“Speak truth.” “Have courage.” “Don’t despair.” “Run your race” courageously, and blaze a path for future generations. Those pearls of wisdom were shared by Vice President Kamala Harris during a Black History Month celebration on Saturday filled with prayer, music and inspiration.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the House majority leader in Congress, started the annual breakfast 40 years ago. He told ESSENCE it seemed fitting this year to invite the nation’s first female, Black and Southeast Asian American vice president.
“Vice President Harris has broken barriers throughout her career, and her extraordinary achievements have inspired countless Americans,” said Hoyer. “As we celebrate the contributions of Black Americans who stood up to injustice and fought for equal rights in our democracy, it is fitting we recognize individuals like [the] vice president, who adds her own groundbreaking legacy to our country and Black history.”
A long, illustrious list of keynote speakers have lent their voices to the annual event. Past guests include former President Barack Obama, late Congressmen John Lewis and Elijah Cummings, and Rep. Val Demings (D-FL). Former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian Institution, and Dr. Carla Hayden, librarian of Congress, are just a few of the newsmakers who have also participated.
This year, Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD) joined Hoyer in offering welcoming remarks, as did Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). Groundbreaking Black women—among them, Angela Alsobrooks, Prince George’s county executive, and Adrienne Jones, speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates—greeted the virtual audience, comprised of hundreds of community members.
This year’s theme, “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity” was timely. 2020 produced a series of crises that Brown said, “threatened both the lives and livelihoods of people across America.”
Harris expanded upon the ways the pandemic has caused disproportionate infections, hospitalizations and deaths among Black Americans. “Two in three Black Americans know someone who is hospitalized or has died,” the vice president said in her speech. The economic fallout of the pandemic, she added, has hit many Black families particularly hard. Data shows more than 50 percent of Black Americans live in a household where employment income has been lost since the pandemic began; 20 percent of Black families are experiencing some form of food insecurity.
Covid has “forced” many Black women out of the workforce, the vice president said, and hurt small Black businesses. “Many have been forced to close their doors.”
She said the Biden-Harris administration is trying to address America’s concurrent crises. Harris talked about the American Rescue Plan, a top legislative priority. The comprehensive bill would direct $1.9 trillion in emergency relief to Americans impacted by Covid. It expands testing and vaccine distribution. The measure would extend aid to businesses and workers to help financially until it is safe to fully reopen fully. It will provide teachers and school districts with resources to safely re-open, and provide eligible individuals and families a $1,400 per-person check. The plan, which recently passed the House of Representatives, now moves to the Senate.
“Vice President Harris and President Joe Biden are working tirelessly for [American] families,” said Hoyer.
On top of the pandemic, America is experiencing a reckoning around systemic racism. Last summer saw the police involved deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other souls. Yet throughout the protests and pain that ensued, Black Americas and allies of all races who favor equality and justice, have lifted each other and pushed forward.
“We cannot despair, don’t be overwhelmed,” said Harris, citing Coretta Scott King’s words that, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.’” “Don’t give up,” she urged.
While the program was not held in person, Master of Ceremonies, Kelby Funn, ensured the two-hour affair was memorable, as did a dedicated organizing committee behind the scenes.
Several pastors offered powerful prayers for the nation. Brown praised America’s Black military heroes and heroines who “have fought in every war since our country’s founding.“
There were stellar performances from the First Baptist Church of Glen Arm; the HBCU National Choir “105 Voices of History” and the United States Navy Band and Chorus. Students from Harris’s alma mater, the Howard University Chorale, sang Negro spirituals.
The vice president, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, paid tribute to her late mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan. “My mother taught me many things. She often told me, `Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.’”
And while likening history to a relay race, Harris said she also learned from her beloved mother the value of each generation “running their course” courageously, before “passing the baton” to the next generation. “What matters most,” said Harris, “is how you run your portion of the race.”