I See Parts of Myself in Stacey Abrams
My mother has been talking my ear off for months about the Georgia gubernatorial primary. Sometimes I've listened politely. Often I've paid little attention, only offering a (hopefully) conversationally-appropriate "mmmhmm" when she paused. Why? I adore my mother, but in my own mind I figured, "There's no way a black woman is going to win this primary, so why is Brenda getting all worked up about this?" Against my best efforts to ignore this race, thanks to my mother I sort of know who endorsed whom, who said what, and who did what clumsy or offensive thing. I know that "White Stacey" grew up in a trailer park, and that my mother was sick of hearing about White Stacey's humble roots. I guess she talked about it a lot? Certainly she spoke about it enough to irritate my mother. (Btw, "Black Stacey"/"White Stacey" isn't solely my mother's linguistic quirk. That's how people back home distinguished the two of them.) All that to say I've heard more than I cared to about the Democratic primary for this race. And then Stacey Abrams, Black Stacey, won.
A few days ago, my friend Jonathan asked me a question about ethics and representation in order to frame work he's thinking through. I won't say more than that about his project in progress since I don't have his permission. But the question sent me back to the dissertation on political representation and minorities (Representation and the Interests of Political Minorities) that I abandoned* as soon as I completed it. While I don't think that Jonathan was specifically thinking about the realm of politics, his question to me returned my own thinking to the nature of representation.
This brings me back to the Abrams primary victory. In the strict political sense, it is clear that Abrams won the right to "represent" the Georgia Democrats in the general election for governor. But, while her victory would be historic, not only in Georgia but in the nation, part of the "bigness" of her victory would be, for some, connected to ideas about representation. I'll call myself a Georgian until the day I die, but I'm not registered to vote there. And at this point in my life, I've live outside of Georgia longer than I ever lived in Georgia. So I don't care whether Abrams would represent me as a Georgian, although I am quite proud that Georgia will potentially be the place that elects the first black woman governor.
It matters to me that Abrams is a black woman with an advanced degree, who has struggled financially, and whose single status has been used as a proxy for her sexual orientation (read: lesbian). She embodies the impossible place where a lot of black women find ourselves. She earned the right degrees from the right schools. She had a "good" job. But, she's been criticized for maybe being a little "too" ambitious--a turnoff to potential voters and potential husbands alike. And we all know that for a woman, getting married is the second most important thing she can possibly do. The most important thing is to become a mother--but only within the bonds of holy, heterosexual matrimony. At the same time, black women are constantly told that no one wants us--especially those of us with advance degrees. Yet, even though supposedly no one wants us, not being married by a certain age (35?) means that something (beyond our general state of unwantedness, which is our responsibility to somehow overcome) is "wrong" with us, and that "something" often suspected to be lesbianism.
The "accusation" of lesbianism is used to silence outspoken women ("Don't call yourself a feminist or else people will think you're a lesbian, and no man will marry you!") or to "shame" single women over a certain age ("Maybe you're really a lesbian. That would explain why you look, think, dress, act, talk, and generally exist in ways that aren't appealing to men!"). That is how sexism and heterosexism intertwine in the lives of outspoken (especially) single black women, and I'm incredibly proud that Abrams didn't take the bait. In a place as conservative as Georgia, it would be easy and politically expedient proclaim from the mountain tops that she is a straight woman and to distance herself from some of the positions she's taken on equality. Yet, she is an unapologetic LGBTQ+ ally.
I see parts of myself in Abrams. I made a strong argument for what political representation does for those of us who historically have had little to no access to political power in the dissertation that I didn't think was good enough to turn into a larger project. Perhaps I might have made a different decision if, in my own spaces, I'd seen it done by someone like Abrams. And that in itself is significant.
*I abandoned it as soon as I completed it because I didn't think it mattered. I knew the topic was important, but I wasn't confident in my work. I came across it not too long ago, started reading it and thought, "Damn, this was actually pretty good!" A missed opportunity? Maybe. But that's another post for another day.