In 1968, Shirley Chisholm cemented her name in history when she became the first African American congresswoman. I came across her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, a few years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. It not only chronicles her extraordinary life but serves as a radical Black feminist’s global paradigm for navigating politics in a racist, sexist, anti-poor society.
In the book, published just two years after her election to Congress, she writes: “In a just and free society it would be foolish. That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, Black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free.”
Fast forward to 2020, Chisholm’s words are just as relevant and instructive, especially after another formidable Black woman, Senator Kamala Harris, accepted the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nomination, and became the first Black woman and first woman of South Asian descent to run for vice president on a major party ticket.
As a Black feminist, upon hearing the news of Harris’s nomination, my knee-jerk reaction was to celebrate another Black woman’s political achievement. Black women have to work twice as hard to prove ourselves as capable enforcers, organisers and leaders. So for a Black woman to ascend to this political height is sensational.
At the surface, the nomination is honourable and a symbolic framework from which we can build our own potential. However, amid global efforts to organise against white supremacy, state-sanctioned violence, and patriarchy, it is important to confront the complicated contradictions in Harris’s public service record head-on. Not doing so would do a disservice to those who are still suffering as a result of the policies she pursued during her career as a “progressive prosecutor”.
Accountability, abolition and abrogation are important tenets of Black feminism in a world where Black bodies are disposable to the justice system. It would be dishonest to celebrate Harris’s nomination as a “Black history” moment without reckoning with how she has supported policies that have contributed to a broken criminal justice system that predominantly targets Black men and women.
As California’s attorney general, for example, Harris helped pass a truancy law which made it a criminal misdemeanour for parents in California to allow their children to miss more than 10 percent of school days without a valid excuse. As a result of Harris’s efforts to resolve the problem of truancy using the apparatus of law enforcement, many parents, and especially Black, underprivileged mothers, were fined or even jailed. Cheree Peoples of Bueno Park, whose daughter, Shayla, suffers from sickle cell anaemia, was one of these mothers. Despite explaining to the authorities that her daughter’s condition makes it impossible for her to attend school on a regular basis, she was arrested, pep-walked in handcuffs in front of cameras, and prosecuted for two years. The charges against her were eventually dropped, but she told Huffington Post in a recent interview that as a result of the ordeal she felt like she “lost” her life and herself.
Feminist scholar Angela Davis acknowledged that there are problematic areas associated with Harris’s record as a prosecutor but asserted: “It’s a feminist approach to be able to work with those contradictions.”
Harris’s “contradictions” may be acceptable and “workable” in the eyes of the older generation just because she is a Black woman who achieved political success in a racist and sexist system. But Black feminists today should not, and cannot afford to, settle for symbolism.
At a time when Black people are killed by police or imprisoned for misdemeanours every day, we cannot afford to sanitise this plight with someone who has dedicated her career to a criminal justice system that prejudicially incarcerates Black people. The Democratic Party’s nomination of a Black woman for vice president cannot be accepted as a powerful incentive to vote blue, as long as that candidate fails to demonstrate her concerted efforts towards change.
With that being said, Harris is still by miles a more credible vice presidential candidate than her white male counterparts. Harris being a Black woman allows us to imagine the possibility of a society where Black bodies can be saved through negotiation and lobbying.
Harris herself will experience intense racism and sexist prejudice on her campaign trail. Black feminism calls on us to shelter her against these attacks on the premise that we value Black women regardless of religion, sexual orientation, social status, politics etc. In honouring our commitment to protect Black women against racist and sexist attacks, however, we should also not shy away from holding Harris to account for her own anti-Black policies and other contributions to a broken system.
Unlike Shirley Chisholm, who unequivocally dedicated her career to teaching and political defiance, Harris’s well-documented career collaboration with the criminal justice system against Black people and people of colour, makes for a “first Black” qualifier that is both unnerving and distracting.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.