Saying “Vice President Kamala Harris” has a nice ring to it. But would “President Harris” sound even better? Given her trajectory, one day we could be potentially looking at the first woman president. And she is Black.
America struck a blow blatant racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and misogyny in choosing Joe Biden as its 46th president and Harris as our first woman vice president. As we absorb this moment of reclamation, placing the country in saner hands, we can also start getting used to the possibility of a woman president again.
Because Harris is Black, the nation gets to spend the next four and possibly eight years making the mental adjustment. Brace yourself because this … is … happening.
Vice presidents often get lost in the shadow of the presidents they serve under. As a Black woman who also celebrates her South Asian roots, Harris won’t go unnoticed. She will be a beacon to Black women who have galvanized their political power to demand the Democrats show up for them the way they’ve shown up for the party. Harris is already a source of pride in the South Asian community. Think of what she will mean for girls and their capacity to imagine what they can grow up and become.
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Kamala Devi Harris was born in Oakland, California, on October 20, 1964. Her father, Donald Harris, was an economist from Jamaica who taught at Stanford University. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, from India, became a cancer research scientist. When Harris’ parents divorced when she was 7, her mother raised Harris and her sister, Maya, as a single mother.
The girls were rooted in both the South Asian and Black communities as they were growing up. Harris went to middle and high school in Montreal, and attended historically Black Howard University. She was elected to her first term as San Francisco district attorney in 2003 and California attorney general in 2010 and 2014. In 2016, she became the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate (after Carol Moseley-Braun) and first Indian-American to serve there.
Her existence, however, has proven a threat to those who chafe at the sight and sound of a brilliant Black woman who decides for herself how she wants to occupy spaces. She won’t recede from our sight because of efforts to discredit and erase her. Columnist and author Peggy Noonan, who is white, revealed a shallow understanding of intersectional identities in a recent critique of Harris’ frequent laughter and ability to dance on the campaign trail:
“She’s throwing her head back and laughing a loud laugh, especially when nobody said anything funny,” Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “She’s the younger candidate going for the younger vote, and she’s going for a Happy Warrior vibe, but she’s coming across as insubstantial, frivolous. When she started to dance in the rain onstage, in Jacksonville, Fla., to Mary J. Blige’s ‘Work That,’ it was embarrassing.”
What Noonan and others can’t and won’t recognize is Black joy.
It’s the essence of our survival and the secret ingredient of cultural products we consider quintessentially American, like our music and food and literature and art. Harris is replete with this unique brand of well-being. Women everywhere can recognize the balancing act of being just enough of everything and not too much of anything. Black women, like Harris, understand deeply the need to realize and assert themselves over and over again, artfully.
“As Black women, we're going to be there for her,” said Dr. Aderonke Pederson, a psychiatrist and mental health stigma researcher at Northwestern University. “We're going to support her because it will continue to be a challenge for her.”
The way these things go, if this administration does a decent job, the Democratic Party will get another shot. A good job for a country mired in the mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic where Black and brown residents suffer disproportionate health and economic effects means exercising common sense. The bar is low. We can expect this administration to do better and be better than the last one because Biden and Harris are smarter, ready for this work — and decent.
As of now, we can only speculate if Biden will serve more than one term. Whether it's one or two, this administration will have to muster as much zeal in undoing the Trump presidency decisions as Trump did in undoing the Obama administration's progress.
They can start by restoring the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Based on massive efforts to suppress votes across the country during this election cycle, Congress should extend to all 50 states' requirements that used to apply to Southern states with a pattern of voting rights violations. Because America is in violation.
They can get those children out of those cages and be transparent in the steps they will take to find and reunite our littlest migrants with their parents and guardians.
Congress can reintroduce and pass the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act because lynching is still not a federal crime.
Fourteen vice presidents have managed to move to the Oval Office. Eight ascended to the office after the president died. Four of them were later elected. Andrew Johnson notably took over for Abraham Lincoln after his assassination. During the Lincoln-Johnson administration that the 13th amendment abolished slavery, except “as punishment for crime.” The 14th amendment that granted Blacks citizenship passed under Johnson’s watch, and he opposed it. Laws and attitudes that continue to vex African Americans have deep roots because the past is not past at all; it’s prologue.
Harry Truman stepped in for Franklin Roosevelt after his death in 1945. Gerald Ford became vice president when Spiro T. Agnew resigned in 1973. Ford became president when Richard Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal in 1974.
The throughline from these vice presidents who became president stretches to the present. Tami Sawyer, a Black, Democrat county commissioner in Memphis, Tennessee, rode into office on a wave of activism after spearheading the removal of Confederate statues from taxpayer-funded parks in 2017. While she didn’t back Harris in the primaries, Sawyer has high hopes for Harris’ term in the White House as VP and beyond:
“I didn’t expect how emotionally exciting Kamala’s win would be. All other thoughts I share stand, but I wanted to add that though the race isn’t over for Black people, my God, it feels good to have a sister VP.”
Deborah D. Douglas is the author of “U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places and Events that Made the Movement” (Moon, 2021) and the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University.