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The sound of a shifting power structure

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/13/2021 Robin Givhan
a man and a woman standing in front of a building: Harris answers voters questions during a town hall style event in a gymnasium at Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas, Nevada on March 1, 2019. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post Harris answers voters questions during a town hall style event in a gymnasium at Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas, Nevada on March 1, 2019.

Everything will be different. The 49th vice president will be sworn into office in the midst of a pandemic and without the vast crowds. The ceremony comes after a mostly White mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and the populace is still caught in the turbulence of the most fractious and destructive administration this country has ever seen. For the first time, the words of that oath will not be uttered by a White man, but by a Black woman. This voice of authority — the second-highest-ranking executive in the land — will not be a masculine baritone. It will not echo generations of traditions and assumptions, omissions and belittlements. Instead, the voice of Kamala D. Harris will ring with the sound of the future.

There have been many people who’ve broken racial barriers. Many who’ve broken gender ones. But Harris, the American daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, is crashing through so many doors simultaneously that the full symbolism and impact of her ascension must be reckoned with piecemeal. And in this particular moment, Harris’s significance to Black women — her representation of them — bears special attention.

Black women live at the intersection of this country’s miasma of racism and misogyny. They are flesh-and-blood evidence of the ways in which our prejudices and stereotypes hinder the economic stability of the hardest workers and professional advancement of some of this country’s most talented residents. Black women have also been standard bearers of dignity in the face of disrespect and tenacity in response to doubt. They are hope made human.

Their physical presence speaks to our aesthetic biases and nonchalant insults. We use them in memes and GIFs to put a generic face to anger and sass, to sauciness and craven desire. They are Jezebels. They are Madea. They are the wet nurses of this young democracy. And most recently they have been described by a grateful social media chorus as having saved democracy — #thankblackwomen.

a group of people posing for the camera: Women listen to Harris during the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit in Las Vegas in March 2019. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post Women listen to Harris during the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit in Las Vegas in March 2019.

Black women wrangled recalcitrant Democratic voters and drove them to the polls. They organized and cajoled, explained and marched until their voices were hoarse and their feet were numb. In the eyes of their critics they were nasty and despicable but they carried on with the yeoman’s work of civic engagement. Harris is the fruit of their labor.

But they are not selfless saviors; they are human. Harris expresses that simple truth, too.

Her success brought women to tears — especially Black women. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile wept over Harris’s victory because she could hear the voices of her mother and grandmothers — Black women who didn’t live to see this day — whispering their prayers of thanks. Brazile warns that this country shouldn’t mistake the rise of Harris as a curative for gender inequity or racial injustice. Harris is a first — and as she has so often repeated, she doesn’t plan to be the last. But she alone is not transformative. Just as there was no post-racial America following the election of Barack Obama, there is no post-gender America now. Harris won’t drown out those critics who express annoyance about women’s persistence, their “nasty” habit of staking a claim on their fair share and their refusal to go back to where they came from if only because they are certain in their belief that their rightful place is precisely where they are.

Still, there’s music in Harris’s voice.

For a long time, when we’ve imagined a woman reaching the highest ranks of power, the focus has been on how that will look — on how differently power will appear to the citizenry when its draped over a woman’s shoulders. History has given us floppy bows under ill-fitting mannish blazers and a plethora of boxy suits in candy-colored hues. Harris makes her day-to-day professional clothes powerfully irrelevant except as a matter of aesthetic pleasure.

She likes a dark suit. Perhaps a contrasting blouse, maybe one that blends in. She wears a uniform without it becoming a statement of conformity. She isn’t the dramatic dynamo of the fashion industry’s imagination. She’s the accomplished woman freed to dress as herself thanks to the trail of criticized, parsed, admired and weaponized wardrobes of so many women who preceded her: Shirley Chisholm’s see-me prints; Geraldine Ferraro’s silk dresses and pearls; Hillary Clinton’s rainbow of pantsuits; Nancy Pelosi’s elegant, old-world polish; Madeleine Albright’s collection of symbolic brooches; Sarah Palin’s off-message Neiman Marcus makeover; and countless other political women who embraced fashion as a form of communication or simply made peace with it.

Amanda Fitzpatrick, Kamala Harris posing for the camera: The man behind the woman: Emhoff with his wife outside the 2019 California Democratic Party State Organizing Convention at the Moscone Center in San Francisco in June 2019. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post The man behind the woman: Emhoff with his wife outside the 2019 California Democratic Party State Organizing Convention at the Moscone Center in San Francisco in June 2019.

We have become acclimated to seeing women in the room and with a seat at the table — even at the head of the table. But hearing them over the deafening cacophony of masculine voices? Hearing them without prejudice? Hearing them without describing them as shrill or hysterical has proved to be a separate, but equally daunting, task. But change is upon us.

When Harris, 56, speaks, there are moments when one could argue that she sounds girlish, which is to say she can sound light and effervescent. She laughs easily and with gusto. She speaks of cooking and mothering and her beloved Converse sneakers. She doesn’t have a news anchor voice — one that is trained and practiced at staying at a low register. But henceforth, gravitas is no longer measured in octaves. To be girlish is to be powerful because power is redefined.

When Harris is lawyering, she speaks in sharp, quick tones. There’s no uptick at the end of her sentences that might suggest she is open to having her statements questioned. Her words are forceful and to the point. She doesn’t meander or get hung up on verbal tics. She can make those being questioned squirm — as she has with former attorneys general William P. Barr and Jeff Sessions. Her public profile was built on her dazzling verbal pugilism as she expressed the skepticism and frustration of an electorate that was tired of an administration that seemed intent on skirting the truth. An indelible image is that of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sitting next to Harris and listening to her with an expression of pride and amusement as she verbally dismantled the stubbornly dense Barr. If anyone was emotional, it was the men who quivered.

Her voice calls out to the sisterhood of her historically Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha; it has hints of the musicality that resides in the Black church and it has the confident swagger of her fellow Howard University alumni. Despite a hint of a California drawl, her voice lacks a distinctive regional accent. It’s simply American. It’s nonspecific and universal. And feminine.

The mere sound of her voice is the answer to the famous query attributed to Sojourner Truth: “Ain’t I a woman?” When Harris interrogates a witness, she is also making it clear that Black women deserve honesty. When she speaks of racial justice, it’s also a demand for gender equity. Her entire victory speech after she and Joe Biden became the projected winners of the 2020 election was a declaration that everything had at long last changed.

A single Black woman’s voice speaks for the ages — as well as the multitudes.

a man standing in a parking lot: An Oakland, Calif., woman basks in Kamala Harris's ascension to vice president-elect on Nov. 7. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post An Oakland, Calif., woman basks in Kamala Harris's ascension to vice president-elect on Nov. 7.
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