Abrams or Obama? Black women intrigued, inspired by role models’ power-building
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 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 whether 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 black 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 race for governor, fear that Abrams’ loss may disillusion black voters they coaxed to the polls, and hope that 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, traded stories of being told, like Michelle Obama, that they did not belong.
They relished what Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, an English professor 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.
From left, attorney Barbara Latimer Jennings, her granddaughter Renaissance Taylor, her daughter Lonna Taylor and Judge Ruby Thomas discuss Michelle Obama’s memoir Dec. 20 at a literary club in Atlanta.