and now the real counting continues, but it will not affect the final result. The true struggle will start on Jan. 20, when Biden and Harris are sworn in. And this time, paraphrasing Gil Scott-Heron, we can be sure that the revolution will not be televised.

*Editor’s note: Assata Shakur was a member of the Black Liberation Army, distinguishable from the Black Panthers.

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