Kamala Harris’ Opposing Truths

Symbols fail us. Case in point: Headlines this week reporting that California senator Kamala Harris was suspending her presidential campaign and, in doing so, ceding her chance to become the first black woman to win the Democratic Party’s nomination. When Harris initially announced her bid on Martin Luther King Day, less than a year ago, she did so with a sense of urgency and optimistic thrill. For many believers, she said all the right things, represented all the right things. Along with Cory Booker and Julián Castro, who are still in the race despite not qualifying for the December debate in Los Angeles, she was an obvious successor to President Barack Obama and everything he stood for—fairness, unity, hope.

It wasn’t enough. “My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue,” she wrote in an email to supporters Tuesday. “But I want to be clear with you: I am still very much in this fight.”

Raised in Oakland, Harris is the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, attended college at the historically black college Howard University, and ascended through the ranks of government with artful resolve, eventually becoming attorney general of California and later junior senator of the Golden State. But depending on what angle you enter Harris’ tangled allegory, she was either a genuine candidate with shades of Obama or a self-contradictory centrist with a controversial record as California’s “top cop.”

Among black voters she was as a divisive choice. I admit, I loved all that she personified—the very thought of a black woman president paralyzes me with joy still—but had trouble overlooking her terms as San Francisco district attorney and state AG, where she was viewed as too moderate on criminal justice reform at a time when it was deeply needed. For others, the math was less complicated. “Sorry but I could have never voted for a cop,” a friend recently tweeted.

It is true that symbols fail us, but it is also true that perhaps we should not look to symbols for answers. Harris was never guaranteed to be president, and yet the announcement this week rang with immediate shock. She was a top candidate at the outset of the race—one of the few contenders who regularly shined during debates, and as a result, found added momentum on social media (and on Saturday Night Live)—but since had become plagued by low polling and financial instability. The fact is that Harris was also operating within a system that privileges tradition, of which she finds herself on the outside as a black woman. With Obama, the terms of electability looked as if they were starting to shift—but President Donald Trump’s election has shown, as has Harris’ campaign suspension, that America is still America, however much we covet change.

The myth of Kamala Harris is what we are now left with. We will never know if, as president, she would have lived up to her promises, if she would have corrected previous missteps, if, like Obama during his first campaign in 2003, she would have come to represent a kind of political whole. Time worked against her. Inside Harris’ Oakland campaign office, photographer Justin Sullivan questions the myth of the Harris brand with generous breadth. Is what we gaze upon true?

So rarely do photos so forcefully tell us what to emote, but here the image illustrates the fever that surrounded Harris during her run. She was, according to the photo, a “Joyful Warrior,” “FIERCE!” “resolute,” “Inspiring & Energizing,” “Proven,” and among dozens more descriptors, “#BlackGirlMagic.” For many, Harris was all of those things and will remain so through her work as a member of Congress. But again and again, I think back to my friend’s tweet, to Harris’ notorious track record as a no-nonsense prosecutor.

That is the agile charm of Sullivan’s photo: It interrogates the distance between who Kamala Harris is and who we want her to be. It at first tells us what to make of Harris, then slowly, with a subtle slickness, steps back, asking the viewer if what they see is actually what they believe.

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