Where Kamala Harris’ Political Imagination Was FormedRoundup
tags: education, African American history, California, Berkeley, Kamala Harris, Bay Area
Tessa Rissacher is a writer based in the Bay Area. Scott Saul is a professor of English at UC–Berkeley. He is the author of Becoming Richard Pryor and the creator of the digital history project The Berkeley Revolution.
On March 31, 1972, the Black cultural center Rainbow Sign welcomed local press for Berkeley’s official proclamation of “Nina Simone Day.” At this staged convergence of Black artistic and political power, the mood was formal and celebratory at once. Multicolored curtains sparkled behind black balloons. Simone listened attentively in a gold lamé dress and sky-blue headscarf as Warren Widener, Berkeley’s first Black mayor and a frequent guest of Rainbow Sign, read from a decree that exalted her artistry, her every song “an anthem to Black people, for Black people, and about Black people.” The director of the Bay Area Urban League announced an official campaign to make Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” “the new Black anthem.” Simone, acknowledging the impact of the song, said that she was “pleased to be an instrument, to give it to my people. It does not belong to me.”
One of the children who had received the song was the young Kamala Harris, whose Indian-born mother regularly played “Young, Gifted, and Black” (Aretha Franklin’s version, admittedly) on the record player in their living room. Harris, 7 at the time of Nina Simone Day, frequented Rainbow Sign for several years with her mother and sister and absorbed there a sense of political responsibility—that to be “young, gifted, and Black” meant lifting up her community. “It was a citizen’s upbringing,” she writes in The Truths We Hold of her time at Rainbow Sign, “the only kind I knew, and one I assumed everyone else was experiencing, too.” (They weren’t.) Rainbow Sign was where she first “learned that artistic expression, ambition, and intelligence were cool.” It was also where she glimpsed a vision of Black empowerment, orchestrated by middle-class Black women with working-class roots—women who had broken professional barriers and were now trying to mentor a new generation of young Black people to find a vocation for themselves and transform the institutions they joined.
Rainbow Sign plays a key role in the opening arc of Harris’ memoir. By her own account, it’s the place where she first came into sustained contact with Black activists and started to see herself in that lineage. She spends less time, however, placing Rainbow Sign in the context of its era. On the one hand, Rainbow Sign sponsored a radical vision of Black freedom through its arts programs: The center inspired Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima and hosted exhibitions by the expat sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, including one featuring her iconic wooden sculpture of a fist. On the other hand, the political organizations hosted by Rainbow Sign tended toward the liberal side of the Black Power spectrum, calling for the integration of Black people into American politics, with the understanding that better policy would follow.
Rainbow Sign’s unique fusion of culture and politics provided fuel for Harris’ rise as a politician whose every electoral victory has also been seen as a cultural breakthrough. But for Harris, as potentially the first Black, female vice president, that strategy of activism—pragmatic in orientation and at times lofty in tone—will be pressure-tested, just as Rainbow Sign was. The cultural center’s doors were open for only six years. Harris’ campaign will speak to the legacy those six years have left behind.
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