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Even with the nation in disarray, don’t overlook Kamala Harris making history

On Jan 6., we witnessed the ugliness of what America is. At her inauguration, Harris will represent what this nation can still be.

With all the recent havoc, I almost forgot about this stunning historic moment: Kamala Harris is about to be the most powerful woman ever in American politics.SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, Kamala Devi Harris will be sworn in as vice president of the United States. She will be the first woman, the first Black person, the first Indian American, and the first graduate of a historically Black college or university to serve in that lofty position.

Harris will be President Joe Biden’s political partner, and the most powerful woman ever in American politics. With all the recent havoc, I almost forgot about this stunning historic moment.

With her hand on a Bible once owned by the late Thurgood Marshall, the first Black person to serve as a Supreme Court justice, Harris will be sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina and woman of color to serve on the high court. Centuries of women, especially Black women, known and unknown, will stand with her. Their silent presence will carry Harris through the inevitable trials that lie ahead, and she must uplift them every day in both her memories and decisions.

It’s a reminder that only historically marginalized people in America must go about their work, but also become the representative of those like them. They must be symbols and bellwethers, canaries in a coal mine built by and for white men, where they are allowed little margin for error.


In 1940, when Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to win an Academy Award, in her acceptance speech she mentioned the mantle she was now expected to accept with that gold statuette for best supporting actress in “Gone with the Wind”: “I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race, and to the motion picture industry.”

Has any white person ever been expected to be a credit to their race?

According to Donald Bogle’s book “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood,” McDaniel’s speech was rumored to have been written by staffers for David O. Selznick, who produced the Civil War-era epic. McDaniel certainly needed no reminders as to the harsh glare of being first. It’s a tax levied against Black achievement that defines success not on its own terms, but as a referendum on Blackness itself. It shifts attention from racist expectations to whether a Black person should be deemed worthy of accomplishment in traditionally white spaces.


But that’s another lament for another day. For now, I just want to sit with Harris’s glorious moment.

I know what it would have meant to my grandmother, mother, and aunt to see a Black woman reach such heights. For now, I’m not going to dwell on the fact that it shouldn’t have taken hundreds of years for a woman or a person of color to be elected vice president. (I will momentarily rail about the shameful fact that, with Harris’s official resignation Monday, there are no Black women in the Senate. None.)

I’ll also pause to remember Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Pauli Murray, and so many Black women who saw this moment when America refused even to consider the possibility of a Black woman with the vote, let alone political power. And I’ll think of how Kamala Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who saw only possibilities never boundaries for her daughters and laid the path to make this possible.


In an image provided by the Joe Biden campaign, Kamala Harris (front, center) with (from left) her grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, sister, Maya, mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and grandmother, Rajam Gopalan, in 1972. JOE BIDEN CAMPAIGN/NYT

During a recent “CBS Sunday Morning” interview, Harris said, “I was raised to understand many people will tell you it is impossible — but don’t listen. I mentor a lot of people, and I tell them that there will be a lot of people who will say, ‘It’s not your turn, it’s not your time, no one like you has done it.’ And I’ll tell them, ‘And don’t you listen,’ and then I go on to tell them, ‘I eat no for breakfast.’ ”

At an inauguration like no other, Harris will understand the weight of her moment. She’ll recite those sacred words, to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” — and mention of domestic enemies, who have proliferated in plain sight aided and abetted by a racist White House these past four years — will bear even more solemn meaning.

Harris is ready for history’s close-up. At the Capitol on Jan. 6, we watched in graphic, sickening detail what America is. When Harris stands in the same spot where white supremacists attacked democracy, we’ll get, in this nation’s 49th vice president, a glimpse of what America can still be with a woman who may be the first, but has already promised she won’t be the last.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.