In the 11 months that Sen. Kamala Harris was running for president of the United States, virtually every time she spoke at a rally, she entered to Mary J. Blige belting “Work That” in the background.
“Feelin’ great because the light’s on me
Celebrating the things that everyone told me
Wouldn’t happen but God has put his hands on me…”
It would set a tone that would set her apart as a candidate—a proud woman of color candidate.
Last June, for Black Music Month, Harris even released a 46-song collection of favorites (Prince, Lizzo, Ella Mai, anybody?) on Spotify that launched a hitlist of headlines including Rolling Stone’s, “If Playlists Won Elections, Kamala Harris Would Be an Easy Frontrunner.”
If only running for president was that simple.
When Harris announced on Tuesday that she was exiting the race, she donned sober black and grey for her videotaped message to supporters and there was a decided absence of music. But the chorus of reactions from women—and black women in particular—is filling the void as they question what was gained during Harris’ run, what is lost with her leaving, and what Harris should do next.
“I believe in the issues she raised but I did not think this was her time to run,” says Felita Granby, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York. “I wanted her to stay in the senate and bring on the fire from that position of power.”
Calling All Truth-Tellers
Granby’s response seems to typify the sentiment shared by black women throughout the country: “She is smart, tough, and thinks on her feet. She can take on the male senators of both parties with finesse.”
The results of an informal Black Enterprise poll showed that while black women continue to champion Harris as a leader and only the second black woman in history to be elected to the U.S. Senate, they were less than enthralled by her attempt to level up.
Several women were unwilling to go on the record with what one called her “complicated thoughts” about Harris but agreed to express their positions on the condition of anonymity. “She can’t change her history with what she did as a D.A.,” said a Chicago math teacher, alluding to Harris’ prosecutorial record, which became a particular stumbling block with younger black voters.
“I wish the people that are close to her would’ve spent a little more time with her in the kitchen at the table telling her the truth,” said a San Francisco-based events planner.
A retired professor in San Jose, California, said, “I think she’s desperately needed in the Senate or as Attorney General. I never thought she was ready for a presidential prime time bid.”
Too Little, Too Late for Kamala?
Harris had anticipated the doubters. She even alluded to them when she officially launched her campaign in her Oakland hometown last January. “We know this is not going to be easy, and we know what the doubters will say,” she forewarned a jubilant crowd that included noteworthy numbers of black women. “They’ll say what they always said. It’s not your time. Wait your turn. The odds are long. It can’t be done. But America’s story has always been written by people who can see what can be, unburdened by what has been.”
Even as her campaign wound down, Harris seemed to ramp up her direct appeals to black women, still hoping to seal their unqualified support. Much of her signage echoed the colors of Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign and she often invoked Chisholm and her “Unbought and Unbossed” slogan.
Less than two weeks before suspending her campaign, Harris placed black women at the center of her strategy in what would be her final debate in Atlanta. She didn’t mince words in noting before the live cameras that black women voters were tired of showing up for a Democratic party that wasn’t showing up for them.
“When black women are three-to-four times more likely to die in connection with childbirth in America, when the sons of black women will die because of gun violence more than any other cause of death, when black women make 61 cents on the dollar as compared to all women who tragically make 80 cents on the dollar, the question has to be, where’ve you been and what are you going to do,” she said, as her white male opponents nodded mutely.
Harris pulled even fewer punches at a Black Women’s Power Breakfast in Atlanta on that same campaign stop. The room fell silent when she said, “There is no one more fragile in terms of her safety and security than a black woman in America.”
What Will It Take To Win?
Despite her very presence preserving space in the democratic conversation for black women’s specific needs and cares, our poll not only showed general approval for her exiting the presidential race, some even expressed relief.
“She was valiant in her effort but, without the funding to continue, she did the right thing,” says Terri James, a Charlotte-based project manager. “I expect to see her continue to be a brilliant fighter in her Senate focus, especially with pending impeachment efforts.”
“I’m glad she had the fortitude and wisdom to step away before eroding more resources, so we can throw those resources behind a candidate who can win,” says Cathy Adams, an entrepreneur who is president of both Oakland’s Black Chamber of Commerce and head of the local chapter of 100 Black Women. “We all love her on a personal level, but this is not the friendship club. We support and uphold our black women, but this is the most serious election we’ve faced and we can’t afford not to be woke about what it is going to take to win.”
Adams is passionate in her hope that Harris will use her power and influence to secure a win for whoever secures the democratic ticket. Of course, several women expressed the hope that Harris might even be on it, as a vice-presidential candidate.
On Nov. 30, Harris tweeted birthday wishes to a woman whose courage and commitment she no doubt has a new and unique appreciation for: Shirley Chisholm, who died in 2005, would have turned 95. Three days later, her own run for the nation’s highest public office ended.
Whatever Harris decides to pursue next, her campaign was historic and not without lasting impact. “Kamala Harris’s candidacy credibly advanced the concept that a black woman can be president of the United States,” says Gwen Adolph, interim executive director of the New York-based Black Economic Alliance. “The possibility was conceived by Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, believed because of Senator Harris, and will be achieved due to the courage, conviction, and example of both.”
Cue “We Shall Overcome,” the remix.