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What Kamala Harris' Political First Means For Black Women In Kansas City

On Jan. 20, Kamala Harris will become the first female vice president of the United States.
Adam Schultz
Biden for President
On Jan. 20, Kamala Harris will become the first female vice president of the United States.

Kamala Harris is set to become the country’s first female vice president. Harris is a Black woman of Indian and Jamaican descent, and the occasion is inspiring people of color across Kansas City.

If you voted in Missouri in November, you might know Alissia Canady’s name. You might have even voted for her. Canady ran unsuccessfully for Missouri lieutenant governor, and shared the ballot with Harris.

It’s not the only thing they have in common.

“There were some parallels: both women of color, both former prosecuting attorneys," Canady said. "There's a, you know, a sisterhood that comes from going through that rite of passage.”

It’s easy to see why Canady, a former Kansas City Council member, relates to Harris, and why she was thrilled when Harris became vice president-elect.

“It was a proud day to be a black woman in America," Canady said.

After the Democratic win, Canady thought back to President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, which she attended.

"That was a memorable experience — I remember being extremely cold," she said. "I remember being extremely proud and inspired in the moment, but America's not the same as it was in 2009.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, what Canady calls "a climate of protest," and a siege on the U.S. Capitol just weeks ago all mean Wednesday's celebrations won’t feel or look the same.

Governing, too, has changed, said Canady, but she still expects big things from the incoming administration.

“Criminal justice reform — I expect to see that," she said. "I expect them to deal with this public health crisis in a way that's equitable.”

Alicia Canady campaigns for Lt. Gov. in 2020.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Alicia Canady campaigns for Lt. Gov. in 2020.

And Harris’ role as the potential tie-breaking vote in the U.S. Senate will be key to passing more progressive laws there, Canady said.

But she wonders if Harris’ race or gender will be a liability.

"I think some of the biggest obstacles she's going to have to deal with is overcoming, providing effective leadership in the face of white privilege," Canady said. "She's going to have to be confident in her ... decision-making in spite of sexism. She's going to have to be confident in her ability to lead and govern this country in spite of the hate that will be spewed from people who are not of the same political affiliation."

Cecilia S. Johnson is an activist and political consultant. Over the last few years she’s become one of the most prominent young conservatives in Missouri, and serves on the Black Voices for Trump advisory board.

She has a harder time relating to Harris.

“The only thing I see us really having in common is having attended an HBCU,” says Johnson, who went to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Cecilia Johnson was the first Black president of the Kansas City Young Republicans and the first Black office holder of the Missouri Federation of Young Republicans.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Cecilia Johnson was the first Black president of the Kansas City Young Republicans and the first Black office holder of the Missouri Federation of Young Republicans.

Harris is a graduate of Howard University in Washington.

Part of their difference Johnson attributes to culture. Harris’ mother was an Indian immigrant, and she made sure Harris got a healthy dose of African American and South Asian culture.

The other difference, predictably, is political.

“While I do hope that the Black community will get tangibles from this administration ... from what I've seen, I don't think that we're going to get anything tangible directly for our community," Johnson said.

Politics aside, she acknowledges the historic nature of it all. Representation matters, Johnson said, and seeing a Black woman as second-in-command of the country can be a powerful thing.

“I think that sometimes people need to see someone that looks like them in that position," she said, "in order to let them know that they can make it.”

Holli Holliday also takes a historic view of the inauguration which makes sense given the deep roots her family has in Kansas City politics.

Her grandfather Harold Holliday Sr. was an attorney, state legislator and judge. He was also the first African American to graduate from the UMKC School of Law, and a charter member of Freedom Inc., a powerful Black political organization in Kansas City. Her grandmother, father and others were also deeply involved in politics.

“I have definitely been raised and trained by some tremendous Kansas Citians, and some great political minds," she says.

Holliday has also played a part in helping break glass ceilings with Sisters Lead Sisters Vote, a political group that focuses on elevating women’s voices.

She links Harris’ achievement to a long tradition of political leadership from African American women.

“I mean, you know, we could go back to Harriet Tubman and talk about how just even running the underground railroad was in fact an act of civic engagement and a fight for justice and equality," she said.

Harris’ lived experience as a woman of color in America brings something new and critical to the office, Holliday said — something she thinks can only help unite the country.

"When you are part of a community that has been on the outside, all you tend to think about is how communities can be more inclusive and more engaged," she said. Leaders like that "can provide avenues where the least of us are having an opportunity to be the best of us."

She adds they are big expectations for a new administration, but they match the mood of the occasion.

"As much as this is a powerful moment for African Americans, I cannot overemphasize how we all, every American ... (should) see themselves in the vision that she will participate in for the next four years," Holliday said.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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