Editor’s Note: Fatima Goss Graves is president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
On Monday morning, I and many other Black women leaders gathered on the steps of the US Supreme Court to center our unbridled joy for the momentous Supreme Court nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. We hailed her career and celebrated not only her, but also the work of countless Black women silenced, erased and excluded from the top echelon of the legal profession. Even as a small group of counter protesters tried and failed to drown us out, we persevered, understanding that our jubilation was a critical shield against efforts to divide us as a nation in this historic moment.
And that is what I held on to through the histrionics and political extremism on display throughout the Senate confirmation hearings this week. As the effort to smear and besmirch Jackson’s esteemed record played out, even I had to remind myself that the cynicism and shameful dog-whistle rhetoric was little more than mere partisan posturing. Each attack against Jackson felt familiar – a warning against Black female excellence, an attempt to deter future generations of Black women. It’s a strategy that can only be defeated by the lasting power of our joy.
In perhaps the most powerful moment of her testimony on Wednesday, Jackson related an experience from when she was one of the few Black undergraduates attending Harvard University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Having graduated from a Miami public school into the world of the Ivy League, Jackson was feeling out of place and alone while walking through Harvard Yard when “a Black woman I did not know was passing me on the sidewalk. And she looked at me. And I guess she knew how I was feeling, and she leaned over as we crossed and said, ‘persevere.’”
Holding back tears, Jackson said this would be her advice to young students pursuing a career in legal service – “I would tell them to persevere.”
And persevere she did, through the false representations of her career as a legal advocate and public defender. While Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and others tried to portray Jackson as somehow soft on crime – a baseless attack reeking of racism and misogyny – she calmly but firmly held to the critical role she played in our justice system, putting forward nuance and clarity in the face of lies and distortion. She turned painful moments into teachable ones, beaming with pride and love for the law and this country.
And when multiple senators tried to force her into easy comparisons to prior nominees, she spoke with confidence in her own work, declaring “I don’t really have a justice that I’ve molded myself after or that I would. What I have is a record.”
Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey also used his time at the dais to remind all of us what Jackson’s nomination truly means. “I want to tell you, when I look at you, this is why I get emotional,” Booker told Jackson in the third day of hearings, bringing the nominee to tears of relief and recognition. “I’m sorry – you’re so much more than your race and gender. You’re a Christian, you’re a mom… You have earned this spot, you are worthy.”
Hearing Booker, the first Black man to sit on the Judiciary Committee and the only current Black committee member, felt like exhaling a long-held breath. He knew Jackson and the rest of us watching at home needed a strident reminder to reject the darkness of, in his words, “demagoguery” with the narrative power of our own happiness.
The world demands untold levels of strength from Black women on a daily basis. The perseverance Jackson held close is all too familiar to Black women across this country. The fuel for that endurance is the joy I and so many others began with this week. Like Booker, we too can refuse to let the worst elements of our politics define this historic occasion. Joy is not a naive optimism in the inevitability of social progress – it is our strongest tool to truly bend the moral arc of the universe.
On the first day of Jackson’s hearings, the photojournalist Sarahbeth Maney captured an image of one of Jackson’s daughters as her mother testified before the committee. While her mother smiles in the foreground, Leila Jackson beams with pride behind her, visibly filled with the respect for her mother many parents dream to see. When the punditry is over and Judge Jackson hopefully is confirmed as Justice Jackson, this will be the legacy of her rise to the Supreme Court: A young Black girl, one of a generation of Black girls, joyful at the sight of new possibilities for her own life.