The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kamala Harris made history with quiet, exquisite power

Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris walks to address supporters outside the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

History was right there in the making all the time.

When it arrived, there was no screaming shock to the system. The system was, quite frankly, numb. Instead, it was a moment of hushed catharsis. Of release. Of tears that had been buried so deep, for so long, that they bubbled up slowly and quietly.

From the moment Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden asked Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) to join the ticket, the country knew that she could become the nation’s first Black woman and first Asian American woman to be vice president. And yet, the reality of what that meant, or how that would look, seemed to recede into the background of a campaign narrative that was dominated by a raging pandemic, a president who treated a live debate like a wrestling match, and the unknown ramifications of the Democrats’ decision to shift to virtual fundraisers and drive-in rallies.

History wasn’t lost. But by God, there were so many distractions. And then on Saturday, after the slow, slow, slow counting of ballots, after the waiting and the nail-biting, it became real. Kamala Harris. Vice president-elect. First. First. First.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris hailed a breakthrough for black women in American in her remarks introducing President-elect Joe Biden in Wilmington, Del. (Video: The Washington Post)

It was a monumental moment, and yet it seemed so normal and so reasonable, so overwhelming and incredible, in part because so many women have been chipping their way up the side of this dauntingly steep, sheer mountain, and also because of the woman who finally made it there.

“I’m speaking. I’m. Speaking.” That’s what Harris said to Vice President Pence during their one and only debate, but the words could easily be a rallying cry for all women — and for Black women, in particular. Harris was reclaiming her time. She was persisting. She was not being nasty, but she was being firm as she sat on that stage in her neat and unremarkable dark pantsuit.

The former attorney general of California and current senator from that state, on the ticket to become the second-most-powerful person in United States government, uttered those words with a smile. She may even have laughed. But she made it clear that she should not be interrupted, while avoiding being labeled with the “angry Black woman” trope. How could she be called angry when she looked so pleasant? And she looked so unperturbed because she was confident, and that was a beautiful sight to behold — not because it is rare, but because it so often is overlooked.

During the course of the campaign, the racists and misogynists reliably emerged to fling their insults and to try their best to diminish Harris. But even those dark words seemed to get lost in the immensity of the issues and emotions that defined this run for the presidency. Their vitriol just seemed to dissolve into the ether.

And in the clear air, on Saturday evening, Harris stood onstage outside the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., in her white pantsuit — with all of its connections to the women’s suffrage movement — with an American flag pinned to her lapel, and the moment was exquisite. Black women, White women, young women, old women, little girls all bounced in the parking lot, cheering, weeping.

Harris was thinking about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and “the generations of women, Black women, Asian, White, Latina, Native American women who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment tonight. Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality and liberty and justice for all, including the Black women who are often, too often, overlooked, but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.”

“I stand on their shoulders,” Harris said.

Her presence on that stage speaks of the influence of Black women in our democracy, but also the ways in which respect for their intellect, their womanhood and their individuality has been slow to come. Harris’s rise reflects the intellectual might of historically Black colleges and universities and their commitment to telling the story of African Americans as central to our nation’s narrative, not as an addendum. Harris chose Howard University because it was the crown jewel of the realm and because its law school educated Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But it was also a place that allowed her to come of age surrounded by the richness of the Black diaspora.

Her mother, who was born in India, raised Harris, as well as her younger sister, to move through a world in which they would be seen as Black women. Howard was a place that allowed for the vastness of the Black experience, whether it be the first-generation college-goer from a small town in the South or the scion of a family of professionals from Chicago or a wealthy international student from Ghana.

The idea that Blackness could be many things — none of which required an apology or dilution — was a core tenet of Howard and one that speaks to the essence of Harris herself. She was someone who contributed to the richness of Howard’s diversity. She was a child of immigrants from India and Jamaica. She was born in Oakland, Calif., and went to school in Berkeley and then Montreal and finally law school at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. She’d led a life that had her walking in many different environments in her formative years, and all of them became part of her identity.

Each aspect of her story serves as a point of connection with a multitude of people. She could cook Indian cuisine with Mindy Kaling and she could sway to the beat of a drum line in South Carolina and converse in high-powered lawyer-ese when necessary. And in each of those moments, she was authentically herself. She didn’t have to blindly feel her way along. She didn’t have to carefully calibrate her speech to fit a particular audience.

In her rise to prominence, she also shined a light on some of the precious corners of the Black community. The history of HBCUs, what they represent and how they have elevated Black students became known to a broader world. Her beloved sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, saw its stature soar, and people began to understand precisely what a Black sisterhood is — the strength and support of those bonds. These women, 300,000 strong, organized for the Biden-Harris ticket. And their wondrous blend of accomplishment and poise was writ large.

Black sororities don’t shy away from reveling in style and beauty, because both of those things were for so long denied to Black women. They were not seen as feminine or beautiful or worthy of protection. And so, when fashion houses delight in those moments when Harris has worn one of their designs — even when it’s just a simple black suit by Prabal Gurung or a double-breasted coat from Max Mara — it matters because it’s another instance when her womanhood is celebrated.

Watch 10 Black female students in Atlanta react to Kamala Harris’s win

As the author Brittney Cooper noted, it’s something to see Harris with her Secret Service detail, to see this Black woman being protected by the state, not because she is the spouse of a powerful man, but because she has power of her own. She earned it. The voters confirmed it.

“What a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his vice president. But while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

It was also a marvel to watch U.S. flags wave in the breeze in celebration of her and of Biden. At a time when Black women have been told by the current president to go back to where they came from, Harris was basking in Old Glory.

On this night of celebration, a Black woman was not last. She was not the least of many. She was at the center of it all.