For many members of the Divine Nine — the nine historically Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs) that comprise the National Pan-Hellenic Council — seeing representatives of their fraternity or sorority earn leadership roles brings a strong sense of pride. BGLOs have a long history and tradition of community building, political activism, and social justice reform, and many prominent leaders within the Black community are members of Divine Nine organizations — including California Senator Kamala Harris, who’s an Alpha Kappa Alpha woman. When (at time of press) Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden announced Harris as his running mate for the 2020 general election, many AKAs saw the selection as yet another example of the quality and depth of undeniable talent those institutions nurture and produce.
“I was proud to learn she is an AKA. Great women are drawn to AKA, and AKA nurtures great women,” J’Tia Hart, a nuclear engineer who crossed Zeta Omicron at Florida State University in Spring 1999, said. “Any time I see a Black woman who is successful or leading in their respective field, I know they’ve been dragged through the fire because our education, knowledge, experience, and expertise are always doubted and questioned.”
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. was the first Black sorority founded on the campus of Howard University on January 15, 1908. The organization is the largest Black sorority, with 300,000 members, and has 1,026 chapters in 47 states, one US Territory, and 10 countries. As an alumni of Howard University, not only does Harris have a deep bond of sisterhood within AKA, but she also has a connection to the HBCU experience, which adds another nuanced layer to her identity as a Black woman in America. With an emphasis on diversifying representation of marginalized voices in leadership positions within homogenous corporate and political spaces, Harris’ ascension to this political position appears to be some sort of kismet that has mobilized a strong, close-knit network of Black people — even if there are other areas of her professional record that complicate her relationship with this very same community.
Four hours after Biden announced Harris as his running mate, $10.8 million was donated to their campaign. Thousands of these donations were received in exact amounts of $19.08, a homage to the year Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., was founded. AndraLica McCorvey-Reddick, who crossed Beta Alpha in Fall 1982, and her husband, have donated that amount five times.
“I say yes to anybody from an HBCU. And she’s an AKA? Without question,” McCorvey-Reddick said. “I’ve never seen the Divine Nine come together about something like this. Everybody is strolling to the polls.”
Angela Gwyn, who crossed the Zeta Xi chapter at Bennett College in 1977, said her and husband also donated to Harris’ campaign, adding: “We need to give all we can.” Gwyn hopes that people don’t take the polling results of projected election winners too seriously, recalling the 2016 presidential election where Hillary Clinton was projected to win. (She did win the popular vote but did not the electoral college.)
“…I think this time will be different,” Gwyn said. “With Hillary Clinton, there wasn’t as much excitement, and you had a lot of women who just weren’t for her.”
Jazmine Harris, a visual artist who crossed the Beta Alpha chapter in Spring 2013, attributes Harris’ appeal with more people, unlike Clinton, to her aesthetic.
“Some of the things people didn’t like about Hillary were so superficial,” Jazmine said. “Looking at Kamala, the way she presents is a little softer but still edgy and direct.”
Jazmine’s comments not only speak to the pervading issue of colorism in American politics and society overall but even serve as a reminder of Black Fraternities and Sororities’ complicated history with colorist policies, where it has been alleged that some organizations required members to pass a paper bag test during the early 1990s. In both cases, Harris fits the bill. Although she does think Biden made the right choice by picking Harris as his running mate, Jazmine’s first preference for the Democratic vice president pick was former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. She argued that, in this situation, it is evident that colorism doesn’t just come into play within the African-American community, but in other racial communities as well.
“We live in a country where even though it’s 2020, we still judge women based on their looks and the way they talk,” Jazmine said. “I don’t think we are at a place in our country yet where we are willing to accept women just for their accomplishments.”
Although Harris has attracted a flood of support as Biden’s running mate, the same level of support didn’t translate well during her presidential bid. For years, Harris had been considered a 2020 presidential hopeful and a high profile candidate for the Democratic Party. But, despite some strong debate performances, Harris’ campaign was never able to sustain momentum. Harris suspended her campaign in December 2019 — two months before the Iowa caucus — citing a lack of funds.
“When I heard her campaign was ending I understood it was a money issue,” Carole Johnson-Harris, Jazmine’s mother who crossed the Beta chapter in Chicago in 1978, said. “This whole prospect of running for president comes down to ‘how much money do you have?’ And it was obvious that while she may be a good debater, the sorority could not be the only group to support her.”
Jazmine, on the other hand, saw Harris’ departure differently.
“I wasn’t surprised that she decided to exit… it seemed like a repeat of 2016 where the Democrats teamed up against [former presidential democratic nominee] Bernie [Sanders],” she said. “It just felt like she was playing into the Democratic machine and trying to position herself when she chose to drop out.”
If the suspension of her presidential campaign was as calculated as Jazmine’s theory, it was a political move in the right direction considering the obstacles Harris faced in the primaries. Harris found it difficult to persuade a strong segment of Black voters to abandon the emotional ties they built with Biden during his time as President Barack Obama’s vice president. And even though Harris was a top contender for many, the crowded Democratic primary race made it difficult for her to break through the noise and establish herself as someone who could realistically win in a system that favors white men.
“When I saw how she carried herself [during the first Democratic primary debate], how knowledgeable she was, how poised and direct she was, I thought that maybe she was a possibility,” Dr. Tanise Jackson, who crossed the Sigma Omicron Omega chapter in 1992, said. “But I didn’t think where we are as a nation that she would become the nominee.”
What also affected Harris’ presidential campaign was her background both personally and career-wise — from being the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father and having a white husband to her time as a prosecutor and attorney general in California prior to her becoming a senator.
“I don’t think she was ready for people to delve into her background,” Marilyn Henderson-Hudson, who crossed the Beta Alpha chapter in 1979, said. “It was a lot for her to have to defend herself.”
“Some people don’t know if she is a good representative for us as Black people, which is disheartening,” Dr. Toya Gordon, who crossed the Delta Gamma chapter in Spring 2007, added. “I do think it is unfair for Black Americans to so narrowly define what Blackness is.”
Harris’ record as prosecutor and attorney general spawned the pervasive online meme Kamala Is a Cop, that dominated online discourse about her during her presidential bid, as well as her role now as Democratic vice presidential hopeful. Where issues surrounding the mass incarceration of Black people in America have become more widely discussed and addressed, and people throughout the country want to see an end to police brutality against Black people, Harris’ background as a prosecutor didn’t fair well with those wanting to see America move away from being a police state with the highest levels of incarceration in the world.
“[Supporting her] did get a little tricky, especially with our generation,” Jazmine said. “You know she was locking a lot of people up, especially Black people in the Bay area. It was a really complicated conversation, but I feel like people were way more critical of her and her past instead of the people running against her.”
Hannah Brooks, an attorney in Chicago who crossed the Beta Alpha chapter in 2009, became interested in Harris as she ran for attorney general in California. She was excited at Harris’ prospects but was ultimately disappointed with her decisions in the position.
“As an attorney, when I see a Black attorney vying to be a prosecutor, I recognize that they are willingly putting themselves in the position to be a cop,” Brooks said. “That’s effectively what prosecutors are.”
“You can specifically go after corporations. You can specifically go after white supremacist organizations who are murdering Black and Latino people and harassing Asian people in this extremely diverse state that still has so many white supremacists. But she did not,” Brooks added. “You can specifically go after child molesters and these rings that are happening — which are happening in many states. She did not. What she did was push for shit to penalize Black and Latino parents, particularly when it came to these truancy laws, and literally putting parents in jail for their kids not going to school because they didn’t have the capacity to do so. Prosecutors can try to be good in this horrific system, and she failed miserably.”
For Johnson-Harris, Harris’ previous record as a prosecutor is one that she hopes the politician can work through.
“The fact of the matter is, her record is her record,” she said. “Some decisions are the best, and some decisions you think you could’ve chosen better. What you try to do is you try to bring the best.”
Considering all that Harris has had to endure to get to this position as a vice-presidential hopeful, her talent is undeniable. She is incredible at what she does as a litigator and cross-examiner (as those who watched any of her debates can attest to.) And her joining Biden’s ticket wasn’t only one of the best matches for the party, but a smart strategic choice, too.
“For me, it’s very optics driven, similar to President Obama,” Jazmine said. “It’s a good look because there is this woman of color in this position. But I think the change that Black folks are looking for, it’s not fair to look to Kamala to usher that in completely on her own by obtaining this position.”
“I’m hoping that we get to a point where we get past the good look and we actually start to dismantle the system, and really do the work that will give Black people in this country an opportunity to really be whole and pursue freedom here,” she added.
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