“Senator Harris is on her way up to the media room.”
The message transmitting from the walkie-talkie clipped to our video producer’s waist was my signal, on the second day of our 2019 ESSENCE Festival of Culture, to get into position for our initial on-camera sit-down with Kamala Harris, then a presidential candidate.
Though Harris’s historic run for the seat of junior senator from California was immortalized in the pages of ESSENCE’s February 2016 issue, this interview—held above the bustling halls of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans—would break new ground. Harris’s career firsts had taken her from law enforcement to lawmaker. But in her run for president, the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris became the first Black and South Asian-American woman to ever make a bid on a major-party ticket for the nation’s highest office.
It was obvious during our exchange that Harris understood what it would take to be successful. The only Black woman with a seat in the U.S. Senate entered our makeshift studio that Saturday afternoon in a tailored beige suit, paired with her signature string of pearls, and perfectly coiffed hair (worth noting, given the heat of New Orleans in July). With her she brought an assured manner, suggesting she was unmistakably ready to make her appeal to the familiar community of women served by our storied brand. Earlier, on the festival stage, she had proclaimed, “We’re not going back to the time that Donald Trump insists was ‘great,’ a time that was unkind to women and people of color. In fact, it is time to turn the page. And it is time to write the next chapter.” During our one-on-one, her message to the Black women at the center of that weekend was “the power is in your hands” to make that next chapter happen.
I firmly believe, I firmly in my heart and in my soul know, that this is the most important election of our lifetime. — U.S. Vice Presidential Nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris
Harris formally announced her entry into the presidential race in 2019 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. At a kickoff rally in Oakland, days later, her candidacy evoked a level of excitement expected for such a significant occasion. By the time Harris talked with us at ESSENCE Fest just over six months later, more than two dozen people, including several of her colleagues in the Senate, had also chosen to enter an already crowded race. The fanfare over her bid was beginning to wane, and Harris’s past as a prosecutor was becoming problematic for some Black voters. On a bus tour through Iowa a month later, Harris told ESSENCE that she was proud of the work she had done in her role as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California and maintained that there is more than one way to change the system. “I reject the notion that says that if you try and fix the system from the inside, then you are somehow suspect,” she explained. She also noted, during that August afternoon, that her prosecutorial past gave her the chops to litigate the case against four more years of Donald Trump.
Harris is undoubtedly liberal on environmental justice, criminal justice reform, immigration, housing, health care, HBCU funding, Black entrepreneurship and a host of other issues on the ballot for Black America in 2020. Yet by the November debate, her standing in the race was uncertain. Barack Obama captured 96 percent of Black women’s votes in 2008. In 2012, Black women voted at a higher rate than any other group across gender, race and ethnicity, securing Obama’s second term in the White House and giving Democrats four more years in the executive branch. Though a plurality of White women chose against Hillary Clinton in 2016, helping to usher in a Trump presidency, more than 95 percent of Black women voted for the candidate who could have been the first woman president. In 2019, these numbers led Harris to acknowledge that the power to decide the 2020 election would come down to the core voting bloc of the Democratic Party—Black women.
The morning after the Atlanta debate last November, and just hours before she would kick off a Black Women Weekend of Action in South Carolina, Harris convened a packed room at the Westin Peachtree Plaza for a Black Women’s Power Breakfast. There she openly answered questions about her electability and connected with voters who may or may not have solidified their support for the Howard University grad. “The conversation about electability is, ‘Umm…I just don’t know if America is ready for a Black woman to be president of the United States,’ ” Harris said, mimicking some doubters. “‘I’m ready,’ is what they say. ‘I just don’t know if my neighbor is ready.’” Weeks later, citing financial concerns, Harris decided to bow out of the race.
We’re not going back to the time that Donald Trump insists was ‘great,’ a time that was unkind to women and people of color. It’s time to turn the page. And it is time to write the next chapter. — U.S. Vice Presidential Nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris
Nine months later, the question would be boldly reframed: Is the country ready for a Black woman vice president? After Harris exited the race, former Vice President Joe Biden committed to selecting a woman to be his running mate. On August 11, after considering a number of highly qualified contenders, he decided on Harris. He had also staffed his campaign with several other high-profile Black women.
In her first three interviews after being named Biden’s running mate, Harris sat down with Black women journalists. During her time with ESSENCE, the lawmaker some have labeled “too moderate” confirmed that radical change was on the Biden-Harris agenda. “There’s no question that we need immediate change and drastic change, and that’s so much of what the Biden-Harris platform and what the Biden-Harris administration will be about,” she insisted. “It’s about saying, ‘We need to immediately address a number of issues that demand priority….’ And that relates to getting people back to work. It means investing in infrastructure and creating millions of new jobs. It means fighting for health care for all people.”
In the first half of 2020, Harris, who is ranked by the nonpartisan organization GovTrack as the “most liberal compared to all Senators,” emerged as a staunch advocate for small businesses, a fighter for protections for uninsured workers and an activist for social justice. When protestors flooded the streets of the nation days after the police-involved death of George Floyd and two months after the killing of Breonna Taylor, Harris was there, donning a mask, saying their names along with those of countless other victims of police violence. “I have seen too many cases of not only unarmed Black folks being killed, but women,” Harris said in her August interview with ESSENCE, “and we need to speak their names and understand that we have to have justice.”
The November election was long believed to be an indicator of how swiftly justice would come—for the victims of state-sanctioned violence; for more than 400 years of inequity in the Black community; for those afflicted by systemic racism. “I firmly believe, I firmly in my heart and in my soul know, that this is the most important election of our lifetime,” Harris stated with conviction hours before the Democratic National Convention. “There are such big issues that are on the line.”
Harris noted that her first foray into elected leadership was at Howard University: “And when you run for public office at Howard University, you can run for office anywhere,” she said. She has proven that point many times over, in her successful races for district attorney, for attorney general, and for the U.S. Senate. All those campaigns gave her the grit needed in her bid for the presidency. November 3 determined who would serve the next four years as president and vice president—but even before the votes were cast, Kamala Harris had made history.
Feature Photograph Credit: Michael Rowe