I did not expect to have such an emotional reaction to Democratic Candidate Joe Biden’s choice for Vice President. To be honest, his choice was not at all a surprise. Harris gained significant traction as a presidential candidate and as a nominee for Vice President. Amidst the protests that resurrected after George Floyd’s murder by the police, Biden needed to draw a bold (but not too bold) line in the sand between himself and Trump. Harris embodies this line as she who is ancestrally connected to Floyd and the black outrage, but also connected to the police by trade and white men (and white people) through marriage. Her role in the campaign will be to oscillate these racial tensions by appearing to embody America’s “diversity” though vehemently espoused to enforcing, not challenging, white systemic hierarchy and interest. Should they win the election, and that’s a big “if”, the will administration engender what we saw during the Obama administration, hot red, black blood on the hands of a black demagogue.
Yet, several news outlets, and even an email from my alma mater Howard University, regarded yesterday as a historical moment. This label hangs heavily in my heart, and interestingly takes me back to 2008 when I was a sophomore at Howard University. To come of age as a “black” man rose from obscurity to presidential candidate, to president of the United States proved overwhelming. That year election Day became a national holiday for many who took off from work and school, celebrated on the way to the voting booth, and exploded with excitement upon hearing of Obama’s victory. During this time, I had an identical feeling to what I feel now. The sentiment is equivalent to feeling paralyzed at a party where everyone is dancing or watching everyone sing and smile to a song you know the words to but won’t sing because of those words’ covert meaning. The weeks leading up to the 2008 election delineated similar moments that still echo in my mind.
One of my black male classmates at the time remarked that “not every black man could be president,” words inadvertently elucidated by a comment one of my professors made later in the week. She contended that Barack Obama, the son of a white woman and African man embodied the true African American. This teacher, who only made eye contact and engaged with migrant blacks during the class, looked me in the eye for the first time after making this statement. Revisiting this moment as a woman seasoned with the ways of white supremacy, I understand her words as personifying the fate of America: the land that diversified blackness to the detriment of the abducted black bodies who originally wore the term as the nation’s curse.
My former teacher’s equation, which proclaimed a white woman and African man as creating “blackness,” the African-American in particular, and current equation that posits an Indian and Jamaican migrant as creating similar product draws questions as to what two non-migrant black parents produce. This query engenders a response that reveals the African-descended from those displaced in American as the subject of a national disappearing act. So, I cannot celebrate, I can’t smile because Harris’ appointment symbolizes my collective invisibility. This is not to say that I want to be President, or that any person of African descent should aspire to such a derogatory label. It is to articulate the sentiment that arises upon seeing someone wear the same identity politics that encompass your legal and social presence but attain the right to represent what they never had to be, and if they were, would be deemed socially unfit to occupy.
This disappearing act, in tandem with Harris’s record as Attorney General of California, reveals Harris as a symbol employed to pacify the masses with a figure who represents the white imaginary in color. In addition to a bragging point for Joe Biden and every white person seeking to employ black symbolism to denounce their status as racist, Harris delineates she who will become archived into a history vested in forgetting the enslaved African’s sacrifice and contribution.
Here, I’d like to reference a Ta-Nehisi Coates article I’ve called upon countless times on this blog: “Nina Simone’s Face.” To paraphrase, in this article, Coates prolifically stated that Nina Simone could not play herself in her own biopic. I want to highlight that the issue here is not just the “face.” Though Obama was the first “black” president, he earned this title because he exuded a socially accepted blackness autonomous from this nation’s inaugural sin. The issue is that though autonomous from those whose bodies were the literal foundation for the country, the legally black token becomes the face employed to deface and distract black people from the cognitive freedom need to actualize our liberation. Moreover, Obama’s trajectory does not pave the way for the Coates of the world to assume the same role. In fact, his “victory” foreshadows Coates’ erasure.
Similarly, though the late Toni Morrison, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, amongst countless others, hold hands across a rich Howard legacy, Kamala’s candidacy highlights the consequence of black femininity as an inclusive concept. For those who take issue with my contention, need I remind you that Breonna Taylor is in the ground as the white media seeks to engender the black community to celebrate the prospect of Kamala Harris, in the White House.
I, like Kamala Harris, spend my first years as a young woman atop a hill in the nation’s capital. But though we are both Bison, my blackness does bear the same symbolic promise as Harris. This is not necessarily a complaint, but it does highlight the way a white imaginary will appoint the black institution to fester white supremacist motives. Because I am more Breonna Taylor than Kamala Harris, I am more likely to be a portrait of the white imaginary as a casualty than a candidate. Because I am more Tawana Brawley than Kamala Harris, my truth is an obstruction of justice not an embodiment of “all that awaits you if you never give up.” Similarly, while Howard University also nurtured Kwame Ture and Dr. Francis Cress Wesling—Harris bears the narrative worth upholding in a world that seeks to hold the black collective in the hegemonic hypnosis that maintains white supremacy.
Though credited for being the first Vice Presidential candidate who is an HBCU rather an Ivy League graduate, Harris’ candidacy delineates the HBCU’s role in diversifying white supremacy through blackness. What I mean here is that Kamala Harris, though an HBCU graduate, checks multiple identity boxes, but that of a woman derived from those whose blood soaks through the American flag. Thus, though Harris is “the first candidate to graduate from an HBCU on a major party ticket” her appointment hardly upholds the HBCU for all it has meant to the black community over the one-hundred and fifty years since its conception. Rather, Harris’ candidacy posits the HBCU, like America, as for everyone. Those of us currently working or pursuing education at an HBCU can attest to the present efforts to gentrify the black university; Kamala Harris personifies a national effort to dilute the black college in the name of diversity. To clarify, to dilute the black college in the name of diversity means to paint the black university white, but this is perhaps a topic for another post.
Harris’ chameleon identity is perhaps most evident at the moment from one of the presidential debates last year when Harris famously called out Biden’s anti-busing stance in the 1970s. This proved a poignant moment as it brought Biden’s racist past current, but it now attains a metaphysical resonance. Specifically, though positing Biden as bearing a racist trajectory, Harris’ endorsement and placement beside a highly problematic candidate illuminates what cognitive bondage engenders— a desire not to abolish racism but for a space beside a hegemonic figure as an African-descended accessory.
While my sunken spirit feels as though this is a bad moment and a bad time for the black community for a myriad of reasons , this moment illuminates how the white imaginary continues to permeate the nation’s reality. At a moment where the United States has yet again reinforced the troubled hierarchy that started this country, the black collective must find a way to push our agendas as black people, not celebrate white America’s victory in veiling their anti-blackness with the legally black.
In closing, I’ll leave you with this:
The was a little girl who grew up in a world where those labeled leaders did not look like her, but the homeowners in her hometown and school principal did. Though history lessons would later “teach” the “first black this…” and “first black that…” as progress, she had a black female multicultural teacher who sought to make the world bigger than accolades archived in his story. Here, she learned the history of cornrows, and engaged with historic and lesser known black cultural contributors like Ossie Davis and Malcolm X. She even learned of Tawana Brawley, a name that she would never encounter in formal education again. This being the foundation of her education, she dreamed of a world like this as the backdrop for her adulthood, a world, albeit flawed, where blacks re-presented a black imaginary. This lead her to black writers who created worlds inundated with the diversity of the dark race and thrust her into the black literary scene at Howard University.
That little girl was me.
It is because this little girl remains espoused to the woman I have become, I see this moment for what it is, not for what the world needs it to mean. This does not mean I will sit this election out, but knowing my collective worth means knowing that I have options.
Though to this country women descended from those who emerged from western ships as human cargo are most fit to share to the same fate of the four little girls who died in the literal flames fueled by whites supremacist terrorism, this does not mean that we cannot rise from the flames meant to sear our collective flesh.
To my Caribbean and brothers and sisters in/born on the continent, articulating a stance against systemic efforts taken to divide us as a people is not a stance against you. It is imperative that we hold hands across the diaspora and not allow our oppressors to place you beside them to stand upon the backs of blacks displaced in America.
It is in understanding that the efforts taken to imbue black erasure does not render us invisible, that we identify and refuse to be bought by what aims to collectively expunge our past and present. Rather, let us look to our ancestors and find a means to rise from the stillness that is the re-presentation of the white imaginary in faces and experiences that are beginning to look a lot more like ours.
Black people, women in particular, what are your thoughts?