I attempt to achieve balance in this post, but admittedly I am not sure I have. I have spoken extensively about the complexities of black femininity at this particular moment. Being a black woman, has, of course, always been complex. I anticipate, and by anticipate I do not admit defeat, that black femininity will remain a contentious identity throughout its evolution.
The contemporary moment posits the black female optic as evolution. There are more black women in the media and political arena than ever before; however, despite their diversifying presence, their perspectives fail to deviate from one another and their anti-black adversaries.
Black women have poor representation because our optics are ornamental. For groups like women, migrants, or white men, optics transition into opportunities for said constituency. Their presence does not merely gift physical opportunity, it affords visibility to the issues of their constituents. Issues that will receive far more than the honorable mentions and heated discussions to exploit ratings extended to black women.
When it comes to being black in America those who should deserve hyper-visibility via platforms do not, and those that should not, do. This is due to black truth’s incompatibility with the vanity of popularity. What’s true will never be popular, and what is convenient and common always will be. This reality is perhaps best delineated by the black optic where visibility exists only to make us invisible to ourselves. The black optic exists only to ensure the black collective remains bought and sold, and an object of consumption fueled by a systemically induced consumerism. Concerning the black female optic, Kamala Harris and Abby Phillip in particular,* there is something else at play there.
I read an article in The New York Times that labeled Ms. Phillip the next generation of CNN. This feature was predictable as the white media and incoming Biden administration must posit Kamala Harris’s “victory” as one for all black women. Phillip, who, in the article, articulated black female voter power and asserted Kamala Harris’s win as the ultimate clap back to Trump’s time in the white house proved instrumental in ventriloquizing how white nationalists captioned this moment. The power of a black Vice President-elect and black political analyst is best vested in what does not quite resonant the same if said by the white pundit. Perhaps the same could be said about the election. It would seem less remarkable if the media conveyed the truth: white voters put Biden in office. Blacks performed what their right to vote was granted to do, be the point of distinction between the two parties. Biden’s victory seems far more evolved from the current President’s overt racism if the media meditates on the black vote as opposed to the selfish reasons blacks attained voting liberties, to begin with.
Nevertheless, just as the black vote does not work to engender black change but as a tool to both fake democracy and gift to white nationalism partisan victory, Phillip exists not to speak to the black viewer, but to embody the cultural authority employed to substantiate white nationalist claims.
Phillip, like Harris, as a black female optic, shifts the black female narrative from one of Mamie Til or Sabrina Fulton, who buried their murdered, underage children, and posit that the black woman must be doing something wrong if not the Vice President or CNN Analyst.
Every black woman, of course, cannot attain these positions. This inability is not due to inadequacy; rather, it’s due to the specific standards at play. These standards peak out in part from behind the article’s reception.
What was perhaps most disturbing about Phillip’s feature in The New York Times was the praise Phillips received from those of the majority on social media. It is a very bad sign when those of the majority praise black people. Malcolm X, aside from the times where he is misread as reconciling earlier black nationalist ideologies, is still regarded with contempt. Similarly, Nat Turner is relegated to historical obscurity. It is particularly unsettling to see white men praise black women considering that Assata Shakur, a symbol of black female liberation, remains on the most wanted list. If a person of the majority praises a black person, this means that the black person poses no threat to their power and position. For black people, the black optic illustrates that which will do nothing for black people or do anything to ameloriate the black experience. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a black optic isn’t saying anything even if their mouths are moving.
In considering the black experience, it is imperative to consider the intersectional collision that exists behind the veil of blackness. The Biden-Harris administration bears a stealth promise and advocacy to the migrant, people of color, and women, constituencies both Harris and Phillip represent behind the blackness that anchors their status as optic. What I mean here, is that Harris and Phillip are the progenies of those who migrated to America. The black femininity unique to those displaced here four-hundred years ago encompasses those born from those abducted, raped, or bred, under the (not so) domestic institution of slavery. The descendants of these women delineate the indelible scar of white supremacy eschewed by lauding and making black optics out of those who chose this country as their home. Harris and Phillip, depict the black female optic as born from immigration, not abduction, they are born from a choice that underscores America’s value as determined by white nationalists called “settlers.”
The black female presence in America is not one of migration unless referencing the migration of southern blacks to the north and west. The story of the diasporic African is how they came to America, and the story of the “African in America” is how we built America. To the anti-black adversaries that seek to mutilate this truth and depict a nation soaked in African blood as the land of black opportunity, the black female experience must be abridged and misrepresented by those whose choices reflect and underscore a national promise this white settler space never made.
Those of the majority reward said behavior because it is another way to both escape accountability and afford longevity to the myth of meritocracy. Espoused to this myth, many will read this post and claim that it is on merit that Harris and Phillip became the voice and face of black women in America; however, the black women omitted for their opportunity illuminate that this “merit” is migrancy.
Collaboratively, the black female optic as conveyed by, but not limited to, Kamala Harris and Abby Phillip, delineate white nationalist effort to assassinate the African in America through the black woman. To employ the black woman as vessel, engenders an ideological and cultural abortion of black origin and pending black consciousness. So while many believe that these images operate as a shift from a media that denigrates black women, what we see is a new form of denigration that posits a fecal storm as sunny skies. White nationalists must assassinate the African in America at its root to construct a narrative where the abductors are architects and the abductees are buried behind assimilatory optics.
So while seeing these regal pictures of Phillip, Harris, and the sea of black female portraits that function to illustrate a redeemed America incite with what should be pride, the whispers of the ancestors intercept these emotions and remind me that optics are what one finds when they seek to see what they don’t truly believe to be true, and, of course, this isn’t seeing at all.
- Author’s Note: Some may wonder why I have not included Stacy Abrams in my analysis. To this, I say that although Abrams, Harris, and Phillip all work in service positions, Abram’s position as political service is perhaps more pronounced than Harris and Phillip. Her admiration also remains limited to her deeds and not extended to her as a person.