“My presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.”
Barbara Jordan spoke these words at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, referencing that her rise from Houston’s Fifth Ward to an esteemed young American politician (she was only 40 at the time) was unlikely and reaffirmed the power of opportunity. Similarly, my presence as a master’s student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and recipient of the 2010-2011 Barbara Jordan Fellowship is, in its own way, a similar affirmation.
There is no reasonable explanation why I, one of seven siblings and the first American-born child of Haitian immigrants, would be so interested in American politics at an early age. Nonetheless, at the age of eleven, I remember asking my mom if I could stay up late to watch the results of the 1980 presidential election. While the results of that night were unfortunate for Jordan’s party, it was a vivid, exciting time for me to witness the process of American democracy.
When Barbara Jordan left the U.S. House of Representatives 33 years ago, the American political landscape was far from pristine. We had recently emerged from Watergate, a recession, a gas shortage and were on the verge of the Iranian hostage crisis. As a nation we could look around and see elected officials behaving badly or performing ineffectively on both sides of the aisle. Jordan, however, was beyond reproach in her wisdom, ethics and efforts. Now, when form seems to rule over substance in every facet of politics and the media, the graceful authenticity of Barbara Jordan can seem like a distant memory.
Jordan did not tell us she was a leader. She led. She did not appoint herself the spokesperson for democrats, Texans, black America, women, or any other collective. Instead, across these and other groups, she was praised because she was worthy by her work and through her example as a tireless advocate for progress.
It is unusual to talk about an elected official in these terms today. What keeps the legacy of Barbara Jordan from being nostalgic is because her impact spread so far and deep that her influence is still obvious today. This is especially true at the LBJ School and for me, as I am blessed to call myself the 2010-2011 Barbara Jordan Fellow.
Barbara Jordan is an ever-present reminder of the limitless possibilities that I and many others enjoy. She was the first black woman I ever associated with politics. When I first became aware of Jordan in the late 1970s, I could not adequately appreciate the courage and strength she possessed. I could not have understood what it meant for a black woman to jump into the fray that had been reserved for white men of privilege. At first I just knew she looked like me. That was a powerful and indelible image that I carry to this day.
And then there was the voice. No one can forget the voice – certainly not me as an impressionable little girl. Articulate, emotional and strong. That voice hurled words full of intelligence, power and sincerity like I had never heard. Even as a child, when I heard that voice I knew she wasn’t just intelligent – she was important. It was unmistakable.
When you grow up the poor child of immigrants, learning that a person you admire also came from humble beginnings is powerful information. Parents tell their children they can be anything they want to be, but if there are no examples from which the child can glean that possibility, the promise rings hollow. When I learned that Jordan was not from a family of means, it made all of my mother’s promises – that the world was both infinite and accessible – at least seem plausible. My eyes were open and the genie was out of the bottle. That genie eventually led me to the LBJ School.
One of the many reasons I applied to the LBJ School was because Barbara Jordan taught here and loved this school. She paved the way for so many people, particularly women at LBJ. She was, for many years, the most well-known and outspoken member of the faculty.
I will never forget the moment I learned I was selected as the Barbara Jordan Fellow, an award given to students who “embody characteristics consistent with Jordan’s legacy.” I was sitting in my car and had just read the letter. A blanket of emotion fell over me and it took several minutes to gather myself to drive. How could a woman whom I have never personally met have such a profound effect on my life? The idea that LBJ faculty could make character comparisons of any kind between Jordan and me was empowering and overwhelming. Feeling unworthy of such an association was my first reaction. Understanding that the honor came with certain responsibilities came next. That was the truly daunting part.
To be cast in any way alongside Jordan is both humbling and inspiring. Having been selected as the 2010-2011 Barbara Jordan Fellow, I will endeavor to carry the torch of morality and sincerity throughout my career in an effort to live up to the responsibility of standing in her shadow. It is an honor I will cherish forever.
From the initial inspiration she unknowingly provided to me as a little girl, to the sense of pride I attain in going to LBJ and being named the Barbara Jordan Fellow, I am proud to celebrate her legacy and pass on this appreciation and knowledge to a new generation so they too can experience inspiration from this great woman.
I will likely never attain the national stature or professional success of Barbara Jordan, but I am forever part of her legacy. Aside from my two children, Jordan and Madeline, there is nothing of which I am more proud.