My reflections on our historic Election Day, which appeared in the Miami Times.
It was 11:45am. I was getting ready for brunch with a mentee. The news flashed across the screen of my phone – we have a new President. Immediately I screamed for my husband and shared the news. So many emotions ran through me — joy, pride, tears, and laughter. It was an overwhelming feeling of relief and vindication to see Joe Biden win the race to become our 46th president. In all of this, I felt the joy even more acutely due to a personal connection. I remembered when I first met Vice President- elect Kamala Harris nearly a decade ago. It was during the National Black Prosecutors Association conference in July 2010. At that time, she was the San Francisco District Attorney. During our brief interaction, it was clear Ms. Harris was so sharp yet incredibly kind. It’s wild to think that I had been speaking to the future Vice President of the United States. To see a woman of Jamaican heritage like myself follow the path of being a prosecutor, then successfully running for District Attorney, California Attorney General, United States Senator, and now Vice President gave me so much hope and promise.
By the same token, I still feel sadness. Knowing that more than 70 million Americans are either racist or racist adjacent (accepting of racism) is a hard pill to swallow. I knew it was out there, but seeing the quantitative data – a hard number – is tough. It broke my heart to really digest this about the country (as well as the county) in which I live. Hopefully it’s a temporary emotion that will subside with time while focusing on the hard work ahead to rebuild. But the Trump vote is a clear vote against police accountability, control of our communities and destiny, and voting rights, in favor of – supposedly – the economy; but in actuality, supporting white extremism and preserving the status quo.
The road ahead is very long; we are in a period of time in this nation much like the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. There will be anger, followed by a lot of introspection. Hopefully, we emerge a little bit more conscious as to who we are as a country, with a new focus on who we want to be.
As the millennials say, please “miss me” with any pronouncements that racism is over due to Kamala Harris being elected. Her opponent’s words and actions, as well as those of some Republican leaders, made this very clear. I am reminded of comments made by the Miami GOP chair who stated on Facebook Live election night, “if you do not want a Kamala Harris presidency- because you know that is what it will be – go out and vote.” That is a stark reminder of where we are. The dog whistle was clearly designed to motivate racists and sexists. Also, seeing recent events where the University of Miami Republican club made racial slurs regarding Kamala Harris, with no real public rebuke by university officials or the GOP leadership, shows the level of racism from the new generation on up to current leadership.
Even more troubling, in this time of celebration, there are some African Americans (mostly men) who have made comments that Vice President-elect Harris’ status as a daughter of immigrants somehow doesn’t reflect the experiences of African Americans — suggesting their ancestors would not be proud of this moment in the same way. We saw an increase of support for the outgoing administration in the African American community (albeit small). While we celebrate, we have to be cognizant of the work that needs to be done to heal the divides in our own community. Pitting Black immigrants against Black Americans does nothing to move our interests forward. We’ve seen it locally this election cycle. It’s insulting as well as destructive. The racists are betting on the effectiveness of the divide and conquer strategy; we cannot let them succeed.
I did meet my mentee.
We laughed, cried, celebrated and toasted to the victory.
And now, the work commences.
Melba Pearson is the Director of Policy and Programs at the Center for the Administration of Justice at FIU, focused on prosecutorial reform. She is a former Miami homicide prosecutor and Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.
This week, actor Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer at the young age of 43.
Hearing of his death hurt me deeply. As an avid fan of the Marvel Studios movie franchise, seeing Black Panther for the first time was life changing on many levels as an African American woman. Watching people who looked like me prospering, creating, leading and saving the day on the big screen made my heart burst with pride – because so often Hollywood does not portray us in that manner. We are often relegated to the role of the gangster, the maid, the best friend or a lead character with messy tendencies. In real life we accomplish much of what is portrayed in Black Panther (i.e, girls of color in STEM) – but it is viewed as an outlier not the norm. While undoubtedly the narrative is slowly changing, Chadwick’s portrayal of King T’Challa/Black Panther singlehandedly destroyed stereotypes by the time the opening credits were completed.
In these times, we needed his portrayal more than ever. For two hours and fifteen minutes, I, along with so many others, were transported to a place of equality and justice – a Black utopia – albeit fictional. The Dora Milaje were strong African female warriors who reminded me of the fierce women of color in the real world who command respect while holding the world together behind the scenes. Chadwick’s smooth, effortless cool on screen was only exceeded by the good works he did in real life – as well as his superb portrayals of icons Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown.
My father taught me basic African history – great empires such Timbuktu which gave us math; how there was trading and commerce – all the good things before the continent was divided, ravaged and pillaged by slavery and colonialism. Real African history began far before slavery, yet that is where US history classes begin.
As an adult you often get too caught up in day to day life to do the research needed to know our history. Between police shootings, fighting to prove Black lives matter and to make sure the system is actually equal, you get sidetracked away from history.
But Black Panther changed everything. Black folks were like “wait, does this place exist?”
And so the hunt began. Think pieces abounded as to where a modern day Wakanda could be. Some say Kenya, others say Ethiopia. Ghana didn’t miss a beat and in honor of the 400 anniversary of slaves landing in the US, Ghana did the “year of return” to encourage African Americans to reconnect with their roots. Our collective intellectual curiosity was peaked by Chadwick’s and his co-stars’ stellar performances.
Black Panther also took on a different meaning when I went to Johannesburg, South Africa for the first time to lecture at a conference. The contrast really hit home – everyone has a tribe or a people they can point to as their own, complete with language, clothing and customs. I and the other African Americans who were present felt so lost when it came to “where are you from?” Oh, born in NY, family from the Caribbean. It pales to the generations of tribal love and closeness they enjoy. Out of that experience, they gave us African names. Mine was Boitumelo (aka Tumi) of the Tswana people, native to Botswana and South Africa. It means “joy”. As a gift, they presented me with a beautiful handmade dress that I wore when I launched my political campaign this past January as well as on election night, as a reminder that whatever happens – my ancestors are supporting me and are proud. The locals in South Africa referred to the ancestors regularly as a sign of respect as well as to remember their history – much like in the movie.
My experience was enriched by having seen Black Panther – too often Africa is portrayed as a place of endless war and famine. Black Panther expanded our minds and countered that negative narrative. The concept of hiding greatness in plain sight so that it would not be destroyed resonated with me and so many others.
Losing Chadwick was part of the loss of a fantasy. But it is one that can be made into reality in so many ways. In the end of Black Panther, Chadwick’s character was able to address racism and poverty on a global scale by revealing the power of Wakanda.
The reality is, we are all powerful, and can stand up to address these same issues via the ballot box, building economic power in our communities and rejecting the narratives placed upon us. As King T’Chaka said when he saw King T’Challa and he knelt before him on the ancestral plane “Stand. You are a king”
Chadwick Boseman left an amazing legacy. While it really hurts, to quote the movie “in our culture, death is not the end”. While we mourn him, it is not the end for him or us. We must push forward to honor what was begun by our ancestors – who Chadwick joins on the ancestral plane.
Rest in Power, Sleep in Peace King T’Challa. Wakanda Forever 🙅🏾♀️
This year, we celebrate 100 years of suffrage in America. On June 4, 1919, women received the right to vote via the 19th Amendment.
This month, we also celebrated the 170th anniversary of Harriett Tubman liberating herself from the chains of slavery – which enabled her to bravely return multiple times to the South to free so many others. Her story will be brought to the big screen this November, bringing historic context of the fight for liberation and equality to the masses.
As we celebrate, we also must recognize that the freedom given by the 19th Amendment was not for all women — African American women were left out of the equation. While this has been a long road, we are not yet at the finish line. Women still face barriers to voting — and it is even felt more acutely in communities of color.
Let’s look back in history through the eyes of African American suffragettes, and their unique role. Many of you have heard the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; there are lesser known names that have had a major impact on voting rights.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1800’s)
I say then that justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law (1866)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a dedicated activist, poet, public speaker and author who fought for suffrage, the abolition of slavery and civil rights. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she discovered her love for the written word early. By the age of 21, she had written her first book of poems that was later published. She ultimately published seven books of poetry, the first four of which sold 50,000 copies. After witnessing the injustice that resulted from a Maryland law prohibiting free African Americans in the North from entering the state, she dedicated her life to the anti-slavery cause. She traveled the country lecturing and writing, raising awareness of the curse upon our nation.
She had a high profile split with suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton left the American Equal Rights Association because it was supporting the Fifteenth Amendment, which would allow black male suffrage before white women won the vote.
In December 1865 Stanton stated that white women had been staunch supporters of securing “freedom for the Negro.” However, in light of emancipation, the Negro is no longer “lowest in the scale of being,” and “it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.”
In 1869, the year of the split, 52 African Americans were lynched — which led Frances to the conclusion that political rights for African Americans was most urgent, followed by the rights of women.
In 1866, Frances noted “I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.”
Despite the indifference and racism that Frances endured, she continued to advocate for the right to vote for all.
Born in Mississippi, Ida B. Wells is known as an anti-lynching activist, and a trailblazing journalist. She became frustrated at the ineffectiveness of the court system as a vehicle for ending injustice, and turned to journalism to fight racism and sexism. She founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in her home town at the time — Chicago — in January 1913. Through her work with the Alpha Club she realized that African-American women did not necessarily have the education to participate in politics and the electoral process. Ever the agent of change, she reached out to other clubs for black women at the local, state, and national level in order to encourage more women of color to become involved in politics.
In March 1913, Ida traveled to the first suffrage parade in Washington D.C., an event organized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. On the day of the parade, Wells and sixty other Black women arrived to march with the Illinois delegation, but were immediately told to march in the back, so that the Southern delegates would not become upset. Ida refused, arguing: “Either I go with you or not at all. I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.” She marched along her own Illinois delegation, supported by her white co-suffragists Belle Squires and Virginia Brooks. This event received massive newspaper coverage, shedding light on the truth of African-American participation in politics.
Ida would be defined today as a community activist/organizer. Her community work, especially with the Alpha Suffrage Club, helped the women’s suffrage movement reach its success. Her work helped pass the Presidential and Municipal Bill in Illinois in June 1913, giving women over age 21 partial suffrage (the right to vote in presidential and municipal, but not state, elections). She helped register women voters and constantly encouraged women who remained doubtful of their place in the electoral process. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted in 1920, Ida traveled throughout Chicago and Illinois emboldening African-American women to vote and participate in politics.
Crystal Mason (today)
In 2016, Crystal Mason, who was on supervised release felony tax fraud,did what millions of people across the country did — she voted. However, she did not realize that she was not eligible to vote. When she arrived at her voting place back in November 2016, since she was not on the voter roll, Crystal received a provisional ballot. But by casting that provisional ballot, she broke a Texas state law that says residents are prohibited from voting until their sentence is complete. By definition, a sentence includes probation, parole and, in Crystal’s case, supervision. In multiple interviews, she has maintained that it was an honest mistake, and that she wasn’t even aware of the law in the first place. Additionally, since she voted using a provisional ballot, her vote was not counted in the final tally.
In March 2019, Mason was first sentenced to five years in prison for breaking the voting law, but was released on a $20,000 bond. She had requested a new trial on the grounds the court did not consider the evidence that she did not know she was ineligible to vote. Her request for retrial was denied in June. Her attorney was quoted as saying “She was never told she couldn’t vote. Not by a district judge. Not by anyone at the half-way house where she lived after she got out. Not by the probation officer.” The ACLU and other civil rights groups are fighting for her freedom through the appeals process.
Crystal’s case is symptomatic of one of the current barriers to voting– being convicted of a felony. Until Amendment 4 passed in Florida in 2018, we were one of 4 states that permanently disenfranchises people with felony convictions. By contrast, Maine and Vermont allow people to vote while incarcerated. Now that Senate Bill 7066 has passed, having a felony conviction does not prohibit voting — but having a felony conviction and being poor does. If you finish your sentence, you are not able to vote until you have paid all of your fines and fees. If you are unable to work due to having a felony conviction — because most employers will not hire you — how will you be able to vote? Additionally, only recently are we viewing sex trafficking victims as victims — what about those who have felony convictions as a result? What about the victims of domestic violence who lash out at their abusers, but end up incarcerated instead? Environmental factors, such as abuse and sexual assault derail the lives of so many and funnel them into the criminal justice system. The ability to vote is critical to reintegration into society. Caring about your community and having a say in your government is directly linked to a reduction in recidivism — which results in safer communities for everyone. In one study, among individuals who had been arrested previously, 27 percent of non-voters were rearrested, compared with 12 percent of voters. When the system imposes barriers to fully re-entering society — of which voting is a key component — we are not truly at equity.
Another issue is that of the reduction of early voting hours which affects women who are working. Truthfully, Election Day should be a holiday so that everyone’s voice can be heard. But in the absence of this, reducing early voting hours disproportionately affects people who cannot take off work for multiple hours to wait in line to vote. The voters that are disproportionately impacted are working women of color.
In closing, I ask that you do not look upon these issues with indifference — stand with us and continue the fight for equality. In the words of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper:
We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.
Hey RLD Family! I took a bit of a summer hiatus..but I’m baaaack! It’s time to explore the importance of wills, especially for people of color. This is my first piece published for the blog The 94 Percent.
Aretha Franklin. Prince. Bob Marley. Barry White. Marvin Gaye. Tupac. The list of celebrities of color that have died without a will goes on and on.
As we grieve the latest loss of musical icon, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, we should also take the opportunity to learn some lessons. Many in our community seem to think that wills are for white people. As a result, they do not seek the protections they need and often die intestate (without a will).
Every Black History Month, I have done a series on this blog on the topic of “Legal Divas of Color”. The intent is to highlight African-American women who are doing great things in the legal field. Many serve as an inspiration to me to keep fighting the good fight and pushing the boundaries as far as they can go. It is also a reminder that the term “diva” is not a pejorative term; a diva is a woman who is strong, self-assured, and commands her worth.
When one thinks of the state of Alabama, sadly what comes to mind is the long history of racism and segregation. One thinks of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King; the actions of brutal police officers; and the last state in the country to overturn miscegenation laws as required by the Supreme Court.
However, Election Day 2016 showed that times are slowly changing in this southern state. 10 female attorneys of color rose to the highest positions that one can hold in the legal field in Jefferson County. The newly elected District Attorney is Lynneice Washington; and nine women of color were elected judges in Jefferson County. The nine new judges are Javan Patton, Debra Bennett Winston, Shera Craig Grant, Nakita “Niki” Perryman Blocton, Tamara Harris Johnson, Elisabeth French, Agnes Chappell, Brendette Brown Green and Annetta Verin.
District Attorney Lynneice Washington ran on a progressive platform of reforming/reducing the use of the death penalty, creating alternatives to incarceration for low level offenders, and creating a citizens-police advisory board. In doing so, she defeated the incumbent who had been appointed to the position after the retirement of his successor.
These wins are even more significant when you look at the fact that the current administration carried Alabama, and defeated Hillary Clinton resoundingly.
In this day and age, there seems to be a resurgence of the “tough on crime” rhetoric coming from the Justice Department and the White House. These policies have proven to be ineffective, leading to mass incarceration and no rehabilitation to be found in the criminal justice system. Now, there is a rise of a more progressive approach to criminal justice, which has shown to be effective in reducing recidivism and integrating people back into their communities. This is why it is more important than ever to elect progressive district attorneys and judges so that the whole defendant is being considered, as well as what is right for the victim, and the community at large. Local politics have become more critical in criminal justice than national policy. Groups such as the ACLU, and activists such as Shaun King are mounting voter education campaigns on this critical issue.
The wave of power seen in Jefferson County, Alabama is absolutely historic. I look upon these wins as hope for the future!
Congratulations ladies for being Legal Divas of Color.
Please see the bios of the nine judges here as well as a great piece detailing the District Attorney Lynneice Washington’s plans for the future of her county.