In a line that stretches back to the likes of Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and Carol Moseley Braun, this moment, Stacey Abrams’s moment, is inextricably linked to the past, and to its black women political leaders who made her bid possible. And win or lose, come November 6, history books will now remember the former Georgia House Minority leader as history-making as well.
For inasmuch as we are tempted to exceptionalize moments and achievements, as well as the people associated with them, we more fairly judge and better serve each other when we see ourselves, as standing in a much longer line of history.
To be sure, black women have long served as powerful—though often overlooked—agents of change in American politics.
And as a black woman, reared in the Deep South, educated at a historically black college—who flatly acknowledges that she is still paying back college loans—an authentic and unapologetic Abrams is well-positioned to make history yet again.
All of which makes it difficult to imagine that Abrams, who has emerged as the first African-American woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor in US history, was largely relatively unknown only a year ago to many—including me.
That was until she entered the room.
Abrams served as the special guest for a 2017 Black History Month event, presented by the Women’s Political Collaborative Initiative of Tennessee at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, for which I was the moderator.
Like any good moderator, I tried to familiarize myself with my subject. Reading articles, listening to radio interviews and watching video footage, proved revelatory. Abrams was the compelling speaker who took the stage and rocked the mic at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. And she was a published author of romance novels—my almost secret guilty pleasure.
I’d read her words, heard her voice and reveled in her oratory but when she entered the room, she struck me as odd, in the very best way. Dressed smartly and conservatively in all black from head to toe save a few iridescent gold accents, Abrams was not, by any measure, dainty or fragile.
She’s tall, but it wasn’t just her height that made her stand out in a crowd. There was something special about her presence—the way she made no apology for occupying space and wore her coiffed natural hair proud and free—that signaled confidence and authenticity, qualities that aren’t common enough in those seeking or holding offices of political leadership.
Many black politicians shirk their blackness altogether; but not Abrams, who possessed a down-to-earth charm that makes people feel she cares. Not only did she want your vote, she wanted to know your name. She wanted you to share your story. Her warmth was not simply felt in the sense that she was a kind of “well-prepared” politician, but in the sense that she was that and more.
Over the course of our discussion, Abrams talked about her family life, and of her education at Spelman College in Atlanta under the leadership of then-President Johnnetta B. Cole, whom Abrams declared a personal hero.
She was open to having genuine conversations and also open to making genuine connections, especially with the women in the audience, whom she encouraged to become more involved in politics, perhaps with a bid for office.
Women political up-starts, both in and out of the room that day, have accepted Abrams’s challenge.
Still, it was Abrams’s nuanced understanding of voters and of their interests that was particularly revelatory to me. She shared an example that enabled me and, hopefully, others to understand the complex motivations regarding how people decide who and what they are going to vote for.
Many times, people on either side of the political aisle receive criticism for casting a vote that seems not to serve “in their best interest.”
For example, folks could easily question, “Why do the poor vote for the uber rich?”
Each of us possesses many interests. As Abrams carefully explained: it’s “the way” that those interests are prioritized—the ranging importance of those interests shows up in people’s decision-making processes when they decide who and what to support.
Depending on the order of those interests and the ways in which politicians appeal to them, people cast their ballots.
Complex but simple, straightforward and true, the discussion allowed me and, hopefully, others in that room, to better understand Abrams as a pragmatic politician and, more importantly, as a deeply principled person, too.
Whether or not Abrams will win nearly six months from today in a state that has been Republican-led for more than a decade, is for Georgians to decide. Whether or not she does, this moment signals the beginning of a differently inspired kind of American politics.
Crystal A. deGregory Ph.D. serves as the inaugural director of the Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal on the campus of Kentucky State University, where she is also an associate professor of history.