The Power of 4 Black Women, and How Obama Told Them Race Didn't Matter
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because African-American women are flexing new muscle in American politics.
By Nick Fouriezos
Each Friday night, starting in the early-aughts, four African-American women — they called themselves “The Colored Girls” — gathered for dinner with others in Washington, D.C. What began as a respite from the political scene soon grew into a must-attend event for presidential hopefuls. Almost always White men, candidates such as Howard Dean and Tom Vilsack would suddenly find themselves being grilled by as many as a dozen female Black professionals and politicos.
The most fascinating of these dinners was with Barack Obama in 2008 in a private dining room at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Chinatown. When asked what his race strategy would be, Obama demurred. “Oh, race won’t be an issue. America is past that,” he said, according to an OZY exclusive excerpt from For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics, co-authored by Donna Brazile, Minyon Moore, Yolanda Caraway, and Leah Daughtry, all African-American women and trendsetting deans of Democratic politics. “His expectation was that he was walking into a room of adorers and supporters,” Daughtry says. “Some of it was, I think, Black male bravado.”
A shift is happening, and not just with the now well-known likes of Stacey Abrams and Kamala Harris.
That episode is one of many revelations in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics, a firsthand account of the four authors, who grew up in the Civil Rights era and rose to the top of American politics. It offers a wealth of advice for women of color looking to enter politics, particularly fascinating in an election year shaping up to be, as OZY reported, the Year of Color. A shift is happening, and not just with the now well-known likes of Stacey Abrams and Kamala Harris. Daughtry says we should keep our eyes on lesser-known rising stars like Lauren Underwood in Illinois, Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts and Letitia James in New York.
Now, back to dinner with Obama. When America’s soon-to-be 44th president avoided the race card, the women didn’t push back. “No one said anything in the moment because we were all trying to understand what he meant by that. Did he mean what we thought he meant? But in that moment, he did believe it,” Daughtry says. “I don’t know if, eight years later, or even after his first term, he would still say that.”
The four-person memoir begins with a poem by Black feminist playwright Ntozake Shange, whose 1974 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide provides the inspiration for its title. Along the way, the authors faced difficult choices around race and gender. Brazile dreamed of being a campaign manager and chose not to join Rev. Jesse Jackson in his second presidential run, despite having played a key communications role in his first. “You’re going to become a branch without a tree. You’re not going to feel rooted,” Jackson told her, but Brazile trusted her gut and joined Dick Gephardt’s 1988 campaign instead, saying the White Missouri Representative offered not just a seat at the table but “a chance to build a new table.” Her bet paid off: Brazile became Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000, the first African-American woman to direct a major presidential campaign.
Some of the women’s sacrifices were personal. All but one, for example, chose not to marry or have kids. Part of that stemmed from working in spaces that were almost entirely White: “As I climbed the career ladder, I encountered fewer and fewer Black men, and I definitely wanted a Black man,” Daughtry says. In that absence, though, a female friendship blossomed. With the exception of Caraway, the Colored Girls affectionately call themselves PANKs: “professional aunts, no kids.” In one scene, Brazile makes gumbo, Caraway dances to Pharrell’s “Happy,” while they all chat about the ABC political melodrama Scandal, a show “we all watched with interest, as we were all real-life fixers.”
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the Democratic Party came dangerously close to losing the support of African-American woman after a series of missteps that, in some ways, continues today. “The White working-class became the voter most likely to be courted, and women of color felt painfully sidelined,” the authors write. One meeting led by Moore and Daughtry at the National Council of Negro Women became especially heated. Many of the women there had penned a letter to the DNC Chair, Tom Perez, complaining about the lack of Black women within the Democratic leadership ranks. “Black women continue to be a consistent voting bloc. White women are not. But we’re always an afterthought,” Caraway complained, even arguing they should register as independents and consider forming a third party, following the model of Emmanuel Macron in France. “I don’t give a crap if we put another penny into this party,” Moore snapped, adding, “Our vote is our power.”
Those tensions bubbled at the fall 2017 DNC meeting in Las Vegas, where rumors emerged that Bernie Sanders loyalists were trying to strip Moore, Caraway and Brazile of their at-large party membership — while also targeting Symone Sanders, an African-American woman who served as Bernie’s national press secretary. Daughtry, in a memorable speech at that October meeting, decried the “unnamed, shadowy, increasingly noisy faction” that had targeted her and other African-American women in the party.
At times, the memoir’s name-dropping can feel like a victory lap — the acknowledgments section alone is nine pages long. And for an account of the African-American female experience, much of the narrative focus is on the men who shaped their political careers. Chapters are devoted to Bill Clinton and Ron Brown, while idols like Barbara Jordan or Shirley Chisholm are confined to passing paragraphs — a brief hallway conversation, a childhood experience watching the television set.
Still, that may be less an indictment of the authors than another proof of the lack of diversity in the political sphere they rose in. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics is a fascinating look at the cultural diaspora charting their path as the behind-the-scenes movers of American history. And hopefully, as candidates of color rise, this tome can soon lead to stories of diverse, female figureheads leading the torch for generations to come.