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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Democratic Convention Embraced the Invisible

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

The New York Times security guard Jacquelyn Brittany Asbie escorted Joe Biden to The Times editorial board, who did not endorse him. He said later, "I got something better. I got to meet Jacquelyn."


The Democratic National Convention filled me with jubilation!

Actresses Eva Longoria Baston, Kerry Washington, Julie Louis-Dreyfus and Tracee Ellis Ross emceed with gusto. Baston introduced the convention’s thread of “the three sacred words that breathed life into our nation: We, the people.” Elected officials inspired the audience. Senator Tammy Duckworth, a retired lieutenant colonel, stood on her titanium legs as she recalled her husband’s support in relearning to walk and Joe Biden’s support of military families. As touching, however, were the people whose names and faces were unknown to us.

Jacquelyn Brittany Asbie, the security guard in The New York Times building, was the first person to nominate Joe Biden for president on the second of three nights of the virtual convention. She made me cry when she said that Joe Biden saw her because as a woman and as a black woman, I know very well what it means to be invisible.

“I take powerful people up on my elevator all the time. When they get off, they go to their important meetings. Me? I just head back to the lobby. But in the short time I spent with Joe Biden, I could tell he really saw me, that he actually cared, that my life meant something to him. And I knew even when he went to his important meeting, he’d take my story in there with him. That’s because Joe Biden has room in his heart for more than just himself.”

"We've been through a lot, and we have tough days ahead. But nominating someone like that to be in the White House is a good place to start. That's why I nominate my friend, Joe Biden, as the next president of the United States."

Writing this makes me cry again four days after Asbie spoke these words on August 18th. Not being seen is painful. It is, essentially, rubbing you out of the picture. It denies your existence.

As a cub reporter in 1980, my first newspaper was The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, in the Tidewater region, where there were segregated beaches and restaurants. The month before, I had graduated from the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at the University of California at Berkeley, where 19 reporters of color published a weekly paper edited by journalists from The New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers. A graduate of the little Ivy League school, Williams College, I also had earned a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

At that time, there were so few journalists of color that I either knew them personally or I knew someone who did know them. In 1978, only 4 percent of journalists in the nation’s newsrooms were people of color compared with 17 percent of the population, according to the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. The Kerner Commission had sharply criticized the imbalanced white-oriented media in its investigation of the causes of the 1967 riots. The Summer Program and its umbrella Institute for Journalism Education attempted to ameliorate the inequity. The managing editor of The Virginian-Pilot committed his newspaper to take one of the Summer Program graduates. However, The Virginian-Pilot’s managing editor did not work with reporters.

I walked into a white male newsroom of at least 50 with a few exceptions: two black men and four white women, one of whom was a new assignment editor. I was the only black woman. However, as someone who was accustomed to being the only black person in a classroom, I saw myself as one of the cub reporters, of whom there were about six.

I struggled to get assignments that were not forthcoming. So, I worked to find stories, such as:

The scaffolder who fell to his death in the early hours of the morning, leaving his pregnant wife behind. I happened to be walking past the building;

The pre-dawn fire at the historic St. Mary’s Church. I received a telephone alert from friends at the paper who knew that I was floundering and happened to hear about it on radio news. I did not get the by-line (an oversight, the Copy Desk said), but I got the story;

And the Plaza Hotel, the historic black hotel where jazz greats stayed and played, set for the wrecking ball. Jim, the City Editor, who was from Virginia, gave me the latter story at the suggestion of one of the black reporters, who was from Norfolk, and it was one of the best stories I have ever written in my career.)

However, for the most part, I was writing weather stories a few paragraphs long with photographs that sometimes got them on the front page or the local front page. I jazzed them up as best I could, interviewing people in the street, but they were not leading to anything.

Finally, out of frustration, I asked for the night police beat. Nobody asks for this, nobody wants it. But I figured I would be writing consistently, and I would learn more about reporting details. I did get it, at least some of the time. What I was not prepared for was the conversation I had with Jim, who was in his 30s, in his office. I had asked him for a meeting.

We sat face to face, no desk between us. He did not look me in the eyes, but he spoke in a measured way. He told me that he could not deal with me because I was a black woman. I was flabbergasted. I still am. I asked why can’t you deal with me as a cub reporter. He just shook his head. He also said that the cops would not talk with me because I was a black woman. He told me to leave Virginia. He told me to go back to California.

Go away.

I was invisible in the newsroom. Even better if I were not physically there.

So, when security guard, Jacquelyn Asbie, said that Joe Biden saw her on The New York Times elevator, I felt seen and included in a way that I was often not in the United States.

It is time for the States to deal with its discomfort.

Vote for the soul of America.

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