Teri Orr: And the people say — amen
My head has been filled with music this week. Sure, that old sweet song Ray Charles crooned from my youth, about having Georgia on his mind. The heavy electric guitar bassline that is the refrain to a prayer I heard in the Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. The game-day “When the Saints Go Marching In” from that full-throated gospel choir in the tiny historic church in Treme, New Orleans. But more than those familiar tunes, I was hearing the weightier words and melody of Mavis Staples singing her soulful — If all I was was black…
Because if you had met Stacey Abrams before or after her running for governor of Georgia in 2018 — the first Black woman in this country to ever be nominated for governor by either major party — you might have simply seen The Preacher’s kid. Both her parents were studying at Divinity school at Emery to become ministers when she was in high school. She worked hard and became valedictorian of her class at Avondale High School. Later she attended Spelman and Yale and became a member of the House of Representative in Georgia from 2007 to 2017. She also writes romance novels under a pen name. Yes, she does.
I was fortunate to hear her speak in Palm Springs in 2018 at a TED event, right after she lost her gubernatorial bid by 55,000 votes, in what many thought was a case of voter suppression. She was full of grit and pride and humility and Black girl magic. And she told a story about riding the bus with her car-less parents to an awards ceremony at the governor’s mansion for all the high school valedictorians. And the guard at the gate of the beautiful Big House took one look at her and her parents who had just gotten off that bus and — he told them — You don’t belong here — this is a private event. And Stacey politely insisted she was a valedictorian. Showed him her invitation. Finally, her father delivered a very short sermon on the guard’s place in hell if he did not find his daughter’s rightful name on his list. Which he eventually found and they entered the gates. And though that should have been a day of celebration and joy — all Stacey remembers is the shame at the gate. You can hear it in her TED talk.
Because what that guard saw was — all she was was Black…
This Tuesday night she was queen. She had made voter registration of marginalized folks her mission since losing her bid for governor in 2018. And she realized she lost — largely because so many folks who should have voted, could have voted — didn’t. Some didn’t know they could. Some didn’t think they should. She took the disenfranchised and gave them agency. Her revenge was sweet — Georgia turning out the brown and Black voters to flip the state blue. And for two Democratic senators in a runoff Tuesday night, flipping the U.S. Senate blue enough to allow the incoming Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris, a woman of color — and the first woman to ever hold that position — the ability to break a tie when needed. And shift the balance of power.
The two newly elected politicians from Georgia look like this — one senator is a young Jewish kid — relatively new to politics but not prejudice. Which gives him an edge around the unbearable being of whiteness. Like a good Jewish boy he married a doctor — she is an obstetrician. The other senator is the reverend of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. His congregation just blew the doors off of that tiny church and it now encompasses us all. He will be the first Black senator ever from the state of Georgia. And only the 11th Black senator — in history.
On election night — the first one — CNN commentator, criminal justice reformer, former special adviser to the Obama White House, and speaker here on the Eccles stage, Van Jones looked into the camera and said something like, “I don’t know if you folks understand what just happened in Georgia — Stacey Abrams might have single-handedly saved democracy.” That should have been enough but the races were not over because Georgia requires a candidate to have 50% of the vote as a requirement — which called for a runoff. So Abrams was forced to prove herself — yet again — in another election that concluded this Tuesday night into a final counting on Wednesday morning. And for a few glorious hours — just a few — it felt hopeful again in America.
I was hearing Mavis Staples sing, as I looked at Stacey Abrams’ smile…
If all I was was black
Looking at you, you might look past
All the love I’d give (Got love to give)
I’ve got natural gifts (Got natural gifts)
Got perspective (Got perspective)
Might make your shift (The way you look at it)
If all I was was black
Don’t you wanna know me more than that…
I hope our new president and vice president are finding the just dessert for this big-hearted, smart, loving, kick-ass woman. We need her really big brain in Washington doing good works and lifting us all up. Any day, of course, but all the unsteady Sundays in the Park ahead…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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Teri Orr says Parkites are used to participating in the process, not being marginalized and sidelined. She calls on City Hall to do better as it considers its arts and culture district.