I am just now sitting down at the computer after having watched the new film Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, and I confess to being a bit awestruck. Lee has been my congressional representative much of my politically aware life. In 1998 She succeeded the iconic Ron Dellums as the 13th district representative to congress and has since become an icon herself. What I took away from the film was not so much information about her life or her ideas, but a sense of the experience of the woman herself.
I was treated earlier in the week to some biographical information via Joe Garofoli’s It’s All Political podcast on the subject. Before that I knew next to nothing about her early life, about her struggles with poverty and an abusive relationship. And, happily, there was her recent joyous wedding. If anyone deserves that, she absolutely does. Certainly others will glean much from those facts; but for me, who was here during all of her political life (though I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have), it was the experience of vicariously reliving her growth amid enormously challenging circumstances, that I found so compelling.
From her courageous and unique vote against the much-abused post-9/11 war powers resolution (And hasn’t that been proven right over and over and over again on that one?) to her tireless work on behalf of her constituents– especially the unfranchised (children) and the disenfranchised (women and the incarcerated) and pandemic (Aids) victims, she has been a champion of values that represent everyone and everything American.
When she took her seat, she was virtually the only black woman in congress past or present. Dellums had his own challenges, of course, but at least he was male, and he was not a single parent. Lee had her own (to overuse the word) iconic predecessor in Shirley Chisolm, but Chisolm was gone by the time Barbara came along, so hers was a lonely position to say the least. Not that she started from exactly zero. Her work as a staffer for Dellums gave her some Washington D.C. presence, but not at all a prestigious one.
So what we have here is a hard working politician with compassion and integrity who has become a premiere voice for the downtrodden, one who can take her remarkable life and integrate her experience into legislation and actions that benefit us all. And she did it without seeking the star-power publicity and status that could easily have been hers. But then she wouldn’t be Barbara Lee, would she? She’s almost an anti-politician in perhaps the most political of eras. How fortunate I feel to be one of her followers.