What Kamala Harris And Amanda Gorman Mean To Black Girls Like Me
It’s time to center the needs of Black Girls in our national policies.
January 29, 2021 at 5:02 pm
Last week, we got to see the swearing in of our first Black woman Vice President Kamala Harris and hear the sweet expressions of a dynamic, 23-year-old, modern day griot, Amanda Gorman, as she delivered the inaugural poem. I get filled with emotion thinking about what this means for all the young Black girls who never saw a face like theirs in the "Presidential" chapter of their history books, or who never imagined capturing the attention of the country with our unparalleled intelligence, as Amanda did with such regality.
Seeing Vice President Harris sworn in at the inauguration was particularly compelling because when I chose to enroll at an HBCU – Historically Black College and University – I was told it would mean I couldn’t achieve high office because I’d chosen a lesser educational institution. Now, an HBCU graduate is making history in one of the highest offices in the country.
I want this world to look at Kamala Harris and Amanda Gorman and see Black girls from across the country, and beyond, reflected in their image. I want this moment to ignite the unconditional love, commitment and investment that Black girls have long needed and deserved. I want the world to finally start saying "yes" to us.
Growing up as a Black girl, I heard a lot of "no," as I’m sure Amanda did too, because most Black girls have that in common. The world constantly reminded me I couldn’t be pretty or a heroine because there were no Barbies or Disney princesses who looked like me. As I got older, I heard I couldn’t be in the White House because no one who looked like me had ever been elected president or vice president. At school, I often lost interest because when I asked questions, I was punished, mischaracterized and demonized as a caricature of a Black girl for speaking up. I wasn't sure I would go to college — no one else in my household had and I didn’t see how I would break that cycle and make it an option for me.
When I found out about HBCUs, that quickly changed. HBCUs opened me up to a world where for the first time being a young Black woman was an asset, not a liability. And during my sophomore year at my HBCU, the illustrious Hampton University, I got recruited to be an organizer by NextGen America. At Hampton, NextGen hired Black students, provided us with the tools to organize our student body and gave us the platform to empower our community and get them registered, educated and active through voting.
I fell in love with the act of making change for my people. I coupled my passion for equity and justice for marginalized groups with the numbers and, most importantly, the voters who could ignite the change this country so badly needed. Organizing helped me connect the dots between the daily "no" I’d experienced, the racism Black girls and women face all across the U.S., and the system that was enforcing it.
From a young age, Black girls are pushed out of school, disciplined by teachers, criminalized and abused by school officers at far higher rates than white girls for the same behavior. School pushout is the first step in a school-to-prison pipeline that sees Black girls and women incarcerated at far higher rates than white girls and women. We also face higher rates of gender-based violence than our white counterparts.
Organizing showed me my power and the tremendous strength of people coming together to demand justice. During the 2018 midterms, and then again in 2020, I mobilized over a thousand Hampton students and got them registered to vote and at the polls. Our polling station saw unprecedented turnout, breaking previous records.
I believe organizing and activism equip young people with the means to amplify our knowledge and impact to make sure no one ever underestimates our power. There is a false narrative that young people don’t vote, don’t care or don’t have the ability to make informed decisions that ensure the greater good. But in fact, as the generation that has lived through a lifetime of national and global emergencies in less than two decades, we are more competent than any who have come before. This is why I joined the National Agenda for Black Girls (NABG) steering committee. NABG is an initiative by Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) that believes we can and we must center the needs of Black girls in our national policies for a truly equitable future.
I’ve found a political home with NABG because they share my expansive view of Black girls and women — as the true dynamic spectrum we are. We are from all walks of life, with different identities around gender, sexuality, income, religion, region, socioeconomic status and more. We uplift young Black people who are gender expansive and from across the LGBTQIA+ community.
I joined NABG because even though we see Black women building power, flipping states and truly changing the game all over the country (witness the organizing wins by Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown in Georgia), we simultaneously experience backlash from white supremacists rooted in the nation’s centuries-old anti-Black racism.
Black girls, women and gender-expansive young people are raising our voices to ensure the new administration and Congress will heed our call for national policies that center our needs, beginning with the establishment of a White House Council on Black Women and Girls. Only by making our needs a national priority will we see progress on the issues that affect us the most: education, incarceration and gender-based violence. And with a Black woman in the vice presidential office for the first time, there’s no better moment to do so.
While this is the starting point, we need more than just new national policies. We also require a cultural transformation that values the lives of Black girls, women and gender-expansive young people. The combination of policy and cultural change will ensure future generations of Black girls grow up hearing "yes," seeing affirmations of their right to exist in the classroom, across the media and in the halls of power. These twin focus areas comprise our Black Girls Bill of Rights.
I want all Black girls to know they can belong anywhere and everywhere. I am working to build a world that says "yes" to Black girls and affirms our right to exist, belong and hold power. There’s space for you, and we need you. You will change the game for the next generation. Black girls for Black girls. Let’s do it: for us.
Alexia Lewis is on the Steering Committee of A National Agenda For Black Girls, an initiative of Girls for Gender Equity. If you’re a Black girl or a gender expansive Black youth and you’re interested in joining A National Agenda for Black Girls, we’re currently recruiting young people across the country ages 16-24.