It’s OK that there wasn’t a roaring crowd in a packed auditorium to watch Sen. Kamala Harris become the first Black woman to accept a major party’s nomination for vice president of the United States. It’s OK that there was just a podium and unnerving silence when she uttered the first words of the most important speech of her life. And it was even OK for those of us watching to stop weeping that her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, wasn’t alive to see this.
It was OK because Harris wasn’t crying when she talked about the most important woman in her life, her mother, who came from India as a 19-year-old to study at the University of California, Berkeley, hoping to cure cancer but dying of it in 2009. She was the woman who taught her daughters that service to others gives purpose to life.
“Ohh, how I wish she were here tonight,” Harris said, smiling triumphantly. “But I know she’s looking down on me from above. I keep thinking about that 25-year-old Indian woman, all of 5 feet tall, who gave birth to me at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California. On that day she probably could have never imagined that I would be standing here before you now and speaking these words: I accept your nomination for vice president of the United States of America.”
And that was kind of the night it was. It was a quiet convention night, but it would be hard to imagine a more powerful one. Instead of speechifying, Harris — and President Barack Obama before her and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before him on Wednesday night — just talked to people. It was casual, it was intimate and it was searing.
And never far from any speaker’s agenda Wednesday night was the need for people to go vote. By mail, in person, whatever. Just figure it out and do it. Harris saluted the recent 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. “Yet so many of the Black women who helped secure that victory were still prohibited from voting long after its ratification,” she noted. “But they were undeterred. Without fanfare or recognition, they organized and testified and rallied and marched and fought not just for their vote but for a seat at the table.”
The notion that people would not vote this year is alarming. I’ve never understood how anyone today — certainly any person of color — would sit out any election when people in this country put their lives in danger to guarantee us all the right to mail in a ballot or walk to a polling place and be allowed to vote.
And that’s part of what Obama spoke about as easily and authentically as if he were simply talking to you in your living room over a beer (or a glass of wine).
“Look, I understand why a lot of Americans are down on government,” Obama said. “The way the rules have been set up and abused in Congress make it easier for special interests to stop progress than to make progress. Believe me, I know it. I understand why a white factory worker seeing his wages cut or his job shift overseas believes the government no longer looks out for him and why a Black mom may feel like it never looked out for her at all.”
He said he understood that an immigrant may look around and wonder whether there was a place for him. He understood that a young person might look around and think this is all a circus. What’s the point?
“Well, here is the point,” he said. “This president and those in power and those who benefit from keeping things the way they are, they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they are hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote and convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That is how they win. That is how they get to keep making decision that affect your life.”
It was the most compelling argument I’ve heard to reach Americans so disenchanted that they won’t vote at all.
“Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy. Make a plan right now for how you are going to get involved and vote.”
I hope those disaffected folks were watching.
Carla Hall is a Los Angeles Times editorial board member.