Being a black woman means existing in two spaces at once. Simultaneously too much and not enough. At the same time, you’re asked to do the heavy lifting, and you are being told you aren’t qualified for the job. While trying to do your best, you’re told your best won’t be good enough.
We fight for justice for all, even when all we have is just us. As we watched history being made last week Wednesday, I can’t help but think of the dualities that Vice President Kamala Harris will have to navigate.
Will she be considered too loud? That’s OK, because she will be in good company.
The late Barbara Jordan, who represented Texas, was known for her booming voice. Coupled with her commanding stature, the sight of her probably brought unease to some of her male peers. Her power, intellect, cunning and determination were legendary and still reverberate through the halls of Congress. She used those talents to represent her constituents with compassion and integrity, but she fought viciously to defend the promise and purpose of the constitution for all Americans. She refused to be quiet and would not let criticism silence her.
Similarly, the late Sen. Ruby Rouss, the first woman to serve as president of the V.I. Legislature, was not shy about breaking barriers for women and other V.I. residents. She fought to show that the perspective of women was needed in the halls of government. She showed that compassion had a place in politics and was not quiet about her dedication to governing with transparency and conviction. There were many who told her to just be quiet, but she “got loud” and got to work instead.
Vice President Harris likely will be considered too bossy. But that’s OK, as she will be in good company.
Representative Maxine Waters of California has gained acclaim and animus for speaking truth to power. Auntie Maxine has been serving facts and providing receipts for decades. When others try to throw shade on her looks, her speech, her qualifications, she doesn’t shrink away. Instead, she shines a floodlight on their hypocrisy and reminds those who come begging for our support that we expect much in return. She confronts haters and uses the spotlight they would try to blind her with to bring the focus instead on issues that concern women, children, the poor and people of color — also known as members of the disenfranchised.
Senator Lucinda Millin was said to have an “impish” sense of humor and a “gentle compassion.” As an educator of 40 years, she was also known as a strict disciplinarian who expected the best from her students.
Knowing enough women like that in my life, I know she used her charm and humor to get things done, but she also used her will and backbone to push her agenda. So while she was rightly remembered fondly by her colleagues and constituents, you don’t become the first woman elected to the Senate — who then goes on to serve five consecutive terms in the ‘50s — by charm alone. It takes a backbone of steel and an unshakable confidence.
Harris has been told and will be told again that it’s not her turn. But that’s OK, because she will be in good company.
When Shirley Chisholm announced she was running for president in 1972, she didn’t do so on a whim or without the resume to back up her bravado. She was the first black woman to serve in Congress after years as an educator. “Fighting Shirley” fought her way in and told the others from Day One she would not sit quietly and be a “good soldier.” She stood up to those who wanted her talent, but on their terms. She knew what she wanted to accomplish and was not cowed by those who thought she should wait.
Prior to V.I. Delegate Donna Christiansen, only men had served as the territory’s representatives to Congress. It seemed that the position would pass to other candidates seen as next in line when she lost her first bid for the job. She persisted, however, and fought to victory the second time.
Rather than just toe the party line and just be glad to be in the building, she worked to improve healthcare, access to funds and greater autonomy for the Virgin Islands and other territories. She had a plan and wasn’t sidetracked by those who thought her time hadn’t come.
Like most black women in positions of power, especially in politics, Harris will have to occupy many dual spaces. Be feminine, but not too girly. Be smart, but don’t flaunt your degrees. Be friendly, but don’t give anyone the wrong idea. Be strong, but not intimidating. Look good, but don’t put too much effort into it. Stand your ground, but don’t be pushy.
But it’s OK, because she will be in good company. Leaders like former U.S. Sen. Carole Mosley Braun, Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, former V.I. senators Judy Gomez and Janette Millin Young, Sen Janelle Sauraw, current delegate Stacey Plaskett and many more have shattered glass ceilings and then reached back to pull other sisters along. They have walked the razor-thin line between being too much and not enough.
Black women have been told a lot of things that we have had to disprove. Another was that a black woman rising to the highest levels of leadership was never gonna happen.
Now, because of Harris, we know that will never be true.
— Mariel Blake is a Daily News columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.