Cleo Parker Robinson recalls the conversations around the kitchen table when she was a young Black girl in Denver during the Jim Crow era.
They talked about all kinds of things, like homework and bullying in school, and “heavy topics” like cross burnings, cops following her Black father around, how her family could buy a house in Denver only if her white mother purchased it.
Early on, she was trained in nonviolence. And at the age of 10, she almost died because a segregated hospital in Dallas wouldn’t admit her for treatment for a kidney condition.
“I’ve seen so much change. I see transformation all the time,” the 72-year-old founder of the 50-year-old Cleo Parker Robinson Dance studio said. “And every time I see transformation, I celebrate it, and I make it loud and clear that I’ve seen an experience that is possible.”
This week’s experience of seeing Kamala Harris being sworn in as the first female vice president of the United States brought a sense of pride and transformation that Robinson first felt when Barack Obama was elected president.
“(Obama’s election) was our first moment of possibility. But because it took so long, it took so long to get there, my heart cried with joy and pain,” she said Wednesday. “And I feel the same way today, it took so long. But I am grateful.”
Young, old, gay, straight, Black, white and otherwise diverse people watched Harris — who is Black and South Asian — ascend to the second-most powerful position in the U.S. on Wednesday. Many who spoke to The Denver Post said they wore Chuck Taylor sneakers and pearls in honor of Harris’ sartorial staples. Others wore shirts that were uplifting to them, including at least one that said “brown girl magic.”
And all of the Colorado women, particularly women of color, found in Harris another icon to accompany the others who’ve broken the glass ceiling.
Margaret Wright answered the phone with a celebratory whoop Wednesday morning. The 67-year-old Pueblo woman got dressed and ready, lipstick and all, to watch the inauguration. She recorded it on every channel she could find.
“I want every version there is of this moment,” Wright said.
Wright, like Harris, is familiar with firsts. She is the first Black woman elected to the Pueblo School District 60 board, where she has served as vice president, and is the first Black woman appointed as chair of Colorado’s Juvenile Parole Board.
In looking at Wednesday’s history and her own, Wright felt it was critical to honor the trailblazers who came before her, especially Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first Black woman elected to Congress.
“In the darkest hour, a light can shine,” Wright said. “If you look at the civil rights movement and see Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm … you can look now in the middle of all we’ve been through — even in this darkness — a light like Vice President Kamala Harris can shine in the White House. It brings hope to our nation. It brings hope to our children of the United States of America.”
Colorado itself has a list of women who made history, like Eliza Pickrell Routt, the first woman in the state registered to vote after the national passage of women’s suffrage in 1893, according to the History Colorado museum.
In 1894, Clara Cressingham, Carrie Holly and Frances Klock became the first women to serve in any state legislature in the U.S. after they were elected to the Colorado House of Representatives.
In 1973, Arie Taylor served as the state’s first Black woman elected to the Colorado House of Representatives. And in 1985, Polly Baca became the first woman of color to serve in the Colorado State Senate and the first Hispanic woman to serve in leadership in any state senate after being elected chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Colorado has yet to elect a woman as governor and Denver has yet to elect a woman as mayor, but Harris’ win has ignited a flame in the belly of many Colorado women.
Charlotte Anderson saw herself in Harris — a biracial woman who sought to use her ideas and work ethic to serve her constituents. Inspired by Harris, the 18-year-old ran for president of Denver’s South High School this school year. Like her role model, Anderson won.
“Growing up, it was a little bit difficult to see white men in all the positions of power,” Anderson said. “It made me feel like that’s not the place for women and women of color, but after seeing Kamala and what she’s done, it just seems more real and like it really can happen.”
Harris is the daughter of two immigrants — her father is from Jamaica and her mother is from India. That has been inspiring for people like Sneha Thomas, a recent college graduate who is of Indian descent. The Englewood resident hopes to pursue a career in policy-making and international relations and recalls that she was surrounded by predominantly white men in her major in college.
“Just seeing (Harris picked as Biden’s vice president), it gave me hope,” she said. “It gave me a burst of motivation, determination to finish my degree and actually go through with it because I was doubting it at the time.”
Thomas hopes that having a woman of color in the White House will advance issues of racial and social justice and elevate voices of people of color.
Her cousin, Priya Thomas of Aurora, felt a sense of pride watching parts of the inauguration while at work in her office, the ceremony playing on TV in the background.
“We’ve been taught a lot growing up, ‘You can do whatever you want if you set your mind to it’ … but seeing that in real life, that a woman of color, Black and Indian, made it to one of the highest positions in the land, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is real,’” Thomas said. “We can be recognized. We can see ourselves in her. And I just get very emotional about it.”
Jennifer Ho, the daughter of a refugee father from China and an immigrant mother from Jamaica of Chinese descent, thought fondly of her late uncle when Harris was chosen as vice president.
While Ho was an undergraduate student in California, her uncle would send her clippings from a newspaper at the time called “Asia Week.” One day, he sent her one about Harris, whom he told her would be president one day.
Ho, now a professor of ethnic studies and director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder, has been tracking Harris’ career ever since.
Recalling her own experience as a young girl, the 50-year-old said seeing Harris sworn in as vice president “means everything.”
“It means one day, I may actually be seen as an American,” Ho said.
There’s more to Harris’ position beyond the symbolic nature of having a woman as vice president, she added. Harris knows what it’s like to be a woman, especially a woman of color, in America — it’s not something that has to be explained to her.
Ho, like others, also recognized that Harris becoming vice president isn’t going to solve the country’s entrenched problems of racism and sexism. But it’s a start.
“Seeing what Trump’s presidency wrought was … a reminder that there is not a clear linear path that goes up when it comes to racial progress,” she said.
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