“The resistance has transformed into a rebellion, and I’m here for it.” —Deesha Dyer
What happens when you sit two women down and give them the space to get real about what happened in 2017? Well, if those two women are political powerhouses Deesha Dyer and Symone Sanders, you get nothing less than a passion-fueled, heart-wrenching, no-holds-barred meditation on how we got here, and where we need to go. These women have more perspective than most: Under President Barack Obama, Deesha served as the second black female social secretary in history, while Symone served as press secretary for Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, the first black woman to hold that position for a national presidential campaign. One year after the surreal experience of Donald Trump’s inauguration, we brought Deesha and Symone together to reflect on that day—Deesha spent it with the Obamas—and the months that followed, including the Women’s March and the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. Being who they are, they also got to talking about the importance of black women in politics, what it’s like being a black woman in politics, and why it’s always, always about race.
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Symone Sanders: Black women have been holding up the mantle of society and have been the backbone of the Democratic Party. You cannot get elected as a Democratic president in this country without black women.
So, what were you doing on January 20?
Deesha Dyer: January 20, I woke up about five in the morning, and I was getting the house ready with the residence staff. Because the president and first lady, the current, usually host a tea for the new ones coming in. And I remember walking around the house just seeing everything quiet still, still not realizing what was about to happen, I don't think. And I remember getting up and being in—the Trump people were in the house at that time, so I was working with them.
SS: Oh, god!
DD: They tell me, “Mr. Trump and Mrs. Trump, they're on the way. They’re going to the church, and then they’re gonna come here.” And I remember just thinking to myself, “This is real. This is really happening.”
And next thing you know, the car pulls up, and the Obamas and the Bidens were there, and I got them downstairs, got them downstairs on time. The Trumps pulled up, and then the Bidens greeted the Pences first. They walked inside, and then the Obamas went and greeted the Trumps outside.
I didn’t cry, because I was exhausted. But I think that was the first moment that I felt like, this is it.
SS: That was the last time you were in the White House?
DD: That was it. That was it, yeah.
SS: Oh my god. I feel so, like, I feel like what I was doing on January 20th wasn’t shit. I was—
DD: What was you—what about you?
SS: I was at home in my now-ex-boyfriend’s house watching from his house. I remember I woke up, and I was like, “Oh, this is the worst day ever.” It was on mute for a while, and I was like, “We have to—I need to hear what Donald Trump is gonna say.” He’s like, “Why?” And I was, “Because I need to be able to talk about this if someone asks me or when I’m on tomorrow.” So I listened to the speech. It was just a somber day.
DD: I know.
SS: I literally could not believe that it was actually happening.
DD: Right. That was it.
SS: That was it.
DD: And it’s interesting, because I remember thinking to myself, when I put them in the car, I remember thinking, “This is the last time Barack Obama is president.” Like, “This is it. This is the last moment. This is the last moment he’s president. But he’s still president, so I’m gonna ride this out.”
SS: Oh, the president in my head is still black. I was crying when they got on the—what is it, Marine Two?
SS: It was just so sad.
DD: It was.
SS: It was just so sad because Barack and Michelle Obama, for so many, that was real representation, and so much has happened. You can say the Obamas weren’t perfect. I don’t agree with all the policy of the Obama White House or the Obama administration, but it was just excellent to see representation, like a real black family was in the White House. Actual black people live there.
DD: Right, actual black people. They gave me a chance of a lifetime. It’s a lifetime chance to be—I can’t even believe, this hip-hop journalist—
SS: I went crazy! I was like, “Yes! Black girl in the White House, yes!”
DD: This hip-hop journalist from Philadelphia, blah, blah, and I’m like, “What?” It happened so fast. People literally were like, “So what school did you go to?” I’m like, “Community college.” They’re like, “Then what?”
I got questioned all the time, not only because I was at the White House, but also the position I was in. The social secretary was crème de la crème. It’s just, you go around town and you represent the Obamas, you represent the social scene. Everybody wants to come to the parties, so people are nice to you. But I saw through that. It was like, “Come on,” and it’s cool. Like, “It’s cool. You politicking. We in D.C., it’s cool,” but don’t pretend. People acted really interested in me, only to then turn around and question my abilities too. I think I had a lot of that, but I didn’t let it get to me until probably—I let it get to me at first, but then when the pope happened, then right after the pope, we had the president of China, the China state dinner. I think after I had that, I was like, “Y’all can’t tell me nothing.”
SS: You were like, “I had the pope. I had the Chinese prime—what y’all wanna do?”
DD: We had the pope with no problems. The sun was out, 11,000 people—
SS: The popemobile. You had the kids.
DD: We had no streakers, nobody passed out. We had a black choir that I got out there. We had zero problems. So then I looked at the people like, "So I didn't go to pope school.”
SS: I worked 15 different—14 different campaigns before I went to work with Bernie. Bernie was my 15th.
DD: Damn, girl.
SS: But I had never worked a presidential. People were looking at me like, “Oh, Bernie had a black problem, so you got a job.” Oh, OK, I just popped up, and all the sudden I’m the press secretary.
DD: Like they just grabbed you.
SS: Yeah, they just picked the first black girl that walked past the office, and was like, “You are the press secretary.”
2017 was so crazy because there was so many things that happened.
DD: It’s been a lot of times, let’s be clear.
SS: Yeah, I have a litany of shit I’m pissed about.
DD: If you have not been angry, we got a problem. I think the hardest point for me was, I’ma be very honest and say the Women’s March. I was very angry.
SS: Tell us why.
DD: Because a lot of my white friends came out the woodworks.
SS: See, look—
DD: They came out the woodworks and they—
SS: You and that percentage of black women was talking to me about The Day Without a Woman. Come on. Tell me about it.
DD: They watched me go through so much in my life up against white supremacy, up against white bosses, up against—said nothing. Said nothing. Then all of a sudden, then in January, they were marching and I was angry. I did not go. I was in D.C., and actually was in Southeast D.C. with a bunch of women who felt like they weren’t included. They were like in Southeast, like, “We can't even afford to go down to the Capitol, but I’m happy it’s happening in our city.” Then I had to think, “Deesha, are you being crazy because this is a movement that everybody’s involved in. And Tamika’s involved in it, and I respect Tamika.” So I’m like, “Is it you or is it, you know?” And then I had to backpedal myself out of that and say, “No, it’s not you.”
SS: I’ve been angry a lot in 2017. One of my top 10 angry moments was post-Charlottesville. Actually, in the segment where I was just talking about when I sat down and I was having a conversation with Ken Cuccinelli—
—and I felt as though he was trying to excuse the situation in Charlottesville, and I’m like, “Do you not...,” and I’m getting so frustrated because for me this is personal. White supremacy has literally killed people that looked like me, and white supremacy killed Heather Heyer. Unless we talk about it in those intentional terms, we’re not addressing the issue.
SS: Yes, yes. Let’s talk about it.
DD: I guess it wasn’t even that moment; it was that entire weekend and week after and week after that where I would engage in conversation with people about race, and anytime somebody asked me, they were like, “Why do you always have to make it about race?” I would get so pissed. I’m like, “Damn, somebody—white supremacists is literally marching with tiki freaking torches in Charlottesville, VA, to protect a statue of a general of the Confederacy, someone whom in modern-day times, if they took up arms against the government, we will refer to as treasonous terrorists. They’re literally marching to protect this, and they killed people. They’re talking about blood and soil. They literally want to erase people that look like me, and you asking me why I got to make it about race? Do you not get that it is always about race?” Every time I leave the house.
DD: Always. Always.
SS: That’s what my most angry moments of 2017, they’re all the same thing just repeated over and over, are people constantly asking me in various different ways why do I always have to make it about race when they don’t understand that, for me, actually it is all about race, because every time I leave the house, before I open up my mouth for anybody ask me where I’m from, what I do, if I can count to 10, 20, or 3,000, they see me as a bald black woman.
DD: Since you did Bernie, Hillary, since Trump came, what do you feel—has there been a change or a shift?
SS: I feel like the change just happened with Alabama. We are having a mainstream conversation about the electoral prowess and power of black women. But I even had to poke and prod some of my fellow Dems. I was in the studio the day after Alabama, waiting to go on in the morning, and Tom Perez, Chairman Perez was in the studio, and he got out, and I was like, “You didn’t say anything about black women.” He was like, “I said it on NPR, I said it here.” I was like, “You need to say it on CNN.”
DD: You say it all the time.
SS: You say it everywhere.
DD: Just keep saying it.
SS: Say it everywhere.
DD: Do you want to practice?
Shifting from that, what do you think about black women running for office?
SS: More of us need to run, but the problem is, we get on the ballot, and then people tell us that we’re not palatable enough for the governor’s office, we’re not palatable enough for—we have to look or sound a certain way or have gone to a certain school. Folks like Kamala Harris, who was just recently elected, but even Vi Lyles in Charlotte, who’s the first black female mayor of Charlotte. We’ve got our first female African-American mayor in New Orleans right now. You got Stacey Abrams running for governor in Georgia. You have Keisha Lance Bottom. Keisha. Atlanta has a whole mayor named Keisha.
But I think the next step is resources. We just don’t need you to thank black women; we need you to fund them, we need you to hire us, we need you to let us run your campaigns, we need you to ask us to run, we need you to support our run, we need you to support our races. That’s a whole ’nother level of conversation, because—
DD: And don’t just say you’re gonna do it, actually you do it. Actually do with the fu[nds], with the dollars too. The dollars need to go into that, the actual dollars. Don’t just say, “I’m putting a tweet about, I’m supporting this candidate.”
SS: My blood is boiling thinking about it, but I’m hopeful.
DD: These young people are on fire—
SS: Across, in all different sectors!
SS: I have so much hope for them, so that’s why I know 2018’s gonna be lit.
DD: Yes, and I’m here for it.
SS: 2018, they’re gonna be beyond lit.
DD: I’m here for it.
SS: The resistance, you know, black women and black folks, we ain’t new to the resistance. The resistance was born on our backs.
DD: I think the resistance has transformed into a rebellion, and I’m here for it. I’m here for it.
SS: I don’t got nothing else to say.
Senior Story Producer: Mikki Halpin; Story Producer: Dee Charlemagne; Production Coordinator: Lauren Teng; Director/Producer: Kimberly Selden; Production Manager: Brittany Gooden; Production Assistant: Thomas Blount; Director of Photography: Christine Ng; Camera Operator: Michelle Clementine; Sound Recordist: David Thompson; Editor: Sarah Jordan; Post Producer: Courtney Ryan Law; Special Thanks: Blue Rock