Many have described this past year of a COVID-19 pandemic, a falsely repudiated presidential election result topped off by an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as apocalyptic. And it has been, but not in the common understanding of apocalyptic as the end or destruction of the world and hence nation. Rather, in the sense of apocalyptic signaling a revelation, this year has revealed a nation at war with itself.
On the one hand, this nation’s very founding identity was defined by a white supremacist ideology. The Constitution that the founding framers put in place was based upon a “racial contract” where, as the Dred Scott decision pointed out, Black people were granted no rights that white people had to respect. Yet on the other hand, the Founding Fathers gave birth to a vision, fleeting as it may have been, of a nation where all persons would enjoy the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” At the moment of its founding, this nation was undecided on what kind of democracy it wanted to be. And, to this day, it remains undecided. Nothing has revealed that more than the presidential election and its aftermath.
Voting in this presidential election was, for me, a surreal experience. I was struck by the fact that in my lifetime I was able to vote for the first Black president, Barack Obama, and now I was casting my vote for the first Black female (South Asian and Jamaican) vice president, Kamala Harris. When I went into the voting booth, I literally had tears in my eyes — I thought of my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents. It would be beyond their wildest imaginings that two Black people could ever be elected to the highest offices in a nation with a Constitution that once declared Black people three-fifths human. Yet, it happened. On Saturday, November 7, Joe Biden was declared president of the United States along with his vice president, Kamala Harris. Tears once again filled my eyes. It seemed that the nation was living into the vision of its “higher angels.”
On Jan. 6, however, at the time when Congress was to certify the electoral win of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, insurrectionists stormed the Capitol in support of the “Make America Great Again” vision, believing a lie about the election results. Some of these insurrectionists carried Confederate flags down the halls of the congressional buildings. Others in the mob donned sweatshirts with “Camp Auschwitz” on them, along with other white supremacist paraphernalia including a noose hung on a gallow outside the west side of the Capitol where the insurrectionists had gathered. Fully on display that day was America’s white supremacist foundation fighting to survive.
And so, in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, America is a nation defined by “two thoughts, two warring ideas.” It is a nation at war with itself. It has yet to determine what kind of nation it wants to be. Does it want to be a white supremacist nation or an equitable and just nation? And that brings me to today. There have been no people more instrumental in keeping America’s democratic vision alive, than Black people, as award-winning journalist of the 1619 project Nikole Hannah-Jones put it, “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all.” More specifically, it has been Black women who have led the way in that struggle. Nineteenth-century “Negro Club Woman” Anna Julia Cooper once said, “When and where I enter … the whole Negro race enters with me.”
As Black women have been disproportionately impacted by the intersecting realities of white supremacist and sexist realities of injustice, it is no accident that they have been in the forefront in moving our nation to live into its better angels, be it in the fight for equal rights to voting rights. It is indeed those persons who have been on the underside of justice — who have not experienced privileges, but rather the penalties of injustice — that are the best barometers for justice: otherwise justice is too easily confused with entitlement. And so, we are called to not just celebrate, but to be guided by and to learn from those Black women, who have not simply carried their communities on their backs toward freedom, but this nation on their backs toward its democratic vision. From Sojourner Truth to Stacey Abrams, from Harriet Tubman to Patrisse Cullors, and from Charlene Mitchell to Kamala Harris, Black women are leading the nation toward its better angels. Yet to be revealed is whether or not the nation will follow.
Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is the dean of Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) at Union Theological Seminary, as well as the Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral and Theologian in Residence at Trinity Church Wall Street. Douglas is widely published in national and international journals and other publications. Her books include “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” (2015), “Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective” (1999), “The Black Christ” (1994, 25th Anniversary edition 2019), and “What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls” (2005).