Illustration for article titled Breaking the Glass Ceiling Takes Grace

It was the refrain echoed again and again throughout Hillary Clinton's campaign: It was time, her supporters claimed, for a woman to be president. It made me angry, and it made me tired, the way that white women assumed that my support of Barack Obama was a race thing; a "stand by your man" thing, as if all the analysis and intelligence I brought to casting my ballot could be dismissed as easily as the myopic antics of a heroine in a Tammy Wynette song.


During this heated campaign for the Democratic nomination, I fell in love with a children's book by Kelly DePucchio called Grace for President. The uber-talented illustrator Leuyen Pham has cast Grace as a beautiful brown-skinned elementary school girl with the brains and moxie to run for president of her school.

In the real world, Shirley Chisholm mounted a symbolic and historic campaign for the presidency, and I will tell my daughter that story, again and again.


But I also loved that during this election year, I could turn at story time to a beautiful picture book that was not as reductionist as the race Hillary Clinton was running.

In Hillaryland, it was always white men first, white women second and everybody else take a number. In the world of Grace for President, trifling white women simply do not play a part.

"Where are the girls?" asks Grace as she studies a wall of portraits of the U.S. presidents. "Where are the girls?" I read to my daughter, night after night. "No girl presidents EVER? Who'd ever heard of such a thing?"

While Grace's opponent is a popular white boy—spelling bee champion, captain of the soccer team—who declares that he is the "best man for the job," Grace never addresses "isms" in her campaign. Grace never plays the race card or the gender card. Rather, she sets about proving to her fellow students that she is worthy of the electoral votes they've been entrusted with. She writes powerful speeches, works hard on fulfilling her campaign promises and because she's no fool, she gives out free cupcakes at her rallies.


At the end of the book, after a very close, very hotly contested race, Grace wins the election with the deciding vote of a white boy (thank you, little John Edwards) who decides that she is simply the "best person for the job."

It's an important message because I need for my daughter to judge people by the content of their character. I need my little girl to know that sometimes, when you least expect it, it's a white boy that has got your back. I need her to know that every woman is not her "sista" and every black person does not get an automatic pass. The real message of black history, the kind that lasts 365 days a year, is one of excellence. We are a people who are committed to and capable of extraordinary excellence against inconceivable odds. The story of excellence is the story ofGrace for President, but it's the story of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm, Martin and Barbara Jordan, too.


Albert Einstein famously remarked, "If you want your children to be brilliant, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be geniuses, read them more fairy tales." But as anyone who has sat down with the Brothers Grimm knows, fairy tales are as instructive to grown-ups as they are to children. They remind us of moral codes that are older and deeper than the evening news and front-page dramas. Fairy tales force us out of our narcissistic present and into the realm of the future. They remind us to dwell in possibility and to do so with as much courage and class as we can muster. I read Grace for President again and again, ostensibly for the benefit of my baby girl. But I know that I also read it for myself.

It's no accident, I think, that the character in this children's book is named Grace. In Greek mythology, "the Graces" are powerful young women, the preternaturally beautiful daughters of Zeus and Euronyme; Zeus being the king of the gods and Euronyme being the great mother. The Graces themselves were said to represent splendor, festivity and rejoicing.


Splendor, festivity and rejoicing—is exactly how I feel every time I open this wonderful book. Splendor, festivity and rejoicing—is what I feel knowing that Barack Obama is not the best man for the job, nor is he the best black for the job, he is simply the best person for the job. Grace for President is a book about a little black girl who runs for president, but it is also a parable about our current Democratic nominee because the man is grace epitomized.

And, of course, grace is exactly what Hillary Clinton lacked throughout this campaign. In this context, I mean grace as in "dignified, polite and decent behavior." The truth is, I was a fan of old girl for a long time, believed in her health policy, believed that with Bill in office, we were getting two for the price of one, and that as a modern nation, we needed to redefine the role of first lady to match the skills and intelligence of the women who held the post. But throughout the race, as she cried sexism, as she feigned allegiance to poor whites, when she made the monstrous reference to RFK's assassination to underscore the possibility of her eeking out a nomination in June, she steadily worked my last nerve and lost every inkling of respect I kept trying to maintain for the woman she is.


I wonder if Hillary has read Grace for President. If she hasn't, she should. As she angles for the vice-presidential spot on the ticket, she should pick up a dictionary, look up the word "grace" and learn to behave accordingly.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.

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