(WOMENSENEWS)—Chicago. April 1992.
Realizing that there was a good chance history was about to be made in Illinois in November, I scribbled a note to Carol Moseley Braun, currently the Cook County recorder of deeds, suggesting that she allow me to follow her campaign for the U.S. Senate to document it for a book. In ’92, Moseley Braun, like a record number of female candidates born of the emotional maelstrom that followed the hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice, had just defeated (the "unbeatable") Democratic Sen. Alan Dixon in the Illinois primary. Dixon was one of only two Democrats in the Senate who had voted to confirm Judge Thomas.
That was more than two decades ago.
The past 20 years have seen a technological tsunami; vastly increased globalization; and a couple of recessions, the most recent dubbed "the Great." In addition, there was a Supreme Court decision inappropriately known as "Citizens United," a ruling that became a factor in the increased wealth and insularity of Washington, where inhabitants engage in incestuous rituals of self-perpetuation and where, according to New York Times chief national correspondent Mark Leibovich, "cowardice is rewarded every step of the way."
And nothing changes.
Some progress has been made for sure; however, the politics of race and gender that not only inspired the Moseley Braun campaign but also, in the end, came very close to destroying it, are with us still. If anything, when it comes to race especially, we are even more distressed.
But leaving aside the countless other issues that remain to haunt us today, Moseley Braun‘s election to the Senate in 1992 was a significant landmark in the continuum of African American progress marked 50 years earlier, in 1963, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he stood before the Lincoln Memorial and shared his dreams of what real freedom would mean for all Americans. King’s passionate plea remained unfulfilled a full 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Following Moseley Braun‘s election by 16 years—and after serving as an Illinois senator himself—Barack Obama became president of the United States. In Chicago, as a South Side community organizer and as a strong supporter and, importantly, a keen observer of the Moseley Braun campaign, Obama credits her with showing the way.
My guess is that Obama admired Moseley Braun‘s inclusive, nonthreatening campaign style, but he was clearly referring to their shared racial heritage. The fact that Moseley Braun was African American was also important to me as a citizen who still dreams that one day our political institutions will be representative of all the people of the United States. But Moseley Braun was also a feminist and a sensible progressive who walked the talk. I listened to her during the primary; I studied her record during her years in the Illinois legislature. She represented me; politically, she was me. She was so smart and so candid, and her smile just lit up the world. Like millions in Illinois and, eventually, the nation, I fell in love.
Too Much Investment
It wasn’t fair. We invest too much in our candidates. We project our own hopes and dreams upon them without regard to the political realities they will be facing and without taking into consideration that these people too have needs, priorities, weaknesses and especially histories that might not match ours. And so for me, that campaign trail in 1992 was a march toward understanding, first of a single, fragile human being; second, it was an immersion experience in our democracy’s political process, a process that although it ultimately must address real people with real issues, deliberately obscures reality.
During his 2008 campaign, Obama famously shouted, "We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!" Well, no, not actually. You were supposed to be perfect.
I was to learn that nobody could be more "real" than Moseley Braun: a mother, divorced, smart, insecure, bold, needy, politically courageous, personally vulnerable, accomplished, tired, fun, generous. And black. Moseley Braun would become only the second African American since Reconstruction and the first African American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. As a white supporter, this was a plus for me for the reason already stated; of course the candidate’s color was historically significant, yet for me personally, it was essentially cosmetic. This was a candidate I could believe in, but the woman within the candidate taught me how very complicated it was to be Moseley Braun from the South Side of Chicago, how painfully significant cosmetics are in our culture. Although this is an existential truth, when it came to politics, Moseley Braun herself identified more with her femaleness than her blackness. In her battle to rise from state representative to U.S. senator, whenever she was dismissed or demeaned, she believed it was more because she was a woman than an African American.
This book excerpt has been reprinted with permission from "Behind the Smile" by Jeannie Morris, Agate Midway, 2015.