Black women in­trigued by lead­ers M. Obama, Abrams

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - Weather - AU­DRA MEL­TON NYT BY SU­SAN CHIRA

Sit down with groups of black women in At­lanta as this tu­mul­tuous po­lit­i­cal year draws to a close, and two names dom­i­nate the con­ver­sa­tion: Michelle Obama and Stacey Abrams, and what they re­vealed in 2018 about how power is gained and thwarted.

In gath­er­ings of friends, in book clubs and dis­cus­sions across the city, women said they were struck by see­ing their own life ex­pe­ri­ences re­flected in the pos­si­bil­i­ties and con­straints faced by Abrams, whose nar­row loss in the Ge­or­gia gov­er­nor’s race they were still mourn­ing, and Obama, who just pub­lished the best-sell­ing mem­oir “Be­com­ing.”

They re­lated to how Abrams and Obama de­fied peo­ple who ques­tioned if they were good enough to suc­ceed. How Obama won over the white Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment – but only af­ter en­dur­ing at­tacks and car­i­ca­tures that some­times left her shaken. How Abrams did not tone down her words to please any­one, and how Obama felt she had to.

In a city that show­cases African-Amer­i­can achieve­ment and in­flu­ence, read­ing Obama’s mem­oir was a bit­ter­sweet re­minder for th­ese women of a time when a black pres­i­dent and first lady seemed a cul­mi­na­tion of a long strug­gle for power.

It comes as Demo­cratic women here are wrestling with out­rage over wide­spread al­le­ga­tions of voter sup­pres­sion in the gov­er­nor’s race, fear that Abrams’ loss may dis­il­lu­sion black vot­ers they coaxed to the polls, and hope that the next time vic­tory could be within reach.

“I think Amer­ica can take Michelle Obama,” said Kia Smith, who gath­ered with three other young pro­fes­sional friends at a Star­bucks for what be­came a sear­ing ex­change about the prom­ise and bur­den of be­ing black women. “The story makes us feel good. And she’s on the day­time shows, she dances with Ellen, she goes on ‘Jimmy Kim­mel,’ she’s fun, she’s not a threat.

“But some­one like Stacey Abrams, who is smart, who is bi­par­ti­san, but who is un­apolo­getic about fair­ness and jus­tice – that’s a threat. And that also lets me know that we’re not re­ally ready for the po­lit­i­cal power of black women.”

Across town, in a neigh­bor­hood where yards are still planted with de­fi­ant Stacey Abrams signs, the Pearls lit­er­ary club con­vened an ex­tra ses­sion this month to dis­cuss “Be­com­ing.” They ze­roed in on the theme of striv­ing against den­i­gra­tion and self-doubt.

The room of older women, with Ph.D.s and law de­grees among them, traded sto­ries of be­ing told, like Michelle Obama, that they did not be­long.

Just as Obama’s guid­ance coun­selor dis­missed her chances of get­ting into Prince­ton, a Welles­ley Col­lege dean in­formed Ruby Thomas, now a judge, that she shouldn’t be there.

“She called me into her of­fice and ex­plained to me why I wasn’t qual­i­fied to be there,” Thomas re­mem­bered. “I tell that story to young girls, who need to know that peo­ple are go­ing to judge you, but they are go­ing to mis­judge you.”

That, in turn, re­minded the women of a time when Abrams was in­vited to the gov­er­nor’s man­sion as one of many high school vale­dic­to­ri­ans, only to be stopped by a guard who didn’t be­lieve she was a guest.

They rel­ished what Donna Ak­iba Sul­li­van Harper, a pro­fes­sor of English at Spel­man Col- lege, called Obama’s “sassi­ness” in the book – an out­spo­ken­ness that the first lady held in check af­ter early crit­i­cism of her as an­gry or abra­sive.

“Do you think her hon­esty in­creased be­cause of the things said by the per­son who now oc­cu­pies the White House?” Harper asked the room of women, who de­lib­er­ately avoided men­tion­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump by name. When one re­ferred to the “gen­tle­man in the White House,” the oth­er­wise deco­rous group hooted.

Smith and her friends, some of whom were also read­ing “Be­com­ing” in their book clubs, wel­comed an un­leashed Obama as well. But they said they strug­gled, as she did, with the stigma of car­i­ca­ture.

“There are th­ese ex­tra steps that we as black women have to go through to make sure we’re not ap­pear­ing an­gry, ag­gres­sive, mean, nasty, in­sub­or­di­nate,” said Alexis Watt, who works as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions and so­cial me­dia con­sul­tant.

“We have this stereo­type that black women are an­gry, but we have ev­ery right to be an­gry.”

Both gen­er­a­tions of women who spoke in in­ter­views said they were fight­ing de­s­pair at the con­trast be­tween the Trump White House and the Obama White House.

A guest at the Pearls gather­ing brought her 6-year-old, born the year Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was re-elected. Her name: Re­nais­sance.

At Star­bucks, Jas­mine Mitchell said to her friends, “We felt as though we were win­ning all around. We got com­pla­cent. We were so naive.”

So the Abrams run raised hopes that a black woman they em­braced might win – with their help. From the his­toric Sweet Auburn mar­ket not far from Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Bap­tist Church, in beauty par­lors and black-owned restau­rants, ev­ery black woman who spoke to me had some­how tried to turn out votes, by can­vass­ing, tex­ting, roust­ing their vot­ing-age chil­dren or ca­jol­ing their em­ploy­ees and co­work­ers.

Along with years of ef­forts to reg­is­ter vot­ers and an ex­ten­sive field op­er­a­tion by po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als and grass­roots groups, they boosted black voter turnout in Ge­or­gia higher than even the turnout for the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and helped Abrams come within 55,000 votes of vic­tory – the clos­est gov­er­nor’s race since 1966.

Lucy McBath, a black Demo­crat who ran on gun con­trol af­ter her son was killed, flipped the very House seat in the At­lanta sub­urbs that Jon Os­soff, hailed as a 30-year-old po­lit­i­cal wun­derkind, had spent mil­lions to pur­sue in a failed bid in a spe­cial elec­tion last year.

Now they are try­ing to fig­ure out how to re­group.

“It’s like when you take a test and you study for it a long time and you have that feel­ing – ‘I’m go­ing to pass’ – and then, af­ter the num­bers came out, it was a ter­ri­ble feel­ing to see you didn’t pass the test,” said Charmika Spencer, owner of the Jakotes beauty sa­lon. “How do we move for­ward?”

The women at the

Pearls book club wound down their con­tem­pla­tion of Obama and Abrams by of­fer­ing op­ti­mism tem­pered with re­al­ism.

“We soon learned, we were back to where we started – al­most,” said Ernes­tine Pick­ens-Glass, a re­tired pro­fes­sor of English at Clark At­lanta Uni­ver­sity. “But I don’t think African-Amer­i­cans are ever go­ing to ac­cept the way things used to be.”

From left: at­tor­ney Bar­bara La­timer Jen­nings, her grand­daugh­ter Re­nais­sance Tay­lor, her daugh­ter Lonna Tay­lor and Judge Ruby Thomas dis­cuss Michelle Obama’s mem­oir “Be­com­ing” at a lit­er­ary club meet­ing in At­lanta on Dec. 20.

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