Women's Media Center
I've been giving thanks quite a lot this election season:
thanks that the field of candidates looks different from
ever before; that we who are not white men can believe that
our nation has a place for us in its leadership, too. And
I've been giving thanks that the advent of this diverse
slate of candidates has created just a little space in which
we Americans can begin to address, on a national level, the
issues of race and gender that have plagued us since our
very beginnings as a country. We may not yet be good at
talking about those issues, but at least now we're trying.
Today, however, I am here to admit that my greatest
measure of thankfulness has recently settled on nothing so
predictable, for a black woman, as seeing Clinton and
Obama's faces plastered across every newspaper and
television screen from here to Tallahassee. No, today I want
to give thanks for the state of South Carolina.
That's right, South Carolina. The first state to secede
from the Union when that pesky "War of Northern Aggression"
became inevitable. Hotbed of slaveholding activities as late
as 1860, with 45.8 percent of all white families holding
slaves -- the highest rate in the nation. Home to legendary
states rights leader and segregationist presidential
candidate Strom Thurman. And the last place in the USA where
the Confederate flag was allowed to retain its place of
so-called honor, flying atop the State House dome until the
year 2000 -- 135 years after the abolition of slavery, in
case you're counting.
Here's one truth: South Carolina has a history of
racialized hatred as deep and as wide as any our nation
knows. But here's another: this election cycle, the state of
South Carolina has accomplished something absolutely
unprecedented. It's managed to do what no other state,
politician, activist or entertainer (sorry, Oprah) has yet
been able to match on such a grand scale. This year, South
Carolina has made black women matter -- at least for the
moment. Somehow, South Carolina has made us real.
I got my first glimpse of this new reality on the night
of the New Hampshire primaries, when Donna Brazile, former
campaign manager for Al Gore and CNN political analyst,
pointed the way. South Carolina would be a crucial contest
for both these candidates, she suggested, and in that
primary, black women would mark the difference between the
winner and the loser.
It is not an overstatement that I jumped off my couch at
that moment -- I'd never heard any such thing even hinted at
on national television, and to hear those words filled me
with the kind of excitement you only feel when a deep, deep
longing has finally been touched. Because the truth is that,
as a woman of color in this country -- whether you're highly
educated and economically privileged or a high school
dropout fighting to feed your family -- you learn to operate
within a certain set of cultural conditions. You get used to
being either utterly abused by the male-dominated media or
just as utterly ignored by them. You get used to being
sidelined in discussions that inevitably, and falsely, pit
sexism against race in a scramble for the bottom of the pile
-- because of the challenge that you, in your skin, pose to
the lie of this either/or dichotomy. Frankly, you get used
to not counting for much.
So to have someone acknowledge, in such a matter of fact
way -- and with the nodding assent of her white, male and
female peers on set -- that we black women not only have a
stake in this primary, but also may be the deciding factor,
was an incredible departure from the status quo, whether few
who are not us noticed it or not. Nor did the good news end
there. Reporter after reporter did the Mason-Dixon math and
concluded that Donna was exactly right: in the Democratic
race, black women would be the deciders. And though the main
contenders' campaigns might not agree with me, the even
better news from my perspective is this: so far, it remains
unclear exactly how this important demographic is going to
allocate their votes on Election Day.
Why is that good news? Because it means that "black
women" have here an opportunity to be seen as the individual
voters, with differing values and ideas, that we really are.
Leading up to Saturday's primary, no campaign can afford to
take the black female vote for granted as they have in
decades past. And just as critically, the media must now pay
attention to black women making important decisions in an
unprecedented way -- on their own terms, as empowered,
engaged citizens of this nation -- or risk missing the
story. How often can you say you've seen images like that
from the news media?
So yes, I am thankful to South Carolina this election
season. If that's what it takes to see people with faces
like mine taken seriously, even for just this moment, then
so be it. For that privilege, I'll whistle Dixie till the
cows come home.