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OPINION: Black women voters changed the shape of the U.S. election. It’s time to thank them.

by Martha Jones | @marthasjones_ | Johns Hopkins University
Thursday, 12 November 2020 17:35 GMT

Former Georgia House of Representatives Minority Leader Stacey Abrams speaks ahead of former President Barack Obama's address in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., one day before the election, November 2, 2020. REUTERS/Brandon Bell

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When Black women show up, be prepared to follow. That is, above all, the most sincere form of thanks

Martha S. Jones is a Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and author of ‘Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.’

In the weeks following the 2020 election, Black women may not have time for a victory lap. But you should still take a moment to thank them.

Even as state officials continued to count ballots, I knew the final tallies in the 2020 Biden v. Trump contest would confirm how Black women exercised an outsized influence in that race.

At the ballot box, but also in precinct headquarters and church basements, on the stump and national news shows, before rallies and federal courts, Black women in 2020 demonstrated what it means to stand up for democracy in troubled times and in doing so steer the fate of the nation toward its best ideals.

When I suggested that Americans might go so far as to thank Black women, one friend posted her Venmo handle to Twitter, inviting anyone wanting to show gratitude to buy her a virtual drink in appreciation for her work during the 2020 election cycle. 

It caught on, and will go down as a quintessentially COVID-time adaptation of what it means to raise a glass together. Still, ephemeral high-five moments are not exactly what I had in mind.

Where Americans spend their dollars and cents matters.

Thank Black women by writing a check (or sending that Venmo payment) to their organizations that are still working to defend the 2020 election and the long-term future of democracy.

They are organizers in the trenches and generating enthusiasm and commitment; educators teaching how to overcome suppression tactics and get ballots counted; and candidates looking to change the debate from City Hall to Congress.

Black women lead legacy organizations that continue to generate research, litigation and lobbying efforts. Thank Black women by supporting their work.

On the horizon are tough contests over law and policy. Thank Black women by supporting their issues. 2021 will be the year to weigh in on restoring the Voting Rights Act, finally passing anti-lynching legislation, defending affordable health care, committing to environmental justice, and honing a humane pandemic response.

And when Congress opens consideration of reparations for slavery, listen and learn about that crime against humanity and its legacies.

Thank Black women by getting behind their causes and urging your representatives to do the same.

Soon you’ll be back at the ballot box, in special elections and in state and local contests.

Thank Black women by voting like a Black woman.

Your vote can be an expression of the common good, rather than your individual interests.

It can be deployed strategically, as part of a collective that aims to move the needle on critical concerns.

Oppose voter suppression however it manifests in your state or city.

And don’t forget to turn out and vote: Black women fought and paid dearly across generations to make voting something closer to a universal right in the U.S. 

Thank Black women by joining their voting bloc.

We need to understand American democracy, its past, present and future.

Thank Black women by reading their books.

Behind every organizer, advocate, or leader is a set of ideas and Black women have been thinking through the challenges and the possibilities for democracy for a long time before the 2020 election cycle.

Pick up their writing to discover the depths of Black women’s political philosophies, histories, literatures, social science research, and even their poetic imaginings for a better future.

Thank Black women by thinking like a Black woman.

If you want to thank Black women in the wake of the 2020 election, follow them.

For many Americans, this may be the biggest leap of all.

Support for Black women leaders means trusting Black women.

Remember that Black women have fought for more than 200 years to perfect this democracy, much of that time as outsiders to the body politic.

Trust that Black women lead by way of a deep commitment to us all.

Supporting Black women’s leadership means listening to Black women. Dispense with mansplaining, paternalism, zingers and whataboutism.

Instead, stay quiet long enough to learn how Black women will use the insight and wisdom they have gathered during centuries of holding our democracy up to its best ideals. 

On some days, you will even need to step aside and allow yourself to be led.

I was raised by Black women who practiced the art of the thank you note.

Their insistence that the power of gratitude is released by way of action, and not merely in thought, has stayed with me.

It may take me some time, but I try to get to that specially chosen stationary and a favorite pen.

I search for words that convey genuine and distinct appreciation for a kindness or favor.

I write by hand and never on my laptop.

And I especially love it when a thank you gesture generates a return thank you – “thanks for your thanks” -- a chain of appreciations that holds us up, even in times that are weighty and hard to bear. 

Applaud Black women. Like their Tweets and Instagram posts. Even send your favorite Black woman a drink via Venmo.

But then, act to support her vision and leadership.

The hard work of American democracy lies ahead of us, out on the troubled horizon of a nation deeply divided and nearly wrecked by an unchecked pandemic.

The need for tested, visionary leaders is urgent. When Black women show up, be prepared to follow. That is, above all, the most sincere form of thanks.