History Has Its Eyes on Us
(Word to Amanda Gorman)
By Shereá Denise
In my world, January 20, 2021 was a day dedicated to Charlotta Bass. While everyone else spoke of the history to be made by Madam Vice President Kamala Harris, I could not help but think of how history had already been made by multiple Black women and how their efforts had made Kamala Harris’ journey possible. So many people spoke of the unbought and unbossed legend - Shirley Chisholm - who campaigned in the 1972 Democratic presidential primary, but I saw very few people mentioning Charlotta Bass.
Candidate Bass was the U.S. Vice President candidate for the Progressive Party ticket in 1952. Charlene Mitchell, who was an activist and the 1968 Presidential Candidate for the Communist Party, explained that the Progressive Party was “a third party that came into being because it was felt that there was no response on the part of the Democratic Party to the needs of people at the moment. And it was felt that Harry Truman was already involved in being pro- and not only pro-, but a defender of Taft Hartley. And permitted that to take place, without a veto. Taft Hartley was an anti-union bill. It was also [that] the Dixiecrats had so much power within the Democratic Party. The Dixiecrats were Southern Democrats who voted as if they were the right wing of the Republican Party.”
Charlotta Bass’ campaign slogan was "Win or lose, we win by raising the issues." And that, she did. This slogan reflected Ms. Bass’ work as an activist and a journalist prior to becoming a politician. Before running for office, she “used her newspaper as a platform to highlight issues such as police brutality, restrictive housing, the Ku Klax Klan and civil liberties. She was such a major advocate for civil liberties, women's rights and immigration, she received death threats. The FBI also placed her under surveillance after she was labeled a communist, government records show.” She also founded the National Sojourner for Truth and Justice Club, which worked to improve working conditions for Black women. Charlotta Bass was consistent in her activism and in her discussions and commentary on the communities that she considered marginalized and underserved.
This is a major way in which Kamala Harris could learn from Charlotta Bass. While all of us can recognize and celebrate that both of these women have made history, we cannot act as if some of the history made by Kamala Harris was not made at the detriment of marginalized communities. As a friend always reminds me, two things can be true at the same time. That means that we can be proud of what Kamala Harris represents while still recognizing that she has done harmful things. I commend Kamala for being outspoken about women’s access to reproductive healthcare, increasing minimum wage, and her support of DREAMers and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), but I also feel obligated to question whether some of Harris’ statements over the last several months are merely political polishing as opposed to a change in belief or practice. The issues that come to mind for me first are her stance on reforming the police and her practices in addressing officer-involved shootings, as well as her views and practices around the criminalization of sex work and her lack of support of the Trans* Community. Tweeting about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Oluwatoyin Salau or mentioning their names during debates is not the same as using your position of authority to address the practices, laws, and beliefs that allow for police officers to not only murder George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but for those same officers to be permitted to return to their jobs with little-to-no accountability and delayed repercussions (if any).
Though I can appreciate that Kamala Harris took accountability for the problematic decisions made by her office while she was serving in various prosecutorial capacities in California, I still must ask if an accountability statement and a few well-worded tweets are enough.
Each time I hear Vice President Kamala Harris’ name, my mind drifts back to Charlotta Bass and the stances that she took during an era when it may have been even more dangerous to speak up and speak out. There was no concern of contradiction with Charlotta Bass. People were clear about what she stood for and who she represented from the beginning. The same cannot be said for Vice President Harris.
“A close examination of Harris’s record shows it’s filled with contradictions. She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings.”
I recognize that we all have our own contradictions to reconcile and I do not expect perfection from any political figure, but I simply cannot ignore the harm that was caused to people just because Kamala Harris wore a bedazzled rainbow jacket. Yes, we should certainly celebrate that the first female Vice President of the United States is the African American and Indian American child of immigrants, a well-educated woman who attended an HBCU and is a member of a Black sorority, but we must also be honest about the fact that her work has not always been beneficial for the communities that she is automatically considered to represent. After all, as Amanda Gorman said during the Inauguration, “history has its eyes on us.” In the same way that we were proud of Former President Barack Obama, but still held him accountable, we must do the same with Vice President Harris. It is my hope that we will not forget the concerns that many of us had when Kamala Harris was among the Democratic candidates for President. Yes, she has made history for all of us, but our concerns were valid then and remain valid now. Kamala Harris cannot be Charlotta Bass, but - as she is standing on Ms. Bass’ shoulders - perhaps it is time that she applies some of Ms. Bass’ style to her own political views. Perhaps this is where Kamala should stop being of the people and become for the people instead. As Charlotta Bass said, “It is a great honor to be chosen as a pioneer. And a great responsibility.”
“I stand before you with great pride. This is a historic moment in American political life. Historic for myself, for my people, for all women. For the first time in the history of this nation a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land. It is a great honor to be chosen as a pioneer. And a great responsibility. But I am strengthened by thousands on thousands of pioneers who stand by my side and look over my shoulder—those who have led the fight for freedom—those who led the fight for women’s rights—those who have been in the front line fighting for peace and justice and equality everywhere. How they must rejoice in this great understanding which here joins the cause of peace and freedom… I am stirred by the responsibility that you have put upon me. I am proud that I am the choice of the leaders of my own people and leaders of all those who understand how deeply the fight for peace is one and indivisible with the fight for Negro equality. And I am impelled to accept this call, for it is the call of all my people and call to my people…” –Charlotta Bass