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Where Kamala Harris’ political imagination was formed

Scott Saul, Professor of English | September 25, 2020
Kamala Harris giving a speech at a pdium

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California. Harris grew up in Berkeley at found political inspiration in the Rainbow Sign, a Black cultural center in the community. (Photo courtesy of flikr/Gage Skidmore)

 

Co-authored with Tessa Rissacher

On March 31, 1972, the Black cultural center Rainbow Sign welcomed local press for Berkeley’s official proclamation of “Nina Simone Day.” At this staged convergence of Black artistic and political power, the mood was formal and celebratory at once. Multicolored curtains sparkled behind black balloons. Simone listened attentively in a gold lamé dress and sky-blue headscarf as Warren Widener, Berkeley’s first Black mayor and a frequent guest of Rainbow Sign, read from a decree that exalted her artistry, her every song “an anthem to Black people, for Black people, and about Black people.”

The director of the Bay Area Urban League announced an official campaign to make Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” “the new Black anthem.” Simone, acknowledging the impact of the song, said that she was “pleased to be an instrument, to give it to my people. It does not belong to me.”

One of the children who had received the song was the young Kamala Harris, whose Indian-born mother regularly played “Young, Gifted, and Black” (Aretha Franklin’s version, admittedly) on the record player in their living room. Harris, 7 at the time of Nina Simone Day, frequented Rainbow Sign for several years with her mother and sister and absorbed there a sense of political responsibility—that to be “young, gifted, and Black” meant lifting up her community.

“It was a citizen’s upbringing,” she writes in The Truths We Hold of her time at Rainbow Sign, “the only kind I knew, and one I assumed everyone else was experiencing, too.” (They weren’t.) Rainbow Sign was where she first “learned that artistic expression, ambition, and intelligence were cool.” It was also where she glimpsed a vision of Black empowerment, orchestrated by middle-class Black women with working-class roots—women who had broken professional barriers and were now trying to mentor a new generation of young Black people to find a vocation for themselves and transform the institutions they joined.

Rainbow Sign plays a key role in the opening arc of Harris’ memoir. By her own account, it’s the place where she first came into sustained contact with Black activists and started to see herself in that lineage. She spends less time, however, placing Rainbow Sign in the context of its era.

On the one hand, Rainbow Sign sponsored a radical vision of Black freedom through its arts programs: The center inspired Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima and hosted exhibitions by the expat sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, including one featuring her iconic wooden sculpture of a fistOn the other hand, the political organizations hosted by Rainbow Sign tended toward the liberal side of the Black Power spectrum, calling for the integration of Black people into American politics, with the understanding that better policy would follow.

Rainbow Sign’s unique fusion of culture and politics provided fuel for Harris’ rise as a politician whose every electoral victory has also been seen as a cultural breakthrough. But for Harris, as potentially the first Black, female vice president, that strategy of activism—pragmatic in orientation and at times lofty in tone—will be pressure-tested, just as Rainbow Sign was. The cultural center’s doors were open for only six years. Harris’ campaign will speak to the legacy those six years have left behind.

In her memoir, Harris’ time at Rainbow Sign was part of her mother Shyamala’s quest to “make sure we [Harris and her sister, Maya,] would grow into confident, black women.” Although the young Kamala grew up in the West Berkeley flatlands—a formerly redlined area that Harris describes as “a close-knit neighborhood of working families”—she participated (famously now) in the early years of Berkeley’s busing program and spent her school days at a North Berkeley elementary school whose demographics were closer to the city’s at large (68 percent white).

So Shyamala drew her daughters into a set of Black-centered circles—first, the after-school program, run by Kamala’s beloved neighbors the Sheltons, with its posters of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman decorating its walls; and next, Oakland’s 23rd Avenue Church of God, where Kamala and Maya sung in the children’s choir and took in the Social Gospel vision of a Black church that “defend[s] the rights of the poor and the needy.” But at the heart of her childhood stood Rainbow Sign. It was there that she and other children were exposed to the “extraordinary” people—Harris names Shirley Chisholm, Alice Walker, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou—“who showed us what we could become.”

Rainbow Sign was the East Bay’s Black mecca. Housed in a former funeral parlor designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, Rainbow Sign had innate grandeur—chandeliers and arched leaded windows, vaulted ceilings with hand-painted floral designs, an organ loft suspended above what became the main stage.

The center thrummed with life: Its bustling bar-restaurant served up soul food seven days a week, and the walls of its program hall were always hung with new art exhibitions. Rentable conference rooms in the back were put to use by all manner of community groups, and any night of the week there was some cultural event to take advantage of—a Bobby Hutcherson concert, a screening of a film smuggled out of South Africa, a trailblazing work of choreo-theater, a book party with Rosa Guy or Maya Angelou. It was a space for learning, one that boasted a library stocked with the latest Black Arts journals and a studio that held workshops on art, music, and dance. And it was a space for festivity. On some occasions—for instance, to host a jazz festival’s after-party or a record-breaking, six-day-long poetry reading—Rainbow Sign was even open through the night and into the morning.

The center had been brainstormed into existence by Mary Ann Pollar, a Bay Area concert promoter and good friend of luminaries like Nina Simone, Odetta, Maya Angelou, and James Baldwin. Pollar had taken the center’s name from the same verse of the spiritual that Baldwin had drawn upon for the title of his 1963 indictment of white supremacy, The Fire Next Time (“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water the fire next time!”). Pollar put her emphasis on the rainbow sign’s promise of rebirth—of wracked communities made whole again. In that spirit of Black resilience, Rainbow Sign sought to educate, uplift, and entertain. As it advertised in its brochure, it “set a Black table at which all are welcome to eat” and made membership “open to all who are sympathetic to our Black orientation, cognizant of our vast diversity and dedicated to quality achievement.”

It wasn’t a coincidence that Pollar and the 10 other members of the Rainbow Sign’s board were all Black professional women with experience at having cracked glass ceilings in medicine, TV broadcasting, and print journalism. (This is echoed in Harris’ own repeated “firsts”—the first Black female district attorney for San Francisco, the first Black female attorney general for California.) They set up Rainbow Sign as a membership club partly because of zoning restrictions—the center sat in a residential neighborhood where businesses were not permitted—but also partly because of their combined experience in the later years of the Black women’s club movement.

They brought formidable organizing power and a passion for social uplift, tinged with the respectability politics of their era. They also—Pollar especially—had a knack for polished hospitality that reflected their commitment to an ethics of care. Visitors to Rainbow Sign noticed the welcoming vibe of the place and the gracious warmth of its hostess; Harris remembered being “always greeted with big smiles and warm hugs.” “It was a model,” said Electra Price, a board member and Oakland-based activist, in a recent interview. “It said, ‘This is what it would look like if people got their act together.’ ”With its focus on the long game of empowering future generations, Rainbow Sign aimed to link young artists with professional mentors, and to bring children into contact with “people they regard as heroes,” as Pollar described it.

When the young Kamala was frequenting the club, the club sponsored a series of six free workshops for Oakland and Berkeley public school students, with a cultural lineup that is astonishing in retrospect. Angelou, for instance, led a poetry workshop, the jazz singer and actress Abbey Lincoln a workshop on acting, and guitar virtuoso Kenny Burrell a workshop on music and the guitar. There was a strong practical side to these workshops and other educational events: Rainbow Sign’s board hoped to instill habits of discipline and commitment that would serve these young people well.

But there was also an open-ended side to the club’s activities, which aimed to provoke thoughtfulness above all. “Hidden under everything we do, the best entertainment we put on,” Mary Ann Pollar said, “there’s always a message: look about you; think about this.”

It was the political education, more than the cultural, that would prove to be fateful for Kamala Harris. She was able to absorb from a young age a fiery liberalism driven by the efforts of Black women. The young Kamala would regularly visit Rainbow Sign with her mother and sister on Thursday nights—her “favorite night of the week,” Harris writes in her memoir. She recalls “the powerful orations from the stage and the witty, sometimes unruly audience banter.” What she doesn’t mention in her book is that Thursday night at Rainbow Sign was, significantly, the regular meeting time for Black Women Organized for Political Action, or BWOPA, whose mission was to bring to bear on politics “the strong power that Black women have exercised in religion and education.”

BWOPA’s political agenda was left-of-center, though when faced with a choice between endorsing more centrist and more radical candidates, it leaned toward the former. Unlike the Oakland-based Black Panther Party, which decried how capitalism had hollowed out the city, BWOPA was less openly ideological. “Politics is not nice, pretty, or a purist activity,” one member said. “It is a question of who can negotiate from a position of strength.” BWOPA protested then-Gov. Ronald Reagan’s “welfare reform,” but in the main its energies were invested in helping elect Black men and women to office.

At first, it propelled the successful campaigns of men such as Rep. Ron Dellums and Berkeley Mayor Warren Widener. Later, and with chapters now across the state, it helped Maxine Waters capture her first elected office, in the California State Assembly, and helped elect Ella Hill Hutch, the first Black female member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. In 2003, still going strong, BWOPA notched another victory when it put its muscle behind a certain candidate for San Francisco district attorney.

For Kamala Harris, Rainbow Sign was where the personal —her mother’s moral instruction— became the political. The center, she writes, was “where I saw the logical extension of my mother’s daily lessons, where I could begin to imagine what my future might hold for me. … She would tell us, “Fight systems in a way that causes them to be fairer, and don’t be limited by what has always been.” At Rainbow Sign, I’d see those values in action, those principles personified.”

In February 1977, Harris’ mother accepted a prestigious position as a teacher and researcher at McGill University in Montreal. The 12-year-old Kamala was not enthused to leave her lively East Bay community for a “French-speaking foreign city covered in twelve feet of snow.” She pined for the home she was leaving behind. But that home was changing too. The very same month that Harris had to uproot herself, Rainbow Sign was forced to close its doors, unable to stay afloat amid the punishing recession of the mid-1970s. By the time Harris returned stateside to attend Howard University, the building that was Rainbow Sign had become the site of Berkeley Mental Health Services.

For all the cultural magic it sponsored, Rainbow Sign had always suffered from shaky finances during its six-year run. At its opening, Pollar had refused to apply for support through foundation grants because she did “not believe that it was as free as it appears to be.” Rainbow Sign was to be a Black-run institution, oriented to the Black community, and she preferred to rely on its members for support. She estimated that the club needed 2,000 to 3,000 members for it to realize its promise, but the true number fluctuated between 175 and 800. The club’s appeal was limited, at least in part, by the strain of elitism that touched its operations: Though Rainbow Sign was never a “members-only” club, given that its events were open to the public, its rhetoric of uplift and its emphasis on “quality achievement” rested on the assumption that there were those ready to be uplifted, those who knew quality, and then those who were not and did not.

And with Black unemployment spiking during the recession and with Black Oakland struggling with the consequences of the region’s deindustrialization, more of Rainbow Sign’s potential members were on the brink of a financial emergency that left little room to invest in the arts and education. Edith Austin, a central figure of BWOPA, reported the news of Rainbow Sign’s closure with a sober title: “Death of a Good Idea.”

In another sense, of course, the “good idea” of Rainbow Sign never died. It lived on in the young members it inspired, one of whom is now the first Black and Asian candidate for vice president of the United States on a major-party ticket. But Harris might also learn an important lesson, from Rainbow Sign’s closure, about the limits of a liberal politics that trades on symbolic appeals in a felt moment of emergency.

In her Democratic National Convention speech, Harris nobly hailed the Black female activists, from Mary Church Terrell to Shirley Chisholm, who paved the way for her, and she listed a host of inequities (“in education and technology, health care and housing, job security and transportation”) and injustices (“in reproductive and maternal health care,” “the excessive use of force by police,” and “our broader criminal justice system”) that continue to plague us. But her specific visions for the future were hard to find, and hazy when they arrived. “When we vote,” she said, “we expand access to health care, expand access to the ballot box, and ensure that more working families can make a decent living.”

That participation is far from guaranteed, however. As American University’s Black Swing Voter Project has argued with respect to Black people under 30, they are a crucial bloc, swinging between voting and not voting at all. And a challenge for the Biden-Harris ticket will be in activating those who feel politically alienated, many of whom were drawn to the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, with their concrete promises of economic and racial justice.

Harris remembers Rainbow Sign as a place where her political development was cultivated. The young Harris and her peers embraced a “citizen’s upbringing” because they had faith in a future; thanks to places like Rainbow Sign and groups like BWOPA, they could envision roles for themselves in the world, in places of power that had long excluded Black people. But the story of Rainbow Sign as an inspiration to young people is instructive in another way: The seedbed it provided existed only as long as its surrounding community could sustain it. No mission of uplift, on a local or national scale, can succeed without the material conditions that empowered citizens need to thrive.

After losing Rainbow Sign, Mary Ann Pollar did not give up; she shifted her organizing energies from the arts to the workplace. She got a job with AC Transit, the area’s bus system, and then helped organize a new union for its admin employees. And after it won recognition as AFSCME Local 3916, she became its first president.

This story was originally published Sept. 14, 2020 on Slate.com