Carving A Path For Those Who Will Follow

Stacey Abrams, in conversation with Valerie Boyd

"So often we're told to run despite who we are, and I am running because of who I am."

VALERIE BOYD: Everybody I’ve talked with, when I’ve told them that I’m interviewing Stacey Abrams, they’re so excited—and especially black women. Every time I tell a black woman I’m interviewing you, they get a dreamy look in their eyes that’s usually reserved for Michelle Obama. Well, maybe Oprah. But now there are three black women whose first names alone elicit that dreamy-eyed response: Michelle, Oprah, Stacey. You are deeply loved and supported, so my first question then is this: How does it feel to carry the hopes and dreams of so many Georgians, so many Americans, so many women, so many citizens on your shoulders?

STACEY ABRAMS: First of all, I would say it’s deeply humbling and it is an honor to even be in the company of some of the strongest and most effective women—most effective Americans. I do not overlook the fact that I’m helping to change the face of what leadership looks like in Georgia and across the country. My responsibility though is to never believe that this is about me. I have the deep privilege of being an avatar for women who haven’t figured out what they can do for African Americans who are looking for places to stand so they can move their communities forward. As someone who is southern, a daughter of the South, I speak for so many of us across racial and gender lines who know that we are capable of more, but for so long have been isolated from power. I’m grateful for the opportunity but I do not for a second believe that this is about me. It is about us, and about we, and about what we can accomplish.

It is about us, and about we, and about what we can accomplish.

VB: So on that note, much has been made in the past few elections on the larger issue of black women sort of carrying the weight of the democracy on our collective shoulders. As you know, black women voters have basically saved America from itself in recent elections. I want to talk a little bit about that more politically, but I also want to talk about it personally for a minute. As you know, one of the top health issues for black women right now is stress. So it’s like we’re carrying the weight of the world almost literally on our shoulders, but what can we do about the weight of that and self-care? I also want to know what you do personally to practice self-care?

SA:
I frame my approach to the world as work. I call it work–life Jenga, meaning that there is never going to be balance. There’s never going to be fairness and equity in the obligations or the opportunity. For black women in particular, where we are situated on the economic strata, on the political strata, where we find ourselves in almost every facet of life, we are responsible for doing more to move ourselves because no one seems to be coming to help. The extent to which we organize our lives around this idea is that there will be a moment of balance. We are fooling ourselves, but we’re also buying into this narrative that salvation is going to come from the outside. I believe my responsibility is to do the work. We may never fix everything but the obligation is to try. When I think about how I do it, it is that I take very seriously all of the facets of that obligation.

I can’t fight a battle that I’m too weak to enter. So I will find ways to restore my energies and to restore my focus. Sometimes I have to have people remind me that I need to do that.

VB: So what do you do?

SA:
I read, I watch television, I discovered meditation and yoga. I’m not as practiced as I wish I were, but the other piece is that I don’t allow my work to cause me stress. And here’s what I mean. Stress tends to happen when we believe we have to fix everything all at once. I have a lot of responsibilities and I feel a great deal of pressure, but I don’t internalize that pressure. I know what I can do. And I know that Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, and Carolyn Abrams, my mother, that they have each faced difficult, heart-wrenching challenges, and that my obligation is to remain viable for the fight. And that means recognizing I can’t be in every battle.

I guess my point is sometimes we internalize obligations so much so that we abdicate our own responsibility for ourselves. And I try not to ever get to that space. I do the things that renew me. I do the things I need to do, but I also remember I am not capable of solving America. And when that is your fundamental recognition, then you realize that I am part of a sisterhood, I am part of a network and that we are all working on it. And that may not relieve the pressure but it decreases the stress.

This interview first appeared in the Left/Right Issue, Fall 2019 (vol. 25, no. 3).
Stacey Abrams, candidate for Governor of Georgia, visits voters in Thompson, Georgia on October 17, 2018, as part of her Vote Early Bus Tour. Cindy Brown/Alamy Live News.

VB: So let’s talk a little bit about the future of southern politics and the role that black women, and women in general, and people of color generally play in that future. What do you think? How are southern politics evolving and reflecting the larger changes in our country?

SA: Georgia is on a demographic trajectory that is certainly going to be at its peak in the next thirty to forty years. But it will arrive in Georgia in the next six to eight years. We are already one of the most diverse states in the nation in terms of increasing our populations of color. We are at about 32 percent African American, a little under 10 percent Latino, a little under 5 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. And the proportion of communities of color will only continue to grow, and we will be the only state where the majority minority in a majority–minority state will be African American.

That means something. That means that black women are already taking leadership positions and ownership of power in ways that haven’t necessarily been replicated in other states but will be coming. But it also creates a responsibility to think through what does the next decade after that transition look like? My investment in southern politics comes about in part because I want the capacity of these communities of color, particularly African Americans, but not exclusively. I want our capacity to be leaders to be shown. I want us to own our power, and that means being deeply engaged in politics. That means building political power and organizing power through social justice movements. It means protecting rights, whether it’s the rights of the LGBTQ community or the reproductive health rights or reproductive justice rights that we women are entitled to. Protecting children, especially those who are among our most vulnerable because of undereducation and overincarceration, and making certain that we have the building blocks for success.

Fundamentally, what this transition speaks to is power—who will hold it, who will wield it, and who will be harmed by it if we do not ensure that it is diffused and spread across our communities. So in very realpolitik ways, that means fighting against voter suppression.

Voter suppression is the single most effective weapon against gaining power. If you stop people from participating in the body politic, you silence their voices, so I’m fighting for that. I’ve founded Fair Count, which ensures that communities of color and low-income communities and children will be counted in the 2020 census because that will govern the allocation of power and resources for the next decade, including up to and beyond 2028. And I’m working on policies that look at how we create economic advantage and economic security for our communities. Those are the challenges that we face in the South—access to power, holding power, and being seen as part of the narrative. My responsibility is to do what I can to amplify and to solve the challenges. And I would encourage everyone who is concerned about what is coming to step up.

Those are the challenges that we face in the South—access to power, holding power, and being seen as part of the narrative.

VB: Let’s talk a little bit more about the continuing obstacles we face to access and participation. What are your recommendations for minimizing or destroying some of those obstacles to access and participation in power?

SA: Through Fair Fight Action we’re fighting on three fronts. We approach the issue of voter suppression as an existential crisis of our democracy, and as the most urgent plight facing access to power. And that means we use the tools of litigation, legislation, and advocacy.

Litigation means that we filed a comprehensive federal lawsuit that is proceeding apace that challenges the right to vote in the state of Georgia. We would argue that, similar to the structural question raised in Brown v. Board of Education, while there may no longer be laws [that] specifically prohibit the right to vote in Georgia for people of color, we have a de facto disenfranchisement of thousands and thousands of Georgians. And we’re asking a court to stipulate that Georgia [be required to meet] the preclearance responsibility of the Voting Rights Act, which means that no leader will be allowed to change voting patterns and voting opportunities based on racial issues, whether they do so intentionally or under the cloak of some other narrative.

Two, we use legislation. We are not only fighting against bad legislation, but we’re actually working across the state and smaller communities to promote good legislation because we have to remember that we don’t always have to be on the defense. We can be on the offense and push for more.

The third is advocacy. We have to remember that people vote because they think something will come of it. And communities that have long been disenfranchised and distanced from voting have done so because they’ve seen generational poverty, they’ve seen long-term voter suppression, and they no longer believe that there’s a direct correlation between the act of voting and changing their lives. And so what we do through Fair Fight is connect the dots. We talk about reproductive justice. I’m fighting against the implementation of HB 4-81 [a Georgia House bill that bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat has been detected], but I’m also fighting to keep jobs in Georgia. We are talking about the issue of criminal justice reform. We’ve helped people sign up for the Affordable Care Act because those are issues that are directly related to voting. If you don’t vote, we lose. If you do vote, you win. But we have an obligation to show what victory looks like.

Election Day in Fairburn, Georgia, November 6, 2018, by Brian Cahn/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News.

VB: You talked a little bit a while ago about the importance of being seen as part of the narrative. What do you feel you bring to that national political conversation—as an African American, as a woman, as a southerner— that has not until now been widely heard or represented?

I think, first of all, it’s been my willingness to center my race and gender as part of my identity. Not saying you should vote for me because I’m black or because I’m a woman, but you need to know that I’m aware of and I am informed by those experiences. So often we’re told to run despite who we are, and I am running because of who I am because those experiences allow me to speak across communities. When I was running for governor, I could talk about the effects of our criminal justice system being [that] our prison system [is] the single largest provider of mental health support. While that has a disproportionate effect on black communities, I have conversations with elderly white men who were talking about what happened to their sons and their daughters. While I am heterosexual, I understand that the ally-ship required of me is that my civil rights are not guaranteed until the civil rights of all are guaranteed. And that has made me a strong ally of the lgbtq community. As a woman with natural hair, I can talk about difference, and it may seem like a superficial decision, but when we tell people to be wholly who they are, our leaders have to reflect the willingness to do the same. And that is not to give primacy to natural hair over anything else. It just happens to be the choice I’ve made, and it should not exclude me from access to power. And so I think what I’ve brought to the table is a very real example of what leadership can look like that does not resemble past examples.

So often we’re told to run despite who we are, and I am running because of who I am because those experiences allow me to speak across communities.

VB: Exactly. So how would you describe this moment in our democracy? We have an open bigot in the White House [and] we have the most diverse House of Representatives in the history of America. So what’s going on in your opinion? Is this a moment of reckoning? Is this a fight for the soul of America? How would you describe this moment?

SA: I think we have to remember our history—that America’s soul has been challenged many times before. One of our obligations is to never become so mired in a moment of crisis that we forget the long arc of history. We have a xenophobic, bigoted misogynist who has little care for humanity serving in the seat of power, but because we recognize the danger, we elected the most diverse Congress that we have ever had. And my belief is that our obligation is to continue to respond to the challenges that we face because America is resilient, our democracy is resilient. But resilience does not mean we’re not vulnerable. Our responsibility is to notice when those vulnerabilities are being exercised and exposed, and to shore up our resilience first by exorcising the evil and, more importantly, by replacing it with a stronger constitutional understanding of what we can be and who we should be. That’s always been the story of America. We’ve moved towards a more perfect union in part because our imperfections call us to action. When they are put on such sharp display, I’m pleased that our typical response is to not only solve the problem, but to try to build barriers to block them from happening again.

VB: So with the current occupant of the White House undermining the values of so many good, ordinary Americans, what advice do you offer to us regular folks to help us keep the faith?

SA: One is just to, again, remember how far we’ve come. I’m the daughter of two civil rights activists, and they became activists as teenagers. My dad was arrested helping register people to vote before the passage of the 26th Amendment. So long before he would have even thought about being old enough to vote, he was willing to go to jail to secure another person’s right.

As difficult and as harrowing as this current moment is, we have indeed made some progress. It’s not uniform, and it’s also not permanent, but it is instructive. My sense of hope comes from believing that hope is not this ephemeral notion that great is just around the corner. But it comes from a very soul-deep understanding that progress is hard, and it has to be fought for. It has to be defended, and we have to be insistent about its continuation, and that means we have to fight. But these fights are sometimes internal. Getting too complacent, believing that we’ve gotten all we’re going to get, or that what we’ve got is good enough—we have to fight for more because we’re not just fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting for those who preceded us and we’re carving a path for those who will follow.

We’re fighting for those who preceded us and we’re carving a path for those who will follow.


This interview first appeared in the Left/Right Issue, Fall 2019 (vol. 25, no. 3).

Stacey Abrams served as minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives from 2011 to 2017. She was the Democratic Party’s nominee in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, making her the first black woman nominee for a major party, and she founded Fair Fight Action, a nonprofit that supports voting rights.
Valerie Boyd is author of the critically acclaimed biography Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. Formerly arts editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she is the Charlayne Hunter-Gault professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, where she founded and directs the low-residency MFA Program in Narrative Nonfiction. Boyd is currently curating and editing a collection of Alice Walker’s personal journals, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, to be published by Simon & Schuster/37 Ink in 2020. This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.
Header image: Stacey Abrams, Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, waits to be introduced at a Get Out the Vote rally at the Allen Temple AME, November 1, 2018, Woodstock, Georgia. Credit: Brian Cahn/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News.

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