Michelle Obama and Stacey Abrams, Models of Power for Black Women

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ATLANTA — Sit down with groups of black women in Atlanta as this tumultuous political year draws to a close, and two names dominate the conversation: Michelle Obama and Stacey Abrams, and what they revealed in 2018 about how power is gained and thwarted.

In gatherings of friends, in book clubs and discussions across the city, women said they were struck by seeing their own life experiences reflected in the possibilities and constraints faced by Ms. Abrams, whose narrow loss in the Georgia governor’s race they are still mourning, and Mrs. Obama, who just published the best-selling memoir “Becoming.”

They related to how Ms. Abrams and Mrs. Obama defied people who questioned if they were good enough to succeed. How Mrs. Obama won over the white Democratic establishment — but only after enduring attacks and caricatures that sometimes left her shaken. How Ms. Abrams did not tone down her words to please anyone, and how Mrs. Obama felt she had to.

In a city that showcases African-American achievement and influence, reading Mrs. Obama’s memoir was a bittersweet reminder for these women of a time when a black president and first lady seemed a culmination of a long struggle for power. It comes as Democratic women here are wrestling with outrage over widespread allegations of voter suppression in the governor’s race, fear that Ms. Abrams’s loss may disillusion black voters they coaxed to the polls, and hope that the next time victory could be within reach.

“I think America can take Michelle Obama,” said Kia Smith, who gathered with three other young professional friends at a Starbucks for what became a searing exchange about the promise and burden of being black women. “The story makes us feel good. And she’s on the daytime shows, she dances with Ellen, she goes on Jimmy Kimmel, she’s fun, she’s not a threat.

“But someone like Stacey Abrams, who is smart, who is bipartisan, but who is unapologetic about fairness and justice — that’s a threat. And that also lets me know that we’re not really ready for the political power of black women.”

Many black women in Atlanta are both recovering from Stacey Abrams defeat in the 2018 gubernatorial race and looking ahead. Clockwise from top, Jasmine Mitchell, Alexis Watt, Kia Smith and LaShondra Butler.CreditAudra Melton for The New York Times

Across town, in a neighborhood where yards are still planted with defiant Stacey Abrams signs, the Pearls literary club convened an extra session this month to discuss “Becoming.” They zeroed in on the theme of striving against denigration and self-doubt. The room of older women, with Ph.D.s and law degrees among them, traded stories of being told, like Mrs. Obama, that they did not belong.

Just as Mrs. Obama’s guidance counselor dismissed her chances of getting into Princeton, a Wellesley College dean informed Ruby Thomas, now a judge, that she shouldn’t be there.

“She called me into her office and explained to me why I wasn’t qualified to be there,” Ms. Thomas remembered. “I tell that story to young girls, who need to know that people are going to judge you, but they are going to misjudge you.”

That, in turn, reminded the women of a time when Ms. Abrams was invited to the governor’s mansion as one of many high school valedictorians, only to be stopped by a guard who didn’t believe she was a guest.

They relished what Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, a professor of English at Spelman College, called Mrs. Obama’s “sassiness” in the book — an outspokenness that the first lady held in check after early criticism of her as angry or abrasive.

“Do you think her honesty increased because of the things said by the person who now occupies the White House?” Professor Harper asked the room of women, who deliberately avoided mentioning President Trump by name. When one referred to the “gentleman in the White House,” the otherwise decorous group hooted.

Ms. Smith and her friends, some of whom were also reading “Becoming” in their book clubs, welcomed an unleashed Mrs. Obama as well. But they said they struggled, as she did, with the stigma of caricature.

“There are these extra steps that we as black women have to go through to make sure we’re not appearing angry, aggressive, mean, nasty, insubordinate,” said Alexis Watt, who works as a communications and social media consultant. “We have this stereotype that black women are angry, but we have every right to be angry.”

Both generations of women who spoke in interviews said they were fighting despair at the contrast between the Trump White House and the barrier-breaking Obama White House.

A guest at the Pearls gathering brought her 6-year-old, born the year President Barack Obama was re-elected. Her name: Renaissance.

At Starbucks, Jasmine Mitchell said to her friends, “We felt as though we were winning all around. We got complacent. We were so naïve.”

So the Abrams run raised hopes that a black woman they embraced might win — with their help. From the historic Sweet Auburn market not far from Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, in beauty parlors and black-owned restaurants, every black woman who spoke to me had somehow tried to turn out votes, whether by canvassing, texting, rousting their voting-age children or cajoling their employees and co-workers.

Along with years of efforts to register voters and an extensive field operation by political professionals and grass-roots groups, they boosted black voter turnout in Georgia higher than even the 2016 presidential election, and helped Ms. Abrams come within 55,000 votes of victory — the closest governor’s race since 1966. Lucy McBath, a black Democrat who ran on gun control after her son was killed, flipped the very House seat in the Atlanta suburbs that Jon Ossoff, hailed as a 30-year-old political wunderkind, had spent millions to pursue in a failed bid in a special election last year.

Now they are trying to figure out how to regroup.

“It’s like when you take a test and you study for it a long time and you have that feeling — ‘I’m going to pass’ — and then, after the numbers came out, it was a terrible feeling to see you didn’t pass the test,” said Charmika Spencer, owner of the Jakotes beauty salon. “How do we move forward?”

Charmika Spencer, owner of Jakotes beauty salon in Atlanta.CreditAudra Melton for The New York Times

Deborah VanTrece, a prominent Atlanta chef, hashed over that very question at her restaurant, Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours.

“It feels like we slipped through there one time and they sealed those cracks to make sure it never happens again,” she said, referring to Mr. Obama’s victory.

Several of the women expressed fear the attention to black women’s political clout could fade, their accomplishments could be undone, and their efforts to organize and mobilize voters could prove too exhausting in a system that feels rigged against them.

Nonetheless, the conversations soon turned to resilience and the need to start early on the work of persuading voters for the 2020 elections. “I have this perspective where you fail forward — even when you lose, you build political power and momentum,” said Ms. Smith, whose job at a nonprofit includes digital organizing.

To Sheila Butler, who has worked as a waitress for 22 years at the Busy Bee, an Atlanta soul food institution, the answer is simple, even though Mrs. Obama ruled out political ambitions in her book: “I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. I want them to run for president.”

Sheila Butler, a waitress at the Busy Bee restaurant in Atlanta.CreditAudra Melton for The New York Times
Sheila Butler, a waitress at the Busy Bee restaurant in Atlanta.CreditAudra Melton for The New York Times

The women at the Pearls book club wound down their contemplation of Mrs. Obama and Ms. Abrams by offering optimism tempered with realism.

“We soon learned, we were back to where we started — almost,” said Ernestine Pickens-Glass, a retired professor of English at Clark Atlanta University, who hosted the book club. “But I don’t think African Americans are ever going to accept the way things used to be.”

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