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By Karla FC Holloway
I have noticed a prevailing and quiet discomfort amongst black women I know, who felt disconnected from the joyous celebration of the first woman to become a major party’s nominee for the presidency. This, despite our shared and deeply held pride in seeing the excellence and command from black women party leaders who stepped confidently into leadership roles, deftly managed state delegations, and who were clearly and absolutely major players in the Democratic National Party’s committees. We know that these women, each standing tall and accomplished, had earned their accolades.
But despite their presence, a quiet unease muted my own celebration and that of others I know in part because we intuitively recognized how those individual accomplishments are as stellar as they are individuated.
Our collective black bodies, the ones that mark our place were also on display at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. It’s important not to dismiss a critical distinction. When it comes to our anticipation, pride, and hope, it is not the cracks in the ceilings that matter as much as the crack in our communities. It is not the exquisite accomplishment of some of us but the extraordinary vulnerability of most of us.
I see this play out in my own university when white women lead diversity initiatives that would not even have a name if it were not for the systemic biases practiced against black folk. Joyful congratulations are attached to their ascensions to leadership and they are seen as exemplary. But when there is critique about diversity policy or inclusive procedures from experienced black voices who recognize the old patterns finding ways and means in the new ones, and who have known ceilings of our own, we are labeled as unreasonably discontented and unpleasantly cynical.
Clear-eyed and astutely analytic Black feminists foresaw this divide decades ago. It was apparent then that we would need a different word (womanism) to name our activism and that the language of intersectionality was a better descriptor of our project. We watched as the women’s movement became a celebration of individual accomplishments. The gain was an evolving list of names on Fortune 500 lists or a mega-audience when these exceptional women shared lessons on how to move forward. Women need only to (…wait for it…) “lean in!”
We listened to women with the wherewithal or chutzpah to sense that a phrase about a village or the values our children might live by was available for the taking from black folk despite the fact that we did more than say the words, we lived in and through those experiences.
Back in the day, the conflict between the woman’s movement and the civil rights movement was deeply rooted in the bodies that occupied them. Some dreams of liberation would be empowered enough to name the quality of freedom others might want and even give name to the conditions of that gain. Our bodies were always and already consumable.
If you wonder at the story in a body, consider those daughters, Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump. On their respective stages, they stood in absolute certainty that their personal and prettily told-stories about their mother and father would be enough to be named iconic. Iconic. Really? Their speeches were to be compelling enough to stand in the stead of each parent’s policies and practices (and although there are certainly achievements, there are also policies that led to decades-long incarceration, lowered wages, and punitive policing to the point of dangerous disregard and disrespect—recall “wilding” and “super predators”).
Nevertheless, the audience was told these two girls had words that simply by being spoken in their role as daughters of the privileged, could humanize their parent. Pardon my skepticism. I have never been in a group that could, or would pretend there was excellence to be extracted from a rather common and nearly pedestrian performance.
We’ve demanded more. In fact, as an exemplary seeing and saying of words that matter and that had their origin in substantive acts, consider the remarks and the commanding presence of Reverend William Barber. That moment touched me deeply, not just because of its performative quality, but because he has lived the struggle expressed in his righteous moral reclamation.
Despite the smug assurance that lay behind these individuated symbolics, I know fully and well that my identity lies nestled within the parade of others—the Muslim father, the black “Mothers of the Movement,” the disabled girl, the transgender activist…all of whom stood in for communities of folk that public policies and public moralities render vulnerable. The only ones who got to celebrate individual accomplishments were singular white women who were so extraordinarily empowered by the moment tears streamed through twitter like a river.
I’m saving my tears.
But let me also be clear that I will work mightily to assure Hillary Clinton is elected. I’m a pragmatic progressive who knows that Supreme Court appointments will determine the fate of any president’s politics and any politicians’ legislative initiatives. These will matter to my community far more than the balloon filled, teary celebrations of a fractured glass ceiling, a father’s awkward embrace of his daughter, or a grateful mother hugging hers.
I will not be blinded by the optic. I know exactly where “we” stand, and I’m perfectly willing to find myself in that company. That’s where my “we” finds its village. And that’s the place where our children will find their example.
Karla FC Holloway is James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University, where she also holds appointments in the Law School, Women’s Studies, and African & African American Studies. Holloway is the author of BookMarks: Reading in Black and White and Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character, as well as Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics andPassed On: African American Mourning Stories: A Memorial, both published by Duke University Press. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfHolloway.