The Wonderful Karma of Black Women Saving American Democracy

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has succeeded in getting Donald Trump’s co-conspirators—especially key insiders Sydney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro—to plead guilty and testify against the former president and others. This move is the latest example of Black women leading the way in defense of our endangered democracy.

“The horror … the horror,” Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz whispered at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now. Something similar is likely what Donald Trump is thinking, who faces being made to wear “one of those jumpsuits” in prison.

Still, most of us who believe in U.S. ideals, will have the appropriate reaction to the prominent roles Black women—people in two of the categories who were long excluded from the promise of American democracy—are playing in opposing Trump’s attempts to undermine American democracy: “The beauty … the beauty.”

Fani Willis began her comprehensive investigation of the plot to steal the election as it was still ongoing in January 2021. For more than two years, she and her team put together the enormity of the conspiracy for American citizens to see. Now she has gotten key attorneys who conspired with Trump to flip.

Stacey Abrams and numerous other African American women in Fair Fight and other organizations registered and got to the polls the voters that provided the margin of victory for Biden (and for a Democratic Senate through the election of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock).

Countless Black women whose names were unknown to the public, such as Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, delivered essential public service as election workers at the ground level.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan is presiding over Trump’s federal trial for attempting to overturn his defeat.

New York Attorney General Letitia James has obtained a summary judgment against the Trump Organization and family for their rampant fraud.

“America is the most important thing that ever happened,” George F. Will wrote in 1990, citing “the vision of good it has presented.” The principles of human equality and power coming up from the governed rather than down from a ruler that are outlined in the Declaration of Independence are the most consequential in world history. 

“The Declaration of Independence was an astonishingly radical document,” Heather Cox Richardson wrote in her new book, Democracy Awakening.

That vision was not, of course, implemented at the time. “The United States is a nation,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “founded on both an ideal and a lie.”

Thomas Jefferson and many of the other architects of the new nation were enslavers. The paradox that is the United States took bodily form in Jefferson. He enunciated the radical vision, with its majestic ideals of freedom and equality, but failed miserably to live up to them.

John Adams mocked the idea his wife, Abigail, had proposed: to include women in the new system of government. “We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems,” he wrote.

But the male Adams understood that the ideals the Americans were putting forth would loosen the structure of subordination: “Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters.”

And he recognized that the foundation of the whole hierarchical order was the subordination of women.

Ten days before the 50th anniversary of the Declaration—the day on which both he and John Adams would die— Jefferson wrote of his pleasure, “Our fellow citizens … continue to approve the choice we made” and his hope and belief that the ideals had “already laid open to every view. The palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.”

He said that the American Revolution had provided “grounds of hope for others.”

Among the saddled “others” then being “legitimately” ridden who took hope from the American ideals were Black people and women.

Sexism: The Gateway Drug to Hate

“Slavery is the original sin of America,” it is often and half-correctly (the dispossession of the inhabitants of the land is the other half) said. Even more important for us to recognize is a deeper foundational fact of history that authoritarians deny and seek to erase as they are perpetuating it: Sexism is the original sin of humanity.

Sexism is the gateway drug to all other hatreds, all other dominance-subordination relationships. Women are the archetype “Other.” The belief that men are superior to women is the model on which all other vertical divisions—race, class, nationality, master/slave, religious hierarchies, and so on—have been constructed. The subordinate position in these relationships is always depicted as corresponding to women. This is the reality of the intersectionality that right-wing state governments want to ban from discussion in schools.

Both categories of human beings to which Black women belong have suffered an unspeakable “long train of abuses.”

As Caroline Randall Williams has so powerfully put it, she and most other Black”Americans today have “rape-colored skin.” A 2004 study by Diane Miller Sommerville concluded that “at least 58 percent of enslaved Black women between the ages of 15 and 30 had been sexually assaulted by white men.”

“Yet,” as Hannah-Jones wrote, “despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, Black Americans believed fervently in the American creed.”

The promise of America has especially inspired those people who have been excluded from it. Langston Hughes may have said it best in 1936:

America never was America to me

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Even as they were excluded, as Richardson wrote, “Black people, people of color, women, and workers had never lost sight of the Declaration of Independence.” In times of “pervasive and violent repression, people who were legally excluded from equality kept the idea of American democracy alive for everyone.”

What the Black women in the forefront of saving American democracy today understand is that because it means rule from below, democracy is feminism and democracy is racial equality.

Donald Trump has spent his life practicing misogyny and racism. In that, he is a living relic of the anti-American ideals side of our history, which makes the central role of Black women in blocking his attempt to end American democracy especially fitting.

Here’s where one would say, “Karma’s a bitch,” but that word, like almost all other derogatory terms we use, associates evil with women and is utterly sexist.

So, let’s say instead: Karma is beautiful.

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Robert S. McElvaine is a professor of history emeritus at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., the author of 11 books, most recently, The Times They Were a-Changin’—1964: The Year “The Sixties” Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn and writes “Musings & Amusings of a B-List Writer” on Substack. He is currently completing a book manuscript with the working title, Diving Beneath the Wreck—and Resurfacing: On the Origins & Consequences of Sexual Inequality.