Listen up everyone because this will likely be the first, last and only time I will write these words: We have to talk about California Sen. Kamala Harris’ dating life. Why? Is it relevant to her qualifications to be president? No. Is it because her previous relationships were scandalous in some way that reflects on her character? No. Does Harris previous dating life tell us anything about her policy positions? No. I have to write about her dating past because her ex-bae, 84-year-old former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown decided to have a Quincy Jones moment and spill tea on their relationship. Consequently, right wing and even some mainstream news outlets, ever obsessed with black sex and sexuality, have decided that this is the story to run with during Harris’ first week on the campaign trail.
So now, like it or not, it’s news.
Last weekend, Willie Brown wrote a column, (It was really just a long text since it was literally only 136 words long with punctuation) in the San Francisco Chronicle stating that he had, in fact, dated Kamala Harris over 20 years ago. The former mayor claims he wrote the article because he was being “peppered” with calls from the press, an explanation that should be met with more side-eye than a roller coaster full of AKAs.
Let’s clear a few things up, since again, this should NEVER again be a topic discussed about a presidential candidate. Kamala Harris is a 54-year-old black woman, which means there are a few things I know about her for sure. I know that at some point in her life she probably slept in a bonnet. I know that somewhere in an old shoe box or undeveloped roll of film there is a picture of her unironically wearing an 8-Ball Jacket and an asymmetrical. I also know that she most likely dated and had sex before marrying her husband Douglas Emhoff in 2014. I also know that Willie Brown is an 84-year-old black man who was voted one of the 10 sexiest men in America in 1984.
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I know that even before he was mayor he was a notorious philanderer or player (take your pick) who was known to show up at parties with his wife on one arm and his latest girlfriend on the other. Willie wore gold chains like he owned a mine in South Africa and has kids that span four decades. Willie Brown was the O.G. Fuckboi of California politics. Brown wasn’t trying to stave off any questions about Harris (if anything his short article only invites more), he was doing what among old black men would be crassly referred to as “bragging on his dick.” He wanted to make sure America knew. Mission accomplished, we can all move on now right?
Nope. Because, America.
This isn’t the first time news outlets have reported on past relationships of a presidential candidate. Remember all the clutched pearls about Paul Ryan’s supposed black ex-girlfriend? Or the search for Obama’s exes like they were Harvard Becky with the good hair? What these past stories and the current coverage of Harris are really about is white America’s obsession with black sexuality. Analyzing, dissecting and pathologizing black love and sex under the guise of concern about health care or morality or news gathering is as American as racism and apple pie. That’s why Fox News and the far right and even USA Today jumped on this story right after Brown’s little piece dropped.
However the facts just don’t match the right-wing and subtly mainstream narrative. Did Kamala Harris have an extra-marital affair with Willie Brown? Not really. Brown had been separated but not divorced from his wife, Blanche Vitero, since 1976. He met Kamala Harris in 1994 when she was 29 and he was 60 and their whirlwind romance was all over the California newspapers. They broke up around the time he was elected mayor of San Francisco, a position he held from 1996 to 2004.
Did Kamala Harris benefit professionally from dating Brown? That’s undeniable—Willie Brown was notorious for his cronyism and he appointed her to career-boosting commissions, but he certainly didn’t own her. When running for San Francisco district attorney in 2003, Harris told the San Francisco Weekly:
“I refuse,” she says vehemently, “to design my campaign around criticizing Willie Brown for the sake of appearing to be independent when I have no doubt that I am independent of him — and that he would probably right now express some fright about the fact that he cannot control me.
“His career is over; I will be alive and kicking for the next 40 years. I do not owe him a thing.”
Does that sound like a woman who needed Brown to get a leg up in life? More importantly, let ye who has never dated anyone who helped your career cast the first 2 a.m. “Hey you up?” text.
The familiar public narratives about black women don’t fit Kamala Harris. She’s not a jezebel, a mammy or an Omarosa. She’s also the first viable woman running for president who has had an entire adult dating life. Elizabeth Warren got married (the first time) at 19, Michele Bachmann at 22, Carly Fiorina 23, Hillary 28 and even 2020 candidate Kristen Gillibrand got married at 35. Harris, who married her husband at the age of 49 was living her best life into her 30s and 40s. So yes, we were bound to hear about Willie Brown and yes, at some point, it will come out that she dated talk show host Montel Williams too. She was an attractive high profile single black woman in California. What else was she supposed to be doing when she wasn’t prosecuting people?
What we’re not going to do is put a black woman’s personal life out on the corner of Public Discourse Avenue and Twitter Nonsense Boulevard as an excuse to demonize or exoticize consensual relationships with other adults. Political black women who marry in their late 30s or 40s like Kamala Harris, or unmarried black women (because that doesn’t mean they’re single) like Stacey Abrams in Georgia or Yvette Simpson of Democracy for America or Tishaura Jones, city treasurer for St. Louis, are not an anomaly. They are the standard, the norm and the future for Democratic politics. The American press better get used to it.
In the end, I believe I will cut and paste this next series of sentences half a dozen times over the next 18 months. There are plenty of issues to criticize Kamala Harris about. Her attorney general office’s support of prison labor to fight California wildfires, her refusal to back independent investigations in police shootings, her relatively timid attempts to fix prison overcrowding, her failure to properly cite Tribe Called Quest lyrics. There is a lot in her past worth digging into and evaluating. However Kamala Harris’ dating life, is not one of those issues.