Approximately 35 miles from our nation’s capital, while our government managed to execute one of its most sacred, dignified, and taxing rituals, I could be found in the comfort of my home, enjoying the quiet dignity of assorted nuts and charcuterie. It is both a tale of two cities and a demonstration of miracles big and small. For the Secret Service, it is a miracle to somehow bind the galaxy of possible threats to our national security within the confines of an airtight and impliable plan. For me, a small miracle lay in successfully managing the tension between my own experiences with pandemic unemployment and the indulgence of a humble yet joyous celebration.
And so my youngest siblings and I ate in our living room while watching the pomp and circumstance, attempting to imitate something decadent, if not at least pretentious. My brother, an aloof, even-tempered kid with rich brown skin, studied my awe and occasional emotion with increasing confusion. At some point, Congresswoman Barbara Lee graced our screen and explained to the news anchors that the pearls she was wearing once belonged to Shirley Chisholm. I found myself almost moved to tears, prompting my brother to ask why I would have such a strong reaction to a set of pearls. I looked over at him, searching for a way to articulate my pride, came up short, and eventually settled on Occam’s Razor: because we are Black.
It is not just a 16-year-old boy asking what the “big deal” is; our two parties tend to view discrimination differently. There is a groundswell of Americans in general and conservatives in particular asking themselves the same question as my brother. In the past year, Congressman Scott Perry has said that he doesn’t believe such a thing as systemic racism even exists. Senator Tom Cotton has even said that, while instances of discrimination exist, it is inaccurate to “paint with a broad brush” and say that it is systemic racism. And, notably, Fox News Host Tucker Carlson harkened Nikki Haley’s appeal for Americans to take the death of George Floyd seriously as “moral blackmail.”
These arguments are based on a logic that is reductionist at best. At their worst, they normalize our country’s unequal and dysfunctional reality with the presumption that defying the odds is in and of itself no miracle. But it is. Despite the national unemployment rate rising as high as 14.8% in 2020, we saw the unemployment rate rise as high as 16.8% for Black Americans and 23.45% for women. These trends all come as our society grapples with the challenge of pay equity and it’s consequences on long-term wealth and retirement security. If these inequities somehow are not systemic, they are indeed the product of a perverse set of coincidences begetting a near-perfect storm—and a category five at that.
It is much deeper than just breaking the marble ceiling for us. We are more like a school of sturgeon trying to break through the bounds of a goldfish tank because we know in our hearts that we are much more suited for the ocean. More and more frequently, we manage to jump into the ocean and then come back to bring the other fish the wonderful pearls we find. The pearls of Shirley Chisholm’s are both a literal and metaphorical reminder that anything is possible. And the fact that Congresswoman Lee’s jewelry feels “normal” is a testament to the fact that, uncommon as it may be for now, women of color deserve the sea of opportunities from which we’ve been excluded.
Nevertheless, the ability to defy even the narrowest of odds is a part of what fundamentally defines America. Just as our flag gleamed in the sunlight after surviving the Battle of Fort McHenry 200 years ago, there gleamed along the collar of Barbara Lee a simple, elegant string of pearls previously owned by the first Black woman to serve in congress. It is because of Shirley Chisholm, an Unbought and Unbossed woman from New York, that we now have Kamala Harris, a fierce advocate For The People hailing from Oakland. In spite of a historical precedent, Shirley Chisholm took a chance on a presidential campaign and now on Congresswoman Barbara Lee as the campaign chair for the state of California. In spite of Kamala’s firsthand experiences with institutional sexism and racism that exists in Washington, she took a chance on a campaign.
And, to compound the depth of this experience all the more, I had the pleasure of wearing the pearls previously donned by a very local heroine: my nana. In many ways I credit her, a firecracker from Robins, North Carolina, for moving heaven and earth to make sure my mother and I could access a whole world of opportunities. There is no doubt that my grandmother was watching Kamala Harris’ inauguration from heaven, beaming. I wear her pearls often as a reminder that, as difficult as any circumstance may be, I come from a legacy of brave women that have never been afraid to try. And try I will, just like the millions of women of color that are daring to take a chance on the American Project each and every day.