The Kamala Harris-Ruby Bridges Meme Is Powerful and Polarizing

Bridges integrated schools 60 years ago this week while, in 2020, Harris integrated the vice presidency

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wearing a white suit giving an address to a crowd in Wilmington.

A meme of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris juxtaposed against the silhouette of an elementary-age Ruby Bridges has understandably gone viral after history was made last Saturday. For many people, the meme represents the powerful contributions of Black girls and Black women to our very concept of freedom and democracy. Others, however, question the appropriateness of linking the two.

The image, which is a T-shirt design created by artist Bria Goeller, bites off of a treasured Norman Rockwell painting depicting a six-year-old Bridges walking into her first day of school as the first Black child in the then all-White William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans in 1960. Bridges’ image is layered with an image of a high-heeled Harris walking with power and intent. The implied connection between the two trailblazers is that Bridges, as a child, greatly contributed to Harris’ glass-ceiling-shattering ascension to the office of vice president of the United States decades later.

Last year, Harris, speaking as the potential Democratic presidential candidate, directly invoked the spirit of Bridges.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public school and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me,” Harris told President-elect Joe Biden.

In this context, Bridges and the incoming VP can be viewed as comrades in the ongoing war to desegregate this nation’s public schools.

“The design symbolizes two powerful women in history who overcame the odds and stood with strength against everyone who didn’t want to see them succeed,” Goeller, a White woman who grew up in Louisiana, told CNET.

If it’s all good with Bridges, shouldn’t it be all good with the rest of us?

The image of Bridges, inspired by Rockwell’s famous 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live With, depicts the incredible courage she displayed on November 14, 1960, just 60 years ago this week. In protest, the White parents pulled their kids out of the school. The White teachers, save for Barbara Henry, refused to teach while a Black child was enrolled. Henry taught Bridges in a school without other teachers or students for more than a year. Sadly, as Rockwell’s image also captures, federal marshals, called in to ensure her safety from the White mob protesting school desegregation, escorted Bridges to and from school.

Bridges, now 66, retells the story in her latest book, This Is Your Time, available today.

“Going into and out of school every day, I walked through crowds of people yelling, screaming threats, throwing things at six-year-old me,” she writes.

Many of those who flooded Instagram and Facebook with the image did so to showcase support and to acknowledge the power of Black women throughout history. But not everyone is pleased.

Historian Blair Imani, author of the 2018 book, Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History, is one of the detractors who questioned the image.

“Y’all really got to stop with these ahistorical memes. Ruby Bridges is still alive,” she tweeted.

Perhaps the reason the image is being embraced by so many people is precisely because Bridges is just 10 years older than the VP-elect.

Then there are those who believe Harris didn’t put in the same kind of work Bridges did. And that’s true to an extent. No, the VP-elect didn’t walk through an angry White mob in the South as a child with her head held high. But it is also true that she, like Bridges, helped desegregate American public schools. So countering objections to her being a child of immigrants and not experiencing the residual effects of this country’s systemic racism, one can argue that Harris, even as a child, contributed directly to key American-grown history. The policy of school bussing that followed closely on the heels of Bridges’ courageous act is an important chapter in this nation’s fight for equality as well.

Monjula Ray objects on different grounds. “Kamala Harris is a very accomplished black and desi woman but it’s kinda weird to turn her into other women she’s not, including Ruby Bridges or Harrier [sic] Tubman. She’s her own legend and an accumulation of centuries of struggles and accomplishments,” she tweeted.

There is no denying that VP-elect Harris is “very accomplished” in her own right. And she does have something in common with Bridges and Tubman: like them, she has broken barriers. From all of the discussion, what is clear is that women are considering how history will remember Harris and how we, ourselves, will remember this moment.

As for Bridges, she isn’t taking issue with any of it at all. “I am Honored to be a part of this path and Grateful to stand alongside you, Together with Our fellow Americans, as we step into this Next Chapter of American History! @kamalaharris @joebiden,” she shared via Instagram.

“Thank you to @briagoeller and @goodtrubble for the Inspirational and Beautiful artwork!”

And if it’s all good with Bridges, shouldn’t it be all good with the rest of us?

ATL-based Ronda Racha Penrice is a writer/cultural critic specializing in film/TV, lifestyle and more. She also wrote African American History For Dummies.

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