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Why many black women feel deeply ambivalent about Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination

Women’s history has a long record of leaving black women behind.

Democratic National Convention: Day Four Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination shatters a glass ceiling nearly as old as our nation itself. But over the course of Clinton’s campaign, some black women have been both anxious and ambivalent about the prospect of Clinton as the first woman presidential candidate.

And when Clinton finally clinched the nomination in June, Twitter user MadBlackThot created the hashtag #GirlIGuessImWithHer, which soon went viral. This meme captures the sentiment:

Sure, the memes are funny. But the punchlines rest on a more serious discrepancy: When it comes to Hillary Clinton, black women have a complicated relationship. Many adore her, but to others she represents not only the loss of the Obamas in the White House but also the mainstream feminist movement that has largely left pushed them aside.

"The only question I have been asking myself is if I’m [supposed] to vote for Hillary because she is a woman; will she take us to the mountaintop with her or will women of color once again be left out and left behind?" Jada Pinkett Smith wrote shortly after Clinton announced her second bid for the White House.

So as some trumpet the nomination of a woman for the nation’s highest office as the realization of suffragettes’ work a century ago, many black women can’t help but acknowledge that their female descendants’ right to vote would not be ensured for another 45 years. And while the moment is a watershed for women in America, there’s plenty of reason some black women aren’t necessarily ecstatic.

Black women don’t have much of a choice aside from Hillary Clinton

Through the Obama era, black women have become a formidable force of the American electorate, but first Barack Obama had to earn their votes. In the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton initially had a leg up on Obama because she was already a household name. But Obama won them over. By Super Tuesday, he had won a median 82 percent of black women voters, compared with a median 17 percent for Clinton.

Later, during the general election, African-American voters, particularly 18- to 24-year-olds, came out in droves during the past two presidential elections to support Obama, to the point that the surge nearly erased the racial voter gap in 2008. Black women secured Obama’s reelection in 2012 with a 70 percent voter turnout rate — the highest of any group across gender, race, and ethnicity.

Black women are essential to winning a Democratic White House. And yet this is a result of the fact that black women voters don’t necessarily have any other options for candidates who will even listen to their concerns.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders failed to make a convincing case to black voters. But unlike Obama, Sanders didn’t devote the time and resources necessary to prove that he, not Clinton, was the candidate they could trust. Without the investment in black women voters, Clinton became the only option.

Trump is at least publicly making a play for black voters by naming Omarosa Manigault his director of African-American outreach — though the effort will likely be futile, not just because of black voters’ overwhelming disapproval of Trump. African Americans all but completely severed ties with "the party of Lincoln" during the 1964 election when Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-AZ) ran as the Republican presidential candidate. Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which his opponent, incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed into law. Since then, Republicans have largely gone without a sizable black vote. Trumpism is likely the final nail in the coffin.

Black women, like black voters in general, have to reckon with "electoral capture," in which they aren’t free to just choose the "best" candidate. Instead, they have to choose the candidate who will do the least amount of harm to their interests.

Black women face a voting situation in which they are forced to vote between the lesser of two evils. And in this year’s election, it just happens that the lesser of two evils is a woman.

Hillary Clinton’s nomination is historic for black women — and it isn’t

Make no mistake, Clinton’s nomination is no small feat. But it would be dishonest to say her nomination is a win for all women without reckoning with how so many women have been written out of history simply because they weren’t also white.

"Representation absolutely matters," Imani Gandy, a senior legal analyst for Rewire, told Vox. "But it's a sticky wicket when you're a black woman."

When white women marched in a suffrage parade during Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration ceremony in 1913, white suffragists refused to let Ida B. Wells, a noted black journalist, anti-lynching activist, and suffragist, march alongside them. Instead, black women weren’t allowed to vote until the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. And just for perspective: My mom and aunt were the first black women in my family who weren’t denied the right to vote when they reached voting age.

Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) was the first black person and first woman of color to run for president for either major party. "Unbossed and unbothered," Chisholm ran a valiant revolutionary campaign against the status quo. And yet neither black- nor women-focused political organizations fell in line behind her when she sought the nomination.

The Congressional Black Caucus, split by Chisholm’s campaign, decided to support George McGovern because they wanted to bet on someone who would beat incumbent President Richard Nixon. And while members of the National Organization for Women personally endorsed Chisholm, it officially endorsed McGovern as well.

With Chisholm carrying only 151 delegates, McGovern ultimately won the Democratic nomination. But that November, Nixon was reelected by a landslide.

Chisholm didn’t make or break that election. But during her campaign, Chisholm said it best: "If you can’t support me, or you can’t endorse me, get out of my way."

One of the most powerful moments of the current convention was when Jerry Emmett, a 102-year-old Arizona delegate born before women had the right to vote, cast her vote for the first woman to lead a major party’s presidential ticket.

But it would be inaccurate to deny the ways women’s history has intentionally misaligned with black women’s history in American history.

Black women have often been relegated to the margins, if not erased, as their white counterparts write themselves into the history books without them. But against all odds, they forge on. Taken for granted and unrelenting, black women remain the radicals on whom others can depend even if they know they can only depend on themselves.

And as Clinton takes the stage, charging Democrats to answer the call that the party is "stronger together," if black women stand tonight, steadfast and ambivalent, it is only because they know far too intimately the fortitude it takes to toil alone.