Brittney Caldwell couldn’t wait to celebrate. Wearing a bright orange Howard University sweatshirt, she logged into Zoom to teach an extra-credit class with 10 of her female students from AP U.S. history. It was the first school day since Joe Biden won the presidential election, and Caldwell — a Howard alumna, like Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris — had come ready to discuss the history at hand.
“Kamala Harris,” she’d written on her presentation’s opening slide. “First female Vice President.”
The students recognized the significance of the moment. It was exciting to see a Black and Indian woman take the stage on Saturday night, declaring victory as the country’s first female vice president. But as Democrats across the country sprayed champagne and danced in the streets, Caldwell’s 11th-grade class was more cautious: After all, one student said, President Barack Obama’s historic tenure ended with the country electing Donald Trump.
“Do you think that us having a Black woman in office is going to change things for Black women?” Caldwell asked the class of 16- and 17-year-olds, all Black, signing on from their kitchens and bedrooms across Atlanta’s DeKalb County.
“No,” said Lorraine Nsangou. “I personally don’t.”
“I don’t think so,” said another student. Others murmured in agreement.
Nsangou didn’t expect Biden to win the election. Neither did Deja Boney, who says she was “shocked” when Biden took the lead in Georgia, where she’s lived her whole life.
“I thought [Georgia] was going to be red because there are so many racist people and white supremacists in Georgia,” she said.
While DeKalb is heavily Democratic — with more than 82 percent of residents voting for Biden — Trump strongholds are only a short drive away. As you head out of the city, Boney says, Trump signs are everywhere. It can be scary, said Morgan Stephens, who works at a McDonald’s in conservative Henry County. She says she recently served a man wearing a Make America Great Again T-shirt and Blue Lives Matter hat.
“I was just kind of on edge because I didn’t know what he was going to do,” said Stephens. “Did he come in there with an ulterior motive? There were lots of things running through my head.”
As the election neared, Stephens couldn’t believe how many people were supporting Trump, she said. Her dad said he preferred a “bold” president, like Trump, to someone who seemed “secretive,” like Biden.
After several father-daughter debates, Stephens said, he “ended up changing his views.”
Some of her classmates also supported Trump, said Stephens — or at least they said they did. (She suspects at least a few are “trolls.”)
“They’ll say that Trump is a funny person,” said Stephens, who is planning to become either a lawyer or a journalist. “And I’m like, ‘What’s funny about a sexist, racist president?”
Others at school were convinced they wouldn’t be personally affected by the election, said Stephens. She would remind them about the coronavirus, and the devastating impact it’s had on their community. Coronavirus rates in majority Black DeKalb have been rising faster than those in almost any other county in the state.
Stephens is thrilled that Biden and Harris won the election, she says, but she can’t stop thinking about another “yay moment” for Black Americans, when Obama won in 2008. It was a big step forward, Stephens said — but now she feels like the country has taken “20 steps back.”
On Zoom, Caldwell scrambled to get the conversation back on track.
“Do you look at Kamala and Biden as a beacon of hope, almost?” she asked the class. “Does it not make a difference to you that she is a woman?”
“It kind of does,” said Nsangou. But it also feels like she’s being told to “shut up” and not ask for anything else, she says, because there is a Black woman in the White House.
“Well, I feel hopeful, you guys,” said Caldwell. “Did anyone cry when she won?”
Most of the students shook their heads.
Then, a quiet voice came from a square in the center of the screen.
“I did,” said Boney.
Boney’s mom — who belongs to Alpha Kappa Alpha, the same Black sorority as Harris — had been glued to the television all week, Boney said. When Boney was in her room, away from CNN, she said, she was constantly checking the results online, willing Biden’s margins to widen as votes trickled in from Georgia and Pennsylvania. She watched Biden’s and Harris’s victory speeches with her mom on Saturday night, tearing up when Harris promised she would not be the last woman in the White House.
“It was just special because Black people are suffering in this country, and to see that she is Black, it’s just —”
“I discourage myself sometimes. I think, ‘Oh, I can’t do this because I’m Black in America.”
With Biden signaling that he’ll serve only one term, many are already predicting a Harris presidential run in 2024. By then, Caldwell’s 11th-grade students will be old enough to vote, making their opinions heard in a newly minted swing state.
“I would tell everybody I voted for her,” said Boney. “If she runs for president, I would be like, ‘I voted for Kamala Harris, I’m so proud.’ ”
Stephens hopes that former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams will run for president in 2024. Abrams has been credited with the state’s swing status, celebrated for her work to tackle voter suppression. Stephens likes “how certain she is,” she says — “and how demanding.” Faced with stereotypes of “the angry Black woman,” Stephens says, it can be hard to assert yourself.
The gubernatorial race was “taken" from Abrams through voter suppression, says Stephens. She also suspects that Abrams’s appearance might have had something to do with her loss.
“Do you guys believe that Kamala would have won if her features were a little more Afro-centric, like Stacey’s?” Caldwell asked the class. “Do looks play a role?”
The students immediately start listing out physical differences that might have benefitted Harris over Abrams.
“Her straight hair," one student says.
“Her lighter complexion,” said Stephens.
“Her husband," said Boney, referring to Doug Emhoff, who is White.
Stephens would love to see the two women team up, and run for the White House together, she says.
“In 2024, maybe we’ll have a Black woman president and a Black woman vice president,” Stephens says, setting a precedent that would be difficult to reverse.
“I know it’s asking for a lot,” she says, “but I feel like it’s possible.”