What Liberals Could Learn From African American Women

Almost a year before the 2016 presidential election, Rebecca Traister captured the political moment that was unfolding.

The public spectacle of this presidential election, and the two that have preceded it, are inextricably linked to the racialized and gendered anger and violence we see around us…

Whatever their flaws, their political shortcomings, their progressive dings and dents, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean a lot. They represent an altered power structure and changed calculations about who in this country may lead…

This is our country in an excruciating period of change. This is the story of the slow expansion of possibility for figures who have long existed on the margins, and it is also the story of the dangerous rage those figures provoke.

About 11 months after she wrote that, Donald Trump was elected president, demonstrating the dangerous rage provoked by an altered power structure.

Traister continued with that theme in an article about the midterm elections titled, “The New Face of Power is Taking Shape.”

Tuesday’s results were in fact perfectly coherent, very much in line with the fight we have long been immersed in. That fight is — as it has been since this nation’s founding — a fight over two concepts central to our nation’s origins, its progress, and its future: the promises of and restrictions on political representation and political enfranchisement.

Progressives yearned for a clean wave last night, the swift correction of what many liked to imagine as a fluky clerical error two years ago…The harder thing to absorb has been the fact that Donald Trump, and the party that created and sticks with him, is not a fluke. He and they are the living, powerful embodiment of an old American theory about who should get to participate, who should get to have power, whose voices should be heard, whose votes count. This is not a fluke. This is the civic, legal, political, and social American argument — the one that at its core circles around the question of who among us is counted as fully human.

By putting the argument into historical perspective, Traister provides a check on our expectations.

…the notion that we could have corrected course so quickly is akin to the fantasies that we could put our racism behind us with the election of a single president, our misogyny in the rearview mirror with the nomination of a single woman. Those were pernicious lies, fed to us so that we would stop being angry, stop fighting, resisting, challenging.

To demonstrate the alternative, she shared what two African American female candidates said during their speeches on election night.

“We still have a few more miles to go,” [Stacey Abrams] said, in reference to what she was promising would be a recount, perhaps a runoff. “But that too is an opportunity to show the world who we are. Because in Georgia civil rights has always been an act of will and a battle for our souls.” Democracy, Abrams said, “only works when we work for it. When we fight for it. When we demand it. And apparently, today, when we stand in lines for hours to meet it at the ballot box.” Ayanna Pressley echoed this sense of an ongoing contest in what she insisted was not a victory speech, despite her clear victory. “When we realize equity, justice, and equality, these rights for everyone, then and only then will I deliver a victory speech.”

That reminded me of something Tim Wise wrote a few years ago.

Sometimes I think we oversell…the notion of fighting for social justice. Oversell in that we focus so much on “winning” the battle in which we’re engaged, that we often create false hope, and when as often happens, victory is limited or not at all, those in whom we nurtured the hope feel spent, unable to rise again to the challenge…

Invariably, it seems it is we in the white community who obsess over our own efficacy, and fail to recognize the value of commitment, irrespective of outcome. People of color, on the other hand, never having been burdened with the illusion that the world was their oyster, and thus, anything they touched could and should turn to gold, usually take a more reserved, and I would say healthier view of the world and the prospects for change. They know (as indeed they must) that the thing being fought for, at least if it’s worth having, will require more than a part-time effort, and will not likely come in the lifetimes of those presently fighting for it. And it is that knowledge which allows a strength and resolve few members of the dominant majority will ever, can ever, know.

That is exactly the kind of strength Maya Angelou put on display with her poem, Still I Rise—particularly at the end.

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise.

It is also the kind of strength that Lira taps into in this performance:

There is a reason why African American women are the backbone of the Democratic party. They carry within those bones the fight Traister suggests we’ve been having since this country was founded. That is precisely the kind of strength that women like Ayanna Pressley, Jahana Hayes and Lauren Underwood will be taking with them to congress next year. Anyone who is tempted to get discouraged these days should keep an eye on them.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.