As Kamala D. Harris took the oath of office on Jan. 20 to become America’s first Black woman, first South Asian and first woman elected vice president of the U.S., I found myself shedding tears of joy as another hurdle for unfettered access among the nation’s people of color came tumbling down.

And yet, despite the significance of her achievement and the message it delivers to little Black girls and boys – expanding the realistic scope of their dreams for tomorrow – I found myself equally saddened – even angry – because of the hundreds of years it has taken before the world’s bastion of democracy placed competence above both color and gender.

Harris has been the first to admit that she stands on the shoulders of a long list of talented Black women who could have easily served our country as vice president or president if they had been born during a different time in American history.

Noteworthy “firsts” include: Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate in Illinois; Barbara Jordan, the first Black elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and the first Southern African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, representing New York’s 12 congressional district for seven terms and a former candidate for president; and Condoleezza Rice, the first female African-American Secretary of State and the first woman to serve as National Security Advisor.

Still, these women remain the tip of the proverbial “iceberg.” They, like Harris, stood on other shoulders – many whose names, if known at all, are only included among the footnotes of life.

While it is true that the number of Black elected officials has increased since 1965, Blacks remain underrepresented at all levels of government. Black women make up less than 3 percent of U.S. representatives and there were no Black women in the U.S. Senate as late as 2007. Even when fighting for such fundamental rights as voting equality, Black women have not only faced sexist men who challenged their rise to power but racist white women who viewed them as less than their equal.

As President Joe Biden continues to assemble his Cabinet and build his Administration, he has shown his commitment to keeping his word – nominating a host of firsts that include a Black man – retired Army General Lloyd Austin who shatters another glass ceiling as the newly-confirmed Secretary of Defense.

During the 2020 election cycle, the U.S. also marked the first successful bid by a transgender for state senator in Delaware, the first trans person of color elected to the Kansas state legislature and not one but two openly gay Black men elected to Congress in New York State.

Yes, we have much to celebrate as we see more “firsts” being achieved by men and women. Yet, even more noteworthy and because of their accomplishments, today’s youth can see themselves taking on roles and serving as leaders in ways that their parents just a generation ago could never have imagined.

Still, I wonder what unimaginable heights America could have reached – what medical breakthroughs we could have garnered – what societal ills we could have overcome – what life-threatening situations and challenges we could have avoided in the past and those which continue to hover on the horizon – if we could only shed our tendency for judging others based on race, gender, sexual orientation and other “differences.”

Some long entrenched walls are finally coming down in many significant ways. But as the recent riots on the U.S. Capitol illustrate, there are still many rivers which we as Americans must cross.

And along the way, if we truly want the best for our children and their children – if we really believe in the lofty words of our Constitution and the promises it makes to every citizen, as well as the invitation it extends to those oppressed people from other countries, we must be willing to embrace a paradigm shift of monumental proportion.

Then, I too, and you too, in the words of the great poet, Langston Hughes, will be seen, accepted and respected as an equal American – with all rights, privileges and opportunities to pursue our dreams and share our gifts for the benefit of our community, our nation and all of humankind.

Certainly the election of Vice President Harris leaves me hopeful and optimistic.

And yet …

I, Too
By Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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