While some people have been endowed with as much ambition as Patricia Roberts Harris had, few people have possessed the drive and intelligence to convert that ambition into monuments of success. In the best of those few, ambition combines with humanism to create a sense of mission. Pat Harris, the rail car waiter's daughter who became the first woman to hold two Cabinet posts, was among the best.
A problem with being an ambitious and successful black woman is that one often walks down corridors of power where few blacks or women get to enter and roles and purpose can easily be misunderstood. And so it was Pat Harris' lot to have to defend herself against charges that she was aloof from the problems of the poor.
Yet many blacks, like many whites, misunderstood this remarkable woman and questioned the importance of her accomplishments for the black community.
"I fought her being named to the Cabinet," recalled D.C. school board member R. Calvin Lockridge, "because I thought that she wasn't black enough. I felt she did not relate to the black community."
Later, Lockridge recognized his mistake. He got to know Pat Harris and realized that he had been judging her "on her outer appearances" and, in his words, "my own feelings of inferiority" in the face of her knowledge and skill. Eventually, he became an ardent supporter of Pat Harris and supported her unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Washington.
This irony, which Lockridge alluded to, is that Pat Harris was often distrusted because she was too intelligent and sensitive. This greatly angered one of Harris' closest friends, Dr. Pearl Watson, who, at Harris' funeral yesterday at the Washington Cathedral, said in her eulogy: "It has always been very distressing to me that anyone, especially the Johnny-come-latelies" would question her commitment.
One of the sad byproducts of all the wonderful things that emerged in the '60s for black people is that anyone pursuing excellence is often accused of "acting white." The notion that excellence is associated only with whites was a thought that was repugnant to Pat Harris. She believed that blacks could achieve anything they wanted if they didn't buy society's low opinion of them, and, in turn, attempt to hold each other back based on that opinion. This may be her true legacy, one that black children today could benefit from: "You define yourself."
Until more black people begin to define themselves, black children will be faced with two subtly conflicting messages from the world: one will say, "Strive for excellence," and the other says, "But only whites are excellent." Pat Harris probably laughed at this line of reasoning from the time she was a child.
But as I listened to several speakers at Pat's funeral, I couldn't help but feel that the real legacy that she left to black people and to the country as a whole may be the reminder that we should always respect each other's differences. No matter how we talk, carry ourselves, or even dream. As racial oppression subsides, we must be careful not to oppress one another.
We need to let Pat Harris' life be a new yardstick. We shouldn't think that what she attained is impossible to emulate. She wouldn't want that.
What she would probably want to see for all of us, black and white, is that we try to judge each other not on our outward trappings, mannerisms or even associations, but on our individual commitment to justice and equality. By that yardstick, Pat Harris belonged to the black community even as she walked with presidents, popes and kings.