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Black Female Leaders In Illinois Celebrate The Historic Choice Of Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks after Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden introduced her as his running mate on Aug. 12.

California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris: the first Black woman ever selected to run as Vice President on a major party ticket in this country.

Several influential Black women in Illinois say regardless of your political leanings, that’s something to take a moment and celebrate.

These women have themselves fought for political representation in government. Here’s how they’re reflecting on this historic moment.

Celebrating progress

Illinois Congresswoman Robin Kelly said she was set up in front of the television, waiting to watch Joe Biden’s announcement on his Vice President pick live, “but then I just got so many texts and phone calls, so that’s how I found out,” she said, laughing.

“It definitely was a proud moment … that he picked not only a woman, but a woman of color — not only a woman of color, but a black woman. I mean, it was definitely a proud moment,” Kelly said.

But she added it’s hard to feel that pride without a slight sense of anger at the fact that this is something we even have to celebrate.

“Especially in 2020, it’s like: It’s about damn time,” she said.

Black female pride

Political strategist Delmarie Cobb has spent her career fighting to get Black women in high places. She emphasized she’s fought not just for women of color, but for Black women specifically, such as in 2008 when she lost a fight for a Black woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“What happens is our story lumped in with everybody else’s story,” she said. “The story of African Americans in this country is not the immigration story. Most immigrants come to America in search of a better life. Africans were brought to America to help everybody else have a better life. And so, in order to talk about our story, we need a Black woman.”

Not only is Sen. Kamala Harris the first Black woman on a major presidential ticket, but she’s also Indian American, making her the first Asian person on a major presidential ticket. But Cobb said, right now, she’s celebrating Harris’ identity as a Black woman.

“Because everybody will call her something else in order to make her more palatable,” she said. “As a Black woman, she looks like me, she identifies like me, and I’m going to accept her as a Black woman. And [Biden] chose a Black woman to be his vice presidential running mate in hopes that she can make [a] case to Black people. And I think she can.

“Little Black kids seeing a Black woman … every little Black kid can relate to a Black woman, because that’s mama, that’s grandma, that’s auntie.”

Symbolizing change

This idea of becoming a symbol — of hope or triumph for being a trailblazer — there’s perhaps no other woman in Illinois who knows it better than Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Moseley Braun reflected on her rise in light of news Harris is now a candidate for vice president. Moseley Braun said she was not ready for everything that came with her election to the legislature in the early 1990s.

“I was focusing on passing bills and doing my job and showing up to work and just being a legislator, but people didn’t want me to be a legislator,” she said. “What they wanted me to be was something more: a symbol … a role model.”

Moseley Braun thinks Harris is up for all of it and that she was the absolute right choice for the job. But she and others say regardless of whether you support Harris, this is a moment to stop, even for an hour, and allow yourself to rejoice.

“Because we are really in dark times right now. So here’s a reason to celebrate; here is something good. Here’s something that our ancestors, they couldn’t dream about this,” Moseley Braun said.

Excitement to votes

Every woman that spoke to WBEZ expressed joy over what they feel is a shattered glass ceiling. But the real excitement, they said, stems from what they think this choice could mean: a Joe Biden victory.

Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, believes this historic choice could mean more enthusiasm among Black women, and that could translate to higher voter turnout in Black communities.

“Black women are the ones organizing the sort of ‘souls to the polls’ and other [get out the vote] efforts in the Black community,” he said. “And so boosting their enthusiasm will likely boost the overall enthusiasm of the community and boost turnout.”

Tillery points to a recent poll that shows 6 in 10 Black voters nationally would be more enthusiastic about a Biden presidency if he shared it with a Black woman.

Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.

Illinois Public Radio

Illinois Public Radio

Illinois Newsroom gets stories from public radio stations from across the state, including WBEZ-Chicago, WCBU-Peoria, WGLT-Normal, WVIK-Rock Island, WIUM-Macomb, WNIJ-DeKalb, WSIU-Carbondale, WUIS-Springfield, and St. Louis Public Radio.

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