The sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority knew all along that Kamala Harris was a winner
College soror Jill Louis speaks of togetherness, hugs and history past and present rooted at Howard University
Editor’s note: ABC News has declared Joe Biden the apparent winner of the presidency, making California Sen. Kamala Harris the first woman and first African American and first South Asian American to be elected vice president.
Before Black Girl Magic was a thing, we walked the campus of Howard University in the late 1980s, Kamala Harris and I, primed to reap the benefits of being the first generation to grow up in full integration.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed as our birthday presents. What my mother instilled in me that year was significant because it represented the removal of limits on my future. We embarked on a life in which the promises of full participation in society as Black people was now a legal right. We chose to attend a historically Black college and university (HBCU) to enrich our minds and prepare us for brilliant careers, or so we certainly thought.
My freshman year and Kamala’s sophomore year, Vanessa Williams won the title of Miss America. We watched, crowded around small televisions in the Tubman Quadrangle. I remember a classmate saying through tears “she won it for all of us.” This was the first in many cultural occurrences that validated the perceived removal of limits to our achievement as Black women. We learned we could be iconic and become women of high purpose. We believed we could use our voices and our energies to free Nelson Mandela a world away. We expected excellence.
This was when Kamala Harris and I attended Howard University. With our divergent backgrounds – she from Oakland, California, East and West Indian, and me from D.C., Texas, Alabama, a Louisiana Creole – we met and became sisters for life as spring 1986 initiates of the Alpha Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. She did not walk in the door that first evening with a halo of light portending her future, but she was a woman on a mission. We all were.
The bright smile and the ready laugh were her trademarks. She proudly told stories of her heritage, also revealing that when you are a multicultural child of immigrants, you have to fend off derision for all the dimensions of your “otherness,” sometimes coming from your own people. As an AKA member, you become self-aware and more selfless as you learn you are not the center of the universe, but rather an actor supporting your sisters and your community. When Kamala says that Alpha Kappa Alpha shaped her, this is what I believe she means.
The early members of Alpha Kappa Alpha marched for women’s suffrage and Black advancement more than 100 years ago. The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center collection at Howard contains the letter written in 1913 by chapter president Nellie Quander. In it, she implores Alice Paul, chair of a women’s suffrage parade, to make room for Black women in the march in a “desirable” place in the procession.
She hoped they would not be denied or discriminated against on the basis of their race. The sorority continued this legacy in our marches in front of the South African Embassy protesting apartheid and fundraising for Africare. We even used the same stationery for our community correspondence as Quander. Before intersectionality was a term, we worked at the intersection of our womanhood and our Blackness.
Those years taught us our capacity for resilience and for achievement. As Black women at an HBCU, we had the opportunity to step away from minority status. We were the dominant culture. That perspective changes you from the typical posture in which you find yourself as a Black person in the larger U.S. culture. From Howard on, we have felt the absolute right to exist in our skin and to do anything that we have the intellectual or physical capacity to do.
Kamala became the first Black woman to hold office as San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and U.S. senator from California. I went to Harvard Law School, where my schoolmates were Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, and entered old-line corporate law firms as a corporate and securities attorney when almost no Black women were. Later, I was general counsel in private equity portfolio companies and today an equity partner in an Am Law 50 law firm when fewer than 2% of the roles are held by women of color. As Kamala likes to say, we see the world as it can be unburdened by how it has been.
As I headed into corporate law firms, Kamala went into public service. Her first campaign was close, but she pulled it out. Word went out she was running for office in California and needed our support. By then we, her line sisters, were spread coast to coast. Some were married. Some had children. Some had been through their first divorce. One would lose her battle to cancer. Kamala and I would each lose our mothers to cancer. Distance and time did not break the bond or the willingness to support a fellow sister. Her future races would come easier.
When she was sworn into the U.S. Senate, we donned pumps and pearls and descended on the Capitol. Rarely at a loss for words, when Kamala and I greeted each other that day we had none. The power of the moment was expressed in pride-filled gazes, squeezed hands and hugs. I slipped a bracelet on her arm that had a heart on it that said “Strong Woman.” I wanted it to protect her. She was sworn into the Senate wearing it.
When she got ready to launch her own bid for president, she called me to ask me what I thought. We talked through scenarios. We knew it would be a unique journey. She let me know she was ready. The ride-or-die spirit of being line sisters kicked in immediately. I told her: “I’m with you and I’m not scared.”
Now as she rises to become one of the most powerful women in the world, the blood, sweat and tears of our foremothers have borne fruit. We are ready to harvest and replant with our own for the next generation. We have the place in the parade that our founders sought for the college women of Howard University in 1913. Kamala’s election will not be the finish line, but it will be a place of purpose and of power.
I see the validation of their very existence that Kamala’s position provides to Black people, South Asian people and women, but particularly women of color. Those 2020 babies born in the deep pandemic and amid economic and racial strife will grow up hearing their birthday present was the ascendancy of a Black woman to the vice presidency. Their mothers will whisper, “You were born in the year of Kamala Harris.” You have no limits. Kamala let us know that she may be the first, but she has no intention of being the last.