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Today, I’m writing a thank you note to Black women. America, get out your pens and do the same.
It’s still before dawn here and I’m awake like so many of us watching the returns trickle in from Georgia. As I write, the Biden-Harris ticket has taken the lead there, by a slim but likely decisive 917 votes. It will be many more hours and perhaps days or weeks before this contest is settled, but the story for me has already been written.
The story of the 2020 election is one about the Black women whom I have dubbed the “Vanguard,” women who have led us through the most fraught yet consequential political contest of our lifetimes; women who have given this country its best shot at pulling back from a deeper plunge into racism, misogyny, xenophobia, authoritarianism and a fatal disregard for basic public health.
Don’t let the pundits distract you from the numbers. As Democrats eke out slim victories in new battleground states like Georgia and Pennsylvania, Black women have made all the difference. Exit polls report that more than 90 percent of Black women cast their ballots for Biden and Harris, voting as a bloc. Their nearest rivals in 2020 are Black men, 80 percent of whom supported the Democratic ticket, making Black women’s impact unparalleled.
Getting voters to the polls requires enthusiasm. It happened this fall when a bus emblazoned with “Black Voters Matter” pulled into American cities with LaTosha Brown on board. What followed in parks and parking lots were lessons in the nuts and bolts of casting ballots for communities facing a dual challenge at the polls: voter suppression and coronavirus safeguards. Still, Brown also insisted upon joy — moments of song and dance — that reminded Black Americans that the power of the vote can also be a balm, especially in troubled times.
Americans encountered Black women on the stump, including a record-shattering 130 running for seats in Congress. In Missouri, minister, health care worker and veteran organizer of the 2014 Ferguson uprisings, Cori Bush, ran for the second time, aiming to represent her state’s 1st congressional district. In Atlanta, Georgia, Democrat Nikemia Williams vied with Republican Angela Stanton-King for the House seat left vacant by the late John Lewis. In Massachusetts, the incumbent Ayanna Pressley looked to return to Congress. Together, these women aimed to exercise outsized influence in Washington.
It would be a mistake to overlook the women behind the scenes. Among critical strategists, communicators, and surrogates, Black women were there. Karine Jean-Pierre gave up her seat as a television commentator to serve as chief of staff for the Democrat’s veep candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). After working as press secretary for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and as a CNN commentator, Symone Sanders signed on as a senior advisor to Joe Biden. Collectively, nearly 20 Black women leaders brought hope, skill, joy — and a fierce commitment to change — to the Biden-Harris campaign.
Senator Harris, poised as she is to assume the vice presidency, embodies the force that Black women have become in American politics. She arrived not as a singular or token candidate, but as one among six formidable Black women who vied for the spot as Joe Biden’s running mate. She endured hackneyed barbs that accused her of being too aggressive and too ambitious. She also marked the landscape with Black women’s culture: the power of the Divine Nine, how to deploy the right side-eye, and rocking Chucks and Tims on the tarmac. Senator Harris taught lessons in Black women’s political history, explaining how she stands on the shoulders of Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer and Constance Baker Motley. (And if you don’t know who they are, it’s time to do your homework!)
This morning, however, the morning in which voters from the state of Georgia appear to have given the Biden-Harris ticket the edge it needs to win this contest, belongs to Stacey Abrams. Abrams has taught us how politics is done when done well. After years spent building her acumen and commitments, in 2018 Abrams ran for the governorship of Georgia only to have that seat stolen from her by unchecked voter suppression. Abrams did not concede, nor did she go home. Instead, she pivoted, founding Fair Fight and recommitting to ensuring the voting rights of all Georgians and all Americans. It is Abrams’ vision and her grit that is being made manifest this morning as news stations narrate the tallies that are trickling out from the metro-Atlanta area. Abrams may have been beaten three years ago by Brian Kemp, but she has netted a stunning victory this morning, turning Georgia blue and perhaps Donald Trump out of the White House.
It’s not too early to say thank you to Abrams and to all the Black women who have led us through this troubled election season. It is a regrettable burden, saving a nation from its worst self. Black women have borne that weight for two centuries, challenging this country to jettison its most costly sins including slavery, Jim Crow, and the denial of human rights. They have paid with their health and well-being. Black women have had their lives taken in this ongoing confrontation with injustice. It is a role no American should envy.
Whatever the outcome of the 2020 presidential contest, Black women will continue to do this work. Today might just be the right day to say thank you.
Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America and All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture 1830-1900.