Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Black women are chameleons.
It has been the best way we know to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
Our ability to adapt is why we have survived, and often thrived, in America’s unwelcoming White spaces. And it is why I, and millions of other people around the world, rejoice that Kamala Harris is the first Black woman ever elected vice president in the United States.
Yes, Harris struggled at the start, but she rejected the safe chameleon strategy. Harris found the strength to embrace her true self and ascend to the nation’s second-highest seat of power. Black women, like me, understand the courage this type of transformation takes.
According to exit polls, the election of Joe Biden and Harris, made possible by support from 90% of Black women (and 79% of Black men), was a hard-fought victory. And it is long overdue.
Harris’ historic journey to the White House illustrates the delicate dance it takes, both in our own communities and on a national stage, for Black women to win in America, where our humanity has often been viewed through the gaze of racism and sexism.
Hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow laws, injustice and inequality have harshly informed and limited our ideas of how Black people can and should exist in this country. They’ve shaped how we see ourselves and one another. And, out of fear, we’ve too often hesitated to dream too big, or to recognize our collective power to shape our destinies.
But then a brilliant woman like Harris comes along, breaking down barriers, and too many of us can hardly recognize ourselves in her – or her in us.
Harris met the Black community’s mistrust early, especially in the primaries. There was healthy skepticism of the woman, who, prior to her US Senate role, had served as California’s attorney general, or top cop. And neither Harris, nor New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, the other Black presidential candidate, polled well. Some people cited concerns over “electability,” doubting if the nation would be eager to elect another Black man – or a Black woman president – immediately after the racially charged Trump era.
Still, the handwringing over Harris was frustratingly familiar to watch.
“It makes me angry. Black woman are multifaceted. We no longer have to live our lives in boxes. It wasn’t right the way Kamala was portrayed and marginalized by media and so many in the Black community. I wanted to help set record straight,” Reecie Colbert told me. She is founder of Black Women Views, a social media haven for the expressions of unapologetic and bold blackness.
By day, Colbert is a 36-year-old financial analyst in Washington, DC, but at all other times she’s been a leading voice in Harris’ #Khive of loyal defenders. Colbert said she has never worked for the Harris campaign and had never met Harris when she launched the site in 2018.
But it didn’t take long for Colbert’s sharp analysis and biting defense of all things Harris to gain the vice president-elect’s attention. With a Twitter following of almost 84,000 and a strong YouTube presence, Colbert has spent the past two years clarifying Harris’ policies and checking anyone who tried to discredit her record or defame the VP-elect in any way.
Over the past year, Colbert said that Harris and her staff began using her as a resource. She became a grassroots connection to the Black community. And each time they called, Colbert said, she gave Harris the same advice: “Lean into everything Black. Let Black people see you. Lean into your authentic self. Saturate Black media, tap into the power of Black women at HBCUs, Black women celebrities, Black music. Get Black women on your side.”
Harris and her team took that advice to heart.
Upon being selected Biden’s vice presidential running mate, she worked tirelessly to authentically connect with Black voters – something she’d failed to do successfully in her first campaign.
Harris took control over telling her own story. She launched a Black media blitz that included: Sean Combs’ (aka P Diddy) Revolt TV, “Roland Martin Unfiltered” – a digital show, and, Philadelphia’s WURD radio with Solomon Jones (a program I also appear on weekly).
She sat down with well-respected, young Black women journalists like Errin Haines, a founder and editor-at-large of The 19th (a nonprofit digital newsroom focused on gender, politics and policy), and Robin Givhan at the Washington Post.
Leaning into her blackness, Harris became a more confident, compelling candidate. And Black voters responded with overwhelming turnout to meet her as she campaigned – I witnessed this first-hand on one of her Philadelphia stops. Often wearing her signature Converse sneakers, Harris campaigned in cities like Detroit, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. She stopped to spontaneously speak with people who lined the streets, showing them warmth, compassion and understanding.
On one campaign stop in Philadelphia, Harris took tough questions from Solomon Jones and listeners who had serious concerns over her record as attorney general of California.
“Let’s clear this up. I was the first statewide officer to require law enforcement wear body cameras and keep them on at all times,” she said on WURD. “I instituted a plan for body cameras. And, I was elected in 2003, years before Black Lives Matter” began its important work for justice reforms.
Answering critics who argued she wasn’t progressive enough and had done little to alleviate mass incarceration, Harris, who I felt had fumbled these type of questions in the primaries as presidential candidate, aggressively defended her record, telling listeners that in California, she’d created one of the nation’s first jobs’ programs for young men who were drug offenders, a program what was later lauded by President Barack Obama.
“But, yes, I prosecuted child molesters, that was one of my areas of focus. Yes, I prosecuted rapists. Yes, I prosecuted homicides. Yes, I did. And I worked with mothers of homicide victims to make sure they received dignity in the system, and justice.”
Real talk like that, I believe, won Harris respect and admiration in Philadelphia and cities across the battleground states that later delivered the votes to send Biden and Harris to Washington.
Harris made us believe that she was ready and willing to fight for Black people.
Colbert couldn’t be prouder of the way Harris persevered, or, that the vice president-elect called her right after she and Biden finally were declared winners on Saturday.
“I still can’t believe it. She told me she shares this victory with me. And thanked me for being ride-or-die with her from the very beginning. I was so excited, dancing around my kitchen.” Colbert said.
She isn’t the only one dancing since Harris walked out on that stage a winner to Mary J. Blige’s iconic Black Woman anthem, “Work That,” on Saturday night.
Many hearts are full.
Harris’ journey inspires Black women and girls to break out of the boxes that dictate how we fill up space in the world. It shows us how to pivot and walk freely as multidimensional, unapologetic Black women. We don’t need to be chameleons, changing constantly to fit in.
Standing just as we are, we now know that we have the power to change the world.