The power of Black women like Kamala Harris and my grandma

Race

Special to The Seattle Times

Now is the time to elect a Black woman as vice president, and I need not look any further than my own 97-year-old grandmother to understand why.

Often overlooked, Black women are at the center of the American story: They are and have long been serving in public and private spheres, as backbones of families and communities, as academics and intellectuals, and as political and civil rights leaders. Right now, many are nurses and physicians on the front lines of COVID-19, devoted to fighting a disease that threatens us all. 

The writer Janet Mock once wrote, “My grandmother and my two aunts were an exhibition in resilience and resourcefulness and Black womanhood. They rarely talked about the unfairness of the world with the words that I use now with my social justice friends, words like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘equality,’ ‘oppression,’ and ‘discrimination.’ They didn’t discuss those things because they were too busy living it, navigating it, surviving it.”

In 1923, in an America that legalized racism, inequality, hate and discrimination, my grandmother Florence Elizabeth Carmichael was born. As her 97thbirthday approached, I called to ask what she would like as a gift. After a long pause, she said, “Nothing.” Given how much she has accomplished, though, her answer was fitting: She grew up a poor Black woman in the Great Depression who, despite overwhelming adversity, earned a university degree during the Jim Crow era and raised two daughters to become international leaders in their respective fields. What more could I give her? 

Her firm rooting in a family of shared sacrifices and responsibility helped my grandmother overcome countless challenges in her America. One of eight children raised by a single mother in Millville, New Jersey, my grandmother didn’t hear many words of encouragement — but she saw plenty of action. Her mother, with the wrong skin color, struggled to find work outside the home. After many years she found a job as a seamstress in a clothing factory, but the elation she must have felt did not last long. Daily, she would be given a quota of garments to sew; unlike her white counterparts, however, the more she produced the more she was told to make. Despite the grueling work, and her doctor’s recommendations to quit, she returned. Watching her mother dress for work each morning, my grandmother would look up and see immeasurable anguish and fierce determination.

In 1963, Florence earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from American University at a time when few Black women were college educated. Both through actions and words, she instilled the same ambition in her two Black daughters. Ask my grandmother what she did for Alicia and Lucile, and she will tell you there is no formula. Early on Lucile took a liking to science, which resulted in a science kit for Christmas; Alicia enjoyed dancing, which led to ballet class. These were small fires Grandma turned into burning dreams. Florence may not recall what she and her daughter discussed each night at dinner, but the effect of those nightly conversations is apparent. They led Alicia Adams to become vice president of international programming and dance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and her younger sister, Lucile Adams-Campbell, Ph.D., to become the first female Black Ph.D. epidemiologist in the United States.

Why is now the time for a Black woman as vice president? Black women are proven leaders. Evidence of their ability to thrive in the face of adversity, their capacity to inspire and their commitment to future generations is everywhere you look in America. Those characteristics are as necessary as they have ever been and will be pivotal in unifying our country, in showing Americans in blue states and red states that we are one. 

Like my grandmother, so many Black women will tell you they need nothing. We must honor their lived experiences by committing to resuscitate the soul of America, by building a more just and more equal society.

In her long career as a public servant, Kamala Harris has demonstrated her commitment to that cause. She has her own set of scars representative of the perseverance of herself and many women of color. She is the missing thread needed for the restoration of the quilt of America’s soul. And she is the vice president America needs and deserves for the uncertain future ahead.

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