MadameNoire Featured Video

Joe Biden Sworn In As 46th President Of The United States At U.S. Capitol Inauguration Ceremony

Source: Alex Wong / Getty

Like my most beloved literary mother, Zora Neale Hurston, I believe myself to be an ethnographer—although I am much more of an amateur than Hurston was.  I am endlessly fascinated with people’s origin stories, and like many Americans right now, I have been especially interested in the origin story of Vice President Kamala Harris. I know a lot about Vice President Harris as a politician—her voting record as a U.S. Senator, and more recently who she was as both a district attorney and attorney general.  But I want to know more about the little girl who grew up studying both Hinduism and the Black Baptist tradition, about the young woman who pledged AKA at the great Howard University, about what it must have been like traveling to India, the Caribbean, and Europe as a young and blossoming Black girl.

In a 2004 Los Angeles Times profile on the then newly elected District Attorney Kamala Harris, journalist Scott Duke Harris writes that her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, made sure to give both her daughters names with origins in Indian mythology. “A culture that worships goddesses produces strong women,” she said. Ms. Gopalan was dually aware that her daughters would also need to learn to stand in their power as Black girls and Black women—that regardless of her girls’ multi-racial and multi-cultural identities, they would always be seen by the world as Black, and that they needed to bond with other Black girls and Black women in order to learn how to navigate all that being Black and a woman might mean for them.  One way that Harris’s mother taught her and her sister about Black womanhood was through molding a relationship between them and a Black woman named Mrs. Regina Shelton, whom Harris considers a second mother.

It’s a heavy load, after all, being a Black woman in America—a place where we are dying at alarming (and infuriating) rates while giving birth; a place where we had to—in the midst of fighting for ALL Black lives—pause to create a separate hashtag and movement to document the violence that Black women experience as victims of police brutality; a place where on the same day Black women received a small portion of the praise we deserve from tirelessly and thanklessly saving this country from itself (again), angry and violent white nationalists stormed the nation’s Capitol with every intention of violently overthrowing the U.S. government.

Grit and power were, of course, modeled for Kamala Harris and her sister by her mother—a woman who had traveled across the world alone to study science, and who—despite being a single mother—held tight to her dreams and life goals. But Harris also learned to stand in her power from Regina Shelton, who came from humble beginnings in Louisiana and owned three houses (one of the houses serving as a small school) during a time when a Black woman owning one property was rare. Harris’s love and adoration for Shelton is so deep, that she is choosing to be sworn in as vice president using Shelton’s bible (as she has done each time she has been sworn into elected office), along with the bible of the late, great Thurgood Marshall. By placing Shelton’s bible next to Marshall’s, Kamala Harris is acknowledging that Black mother figures should be cherished and celebrated in the same ways that we celebrate other leaders within the Black community. After all, it is because of Black women like Regina Shelton and her leadership and guidance that so many Black girls and women learn to fly.

Kamala Harris Regina Shelton

Source: Courtesy of Vice President Kamala Harris / K. HARRIS

In Harris’s autobiography, she describes all the ways Mrs. Shelton educated her about Black culture and Black identity—sometimes by taking the Harris girls to church on Sundays and by teaching them how to cook soul food, which are two parts of a collection of Black girl rites of passage. I cannot tell you how much I have learned about Black womanhood hanging on the coattails of all the Black women who raised me—whether while being pinched hard in a church pew for acting up, or while shelling peas or cutting okra at somebody’s kitchen table, preparing a meal.

This story of Kamala Harris and Regina Shelton’s relationship is quite timely, for me. Over the past few years, many of the women who have helped to shape and mold me into the person I am becoming have passed away. During this pandemic alone, I lost an aunt and my godmother. In an effort to find gratitude—even in grief—I have been thinking a lot about all the ways Black mother figures (let’s call them Black aunties) build Black girls up—and fortify us—so that we can not only survive in this world but so that we can thrive in it. I am also thinking of the support women like Regina Shelton, and my aunties, offer other women by helping them raise their children and by standing in the gap in so many other ways.

We do not acknowledge and reward the special place Black aunties hold in developing and sustaining Black families and Black communities enough. As a child, I learned all about nature (and thus so much about life) by spending summers with my Aunt Gee in Louisiana. My Aunt Alice, who is my mother’s best friend of 50 years, has taught me style, free-spiritedness, and how to be independent and industrious. And my Aunt Mil, the very first person I remember telling me she loved me, taught me how to be a soldier of love. In an essay from Tyler Young that focuses on her close relationship with her Aunt Lili, she writes of Black aunties:

Aunties, or any mother figures, are the gatekeepers of our secrets and a rallying cry for our very existence. Whether they are married or unmarried, with child or without, aunts hold a stake in our lives. They’re silent investors in our success. You may not see every sacrifice or unconditional act of love, but aunts, by blood or title, are advocates from the very beginning, and deserve to be celebrate and showered with as much love as a mother.

So, as we celebrate Vice President Kamala Harris today, we must be sure to celebrate Regina Shelton and all the Black aunties who pour love and purpose into the ears and hearts of Black girls and women everywhere.

Josie Pickens is an educator, writer and cultural critic, who speaks and writes on topic that interrogate the varied intersections of race and gender. Follow Josie on Twitter: @jonubian

Comment Disclaimer: Comments that contain profane or derogatory language, video links or exceed 200 words will require approval by a moderator before appearing in the comment section. XOXO-MN