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.

Why Voting Matters? Through the Lens of a 95-year-old Black Woman

Race

Florence E. Adams was born August 10th, 1923 in Trenton, New Jersey. 93 years later, I pushed her, my grandmother, through the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. Different people stopped to look at her with a look of awe in their eyes. As she was witnessing her history, we were all witnesses to her.

In 1946, after World War II, she left New Jersey for the Nation’s capital, where she worked as a secretary in the Adjutant General’s Office at the Pentagon. Leaving that position a few years later, she went on to attend American University, earning a degree in education, and then later a Master’s Degree from Federal City College, presently named the University of the District of Columbia.

As I pushed her up the final ramp of the museum, there loomed in front of us a large but intimate photo of President Obama and his family, at Grant Park in Chicago, celebrating his presidential victory in 2008. My grandmother pulled a Kleenex out from her pocketbook to wipe away the small tear that streamed down her soft, brown cheek.

“For a black person, especially a black woman, we were so proud that at last something so magnificent had happened, something we thought we’d never see,” my grandmother uttered softly. She was 42-years-old when young president JFK was tragically assassinated, after which President Lyndon B. Johnson became president. In November of 1963, he passed the 15thamendment aimed at eroding the legal barriers at the state and local levels aimed at preventing African Americans from exercising their right to vote.

“There were always extra rules for blacks compared to their white counterparts. Whites kept blacks from voting, especially down south.”

“Do you remember the first time you voted?” I inquired of her.

“I don’t, but I remember it was at J.C. Nalle Elementary in Southeast Washington D.C., where your mother and aunt attended grade school. Back then there was one place, two if you were lucky, where you could vote. Everyone would be standing at one pole, lines wrapped around the block. It was not as simple as it is today. There is no excuse today for not voting; you can mail it in. All you have to do is fill out the form and put it back in the mail.”

As she continued, she expanded on the history of blacks and voting. “My mother always voted once she was allowed. She voted Republican as many blacks, at that time, did because of [Lincoln]; he freed the slaves, thus, blacks voted republican.”

Without knowing history and its context, one cannot properly act in the present. If anyone asked me where I was when I first voted, although the polling station escapes me now, I could tell you that it was in Atlanta, Georgia, when I was a freshman student at Emory University. I believe that knowing the exact location of one’s first vote is a vociferous and commanding testament to the historic achievement of the black vote. Over the course of my grandmother’s life, she is one of few who have been in both the “have nots” and the “haves” reminding us, as African-Americans that, too often, we forget that although we now can, we once could not. To vote is simultaneously a gift, a right, and a duty. This amnesia that can cause people to do otherwise is both dangerous and debilitating.

As she looked me in the eye before we left the museum, she said, “You can’t be too tired to vote. Not now, not ever. You have to vote for the people who will do right by you.”

And so, we must.Young Grandma!