Kamala Harris may be a first, but she won’t be a last
Don’t lose sight of this historic moment. The kids need to see it.
Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris on Dec. 21, 2020, in Columbus, Ga.
Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris on Dec. 21, 2020, in Columbus, Ga. [ BEN GRAY | AP ]
Published Jan. 20, 2021|Updated Jan. 20, 2021

Around the 2017 inauguration, my stepdaughter brought home a worksheet. The kindergartners were learning about elections, which I believe are ancient riddles involving a bird with one wing. I’m still looking it up.

Homework is often problematic. At least one question is guaranteed to not make sense, leaving confused parents to scrawl in the margins that “WORKSHEET MUST BE WRONG.” These booklets tend to feature clip art characters with large heads, illustrating outdated activities such as “playing jax” and “walking outside.”

So, she brought home a worksheet explaining that, on Inauguration Day, the new president gives a speech. In 2021, that speech may be limited to, “Good gravy!” But I digress.

The cartoon president waved from a lectern in the manner of Mussolini, if Benito’s hand looked like a dinner roll. The president was headless. This was not searing political commentary, but rather, a chance for kids to draw whomever they imagined on those shoulders. Inspiring!

One problem. The body was a man in a suit. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, maybe the worksheet makers were affirming the gender spectrum and that anyone can sport traditional menswear. True, yet probably too charitable. More likely, the school sent home a worksheet reinforcing the notion of the president as a man. Up to that point, worksheet makers had no evidence to the contrary.

But we’re closer. On Wednesday, Kamala Harris will become vice president of the United States. She will be the first woman, Black person and person of South Asian descent to hold the office. She’s a stepmom, too, whose family appears to actually like her, edifying as we work to reverse the damage of the Brothers Grimm.

If the significance feels a little muddled, that’s because the news cycle is a pile of snack cakes in the woods covered in raccoons. But this is such an important moment for kids trying to draw a head on a president. We tell them they can be anything, but it’s powerful to have a real example.

There’s no going back, either. Our governments, workplaces, grocery stores, parks, TV shows and more will continue to reflect all people and their many distinct stories. Some public servants will still look like Martin Sheen, sure. Others will not, and that’s how it should be.

There is still work to do around even the simplest expressions of inclusion. One day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day and a day before a woman of color was sworn in to the nation’s second-highest office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that “multiculturalism” is “not who America is.” Yikes, my dude. I guess I will time-travel back to ninth grade Multicultural Club and tear down that poster we made. I thought it was nice.

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Americans started the week sharing King’s famous quotes, lines about choosing love over hate. But some of his words don’t get as much attention. King examined how inequity infiltrates communities from the ground up. He spoke about disruption, white power structures and direct action. From inside a Birmingham jail, he wrote of his disappointment with those who choose order over change, of he “who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

That tension is a passenger as our newly elected leaders seek stability, health and progress for the nation. And King’s more challenging notions ride, too. “In the end,” he once said, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

That is a chilling thing to ponder, and it’s bigger than a school worksheet. But maybe one small way of filling that silence is writing in the margins. Not about the math problem (Jenny has 12 oranges, okay? Twelve oranges). But a note that says “WORKSHEET MUST BE WRONG,” and a new drawing of a president — any kind of president — in its place.

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