“Brecklynn, when you think about the future, I do believe the future is bright. And it will be because of your leadership, and it will be because we fight for each person’s voice through their vote and we get engaged in this election—because you have the ability through your work, and through, eventually, your vote, to determine the future of our country and what its leadership looks like.” — Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, responding to a question in the vice presidential debate from Utah eighth grader Brecklynn Brown
When Sen. Kamala Harris stepped onto the vice presidential debate stage, she made history simply by showing what our country’s leadership can and will look like. A ceiling has been lifted for every little girl in America and especially every little girl of color in America. During the vice presidential debate, many watchers cheered on her self-assured retort: “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking!” Now, as vice president-elect of the United States alongside President-elect Joe Biden, she is an inspiration for Black children, Asian American children, children of immigrants, and every little girl who has the chance to see someone who “looks like me” as our nation’s vice president. It’s also a special source of pride and joy for all alumni of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like me and members of Black sororities and fraternities who recognize our own experience in hers as a Howard University graduate.
For decades, historically Black colleges and universities (and the “Divine Nine” historically Black Greek institutions) have worked to produce a pipeline of community and political leadership. Shirley Chisholm (a Delta Sigma Theta member) and Jesse Jackson (a North Carolina A&T graduate and Omega Psi Phi member) helped blaze the path towards the highest political offices in the land. Vice President-elect Harris became the first HBCU graduate on a major party’s presidential ticket, carrying a long and proud legacy of struggle and achievement on her shoulders.
Vice President-elect Harris has spoken often about the impact of Howard University on her life: “The beauty of Howard [was that] every signal told students that we could be anything—that we were young, gifted, and black, and we shouldn’t let anything get in the way of our success.” HBCUs gave this signal to all students even when the rest of our nation tried to send relentless messages saying otherwise. I am so proud I went to Spelman College. As an all-Black women’s college it gave me the latitude, confidence, historical knowledge, and safe space — one not defined by male or White folks’ expectations, habits of competition, or the need to preen and prove myself to anyone beyond myself, my family, and God. I learned to dream my own dreams and search for and forge my own path. While I hated forced segregation or forced anything, Spelman College provided me the incubation I needed to stand on my feet confidently with anyone anywhere. Our cloistered shared community, great role models and speakers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and rituals strengthened us inside and prepared Spelman women to do battle outside its gates. HBCUs have produced so many great artists, thinkers, and scholars including King, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison and Spelman sister Stacey Abrams, whose relentless, strategic leadership fighting voter suppression and increasing voter registration and turnout in Georgia is making history today.
How fitting it is that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was formally nominated as the Democratic candidate for vice president during the week our nation celebrated the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which prohibits states and the federal government from denying citizens the right to vote based on sex. Her candidacy was possible because of our brave women forebearers who fought relentlessly to assure that amendment’s passage. Like President Obama, she stands on the shoulders of all those who fought and died to ensure the same voting rights for Black women and men and everyone.
Kamala Harris draws on these rich inheritances as she sets a new example of leadership today. In her Nov. 7 victory speech, she said she was thinking “about the generations of women — Black women, Asian, White, Latina and Native American women who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment tonight. Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the Black women who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy. All the women who have worked to secure and protect the right to vote for over a century: 100 years ago with the 19th Amendment, 55 years ago with the Voting Rights Act, and now, in 2020, with a new generation of women in our country who cast their ballots and continued the fight for their fundamental right to vote and be heard. Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination, and the strength of their vision — to see what can be, unburdened by what has been. And I stand on their shoulders.”
Vice President-elect Harris added: “But while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before. But know that we will applaud you every step of the way.” And I and millions of women and girls applaud you every step of your way as you join President-elect Biden in leading our nation to new heights.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of Children’s Defense Fund.