History, Symbolism and Representation: Examining The Meaning of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Rise

©2016 Trudy | Drift Sojourn

©2016 Trudy | Drift Sojourn

I will NOT: tell you who to vote for; tell you to vote or not to vote; diminish you for choosing to abstain or choosing a third party candidate; blame you for being disenfranchised because of incarceration or citizenship status; use the executions of Black political figures and post-mortem media violence as unethical, triggering and dehumanizing leverage to make you vote as a fellow Black person; indulge White liberal blame, guilt, or need for a mammy to "save you" from the embarrassment and existential crisis of Whiteness that you would face (not oppression, as I would face) under a Donald Trump presidency; argue with you about your vote; indulge any misogynoir, racism or paternalism in response to how Black voters, indie voters and/or millennial voters engage this election. 


History is “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs.” Symbolism is “the use of symbols—things that represents or stand for something else — to represent ideas or qualities.” Representation is “the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone, or providing ideas, imagery and ideology that convey messages about a larger group.” All three of these are relevant in how “the first (insert an identity) (insert a media, social or political role)” is perceived. 

History is not neutral. History is usually written by those with power about those without it. History is taught in a hegemonic way, which means that those ideas are “ruling or dominant in a political or social context.” Examining history with a critical lens is more important than a hegemonic one. It does not invalidate the truth of a notable moment in history but instead provides subsequent context and nuance that evades the urge to solely support the ruling and the dominant. History with a critical lens means validating the stories of the oppressed. The oral histories. The lived experience as knowledge (i.e. womanism). The perspectives from the bottom up and not just the top down.

Symbolism is not neutral. Symbols infer just as much power as art can and can also be art. Symbols can easily represent ideas of violence and oppression as much as they can represent ideas of peace and freedom. Symbols give people an emotional way to connect with complex ideas. Interpreting symbols critically is more important than superficially and solely based on the perspectives of the powerful. When a symbol empowers one person, is it disempowering another? When a symbol means freedom, is that freedom for everyone? When a change in symbol means a change in media visuals and optics, does it also mean a change in vision and political options?

Representation is not neutral. Human beings teeter between healthy needs for social acceptance as fully human and unhealthy needs to dominate others and convey particular narratives as the premiere ones to be consumed. People—especially marginalized people—need to be able to see themselves as full, nuanced, complex, and flawed yet redeemable human beings. When some people (i.e. women) have faced objectification and some people (i.e. Black people) have faced dehumanization and some people (i.e. Black women) have faced both, representation becomes critical in affirming a truthful existence. Since media—whether social media, or traditional media such as books, magazines, TV, film, music, news etc.—has such a large impact on self-perception and communal/cultural/social perceptions, its power cannot be ignored. Representation that pushes for structural change is ideal in a society where representation as a form of tokenism to buttress the existing status quo can end up backfiring and not being healthy or liberating at all. 


History, symbolism and representation came to mind for me over the summer when I thought about what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidency would mean for me. As someone who has critiqued her and other candidates running for President over the last two years. As a Black woman who is not a Democrat (registered as "no party affiliation") and has not been in that party for several years now. As a womanist who is regularly at ideological, social, and personal odds with mainstream White feminism. As someone with a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice who cannot ignore Hillary Clinton's role in the criminalization of Black bodies, while not being unreasonable and pretending it is her sole responsibility. As a child of Jamaican immigrants, and someone who has family members who have been deported as well ones who have faced police brutality, extrajudicial execution, poverty, and an inability to vote due to immigration status under Democrats as well as under Republicans. As someone who has become increasingly more aware of American foreign policy and its imperialistic roots and present, while still understanding why some of my family and friends rely on their military careers in order to survive.

I thought about what her potential presidency might mean for me as someone who was actually once a fan of hers back when I was younger and not fully aware of the full cost of the Clinton presidency and the Clintons as a powerful couple, as Democrats were automatically deemed "good White folk" and "better than Republicans" by many Black people in the poor community that I grew up in. Democrats and Republicans do differ in some ways, but White supremacy, anti-Blackness and settler colonialism still remain the ties that bind them. I know this because people that I know have experienced what these similarities mean in very material ways; so have I. I thought about what her potential presidency might mean for me as someone who might have voted for her in 2008, to be quite honest, if her campaign felt aspirational like then Senator Barack Obama's and if I were able to emotionally connect to the history, symbolism and representation that I was able to for Barack Obama.

However, it is not 2008 anymore and I have had many political criticisms for President Obama as POTUS and an emotional disconnect from his particular Black iconography at times. The history is that he is the first Black President and this is an iconic thing. However, I regularly think back to something that James Baldwin stated in 1961: "And in any case, what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro ‘first’ will become the first President. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be president of." I still recognize the enormity of that moment in November of 2008 but there is also a bittersweet feeling and sometimes simply a bitter feeling when I think about the context in which this historic moment has played out over eight years. The symbolism is the notion that one can work their way up to success despite racism and defying anti-Black stereotypes, but this success is still happening in the context of capitalism and often relies on exceptionalism in order to even be a symbol. His individual success has meant both progress and pain in many people's lives. The representation is the pop culture imagery and messaging of a conventionally attractive, able-bodied, "respectable," traditional Black family as a positive thing to refute the notions of Black unintelligence, hypersexuality and infidelity, incompetent parenting, non-traditional family dynamics as "inherently pathological" and other anti-Black stereotypes. But this has also come at the price of supporting respectability politics and classism towards Black people. The way the President ignores Black loyalty to Democrats to still shame Black voters and at times minimizes complex challenges that impact Black families in order to make jokes or public scoldings of Black people for the White Gaze is a product of the same "representation" that makes his family appear ideal.  

At times I feel heartbroken. (To be clear, feeling pain because of structural violence is not the same as being unaware of the actual facts of structural violence; being smart or aware does not mean I stopped being human and stopped being able to feel.) Some of this heartbreak is my bad. It was my choice (and socialization) to desire history, symbolism and representation be sufficient enough to stomach the realities of an oppressive political system that was awful long before President Obama was even born. Some of this heartbreak is his bad (and this administration and this system altogether). He does not have to be condescending, classist and evoke the politics of respectability on Black people for the White Gaze. He does not have to have disastrous immigration policy that outpaces his Republican predecessor. He does not have continue to falsely equate being Black with choosing to be an agent of the State—such as police—in a system that was built (origins), designed (rules/laws), and functions (practices) on anti-Blackness. This idea that he is powerless now but can "show out" once out of office has more to do with his fictive kinship with Black people through cultural references, humor and charm, and less to do with actual structural change. I am less interested in who he becomes out of office than I am hurt by some of the things that occur while he is in it. 

How I perceive history, symbolism and representation in regards to President Barack Obama is actually salient in thinking about this for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Why? Because "all the women are White, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave." And thus far, people expect Black women to be cheerleaders for Black men and White women, and as my reference to the Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith book notes, this is nowhere near being new. People do not only expect me to vote for her, but to relish in the history, the symbolism and the representation of her projected win. The emotional labor placed on Black women this election season (let alone the actual intellectual and physical labor) has been heavy. Though many Black women support Hillary Clinton and at a greater percentage than White women do, nobody seems to be able to tolerate Black women who do not feel this way. Nobody has any room for Black women who obviously do not support Donald Trump (come on...) and may have wanted to see Bernie Sanders' campaign come to fruition, not out of sexism towards Hillary but out of political interest in Bernie. Nobody has any room for Black women who are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves and feel worried about deportation issues regardless of who wins. Nobody has any room for Black women who are exhausted by the sheer Whiteness of the feminism in this election season as the articles, memes, and general rhetoric moves further away from intersectionality and to a point where cheering Susan B. Anthony and the 19th Amendment—with zero historical context—is engaged as liberating for "all women."  To be clear, I do not desire White feminists' approval, compassion or even awareness. It is simply that seeing this ignorance engaged as sincerity while White feminists engage Black women voters as "cheerleaders" for "their" pending win mirrors how they engage feminism itself. Maybe this is "their win" if/when Hillary Clinton wins. It does not feel like it is mine. Nobody has any room for the brokenhearted Black women.

Over the last several months I have tweeted (TweetDeck collection: HRC, Race and Gender) about how I feel emotionally disconnected from this entire process (politically I still shared my jokes, concerns, questions, analyses and at times anger) and that while I recognize the gravity of the historical significance if she wins, I cannot pretend like I feel the joy I did in 2008 in terms of symbolism and representation. I cannot pretend that a White woman acquiring power gives me deep joy other than the idea that Donald Trump is insufferable and may lose and his misery would be delightful because he disgust me. But beyond this, I do not feel connected to the symbol of a wealthy White woman in power as something that moves me emotionally. There may have been a time where it might have. Again, that could have been 2008. However my politics, experience and life were not placed on hold for eight years so I can robotically perform something I do not feel now. People cannot expect me to simply robotically transfer my emotion from 2008 to 2016 solely because this would be a historic win as well. In the same tweets that I referred to above, I mentioned that the sheer timing of Obama's run and how it coincided with my politics at the time and my experiences made that historic moment significant to me. However, it is eight years later; my mind and heart are at a different place. I also debunked the notion that Blackness matters more to me than womanhood; this misogynoiristic and anti-intersectional concept ignores how Black men are integrated into Black women's lives. My father is a Black man; my sister is not a White woman. Politics aside, the feeling of seeing Marian, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha is simply not the same as seeing Hillary and Chelsea; the former remind me of my family; the latter remind me of the hell privileged White women have brought into my life since elementary school.

Some people will suggest that emotions do not matter, only vote on skill sets and to that I would reply, "have you met any humans before?" If emotion is divorced from this process, explain the emotions at these rallies that become happily enthusiastic or horrendously violent. If emotion is divorced from this process, explain the ended friendships, split families and broken romantic relationships across multiple social media platforms based on irreconcilable political differences. If emotion is divorced from this process, explain how the same people who will revel in the history, symbolism and representation of Hillary Clinton's win deny people the right not to feel positive emotions in regards to exactly these same things. How can they engage her identity as central to what motivates their joy but then want to deny others from sharing how they relate to that same identity and how they may not feel that joy at all? There is not enough notable history, important symbolism and needed representation—without structural change—that will make me feel what I felt in 2008 because representation without structural change in precariously powerful positions no longer fulfills me anymore. This is not because Blackness matters more than womanhood; Black women cannot "choose" between our identities and tear ourselves into parts for Black men and White women to use as tools. This is because I already tried this before and eight years later it is insufficient. I cannot feel happy about it again. 


Since 2015 I have stated that I am not voting for Hillary Clinton. I have been angry about things that are explicitly her fault and things that are systemic and beyond her sole control. I have been angry about what she symbolizes for White feminists who are incidentally very harmful to Black women like me. I have been mostly angry at other people though, her stans, who have impact my mental health so badly during this election season which has made my independent work suffer and impact my already struggling income even more. These people have been violently anti-Black, racist, misogynoiristic, ableist and paternalistic towards me. These people do not only hate Black voters, they hate Blackness. I have been intraracially harassed by some fellow Black people who already have years of experience exploiting the executions of Black people that proverbially slapping a HRC logo on a list of Black people killed by police militarized by the same Democrats is deemed being "pro-Black." Luckily I have not been harassed by family or friends. Up until very recently, I knew I did not want to vote for Hillary Clinton. However, I recently changed my mind. I voted for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to be President on November 4, 2016, the same day that I voted for then Senator Barack Obama to be President eight years ago. I alluded to this on Twitter but because people are so obsessed with hoarding, plagiarizing and arguing my words, they missed this. This was not an easy decision or an even remotely pleasurable one. There was no happily waiting in line like in 2008. There was an absentee ballot. There was no running around social media (Myspace in 2008) with photographs of the candidate, there was only pacing for about two hours in my living room. The presidential section of the ballot was one that remained blank for me for days. I reviewed the amendments and local/State/Congressional offices and made my choices. Minutes before my Uber arrived to take me to the post office, I drew that black line across, felt sad, but also felt relieved that this part of the process is over.

When did I change my mind? That day, on November 4th. Literally. I saw the parallels and the irony (it was not planned) of me sending my absentee ballot out that day, the same day that I voted for Barack Obama, even as I am truly heartbroken eight years later. I paced in my living room because while I was enthusiastic about Dr. Jill Stein for a good while, I started to lose confidence in how she approaches race. It started to feel like she is a super smart but another inevitably White candidate. I do not feel certain that her rise without systemic change would be any different from Hillary in terms of the future; obviously I am not comparing their pasts and I continue to heavily critique Hillary's past.  I do not take back a word that I have said about her other than "I am not voting for her" because I changed my mind. I have not deleted a single tweet. I changed my mind solely based on a few policies that may impact my family under Donald Trump, not because I genuinely feel that her presidency will be any better than Obama's for all that may be good and bad about his. I changed my mind since while as a Black woman I might not be good under any party, there are people Donald Trump wants to target that Hillary Clinton does not; I think of them. I decided that since I live in Florida, a swing state, and I do not feel Jill can take Florida for the Green Party (I have no party affiliation; I did not "betray" the Green Party) I had to choose based on thinking of my family. A good argument can be made about other people's families. Ones overseas. One's subject to U.S. imperialism. If I thought that electing Jill was possible for my state and that her presidency would mean safety for families abroad, many of whom look just like my family, I would have voted for her.  It is unfortunate that this system is such that even a singular optic change in power is not enough for massive structural change. I also did that "I Side With" quiz. My results? Jill Stein. Hillary Clinton. And the difference in those two was less than 5%. (The male candidates were so low in congruence that I forgot the numbers.) I do not have an emotional connection to the symbolism and representation in this moment; I have managed to (mostly unhappily) survive under Obama; in no way in fucking hell would ever vote for a Republican or Libertarian; I did not feel confident Jill could take Florida and alter enough policies upon a win that would drastically alter my life.

I voted for Hillary Clinton because of these circumstances. But I am not with her. I do not feel a thing in regards to connection. I will literally be on her case and other White liberals for the next four years if she wins. I worry that Democrats and their thoroughly unwilling stance to hold her accountable might end up making her presidency worse than Obama's. I do. I worry that an endless sea of social misery at the hands of White women will be my experience for the next four to eight years. I have been exhausted by White feminism for years. Disgusted. Dissected and broke it down so that it may be forever fucking broke on Gradient Lair. The cultural appropriation. The anti-intersectionality. The self-absorption yet demand for applause. The structural violence against Black women that they will justify as "feminist acts" under Hillary Clinton. In fact, the idea of a White woman "thanking" me for "saving" White liberals with my vote—when in fact my concern is for my family, not their White asses—literally makes me suicidal. The notion they will exploit my experiences as a way to shame Black voters who came up with different choice for themselves makes my skin crawl. My worries are reasonable. I just realized that my worries would not be repaired by Jill Stein this particular time and would be exacerbated by Donald Trump. I am a 37-year-old Black woman, and I made a decision for myself. Begrudgingly. Depressingly. It is not advice for others. I love that other people decided voting third party, abstaining, or writing in a candidate is the best thing for their choices. I honor their choices. I honor the people who cannot even vote because of incarceration or immigration status. 

While I refuse to evoke random/iconic Black people's deaths at the hands of the State as a way to manipulate other Black voters (and I am glad that I unlearned thinking this cruel anti-Black action is "good"), I do find myself thinking about my late mother in the last few weeks. She is not a rhetorical device to me; she was a person. A human being. Not a toy to use to control Black people. She was a person who lost a brother to State violence, but also realized that she had to "make due" with whatever is available. "Make due." I hated hearing that phrase as a child but as an adult I understand that she meant surviving is not settling. My late mother only lived until 48 years old. I regularly get the feeling that my experience will be similar. Sometimes this makes me happy as death can truly be a gift and a release; sometimes this makes me afraid that my opportunities to experience true freedom will not happen in my lifetime. This election decision is not a failure of imagination on my part but more a realization of what will and will not occur in my lifetime, which may be quite short. My late mother actually loved Hillary Clinton. She never got to vote since she became a U.S. citizen only shortly before she died in 2001, a month after my college graduation. Maybe this vote was for her. Maybe this will make some of this sadness go away. I understand why some women are joyful today in hopes of a win; I hope they understand why I mourn.