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How Powerful Black Women taught me how to heal post-election

December 17, 2016

Where do you turn for answers when everything you thought you knew about the way politics worked in America was upended? How do we go about picking up the pieces of our broken country after the election of Donald Trump? For me, the answer has become simple after this weekend: keep working. Last weekend I traveled with the other Elle.com Media Scholars to New York City to meet with editors and writers at Elle.com, Buzzfeed, and Essence. Since the election, I had been grappling with the reality of living in Donald Trump’s America. As someone who had spent the entire election cycle engaged in dialogue across difference as part of the Wake the Vote cohort, I was shocked but also felt betrayed by the election of Donald Trump. I felt frustrated, angry, hurt, and cynical. What was the point of investing in engaging in conversations with people of differing ideological views if they refuse to respect even the most basic of human dignities? Why would I waste my time investing in a political system that clearly was not built for Black women like me? I was jaded and withdrawn, constantly seething with thinly concealed anger whenever some well-intentioned, usually white liberal, person would tell me that the work after the election was to piece together a new coalition to help Democrats win in future elections.

Everyone from celebrities and political pundits to our own president at Wake Forest University urged me to engage in discussions with civility and respect the differing opinions of others. Not only did I find the idea misguided, I thought it was harmful in that I saw an attempt to silence the very real concerns and fears of marginalized groups in an effort to maintain “civility.” The onus of reaching out to those in power to convince them to stop crafting policies that are harmful to marginalized groups has always been on those with the least resources and the least access to a platform. Why is it that it’s my job to reach across the aisle to try and work with people who voted for a man that is actively supported by white supremacists? How can I even attempt to engage in a rational policy discussion with someone who doesn’t even believe that my life matters?

This is the first year that I was eligible to vote, and to watch the horrific ascension of Donald Trump has been a powerful discouraging force for my continued participation in American electoral politics. This is my home and this system of democracy is one that I have been taught to have faith in. The weeks following the election I felt unsure about what my role would be going forward in a post-Trump political realm. I have always had faith in basic human decency and the power of institutions to act as agents for positive change. As someone who is interested in policy and writing, how could I use my voice to advocate for marginalized groups without compromising my fundamental belief that I couldn’t negotiate with racists?

Post-election I had more questions than I had answers. The trip to New York ended up giving me more comfort than I ever expected. On Saturday morning, we met with Lauren Williams, the features editor at Essence Magazine. Lauren talked to us about what it means to work at a publication that caters to Black women. Everyone in positions of leadership at Essence were Black women, and this is a unique phenomenon in the whitewashed world of media. It was comforting to see images of Black women in a magazine embodying the diversity and multiplicity of the Black beauty experience. It was refreshing to see hair spreads where natural Black hair was the default, not the afterthought. Lauren talked to us about the differences between working at a publication like Essence and magazines that were staffed and led predominantly by white people. She articulated the same frustrations that I have felt post-election when I have been in rooms where people have forced me to engage in conversations with people that voted for Trump in an effort to “build new bridges.” At Essence, the exhausting work of having to explain why it’s definitely not ok to label “boxer braids” a new fashion trend or exclude models with natural hair is nonexistent. It was so powerful to be in a space where Black women could just create and thrive without the restrictions of having to speak on behalf of their entire race and gender when in positions of negotiation.

We were able to experience a similar environment when we visited the Buzzfeed offices to catch up Tracy Clayton, with our Anna Julia Cooper Center 2016-2017 Ida B. Wells Media Expert-in-Residence before a taping of her podcast Another Round. The Elle.com Media Scholars were able to meet with her group of editors and producers and talked with them about working on a team of women that was predominantly women of color. They talked about being able to collaborate without worrying about whether any perceived faults in their work was a result of their gender rather than natural human error. It was inspiring to see women flourishing and supporting one another as they worked to build a platform to center marginalized voices. This was a central theme of a film we were able to see this weekend, Hidden Figures. The movie, based on the book by black woman writer Margot Lee Shetterly,  tells the stories of the Black women who made the first orbit of John Glenn possible. These women were brilliant, complex characters that portrayed the multiplicity of the experiences of Black women. They constantly were being disrespected and taken advantage of and yet they managed to work and advance and bring other women of color along with them. As they progressed, they made sure to make space for other women of color to do the same. It was inspiring to watch but it was also troubling. Why is it that Black women are forced to engage in dialogue with racists that don’t value our work for the sake of progress? We never get the credit we are due and it’s frustrating. It’s the same frustration that I felt in the aftermath of the election.

During this trip we were fortunate enough to interact with Black women and see their stories centered. We saw The Color Purple on Broadway and many in our cohort were deeply moved by the poignant representations of Black women’s stories that were raw and real. We were able to interact with talented and brilliant Black women that worked to make a space for themselves at the top of their fields and were using their respective platforms to elevate other women of color. When I was at Essence and Buzzfeed and Broadway I felt safe. I felt comforted by the reminder that there are spaces where the painful and exhausting process of constantly having to explain things is unnecessary. Their very existence is why it has become clear to me after this weekend that the work of coalition building has to continue, even if it is not necessarily done by me in this moment.

We had dinner with Zerlina Maxwell, the brilliant progressive media director for the Clinton campaign, Saturday night after The Color Purple. Zerlina talked with us about working on the campaign, the similar heartbreak she felt after the election, and her frustration with being one of the only Black voices in the room at the campaign and having to argue for things that in a predominantly Black space would be automatically recognized and understood. I found the conversation Zerlina particularly illuminating because she gave me the perspective on my role in the political realm going forward that I desperately needed. I expressed to Zerlina that I was comforted by being in spaces like Essence and Buzzfeed, but that I was unsure what to do in the face of constantly being called on to “build bridges” after the election. I told her that I was tired of being told to explain things and reach out to people, and that I was considering withdrawing from this political process and retreating to spaces where I felt safe. Her answer was concise but precisely what I needed to hear: don’t do it, because being in the room is hard but if you leave who will do the work? Who will be responsible for educating and collaborating across difference if people from marginalized groups choose to operate only in spaces where they feel safe and validated? It is unfair and tiring and frustrating that this burden falls on us, but it doesn’t always have to be this way.

As more Black women work their way into these spaces and commit to stay despite their frustrations, the more Black women they can bring along for the ride with them. The work is difficult and exhausting, but it is necessary for continuing to build more platforms for marginalized voices that have been excluded from political discourse. We need places like Essence and Another Round to remind us of what is possible when Black women are allowed to have autonomy of expression and ideas when they are effectively in control. The reason to continue the work of coalition building is so that more spaces that have been traditionally dominated by white voices can move closer to resembling the environments at Essence and Another Round. I may not be ready to engage in that work now, but I will be soon. My rage still boils, my anger and frustration still color many of my interactions when I engage across difference. I recognize now that it’s okay to feel defeated now, my emotions and the emotions of everyone negatively impacted by this election are completely valid. We are allowed to feel the way we do for as long as we need to. However, when that feeling passes and we are ready to begin putting together the shambles of American democracy, we’ll be working. When that time comes just know that Black women will show up to tell our stories and put in the necessary effort. We always do.

Learn more about Erica Jordan and the ELLE.com Scholars Program