BLACK WOMEN SEEKING OFFICE
More black women are entering politics, intrigued by the power-building strategies of their role models.
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, aWellesley 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 College, 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 wo- men 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.
From left, attorney Barbara Latimer Jennings, her granddaughter Renaissance Taylor, her daughter Lonna Taylor and Judge Ruby Thomas discuss former first lady Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” at a literary club meeting Dec. 20 in Atlanta.