On Wednesday, Kamala D. Harris delivered her first official address as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Her speech began by evoking the names of formidable Black women: Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Lou Hamer, Constance Motley, Shirley Chisholm and others. She was linking her candidacy to a long, rich history of Black women who have pushed the country toward its democratic ideals.
Harris is the first Black woman to be selected for the second-in-command slot and could be the first Black female vice president, and eventually the first-ever Black female president. To be clear, she is not the Black woman who happens to be a vice-presidential candidate. She is a Black woman vice-presidential candidate. Her identity matters deeply. Historically, Black women have been at the forefront of political, economic and social change and being part of this lineage is how Harris ended up on the Democratic ticket.
It was Black women who made this country. During slavery, Black women toiled in fields and were preyed upon in the house. Black women’s wombs served as the engines of American slavery, reproducing lives and labor. Black women were the original housekeepers and homemakers who lived through the irony of being slandered as unfit mothers and while being perfectly capable of nursing and raising White children for success.
Enslaved Black women resisted their oppression and fought to end the institution of slavery. In fact, abolitionist Frederick Douglass was adamant that “when the true history of the anti-slavery cause shall be written, woman will occupy a large space in its pages; for the cause of the slavery has been peculiarly woman’s cause.” Historians have written painstakingly about Black women bearing the brunt of violence, enduring sexual assault, the theft of their children and a more difficult path to escape slavery’s grip.
It was Black women who channeled grief with inequality into demands for equality. It was a Black woman, Elizabeth Freedman, who was the first African American woman to successfully file a lawsuit for freedom in Massachusetts in 1781 and win her freedom. She challenged the hypocrisy of the Founders, who cried for liberty while owning enslaved people. These women changed the course of history, created precedents and enabled Americans to reimagine what was possible in the face of insurmountable odds.
After the abolition of slavery, Black women continued to push for change. It was a Black woman, Ida B. Wells, whose investigative reporting pushed America to grant suffrage to all women, end lynching and come to terms with its white supremacy. Wells used her pen as a journalist and her voice to call out the hypocrisy of American freedom and democracy.
Black women started and sustained the modern civil rights movement. Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks and so many others refused to give up their seats during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was the Black women who regularly rode the buses who made the boycott a success that changed laws.
It was a Black woman, Daisy Bates, who organized and led a group of Black children to integrate Little Rock High School. She was a leader in the face of death threats and attacks. She ensured Black children had a seat in integrated classrooms.
Fannie Lou Hamer fought tirelessly to gain voting rights and political enfranchisement. She faced arrests and assault and yet she bravely spoke truth to power at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Furthermore, it was a Black woman, Marcelite Harris, who, in a world dominated by White men, earned the rank of general in the United States Air Force.
The common denominator in all these instances is the fact that Black women do not merely fight for themselves; by fighting for themselves, they fight for everyone. They don’t just open up doors for other women and marginalized people who come behind them; Black women helped to close doors on the dark past of slavery, segregation and sexism. They remain at the forefront of combating police brutality, voter suppression and public health. Their efforts are the reason Harris could be educated in a desegregated school, become an attorney, run for office and win a U.S. Senate seat.
Harris has an army of shoulders to stand on, and she is going to need all of their strength, tenacity and resilience. Being called a “nasty woman” by President Trump will be the least of her concerns. Harris will be relentlessly attacked from all sides, not because she is a Democrat or a former prosecutor, but precisely because she is a Black woman. For Black women, the burden of doing political work is soul-crushing and sometimes even life-threatening. Wells was run out of town, Parks struggled to find employment after taking her political stance and many Americans did not believe Anita Hill when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
But here’s the thing: Black women have long led the way in movements pushing for equality for all. There is no American activism without Black women at its forefront. There is no abolitionist movement, no women’s suffrage movement and no movement for integration without little Black girls being marched in by federal marshals. There is no civil rights movement, no #MeToo movement and certainly no Black Lives Matter movement without brave Black women.
When Black women championed equality for the least of these, they championed for us all. Ironically, Harris must be a Black woman vice president for Black women, to be for all Americans. Too often Black women are written out of the social movements they have led. Too often the efforts and success of their activism is politically plagiarized. Harris has the chance to ensure a voice, volume and value for the marginalized.
The late historian Stephanie Camp argued, “Women’s history does not merely add to what we know; it changes what we know and how we know it.” Harris is not just another addition to the Biden campaign. Her presence will change what we know about this country and how we know it.
Harris’s position requires all voters to grapple with an identity that has been silenced, slandered and secretly desired. Harris’s speech empowered all Black women to keep fighting and to be heard, and one could only imagine what her Black women forebears would think to know that their fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and Historically Black colleges and universities alum was on the ticket. In this campaign and going forward, Harris’s identity is indispensable.