I’ll admit it: My expectations for the unconventional Democratic National Convention in mid-August couldn’t have been lower if I’d stuffed them under the sofa with my spare change, dust bunnies, and the remnants of my dog’s chew toys. While I was disappointed that Milwaukee, where I went to high school, missed its chance in the national spotlight, I was furious about the party’s roster of featured speakers—one minute for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but major platforms for former president Bill Clinton, former secretary of state (and losing 2004 nominee) John Kerry, and (really?) billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a great contributor to gun reform and environmental causes who is being sued by some of the national campaign staffers he lured with promises of long-term jobs, then laid off.
Oh, and all those Republicans (six!), from former Ohio governor John Kasich to Cindy McCain, the widow of Senator John McCain.
Sure, Senator Bernie Sanders got a featured spot, as did Senator Elizabeth Warren. The lions of the left got their spotlight. But the diversity of the party’s new leadership, especially the class of 2018—from Ocasio-Cortez’s “Squad” to Orange County Representative Katie Porter and, yes, those national security leaders Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria in Virginia and Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey, who won in swing districts—was barely in evidence. Convention organizers had so many great women to choose from and chose so few. Georgia’s Stacey Abrams got shoehorned into a keynote with 16 other rising stars, though her star rose long ago. She deserved her own spot.
And yet those choices ultimately didn’t matter much. The convention’s format—the world’s best-choreographed Zoom meeting—flattened distinctions between the big-time speakers and the ordinary Americans we met, creating an unexpected intimacy. My mind stays with Kristin Urquiza, who paid tribute to her father, a victim of Covid-19, noting “his only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump.” And George Floyd’s brothers, Philonise and Rodney Floyd, leading a moment of silence for the victims of violence. The convention’s first night served as the national grieving ceremony we’ve all badly needed, suffering under a president who won’t elevate and honor the more than 175,000 Americans lost to Covid or the ever-growing roster of police shooting victims because he lacks the empathy that would require. The Democratic convention gave us that national mourning, and for that alone, I was grateful.
But there was more. Never again should the delegate roll call be held in a stuffy arena; the tableau featuring Americans from our wide-open spaces must become a feature of every convention, even when (or if) we can band together again safely in throngs of tens of thousands. I thrilled to see our country that way, in all its beauty: Representative Terri Sewell announcing Alabama’s delegate vote from the foot of the delicately illuminated Edmund Pettus Bridge (which should soon be renamed for the late hero John Lewis). Matthew Shepard’s still grieving parents, 22 years later, keeping faith with their political activism, declaring Wyoming’s delegate count. Gold Star father Khizr Khan, the standout speaker at the 2016 convention who was then attacked by Trump, doing the honors for Virginia.
And of course, some of the big speakers shined bright. I loved Hillary Clinton, her white-blond hair in a long, relaxed flip, the presidential helmet gone, telling us drolly, “Don’t forget: Joe and Kamala can win by 3 million votes and still lose. Take it from me.” She went on, “For four years, people have told me, ‘I didn’t realize how dangerous he was.’ ‘I wish I could do it all over.’ Or worst, ‘I should have voted.’ Look, this can’t be another woulda, coulda, shoulda election…. Most of all, no matter what, vote.” Then she went back to bingeing Netflix. Or at least I hope she did.
Kamala Harris had the tough act of following Barack Obama, who, it was widely said, sometimes with opprobrium, gave the most slashing speech anyone can remember from a former president about his successor. It’s about time. Harris did her own roll call, of Black feminist leaders many of us don’t remember or never learned about—a tribute to the Black voters, most of them women, who made Joe Biden the Democratic nominee. I want to do them the honor of introducing them.
She began with Mary Church Terrell—a turn-of-the-(20th)-century suffragist, educator, and anti-lynching activist—and Mary McLeod Bethune, the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women, a longtime leader at the NAACP, and one of the only women at the establishment of the United Nations in 1945.
Harris moved on to the slightly better-known Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi civil rights activist who went to Atlantic City in 1964 to try to get Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates installed in place of the state’s racist Democratic regulars. Her convention address, describing her beatings at the hands of police, so unnerved President Lyndon Johnson that he preempted it with a presidential news conference intended to distract the national media. Then came Diane Nash, the brilliant strategist and activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), at the center of nearly every successful civil rights skirmish, from the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins to the Freedom Rides to the Selma marches.
Harris also honored Constance Baker Motley, a New York politician and activist who was the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary, and Shirley Chisholm, who was the first Black woman elected to Congress and ran for president in 1972. Harris showed us she knows whose shoulders she stands upon, and it was moving.
A couple of other Black women got mentioned from on high. Moderator Tracee Ellis Ross noted that Harris isn’t the first Black vice presidential nominee in US history: The journalist Charlotta Bass ran on the Progressive Party’s ticket in 1952. And it was left to Biden to summon the spirit of Ella Baker, the mother of the movement back in the day, who protected the young people in SNCC and elsewhere and helped them avoid getting seduced by the powerful—even when that meant disagreeing with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Ella Baker, a giant of the civil rights movement, left us with this wisdom: ‘Give people light, and they will find a way,’” Biden said. “‘Give people light.’ Those are words for our time.” They are—and those words made me more hopeful about his presidency than the thousands of words that came after. Of course, 13-year-old Brayden Harrington’s testimony about how Biden helped him with his stutter might be the most memorable thing we learned about the candidate, and I guarantee it would not have come off nearly as well in a big convention hall. The entire Biden presentation centered on the many losses he has survived—not just of his wife and baby daughter almost 50 years ago but also of his beloved son Beau Biden in 2015. Joe Biden has come to seem the man for this anxious moment.
In the end, that’s what I remember about the week: the acknowledgment of widespread suffering and the commitment to comforting the victims and righting the wrongs that got us here. If the official roster centered too many old white men, the Zoom family conversation was quite the opposite. And so was the musical programming. From the first night alone, the montage of images that went along with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” featured stirring images of Black Lives Matter protests, as did Billy Porter’s duet with Stephen Stills on the iconic protest song “For What It’s Worth.” This wasn’t programming designed for swing district Republicans or even Cindy McCain; it focused directly on the broken places in our society and also where healing is starting to take place.
So, yes, I wound up happy with the weeklong Democratic Zoom meeting, however tedious at times. Something subversive happened: The people broke through.
As did the poet Seamus Heaney. That “hope and history rhyme” line that Biden quoted shows up often, and the extended passage from Heaney’s play The Cure at Troy is worth referring to, especially at a time like this:
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It’s hard to believe a 77-year-old mostly centrist Democrat is going to deliver us new life, but this convention made me optimistic that the party’s new life, coming from everywhere, cannot be thwarted.