The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These were the tears of hope we all needed right now.

A tear rolls down Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson's cheek as she testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 23. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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The tear that quietly trickled down Ketanji Brown Jackson’s unflinching face on day three of bruising Supreme Court confirmation hearings spoke loudly about the arc of her journey.

It wasn’t challenges to her record, her experience, her behavior, her religion, that punctured her composure. It was Cory Booker (D-N.J.) holding up a mirror to her hard work, stating explicitly that she was worthy of the seat occupied.

It took untold perseverance to get there. And she’ll need that determination to move us toward the America she embodies.

“My parents moved to Washington, D.C., because this is where it all started for them in terms of having new freedoms,” Jackson said, before the hearing became more emotional. “And I was born here, on that hope and dream. I was born here, with an African name that my parents gave me to demonstrate their pride — their pride in who they were and their pride and hope in what I could be.”

These hearings are more than political theater. They are the hilltop that many of these Americans — and the people who can relate to them — reached.

This wasn’t the first time we saw someone cry in a congressional confirmation hearing. All of the tears have been about the journey it took; those paths illuminate different truths about the country they hoped to serve.

When Attorney General Merrick Garland finally had his confirmation hearing last year, it was remembering that journey that got him choked up recalling the shoulders he was standing on.

“I come from a family where my grandparents fled antisemitism and persecution,” Garland told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I feel an obligation to the country to pay back for protecting us.”

The tears that Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh shed on his path to the highest court in the land were also about America — his America.

His voice cracked and his face scrunched not when he spoke of the promise of our nation, of the struggle of prep school boys with friends named Squee. He cried because he believed he was wrongly accused. Funny thing for a judge.

Lawrence VanDyke shed tears of the same salty flavor. He cried because he was questioned and criticized, because the door wasn’t propped open for him the way it had always been. He was before the committee in October 2019, hoping for an appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

VanDyke was “arrogant, lazy, an ideologue, and lacking in knowledge of the day-to-day practice,” according to the letter from the American Bar Association that described him as unfit for the job and someone who “would not say affirmatively that he would be fair to any litigant before him, notably members of the LGBTQ community.”

VanDyke cried because he was criticized, something that was clearly new to him.

He got the job, though.

Jackson cried because it took so long for her — and everyone she represents — to get in that seat.

It was nearly 100 years ago when Congress took the first step toward her day in the seat, rejecting U.S. appellate judge John Parker, who said, “The participation of the Negro in politics is a source of evil and danger to both races and is not desired by the wise men in either race.”

The vote, however, was 41 to 39.

This was worthy of tears, the affirmation of her humanity, her triumph and what that means for the hope of our nation.

“People of color, particularly for those that have the audacity to try to be the first, often have to work twice as hard to get half the respect,” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said to Jackson. He mentioned the “first” at a raw moment.

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Mobile phones buzzed across the hearing room with the alert that one of the firsts among us — Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state — had just died at 84 years old.

Albright was a refugee who became the highest-ranking woman in the United States government. And when you want to know what firsts can do, you can look to the women who came after her: Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and now Vice President Harris, who rose even higher.

Is it too late to hope for a Black woman on the Supreme Court?

So as she sat there in front of the nation, poised to be the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court, Booker reminded the nation of how important this moment is, right here in Washington, where change can begin or at least it can be codified and realized.

He reminded us all that this system, our democracy, our Constitution, our respect and love for the idea that is America was the reason we all fight for this nation, as hard as it may be.

“You admitted it about your parents,” he said. “They loved this nation, even though there were laws preventing them from getting together. … But they didn’t stop loving this country, even though this country didn’t love them back.”

And he paraphrased Langston Hughes on why we all keep loving this nation, in the struggle:

“O, let America be America again; the land that never has been yet, but yet must be, the land where everyone is free. O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, but I swear this oath, America will be,” Booker said. And to Jackson: “That is the story of how you got to this desk.”