Kamala Harris represents many things, especially Black women’s work

The new vice president stands on the shoulders of hidden figures whose labor went unsung

When Kamala Harris stands on the inaugural platform and swears fealty to the Constitution of the United States, her oath will lift her into a new strata of American possibility.

She will become the first woman, the first Black woman, the first South Asian daughter of immigrants, and the first graduate of a historically Black university to be sworn in as the nation’s vice president. But while in so many ways she’ll be singular, for many African Americans, she’s a stand-in for multitudes.

Black people look at Harris and see the traditions that gave rise to her, and the hidden figures who came before her. Black women, especially, see in Harris the myriad, often unheralded contours of Black women’s work. We see resilience, problem-solving and code-switching. We see all the instances of speaking our minds and holding our tongues – not to mention biding our time, because Black women’s work pushes past first blushes to get to last laughs.

We see Harris in the slow, sweeping work that has cleaned up after the country, and held democracy in trust. And we pray that she will do what Black women have so often done: Take a ceremonial role and turn it into a custom job.

The night Harris became the vice president-elect, she donned a white pantsuit (evoking both suffragettes, and the first African American woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm), and pearl earrings (favored by the sorors of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black sorority). She walked onto a Wilmington, Delaware, stage to “Work That” by Mary J. Blige to deliver her victory speech.

And Harris used the historic moment to call out the “women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty and justice for all.” She especially noted Black women who are “too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy. … I stand on their shoulders.”

Later, among the celebrants at Black Lives Matter Plaza, across the street from the White House, one woman carried a poster of a smiling Harris, wearing a dark suit, that read, “Kamala America’s Mamala.”

And Mamala had a brand-new bag.

Kamala Harris (left) with sister and adviser Maya Lakshmi Harris (right) preparing to speak to women of color during the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit at The Mirage in Las Vegas on March 1, 2019.

Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Raaechael Santizo, a program coordinator at Howard University School of Law, was part of three generations of family celebrating Harris as a Black woman, a Howard University graduate, a Jamaican and Indian woman of color, because “representation matters,” she said.

Her mother, Angela Jackson, a manager at the American Psychological Association, said part of what Harris represented was the labor of Black women. “We’ve worked so hard in this country and we don’t always get the recognition we need. It was us, Black people, Black women, who actually made this happen,” Jackson said. “We’ve always been a force to be reckoned with, it’s just that the rest of the country wasn’t quite ready for that.”

There is a convention in election night coverage in which results are flashed onscreen and the news anchor opines that you’d rather be one candidate than the other. With late returns from Pennsylvania, you’d rather be candidate Joe Biden than President Donald Trump, analysts said.

That convention applies to this moment, where we’d rather be Black women than anybody else. We’d rather be the ones who, given the chance to shatter one of the nation’s highest glass ceilings, seized it. We’d rather be us, not because Black women have ever had it easy, but because the difficulty of our work gives us soul, plus an expansive tool set. It gives us the clear eyes and common sense born of high stakes. It gave us the hashtag #ListentoBlackWomen.

Poet Taylor, a community “love liaison,” activist and co-host of The Joe Clair Morning Show on Washington’s WPGC-FM, recalled that when she was 15 years old, if she said she couldn’t do something, her foster mother told her: “You’re a Black woman. You are the queen of workable solutions.”

Taylor says she looks forward to seeing Harris utilize what she calls one of Harris’ best superpowers, her “classes of code-switching,” also known as reading a room to make cultural and rhetorical adjustments. “Code-switching at an entry level when she first got her feet wet in the work world ain’t the same as how she had to do it as a prosecutor, ain’t the same as how she’s going to have to do it as the vice president of the United States,” Taylor said.

“Will she be heard as the second-in-command to the commander in chief? Or we will miss out on opportunities,” that her leadership can provide, Taylor wonders. Because good ideas are often lost due to racism and sexism. “I think that any Black woman in any office, whether it’s entry level or the C-suite, knows that frustration, that anger and that challenge, and we rise to it.”

Lia Ballard, 17, gestures for cars to honk their horns as hundreds of people celebrate the presidential election results on Grand Avenue near Lake Merritt on Nov. 7, 2020, in Oakland, California.

Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

It takes resilience. Resilience – emotional intelligence, authenticity and agility breeds success irrespective of race or gender, notes the Harvard Business Review in a 2018 article, Beating the Odds, Leadership Lessons from Senior African American Women.

“But the African-American women we interviewed seemed to rely more heavily than others on that quality because of the frequency with which they encountered obstacles and setbacks … In each case, they bounced back, refused to get distracted or derailed, and maintained forward progress,” the article read.

As one woman told the authors, “We were all told that you had to be smarter or run faster or jump higher or be better than anybody else around you just to stay in the game. That was a lesson from early, early on.”

A 2012 study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that Black women are viewed as atypical leaders. In struggling organizations, they are judged more harshly than white men and women, or Black men.

This is why extra work and responsibility is often a baseline for Black women.

When she worked in corporate America, Kim Greenfield Alfonso, co-founder and chief executive officer of the management consulting firm Results One, says “there was always this expectation that I had to do more. Right? And I had to do more and not necessarily get the credit for doing it.” Alfonso, a former executive with Merck Pharmaceuticals and chief operating officer for a Washington nonprofit, said she’d sometimes be the lone Black face in meetings and make a suggestion that was met with silence until a white male colleague made the same suggestion, and it was well-received. He got the credit, Alfonso says, “but I’d still end up doing the work.”

Registered nurse Patricia Cummings administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on Dec. 29, 2020.

ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images

That happens to Black women in Black spaces as well, Alfonso said. She serves on one all-Black board of directors where she’s one of two women, but she’s been responsible for all the programming.

She hopes Harris’ public leadership also causes more Black women to mentor and elevate each other. To do even more “lifting as we climb,” which was the motto of the National Association of Colored Women, founded in 1896 to champion civil rights and challenge the racism of white suffragists.

“One of the things I love about Black women and Black women’s history is that it really does show that, in spite of being the most vulnerable and disenfranchised, Black women have always had the audacity, and the tenacity to demand more,” said Kali Nicole Gross, a professor of African American Studies at Emory University who co-authored the 2020 book A Black Women’s History of the United States.

They’ve “been the ones who advocated for suffrage, equally,” Gross said. Black women were politically active and engaged in fighting “not just for themselves, but for the whole community.”

We’ve often had everybody’s back, even though, when there’s a call to action, we are left to work, and fight, alone.

Look at who led the voting rights charges around the country, Taylor said, citing Stacey Abrams. Abrams is the best known among a group of Black women credited with helping Democrats win the presidential race and the senatorial runoffs in Georgia. She founded the nonprofit Fair Fight to promote voting literacy and participation after narrowly losing the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race amid charges of voter suppression.

“The same Stacey Abrams you got this election cycle ain’t nobody different than the person who was running for office.” When you look at the hidden figures in America, “you will find a Black woman at every major intricate part of change,” she said, “and then in all the spaces people weren’t even paying attention to.”

As Nannie Helen Burroughs, an educator, civil rights activist and early feminist, put it: “We specialize in the wholly impossible.”

Michele Booth Cole, executive director of Safe Shores – The DC Children’s Advocacy Center, said Black women bring extra gears to their work. “Because we’ve had to stand on the outside and work on the inside, we get to observe white America, and America generally from all these different angles. And as a result, we accrue all this inside knowledge and insight.” Cole said she wonders if the accolades and pleas after the election for Abrams to flip other states came with the kind of compensation white men command. Or whether people assumed they could call Abrams to “pick her brain” for free in ways they wouldn’t think of doing with white men. Graciously sidestepping those kinds of incursions constitute yet another contour of Black women’s work.

Cole said she hopes Harris is surrounded by smart, self-aware Black women “who have the necessary experience and aren’t concerned about being liked.” She calls the February Vogue magazine cover photo choice of Harris wearing Converse sneakers a microaggression in which the need to make Black women accessible masks white women’s discomfort with Black women’s power.

The magazine should have lifted up Harris and made the cover as elegant as possible, said Cole. They needed to do that not only for Harris, but as a tacit acknowledgment of the tradition she came from, and all the work and sacrifice it took to get where she is. “It’s telling that they were more inclined to do that with Michelle Obama, who was the spouse, right, than they did with the woman who was elected as the first female vice president of the United States.”

Taylor said she’s hopeful that having a Black woman as vice president “will trickle down to the kind of policy and legislation that brings Black people their overdue equity in America.”

“We’ve been working, and we’re tired,” Taylor said. “We want to see the fruits of our labor.”

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.